The story of JT LeRoy never ends. Thirteen years ago, the enfant terrible of American literature was revealed to be two people, neither of them the teenage gender-fluid truck-stop hooker who purportedly penned autobiographical novels like 2000’s Sarah. Actual author Laura Albert has come under scrutiny in two recent documentaries, but it’s the enigmatic public face of the headline-making hoax who’s the subject of JT LeRoy, opening Friday (May 17).
Savannah Knoop was only 18 when sister-in-law Albert persuaded her to appear in public as LeRoy. Albert wrote the books and handled the phone interviews while the shy teen—kitted out in oversized shades, hat, and blond wig—was pushed out to mingle with fawning celebrities like Bono and Carrie Fisher. Playing Knoop in the new film, Kristen Stewart wins our sympathy as a character intrigued by the adventure yet hobbled by moral conflict and self-consciousness.
“It’s uncanny sometimes,” says Knoop, calling the Georgia Straight from New York. “We had a few days together before shooting and that was great, because there’s a lot less documentation of the Savannah character, obviously, than the JT LeRoy character. And she is such a physical, inhabiting actor, she kind of absorbed a lot of my mannerisms. Friends who’ve seen it, or my mom, they all say, ‘Wow, she really got you.’ ”
Written (with director Justin Kelly) by Knoop, now a 38-year-old gender-fluid artist, the film arrives as a self-observing fractal—a strange attractor from a Bush era that also never really ended. In one scene, Albert, played by Laura Dern, becomes overwhelmed when she visits the set of a movie based on one of LeRoy’s books. Surely it was no less haunting for Knoop to see their life re-created on a soundstage?
“Ah,” they reply, with a sigh. “It becomes so meta that it collapses in on itself, and that’s maybe more the feeling. There are all these strange coincidences and the timing of certain details that I don’t want to get into too explicitly, but it’s all very mysterious, this whole project. And everyone has a different take-away from the film, too, I think because there’s so much to pull from it.”
Presumably, with “strange coincidences” and “timing”, Knoop is alluding to events involving Asia Argento, recently and publicly haunted by her experiences as the director-star of the 2004 adaptation of LeRoy’s The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things?
“I think maybe that’s what you’re alluding to,” Knoop shoots back, with a laugh.
Okay, but as “Eva”, Diane Kruger plays a thinly veiled version of Argento, who seduces Knoop-as-LeRoy, which in turn mirrors the sexual-assault allegations made against Argento last year by her star, Jimmy Bennett. If your head isn’t already hurting, remember that Bennett plays a version of LeRoy in Argento’s movie. In any case, in Knoop’s film, Eva/Asia comes off as unlikable and exploitative—right?
“This is where it’s interesting, because some people find her very appealing as a character and feel a lot of compassion for her position. I feel for that character when she says ‘Please tell me who you are.’ But of course,” they add, with a laugh, “I could be bringing my own experiences to it.”
Oh, man. It’s fitting that one of the most effective sequences in JT LeRoy has a dissociative Knoop wandering through Cannes to Dusty Springfield’s plaintive version of “Windmills of Your Mind”. Like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel. That’s the JT LeRoy story.