Jeremy Irvine and I are sitting in the hallowed gay institution whose history the handsome young British actor is accused of complicity in bastardizing.
The rainbow flag is billowing outside and there is torn vinyl on the dimly lit banquette we’re sitting on. The condoms are in the fishbowl at the bar, stocked up for the Monday night happy hour crowd due to arrive in a few hours.
We are at the storied Stonewall Inn, the Greenwich Village institution where the modern LGBT rights movement was born. It was there that, in 1969, a group of marginalized and persecuted gay men, drag queens, trans New Yorkers, and mad-as-hell bar patrons fought back against the corrupt policemen who had been harassing them so brutally and sparked the riots that would blaze on in the spirit of the decades-long fight for equal rights to come.
Now, it’s a perfectly divey watering hole with a preponderance of Beyoncé on its playlist and emotion and history seeping from its cracking walls. It’s this citadel of change and the lives of its proud citizens, this group of patrons-turned-victims-turned-activists, that are the focus of Stonewall, the newest film and current lightning rod of cinematic blasphemy by disaster-flick director Roland Emmerich.
When it was announced that Emmerich, the suzerain of big-budget schlock (The Day After Tomorrow, Independence Day, 2012) would be helming a dramatization of a historical event scorched with so much intense and personal resonance for the LGBT community, eyebrows were duly raised. Ever since the film screened for critics this week, those eyebrows have just about leapt from writers’ foreheads, suicidal because of the celluloid travesty.
Emmerich’s telling of the real-life story of the Stonewall riots is framed around the fictional character of Danny (played by Irvine), a vision in a white tee who is banished from his Midwest farm town after getting “caught” being gay. He travels to New York, where he falls in with a gang of gender-queer, non-white street kids who rally him into activism. He’s gay Christian Bale leading the drag queen Newsies.
The sins of the film are exhausting. It’s blatantly shot on a soundstage, stripping of it any New Yawk profundity. For a supposed celebration of the gay movement, the film is shockingly sex-shaming. History is arguably misrepresented—most accounts claim it was drag queen and gay liberation activist Marsha P. Johnson who threw the first brick, but she’s not even present when the riot begins in the movie.
The marginalization of real-life Stonewall heroes like Johnson, Ray Castro, and Sylvia Rivera, the latter two of whom are merged into a composite character named Ray, has been a hot-button issue since the film’s trailer came out. And then there’s the fact that it’s Danny, the fictional white savior among a community of actual crusaders, who is handed the brick to hurl.
In a controversial interview with Buzzfeed, Emmerich defended the decision to sideline the stories of the movement’s real-life trans women, butch dykes, and drag queens of color in order to tell the story through the eyes of a camera-friendly, straight-acting white male.
“You have to understand one thing: I didn’t make this movie only for gay people, I made it also for straight people,” he said. “I kind of found out, in the testing process, that actually, for straight people, [Danny] is a very easy in. Danny’s very straight-acting. He gets mistreated because of that. [Straight audiences] can feel for him.”
Suffice it to say, revealing that he prioritized straight audiences’ empathy over the authenticity and honesty owed to gay audiences didn’t exactly calm Emmerich’s critics.
Nonetheless, here I am speaking with Irvine, the talented (and quite beautiful) 25-year-old star of films like War Horse who is being billed as the face—literally, the face on the movie poster—of the gay liberation movement and drawing so much ire from critics.
Folks, he seems like a pretty nice guy. And one who steadfastly believed in his film and the effect he hoped it would have.
Irvine’s first pilgrimage to gay mecca was actually the day after shooting for Stonewall wrapped. He stopped in New York on his way back to the U.K.; a trip to the Stonewall Inn “was the first thing we did, really,” he says.
It was last summer and very, very hot. “I remember buying one of the Stonewall tank tops and dancing around in it, making a right fool of myself,” he says. “I think there was a bit of dancing on stools that went on.”
Even in today’s stool-dancingless visit, wearing clothes with sleeves and discussing his controversial film, Irvine is touched by the experience of just being in Stonewall. That blanket of warmth and power, the shiver of joy at the progress made so far, and the emotion elicited by the struggle is impossible not to feel when you step through its Christopher Street doors. It’s the religious experience that’s fueling the film’s unholy reaction.
