I-D MAGAZINE • THE LAST AMERICAN HERO
Fresh from appearing as his abuser in a film about the author's life. Marilyn Manson meets JT Leroy
He sits in the eye of the storm, calm, like the kid who knows his house is a former missile silo: impenetrable. Celebrities and their press agents swirl in sparking perfumed crowds. Photographers pearl in bunched strands, their blinding flashes blowing off in his face, but still, he sits on the bed, just present but seemingly not touched by any of it, almost as if he is allowing his body to be present, but his soul is safely ensconced elsewhere. I am studying him, after retreating to crouch into a hidden patch on the floor behind the bed, behind him. It makes me feel protected. He helps me feel that way somehow. I know if I need him, he would be there.
It is the wrap partly, the celebration of the completion of the filming of my book, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. Asia Argento directed it and plays my mother. In the film there is Jackson my mother's boyfriend. He gets seduced by a ten-year-old after that child dresses up as his mother. Manson has that role. The part of a man I had sex with when I was ten. And he played the role with intuitive vulnerable brilliance that few gave him credit for possessing until they saw him in the Michael Moore film Bowling For columbine. That night was also the celebration of my 24th birthday. He gifted me with a painting he had done. It is of an inexplicable looking child/adult - haunted, pained, pointedly sexless, and achingly crafted. Manson has had gallery shows and the painting he gave me was on the cover of the program. I look at his painting when I need to find words to shape into what lives outside the bounds of the known protected world.
I realised watching Manson that night, as folks who did not know him approached him with various forms of trepidation, and those that did entered his space with joyful respectful welcomed warmth, that he has created a safety zone that exists in the realm of the perilous. His sense of the self in exploring boundaries is absolute and completely who he is, and because he does so instinctively with the occupying genius to craft his curiosity into art that allows the rest of us to leer, explore or play in his creations, even in the safety of our own homes. But the deeper you go with Manson, the more you are confronted, and that is the journey he invites you on. To be a little scared, to be willing to go to uncomfortable places you wouldn't normally go to, to see through eyes that are shaded in the abnormal. Who else could play a man that has sex with a child in such a heart-breaking portrayal that makes you week for him as well?
"The most genius ideas are in the minds of children and lunatics. I describe myself as somewhere in between"
How are you?
"I'm okay. I just slept 24 hours."
My God, that's miraculous. How did you do that?
"I stayed up for two days. I'm jet-lagged, I was in Europe for a month. I came back at six in the morning and started working on some new paintings. Then all of a sudden it was afternoon, so I just stayed awake. Eventually I went down; it was a good sleep. I feel recovered."
That's pretty amazing that your body would let you do that. Anything you want off the record, by the way, just let me know - I only interview people that I like.
"I was the same when I was a journalist."
You were a journalist? I didn't know that.
"Yeah, right before I started the band. I was hired by a record company to do the bio for the pretentious Yngwie Malmsteen. I cheated my way into the whole scenario. I sort of lied my way into a job on a new magazine in Florida and ended up becoming the senior editor in two months. But I was quickly bored of the side of the microphone I existed on. I wanted to be answering the questions; I didn't want the answers to be too boring."
And you got work with the record company?
"Yeah. I thought I could use my connections to do the something with the record deal. The hardest part was being in front of people and saying what I thought. Writing it was easy and very important to me. To get up in front of a crowd for the first time was really difficult, but it was only difficult that once. I never had stage fright since then."
When I do interviews I can tell when I'm really connecting to somebody or when they are just idiots.
"I hated school but loved creative writing class. My thirst for knowledge made me self-taught; I can't get enough of books. I was at that 18-year-old age where I wanted to take my imagination and put it out there. I ended up finding that music was a very suitable way to do it, but I don't think it's the only thing that could contain me. That's why if I can't fit an idea into a song, I paint."
That painting you gave me for my birthday was just beautiful.
"Painting is much more personal because it's something I do alone and I don't feel like there is an audience. I was very happy when I had my first exhibition that people like the work, because I had never intended to show it or sell it - it was something I did for myself. The piece that I gave you I chose as the centrepiece of the art show, it's called The Hand Of Glory. It goes back to witchcraft and the idea that when you take the hand of a criminal, you can have this extra power. In the picture the child is very ambiguous - even more than androgynous. To me the picture represented how the adult world just robs the magic of childish thinking, the sadness of growing up. That's something that I fight, because the most genius ideas are in the minds of children and lunatics. I describe myself as somewhere in between."
