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Interview: John Cameron Mitchell on ‘Shrill,’ Playing Queer Villains, and a New Wave of Comedy

One of the most entertaining members of the ensemble on Shrill, which returns for its third and final season this Friday on Hulu, is certainly John Cameron Mitchell, who plays the relentless and unapologetic Gabe. Mitchell is best-known for his trailblazing musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which earned him a Golden Globe nomination for the film version and earned a number of Tony Awards when it came to Broadway in 2014.

Ahead of the final episodes of Shrill dropping later this week, Awards Radar had the chance to chat briefly with the singularly hilarious Mitchell about where he is in his career, the joy of working on a female-led show , and what’s next for him.

Q: Gabe is such an entertaining character, and he’s someone who does not mind getting other people upset. What do you relate to about him?

A: I don’t relate to that not caring thing, because I get very upset when other people are upset. But in some ways, well, recently I’ve been playing a lot of queer villains for some reason. A character on The Good Fight, and this, and eventually Joe Exotic I’ll be playing. So these are all people who are quite vulnerable and narcissistic at the same time. There is a guilty pleasure, I guess in the way a drag queen gets when he’s on stage and can insult everyone in sight. There is a little pleasure in that in not giving a shit. It’s not my goal in life, and it’s not anything that I think I take home with me. But it is fun to play a villain. In the old days, the really good actors who were not heartthrobs, the best they could hope for was to play a Bond villain, so that’s still my goal.

Q: What have been some of your favorite scenes to shoot over the course of the three seasons of this show?

A: Well, this season, it was improvising a punk song with Fred Armisen, which was a hoot. Last season, getting to sing a Bowie song, and to attack young gay people who seemed to be making fun of me. Saying, “It’s Captain and Tennille, you pieces of shit!” and things like that. And I just, I had a blast on this show over the last three years. It was very low-impact, easygoing, women-led, which was a real difference from other shows I’ve done over the years. Much more easygoing and interested in your opinion as opposed to dictatorial. I’m sure there are Maggie Thatchers, of course. In this case, we had three wonderful women in charge. Aidy, who was just a saint and a goddess, and a mischievous boss who could direct you without anyone feeling offended because she’s just so nice. I made friends. I’m sad that it’s over, but I made good friends.

Q: You have so many great scene partners, and I particularly enjoy the dynamic you have with Patti Harrison, who plays Ruthie. Can you talk about working with her and any of the other cast members?

A: Well, Patti I knew before she got the role. I was thrilled that she was playing my assistant. I love her. She’s as bizarre as she seems. Her Instagram is like walking into the pits of hell, god bless her. She cracks me up. I’m very much in awe of stand-up comedians, because it’s something I could never do. Hedwig was like fake stand-up, fake rock star, fake drag. Safely housed in the theater. But people who were out in the wilderness and touring, I’m so in awe of the spontaneity and the weirdness. There’s a whole new generation of young comedians coming up right now. Patti, Julio Torres, Lorelei Ramirez. They’re all people coming out of New York mostly who are just a new wave. The old wave of comedy was just, give me a fucking break, guy talking about women and men are so different, airplanes are weird. Shut the fuck up! Deal with where we are now! It’s a very surreal time, so the comedy is very surreal. I don’t think of Shrill as surreal, but we’ve got these great stand-up comedians adding their surrealism to it. Aidy’s significant other, Connor O’Malley, is in the show too. His improvised monologues are brilliant. The show can’t handle all that talent. There is so much there. I’m going to miss that, that spontaneity and that fun. The last season was difficult because it was COVID, so we couldn’t hang out much. It was almost like a weird beginning of the end, which sucked. Sad to hear that we were cancelled. I blame Disney. I blame the Mouse, because they bought Hulu. But it still will live on, and it’s affected people. People who like it like it a lot, that’s the point of a good show. As opposed to the one that millions of people like, but they like it okay. I’d rather be ten people’s favorite thing than a million people’s so-so thing. That’s what I learned with Hedwig, Shortbus. All of my stuff is from the outside, commenting on the inside.

Q: Can you tease any of the cool projects you have coming up?

A: Well, there is Joe Exotic, which is very exciting. I’m going to be playing him in the Tiger King adaptation with Kate McKinnon! If I can only work with Saturday Night Live people, I’ll be happy. Especially the women. I was working with Amy Poehler on something, an adaptation of a book for television. We’ll see. We had some roadblocks with that, we’re thinking about what’s next. I’m working with Linda Perry, remember Four Non Blondes? The rock singer, writer, she’s brilliant. We’re working on a project. I’m hoping to bring my podcast musical Anthem: Homunculus to the stage. I made an album during COVID that I’m going to keep adding songs to, a benefit album called New American Dream. Check that out on Bandcamp and Spotify. And I bought a house! Well, I almost bought a house in New Orleans. We’ll see, because I really want to hang out more there. I really feel a New Orleans vibe right now. It’s got a performance space in there too, and I want to bring people in from the community to use the space.

Season three of Shrill premieres on Hulu on Friday, May 7th.

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Written by Abe Friedtanzer

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