NEW YORK CITY—When Liev Schreiber was offered a role in Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, he could see that the part of Vilma, a gay ex–army officer who dresses in women’s clothing, could be complicated, given that the film was set in 1969—long before pride parades and gay marriage. In addition, Vilma is a role model of sorts for Elliot Tiber, the film’s protagonist, a gay man living with his parents in upstate New York who has concerns about coming out of the closet. In a New York City hotel room, Schreiber explains that when he was offered the part, he didn’t know much about the era and its gay culture, but he learned, through his research, that Vilma would have fit in.
Watch the trailer for Taking Woodstock.
“I discovered that there was a revolution in the late 1960s in the community, particularly the subset of the drag community. Prior to that, guys would usually dress up like either their mothers or iconic Hollywood actresses. Then, particularly in the Haight district in San Francisco, you had these theatre groups and drag queens doing this interesting gender-bending stuff where they were embracing the masculinity in their characters. So you would see guys doing drag with beards and doing the cancan without underwear and developing a new gay culture that they took out on the streets. It was pretty bold stuff. And then you started to see guys no longer doing this as a fetish or a hobby but as a lifestyle. Before all these surgeries and exfoliation techniques came along, it just didn’t make sense for a guy to shave every day or wear six-inch stilettos every day. So you saw these wonderful new characters developing: men who were kind of multisexual in their looks. For me, it was important to infuse this character with an element of that, because I felt the contradictions were essential to the theme of acceptance that Vilma seemed to be conveying to Elliot.”
The film—which opens in Vancouver on Friday (August 28)—is based on the true story of Tiber, who was working at his parents’ hotel in Bethel, New York, in 1969 when he figured out that a concert that had been banned by the residents of a nearby town could move to Bethel. He met with Woodstock Ventures Inc. and a farmer named Max Yasgur, and within a few weeks half a million people were on their way to his town for the Woodstock concert, despite the fact that most of the townspeople were against it. Schreiber says that when he read James Schamus’s script, he was concerned that the comedy was too broad and that several characters, including his own, might end up being misinterpreted.
“I had some concerns about the screenplay because some of the comedy felt cloying,” he says, “and I didn’t know if they [Lee and Schamus] intended to make a movie that transcended that and took the edges off so that the characters became more human and less like caricatures. It turned out they knew what they were doing, because the comedic elements really work. I also learned that what James was writing was not that far-fetched. It was a pretty far-out event, and people were pretty freaky. It turned out that was the reality of the world at that point. The thing I liked was the idea that Ang could take a big historical event like this and humanize it, because I think it allows the audience to have an intimate relationship with the characters.”
Tiber, who wrote the book the movie is based on, knew people like Vilma in the late ’60s, although the character that Schamus created was a composite of several acquaintances of Tiber’s. Schreiber decided to add someone else to the mix: a friend of his mother’s who, like Vilma, didn’t make much of an effort to cover up his masculinity.
“Vilma was based on several characters in the book, but for me she is based on a guy that my mother knew called Silverbell, who was a lifestyle queen. He was 62 and had a long silver beard and wore long, flowing silver gowns and drove around in a white van with a piano in the back. He was a wonderful, eccentric character, and every once in a while he would put on lipstick or eyeliner.”¦He wore a silver scarf on his head because he didn’t like the fact that he was going bald. I was just intrigued by Vilma’s history and with the idea of him being a grandfather and a Korean War vet and a prostitute and muscle for the gay community. This was someone who had been through a lot and had arrived at a place that was a compromise of so many other things that he was comfortable with.”