“I get shivers down my spine every time I come here,” he says. “You see the photos. You have to think, ‘Wow, it really did happen right here.”
For the explosion of think pieces and derision that Stonewall’s trailer and early screenings detonated, it’s clear that Irvine, at the very least, signed on for the film with the best of intentions.
He thought he was familiar with the seismic events at Stonewall, but marveled at how much there was still to learn as he dug into research for the role. “You go, ‘Why isn’t this in my mainstream consciousness as much as some of the other big civil rights moments around that time?’” he says. “If this movie can even slightly get the word of Stonewall out there, then that’s a good thing.”
By the time we meet to chat, Irvine is already seasoned at defending his film. In fact, he’s the one who brings up the initial controversy over the trailer, which focused so heavily on Irvine’s character and so little on the film’s non-white characters that critics blasted the film for allegedly “whitewashing” the events of Stonewall. LGBT activists even launched a petition urging for a boycott.
“I saw the movie and then a week later the trailer came out,” he says. “You know, I’m not in charge of film marketing but I think that was a very misleading trailer and I was very keen [to set the record straight] because I had just seen it and wanted to tell others, ‘No, no, you should still see it.’”
At the time, Irvine posted a message on his Instagram reassuring his followers that the film is far more diverse that the trailer implies and “deeply honors” real-life activists like Johnson, Rivera, and Castro.
A month after the trailer fiasco, he tells me, “If people want to base a movie on a two-minute trailer, that’s fine and I understand why,” he says. “No minority has been treated worse that the black transgender community so I totally understand that. But it’s nice for the movie to come out and say, ‘Look.’ This is a movie we’re all genuinely really proud of.”
Plus, looking at the situation with a glass a little too full, the controversy may have served to raise awareness of Marsha P. Johnson and other key figures.
“I don’t think any of us expected it to get the attention that it has,” he says. “But now how many people have heard the name Marsha P. Johnson, opposed to never having heard it before? Wow. I was out last night and had a few groups of people come up to me and wanted to talk about the film. They wanted to know if Marsha P. Johnson was going to be a part of the movie and I was like, ‘Yeah! But also, how cool that you are all talking about that.’”
We begin talking about the reaction to the fact that Roland Emmerich is directing the movie, which wouldn’t seem like an obvious choice given the filmmaker’s oeuvre. But what Emmerich, who is openly gay, has long maintained, and what Irvine reiterates, is that he has the same personal connection to the story that so many of the rest of us have.
The film finishes by flashing a statistic onscreen about how 40 percent of homeless youth in the U.S. are LGBT, echoing the film’s emphasis on homeless LGBT kids. Emmerich has said he was inspired to make the film through the charity work he does at centers for the homeless LGBT community in Los Angeles.
Irvine also says—and this might not make things go down any easier for critics of his character—that the decision to tell the story through the eyes of Danny is also a byproduct of Emmerich’s personal connection.
“He and the writer [Jon Robin Baitz], it’s a very personal project for both of them,” he says. “I think that’s why my character’s in there. I think parts of them both are in my character. So it’s kind of like we’re seeing it through his eyes.”
However the film is being received and whatever the reaction to the polarizing creative decisions in it, the fact remains that Irvine genuinely hopes the movie does good for a community that still needs good done by it, all these decades later.
He goes back to the homeless issue, recounting a walk through New York the night before and wondering how many of the people on the streets he saw are going through some of the same struggles the characters in Stonewall might have. “It cemented to me how important this film is today.”
He’s aware that by being the face of the movie—albeit a very white face—he’s being asked to speak up for the film and for the movement and for gay rights. After all, as a culture, we have a tendency to thrust people in his position into a place of advocacy, something he doesn’t take lightly, as his preaching about the homeless problem certainly speaks to.
“I find it difficult to see it as my place,” he says. “I do get a little bit of stick from people who are like, ‘Who are you to say these things?’ You kind of have to agree with people on that. But at the same time I think everyone can stand up for equality.”
Maybe, in some way, even Roland Emmerich can.