The Skeleton Twins and the Crafting of a Modern Gay Character
This post contains some information about the movie The Skeleton Twins that could be considered spoilers. It's a great movie, and you should see it without knowing too much about it, so enter at your own risk.
When we meet Milo, Bill Hader's character in Craig Johnson's movie The Skeleton Twins, it's in the middle of a failed suicide attempt. When his estranged sister Maggie (played by Kristen Wiig) visits him in the hospital, he describes himself as "another tragic gay cliché." You can't quite tell if he's resigned himself to the role or if he's being sarcastic. Maybe it's both. The movie spends much of its running time reinforcing and undoing that label, as it charts his reunion with his sister in the town in which they grew up, Nyack, NY.
The hoodie-and-T-shirt-wearing Milo sometimes suggests what would happened if you passed a Boys in the Band character through a modern-indie filter. He spouts deadpan witticisms and is capable of bringing down the house with impeccable lip-synching skills (his and Maggie's rendition of Starship's "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" is three minutes of mid-movie bliss). He dresses in drag for Halloween. He's prissy about manual labor and stridently queer—when Maggie's Labrador of a husband (flawlessly played by Luke Wilson) suggests they have a "dude's day," just the two of them, Milo quips, "I think your version of a dude's day and my version are totally different."
And yet, Milo's arc doesn't rely on the tropes that have long-defined gay characters and their strife. Yes, Milo is tragic and gay, but here, those two traits do not have a causal relationship.
"What I always loved about what [Skeleton Twins co-writer Mark Heyman] and I created was a lead character who's gay, who has a lot of problems in his life, none of which have anything to do with the fact that he's gay," explained Johnson when I talked to him by phone earlier this week. "It's the one thing he's cool with and it's just part of who he is. If I think about it on any larger social level or cultural level or cinema level, I think we are at a place in our society where you can have a movie that's getting a relatively wide release that is intended for all audiences, to a certain degree, with a lead character who's gay but it's just kind of a shrug of the shoulder."
That matter-of-fact and de-pathologized approach to its gay character caused Variety to name-check The Skeleton Twins (with a similar quote from Johnson) in an August piece about Ira Sachs' terrific Love Is Strange and its potential to break Hollywood's glass ceiling for including characters who are unmistakably gay and also much more than that. Those movies sit alongside Josh Thomas's hilarious and often poignant Australian TV show Please Like Me (which airs on Pivot in the U.S.) as capturing the way that being gay can complicate one's existence: It is both no big deal, and the biggest deal at once. I told Johnson as much.
"I've said literally that sentence when people ask me how big of a deal is it that Milo's gay," he replied. "It's not any big deal at all, and it's the biggest deal in the world. You just gotta hold those two ideas in your head at the same time. And Milo's not asexual. He's a gay guy. But it's not the source of his issues and it's not what the movie is ultimately about."
His sexuality may not be the source of his issues, but it is intertwined with maybe his most vexing one. Back home in Nyack, Milo reunites with Rich (played by Modern Family's Ty Burrell), his former high school teacher and first love. Milo was 15 at the time, and the movie finds them reuniting about two decades later, with Milo eager to rekindle their relationship. A storyteller less concerned with nuance or less consumed by duality might have portrayed their relationship as a traumatic predator/victim scenario, but not Johnson.
"It doesn't judge either of the guys, which is interesting. Any other movie, that would have been the whole movie. It would have been a movie about the teacher and student," said Hader. "To be able to play that part, it was hard. I had to see it from Milo's standpoint: it was the first person he fell in love with. When you're 15, gay, and coming into your own, you have to have some sort of an outlet for it. It wasn't just a physical thing for him, it was the first person he fell in love with. And I think the reason he fell in love with him was that [Rich] said, 'You're a really good actor. You're a really good writer.'"
"[He] could have easily been painted as a monster, which is why you cast someone like Ty Burrell, who's so likable and so warm and relatable, so that your feelings become more complex about the whole situation," said Johnson.
Earlier this year, when The Skeleton Twins played Sundance to raves and took home the festival's Screenwriting Award: U.S. Dramatic, Hader told Conan O'Brien that a makeout scene between him and Burrell had been cut from the movie. To me, Hader said that the scene found them falling on the bed and the camera panned to a bedside picture of Burrell's Rich with his girlfriend and daughter. Hader wondered whether the shot was too heavy-handed to be included, though Johnson told me that he "fucked up" the directing, and that ultimately, the movie didn't need the scene: "We still understood from a story perspective, that Bill had gone home for the night with that character," he said.
Hader he told me that he and Burrell "went for it," though he couldn't remember if it involved any tongue. I asked him if at any point, he had to get over any hetero masculinity bullshit to do the gay stuff he's done on screen and he told me he didn't. He is as matter-of-fact about Milo's gayness as Johnson and The Skeleton Twins itself. Hader is more focused on his similarity to the character than his differences. He told me, for example, that he related to Milo's failed attempt to make it big in Los Angeles (Hader had such an experience before SNL, when he went to L.A. to attempt a screenwriting/directing career).
"It's finding someone who's different than you but also the Venn diagram of where you, me, overlay that guy, so it can be nuanced and grounded," he told me.
Hader has been praised for this approach, but he's also gotten some feedback on portraying a character that could accurately be described as mincing. On Salon, Andrew O'Hehir wrote that Hader "definitely verges on dangerous territory in terms of gay typology or even stereotype." Hader, who's married to a woman, told me that he identifies as straight and has had to defend treading on that "dangerous territory."
"I've had people who have seen the movie say, 'You get a little bit too…'" he said, trailing off, searching for the right word. I suggested "swishy" or "prissy." He continued: "But I'm like, 'Yeah, but I have good friends who are that way.'"
Hader has now two memorable gay characters under his belt, the first being Stefon, SNL's absurd, self-styled aficionado of nightlife. I wondered if he has ever worried about coming off as insensitive or donning "gayface" in these roles.
"Oh no," he told me. "Craig Johnson's gay, and he hired me for the movie. I trusted that he would tell me, 'Hey man, take it down a notch.' If anything, it was the opposite. When I dressed in drag, he told me, 'You have full permission to be fabulous.'"
What I appreciated so much about The Skeleton Twins is that permissiveness. Being fabulous is not a mandate, but an option. Milo exhibits stereotypes, but he isn't made only from them. While I know several guys who confound traditional images of "gay man" and several others who reinforce it, most of us fall somewhere in between, of exhibiting certain culturally recognizable traits within our own highly individual existences. It seems to me, too, that to go in the opposite direction and iron out the queerness from gayness runs the risk of coming off as shame-filled overcompensation, which is its own kind of gay cliché (see: all the guys who describe themselves as "masc" on various dating platforms).
"A cliché by definition, is rooted in some sort of recognizable truth," Johnson told me. "Where it becomes a cliché and where it becomes not a cliché just has to do with tone and how you treat it. Gay people dress up in drag. Gay people drop little witty bon mots. It's all about how you render it that walks that line between it feeling like a cliché and feeling like that's just who this person is."
The Skeleton Twins is now playing in New York and Los Angeles. It opens nationwide next week.