It's just very moving and powerful. When I found out that you were somebody that was on the horizon during casting for the film, I was just like 'fuck, yeah' - it was so visceral and so automatic.
"Whether it be acting or directing them, movies - and books - are what I love more than anything. I like the fact that it wasn't typecasting for me, and particularly getting a better understanding from you to not portray this person as a predator or as evil, so much as being a victim of circumstance, sort of pathetic. I think I came across a very sad. It made me wanna be in movies. It's a small part, but it made a big difference for me."
"I've always wanted to be a success at being an artist, but I never cared for being a success as a product. It's not about celebrity"
It reminds me of this phrase that I like - I think it's a movie title: At Play In The Fields Of The Lord. I feel like being an artist is like playing in the fields of the Lord. Whatever you wanna call 'The Lord'. Our society likes to typecast people. People are so cut off from being creative. 'I don't have a creative bone in my body' - to me that's like saying 'I like to rape small children'. How pathetic, how frightening, how horrifying is that? I think there's such jealousy over people who are creative; it's like you can't be good at too many things.
"There was a time when artists had a different level of respect. It's not even about celebrity or fame. I've always wanted to be a success at being an artist, but I never really cared for being a success at being a product. I'm not saying that I don't want any money for what I do, or I want to be underground. Any artist that says that is full of shit. But success isn't defined by how the world perceives me on TRL. I like to get a reaction from a fan or to see the faces on a crowd when I'm performing, or to hear how you enjoyed my painting. And to know how I feel when I go to bed at night, knowing that I did what I wanted to do today. The perfect utopia would be for artists to replace politicians and the government. But what you said about religion - I always think God in any culture is more or less about creation. An artist creates things and puts them into the world, and to me that is spiritual, that is God. That's the thing I believe in."
So when you start painting?
"In high school I really loved art class. I had my own version of Mad magazine. I would do cartoons and photocopy them at my Dad's work he sold carpets at a shitty carpet store and I would sneak in and make photocopies, staple them and sell them to my friends for 50 cents. That ended up getting me kicked out of Christian school, because the content of my magazine had some profanity, which I was happy about of course. I was in tenth grade. Then I think read No-one Here Gets Out Alive, the Jim Morrison book, and that for some reason made me want to write. Stephen King's horror fiction really stuck with me at the time too."
Have you ever met Stephen King?
"No, I was 19 years old and I was writing stories and I was trying to get them published. I actually saved all my rejection letters. I put them in my autobiography and it ended up being a New York Times bestseller. I thought that was the ultimate irony. It ends up being the same intent and the same imagery that exists now in everything that I do. It was born there already, back in that time. I hadn't touched a paintbrush for some time, except I would make my own flyers for my band, but it was more cartoonish. There wasn't as much of the pain and spirit put into it as when I paint. I guess when I started doing it, when I made the album Mechanical Animals, I was in a really damaging relationship and I didn't really realise what it was doing. I was going out for three years with my ex-fiancée."
"Yeah. I won't say anything against her, it's about where I was mentally. I felt bad about who I was, I was made to feel that nothing I could do would be good enough. I don't know how I got into that headspace, but I didn't know how get out of it. I was really just killing myself slowly day by day. And I started painting to get away from everything. I'm the type of person that spends more than 80 percent of my day just creating or working on something. Whether it ends up being something that people see is irrelevant. I would come home from the studio and that would be the time I would spend with whoever I'm with, but I would want to escape from that, so I would start painting. That's when it began. I would initially have this five-minute concept painting I would work on. It started with drug dealers, when they would come over to sell me drugs, when I was living in Laurel Canyon, I would paint them something within five minutes and I would trade them, because they knew it would be worth something someday. Then I kinda cleaned up my act and I started doing paintings for more legitimate reasons, although at the time that seemed legitimate. When I finally changed my life, changed the people I was around, changed the artists I collaborated with, my creativity just really exploded. I feel at a very great point in my life now. Even though there are days when you feel like giving up. You feel like sometimes you are just a speck in the world and no matter how much you have accomplished, it's never enough. I guess I ultimately am not satisfied with any level of success. That's part of my drive. If I ever stopped I'd probably cease to have the desire to live, because I'm so attached to being creative. It defines me. It doesn’t mean that everything I do is art - I have a hard time using the word 'art' because it's associated with so much pretentiousness. Being able to express my imagination, being able to act like a child, being able to daydream or sleep for 24 hours, doing what I want to do on my time. Being, I guess, charmed with the lifestyle - that I can have these freedoms. It's something that I appreciate, but because I worked hard for it; it wasn't handed to me."
