You don't judge characters—it’s not my job to do that.

Femme, Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping’s joint feature-length directorial debut, is a film of our moment. Galvanizing very current themes of gender presentation in a queer erotic thriller context, it fiercely deconstructs the degrees of drag we all wear every time we step out the door. 

Nathan Stewart-Jarrett’s Jules is first introduced on a club stage as his alter ego Aphrodite Banks. Post-performance, he ducks out, still in drag, for cigarettes at a nearby convenience store. Then, he’s stripped of his power when a furtive glance from George MacKay’s closeted and homophobic Preston spirals into a violent altercation. Jumping forward three months, Jules remains shell-shocked: He has withdrawn into himself and away from the drag community. However, he has found other manners of coping, including bathing in the neon cobalt blue of a local gay sauna. It’s here, in the shadows, that Jules re-encounters his assailant. Preston, who’s always a wrong glance away from meting out a dose of brutality, doesn’t recognize him out of drag. Preston shows interest in Jules. Meanwhile, curiosity, ever-dangerous, sees Jules not running for the exit, but into Preston’s car, into his apartment, and into his bed. At first, Jules’ motives in this literal case of sleeping with the enemy seem clear-cut: He’s after a revenge-porn video that’s sure to ruin his tormentor’s life and hypermasculine social standing if leaked online. Or is something else afoot?

Revenge, rarely a tidy business, the thorny point of fascination of Femme isn’t simply that but Jules’ increasingly ambitious investment in it as thrusting trysts turn into dinner dates and, in time, anxious gestures of real affection. While Jules initially went searching for comfort in Preston’s destruction, locked in a power-shifting tussle between perpetrator and survivor—neither of whom are quite who they say they are—he’s surprised to discover strangely compelling connection there.

MacKay and Stewart-Jarrett’s chemistry is off the charts in their joint lead performances.

Femme hits NYC on March 22, LA and Chicago on March 29, and expands nationwide on April 5.

Having seen the film now, I know there’s universality to it. The discourse on gender identity isn’t exclusionary. But I can also imagine people going into this thinking, “I won’t relate to this. This has nothing to do with me.” What was it about the material that spoke to you both?

George MacKay: That’s a really good question. You wanna go first?

Nathan Stewart-Jarrett: No, it’s hard. [laughs] For me, the first thing was the script. It’s a very classical story of these two people who couldn’t find love—who couldn’t make it. I thought it was so economical in how it expressed that, and that made it very powerful. It’s this extreme tragedy. Within that, I thought, “Okay, what’s this character? How does this character get what they want? What tactics do they use?” I didn’t really think about it politically. These two characters are so dynamic. It was about, “What can I do? How can I lend myself to this?” That was the first thing.

George: I felt very similarly in term of the script. We all just want to be part of telling great and exciting stories. I guess there are elements of what’s being discussed that exist on a broader social level, but personally, what I find fascinating is recognizing when you’re putting on a bit of a cover as you navigate the world. Even right now, there’s an element of being like, “I’ll put my best foot forward because I want to articulate myself correctly or in a manner that is appropriate for this.” That kind of minutia in how we present ourselves to the world is such an integral part of this story, especially with Preston. How much of this man is what he puts across? What is he hiding? And why are these things not synonymous? The film turned the volume up so acutely on that question of identity that I was like, “I just have to explore this. I would love to be a part of this.”

I’m not sure how often you’ve screened the film with audiences, starting at the Berlin Film Festival, but I can imagine that people want to talk to you afterwards. What do they say?

Nathan: People do come up. I was recently at South by Southwest in Austin and someone came up to me. They want to talk about the tragedy of these characters. They talk about Jules overcoming something and reclaiming a sense of agency. For me, that’s a celebration. And a lot of people say that they don’t breathe while watching the movie. George, you’ve heard this before as well.

George: Absolutely, that’s true.

Nathan: They’re on the edge of their seats. People are really invested, which is kind of amazing and what you really want, especially with a thriller like this one. I think what’s also amazing is that the film doesn’t really answer anything. People go away with a lot to think about.

George: Totally. People have come up to me to say they’re surprised about the way their feelings shift back and forth on both of these characters. Their feelings oscillate on a seesaw like, “I hated you and then I felt really sorry for you. I loved you, but then I was really annoyed by you.”

It’s true to life, and that’s why, as you said, Nathan, these characters are dynamic. George, I think you phrased it perfectly at the Berlin press conference: It’s a Russian doll of identity. What was something really important to keep in mind about the core identity of your characters so you never lost sight of who they are? This seesawing is at times abrupt.