Do you ever feel held to the Marilyn Manson image? Do you feel like you are typecasting yourself?
"In some ways. One thing that a lot of people will always lazily interpret is that there's an onstage persona and an offstage persona. It's not that easy. Sometimes I'm much more insane, theatrical, whatever way people want to define it, offstage than I am on. I've come to look at what Marilyn Manson represents to me as myself it's not an alter ego; it's the ego I never could have before, it's a way of defining my imagination. It's not something I turn off or turn on. I get bored with certain imagery and certain aesthetics - that's why I've always been a chameleon, everything it always about transformation, I change with every album. I have to do that, it's not about marketing, it's about my personality. Otherwise you become a cliché, a parody of yourself. So I do get weary of people's laziness, how they expect me to be all these things that I've never even said I was. People expect me to be an asshole, and something I am. Generally I reflect people's personality. If someone's nice to me, ten I'm nice to them; it's that simple. I'm a very fragile person in some ways, I think that's why I do things the way I do. I put up a very hard exterior because of what's inside. I think a lot of people don't take into consideration that I have feelings and they objectify me, they talk about me the you would Mickey Mouse for example. He's a creation, which in some ways I am, but the creation has no separation from the creator."
I have these letters from writers who say, 'I was afraid to read your work because of everything I've read about you, but I was really surprised at how great it was.'
"Ah, the backhanded compliment. My favourite, most predictable thing that I always call journalists on."
Like how you appeared in Michael Moore's film Bowling For Columbine?
"Do you know how many people have come up to me and said, 'Jeez I didn't know you were so intelligent.' And I say to them, 'I didn't know you were so fucking stupid, but that's 'cos I just met you.'
I've come to enjoy the fact that I can't be misunderstood, because I'm an abstract idea that's always transforming. I want everyone to have a different interpretation of my own work. If they all saw it as one thing then it would be shit. So when people say, 'Are you tired of being misinterpreted and misunderstood?' I say no, I'm not. That's the one thing that makes it whole. Art isn't really art until somebody else perceives it. Obviously you create things for yourself, but you are also doing it for the world in some ways; whether to piss 'em off, or to make 'em happy. I do it mostly because I know that other people's work has affected me and made me feel like I'm not alone. Without being a hero, I do the same thing. I'm not trying to save the world, I'm not trying to be a role model, I'm trying to make this reality. It's something I want to continue waking up in."
It seems you are true to what interests you and what baffles, surprises and intrigues you. And you have the bravery to explore things seriously where most people don't. I think that's what people respond to. One thing I realised when I was studying to be a writer is that anyone can tell the truth, and I didn't give a shit. But when someone told that story with humour and art and craft.... HOLY SHIT!
"I totally agree with your point, and that ties in very strongly with where we are in entertainment and culture, we're in a very, very bad place that needs salvation. I'm not trying to be a hero - if anything I'm a villain - but I want to make the world a place that I can still live in; that's why I do what I do. But I have to do it even more so now because of reality television, which is completely devoid of any creativity - it's us. When I say 'us' I don't mean me, its people sitting around watching other people’s boring lives and living vicariously through that."
I've been getting all these books from people documenting their lives and there's no craft and no work.
"What you've hit on is the imagination part. This is exactly what I expressed with The Golden Age Of Grotesque. The grotesque is the imagination. It's like expressionism, in Berlin in the '20s, when expressionism came about, the Nazis wanted to destroy it. Now in some strange way we're living in that same era of fascism, but we don't know it; we don't see it. That's why it's even more poisonous. We are being robbed of our childhood, our imagination."
That's part of why I want to keep anonymous, because I don't want people to say: 'I know this and this about you.'
"It's very hard to deal with the things that people say to you. Like when I went to your party. Some people find the most terrible backhanded compliments to say. I try not to be really insulted by things like that. Hey don't have any concept of what I am as a person, so how can I that what they say personally? I often laugh it off."
It felt to me like you have thick bubble around you. You are able to allow people in, but it was very clear boundary. I was bouncing all over and hiding in the corner of the bed at one point.
"I don't know if you noticed, but I went into that room initially, right before you arrived, because I wanted to hide from the party. And the room started filling up and filling up and when I walked out of the room I noticed an entire party had moved into the room we were in. Hey, you know what was annoying? When so many people came up to me and said, 'What are you doing here?'
And I'm like, 'I got to be in this movie with JT and it's his birthday.'
'Oh this is a party for... who's that?'
There were so many people outside.
"I was afraid to bring a friend."
It was awful, I mean people couldn't get in. Tim Armstrong couldn't get in. I'm never doing it again.
"You should be flattered by the fact that the people who do respect and care about your work came - and besides from a few idiots, people went there because I think there is a true excitement about the movie. You know, I've met a lot of kids in the last part of my tour that came up to me and wrote me fanmail saying they read your book and it meant so much to them. They were so happy that I was a part of it and that was cool to me. I hadn't read it until Asia Argento mentioned it to me."
How did you meet?
"About a year ago at a movie screening of Gasper Noe's Irreversible. She mentioned it to me and I picked up the book and it blew me away. Your style of writing is very hypnotic; you forget where you are, and all of a sudden you're done and want more. Although it's terrible, there are some things that will horrify you, but obviously everybody is drawn to the macabre and to the train-wreck of life."
Have you read Sarah?
Oh, you've gotta read Sarah. I'm not modest about it.
"I think that when you tell people you feel great about your stuff, there's a big difference between that and boasting. When you think of egomaniacs, to me those people don't believe in their talent so they hide behind that."
Well, you've met our son Thor? You look at this kid and you go, 'My God, he's his own being.'
You can't take credit. It's like my books are my children that came out of my body, and I don't know how it happened, but I'm proud ad I'm gonna fight for their right to be out there.
You are one of those people who have like dog hearing. That's why I really pursued Billy Corgan too - I just felt he would get it.
"Billy and I aren't really friends anymore, I mean, not by my choice, but I gotta say he turned me on to a lot of amazing books and I think he is a great artist. I think the one thing that has gotten in his way is - and when I said it to him, this might have been what drove a spike between us - sometimes he thinks that because his art is good it will be automatically be received as such. He is one of the most talented musicians that I've ever worked with."
He was so hurt by the media before. People basically accused him of talking about the child abuse he suffered to sell records, which is the most fucking insane thing.
"Yeah, I don't know if you are familiar with my history with that particular magazine you're talking about, but there was the unfortunate part where I was arrested and sued for assaulting the editor." [Laughs]
"I think journalists as well as anyone should be held accountable. It doesn't mean that when you say something bad you need to get your ass kicked... but sometimes it does. Sometimes you should be able to stand up to them and say, 'Yeah I said that, what are you gonna do about it?'
There should be some sort of journalistic justice."
I've called up and emailed writers if there was something that I thought was bullshit and I'm always amazed at how they totally wither. They get so excited to hear from you. They just talk shit because that gets them more attention than saying a nice thing.
"That's what I discovered when I was writing, and that was one of the things that made me not like journalism. I found it's easier to be funny or charming when you are insulting someone than saying something nice."
It's true. How was the filming, by the way? I heard you said to Asia, 'You are one crazy bitch!'
"I was blown away by her ability to command everyone. She really helped me through it. And physically she beat the shit out of me, because I told her I wasn't gonna fake anything. If you're gonna hit me, throw a toaster at me, then do it. When I got into that character it stuck with me for a couple of days. I tried to grow out as much facial hair as possible, eyebrows and everything. I didn't want to go back. I wanted to stay that way for a whole while, I don't know why. Now that being Marilyn Manson has become everything I am, getting a chance to be someone else always makes you feel new again. It's a special thing."
It's intense being on a set too, you become this instant family.
"It's gonna be an amazing film."
Which kid was playing me? Dylan?
"Yeah, Dylan. I think that was the most shocking thing. And to me to say that is pretty comical - to see a little boy in drag. And he liked it. He was prancing round and I told his mum, 'You know what? It is fucked up but don't worry, at worst he'll turn out like me.'" [Laughs]
Or me. (Laughs)
"And I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. Being able to turn it into a salvation."
Exactly. A voice for other people to identify with.
"A lifeboat in a sea of shit."