George: For Preston, the masculinity he projects is legitimate. That’s the kind of man he is. He is a masculine man and operates that way. It’s just that he can’t balance that with his sexuality and they don’t correlate in his head. So that conflict is the knot at his center. It’s something I always wanted to keep in mind. His sensitivity and macho aggression are amplified versions of things already in him. He hasn’t taken something that is completely outside of himself and put it on top.

Nathan: For Jules as well, it’s code-switching between elements that already exist in him. Maybe they’re elements he used to survive his youth. When he’s butching up, it’s just an extension of him. I didn’t look at many drag queens when I was doing research because that’s an extension of someone else. Drag is a personification of Jules’ interior. I was always conscious of the fact that Jules lost himself in the incident. He is constantly trying to find himself again throughout the film. And I was happy to feel a bit lost and very isolated from everything he once knew because that’s the place from which to then find different things. I’m thinking of the video game scene, which is my favorite scene. That was the one time that Jules didn’t feel lost, apart from the very beginning. I wasn’t scared, and any day that I wasn’t scared was a great day. We had so much fun that day.

I think that scene is representative of how things get gender-coded early in our development, and this has everything to do with Chun-Li. As a lot of us know, and probably experienced firsthand growing up, boys get teased for choosing female avatars to play in video games like Street Fighter. Yet, his proficiency in playing Chun-Li is how Jules infiltrates Preston’s hypermasculine social circle. It seems like such an innocuous thing, but says so much. It’s the kind of thing that makes you go, “I know exactly what that is.” It’s a landmine to navigate.

Nathan: Ng [Choon Ping] and Sam [H. Freeman] are gamers so they definitely know that. I mean, I’m not a gamer. I did play Street Fighter when I was a kid, though. Chun-Li is very powerful.

And there’s an echo in your storylines, right? Chun-Li is trying to avenge her father’s death.

George: I didn’t know that. That’s cool.

Nathan: We come back to Chun-Li with the costume later on as well.

Nathan, as you said, the Playstation scene finally freed you of fear after playing that emotion up to that moment. That scene made you feel good, as good as Jules probably feels. I’m sure that came as a huge relief. As for Preston, he’s so deeply repressed that he’s screaming at the world for most of this. George, what was the scene that finally made you feel free of anger?

George: That’s a really lovely question. I think it was always the breakfast scene. That’s the scene where he’s sort of beyond himself and lets go. It was a beautiful stage direction that Sam and Ng wrote. I can’t remember it exactly, but it was like three descriptions: a little bit hungover, a little bit nervous, and also, dot, dot, dot, calm. The word calm was so lovely ‘cause this had been the whole thing about him: “I can’t calm down. I can’t, I can’t, I can’t. No, no, no, no. No one can know.” So the idea that he can wake up and go, “I’m not worried,” it’s like, wow. I love it as well that you find out more about Preston in that breakfast scene than you have at any other point. You’re like, “He has a business?” Within one morning, he starts to blossom. So that stage direction was the key.

The film is also non-binary in thinking about heroes and villains, and victims and aggressors. Again, these are complex characters. With Jules, we have someone who’s so traumatized, yet yearning in certain ways for his abuser. With Preston, we have someone who’s clearly in the wrong when it comes to his violent impulses, yet so wounded that we can somehow find ways to still empathize with him. As actors, do you side with your characters unconditionally?

Nathan: I always side with my character. And that doesn’t mean that, ultimately, after you shoot or whatever, you think everything they did is right. It’s at the time of doing it that you fight for your character. You don’t judge characters—it’s not my job to do that. What I think is amazing about films in the thriller genre as a whole is that they’re constantly subverting archetypes throughout the storytelling to say, “Actually, no, you’ve gotta rethink this person.” They’re not evil, they’re not the hero, and that’s what makes it really interesting. You find a degree of humanity in your character to play that. You have to find the reasonings that allow you to say, “I’m gonna fight for you.”

George: Likewise, I think you can play someone you don’t necessarily agree with or condone in the doing of it. You just have to understand why they’re doing it so you can play the actions. That in itself is a wonderful part of being an actor: being able to understand different points of view.

Nathan, at the top of our conversation, you mentioned how Femme doesn’t provide answers to the questions it’s raising. Even so, I wonder about the fate of your characters. Do you wonder about them? Do you have hopes for them? Do you have their preservation in mind?

Nathan: I just had this weird image of them seeing each other at a bus stop where one does this really weird nod and the other one doesn’t. [laughs] There’s a cost to what Preston did. I don’t really have thoughts that go beyond the yellow hoodie moment. I don’t think I should put anything in anyone’s head as to what happens after that. Without spoiling anything, Jules does something and there is a huge cost, and he will live with that cost. It’s not for me to say what that is.

George: I’m also wary of folks reading this and giving away the ending. It takes so much for Preston to open up. The greatest hope for Preston is to be an example—to not be controlled by fear.

Post a comment