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Alex Strangelove director on complicated gay characters: ‘We are dirty, messy people’

Alex Strangelove director on complicated gay characters: ‘We are dirty, messy people’

Craig Johnson, director of Alex Strangelove

Netflix debuted their newest original movie today, Alex Strangelove. GSN sat down with director Craig Johnson to talk about the messy, complicated coming out story that’s based on his own real-life experience.

The movie is about a high school senior, Alex Truelove (Daniel Doheny), who has it all. He’s class president, he has a wonderful girlfriend (Claire, played by Madeline Weinstein), and he’s ready to have sex. Or so he thinks.

When he meets Elliott (Antonio Marizale), an out gay teen, Alex suddenly has to confront who he might be.

The following conversation has slight spoilers for Alex Strangelove.

The movie is raw and real, and not very cookie-cutter, especially with sex. How did you approach that topic at such a vulnerable time in young people’s lives?

I started with my own auto-biography. I came out incrementally. There was an inkling, but I didn’t have any encounters until college and then I came out as bisexual.

I continued to date women into my 20s until finally, I had a look-in-the-mirror moment, and thought: ‘There is a word for you, it is not bisexual, it is gay.’

Then I thought, ‘wow, what a crazy journey’. I had an emotional investment in women but when it came to sex, it didn’t quite work. And I thought back to my more embarrassing moments and realized this has all the makings for an embarrassing teen sex comedy.

Teens have these thoughts. It’s not always so pure and simple.

I was so intimidated by sex in high school. Yet I had friends around me who were sexually active.

The whole thing with the hotel was based on my best friend. She orchestrated this whole thing with her boyfriend and I helped them to make sure none of the parents found out.

Daniel Doheny in Alex Strangelove
Daniel Doheny in Alex Strangelove | Photo: YouTube/Netflix

You mentioned you first came out as bisexual and at one point in the film, Alex thinks he may be bisexual. Was there ever a point in the story where he was?

Because his journey reflected mine, and because for me bisexuality was just a stop on the train, it was always something I knew he would pass through.

One of the things I did want to do was make sure everyone knows that I, as a filmmaker, view bisexuality as a valid identity. The film subtly renders that.

In the coming out montage [author’s note: the movie ends with a collage of real-life coming out videos online], it’s subtle, but you hear a voice saying: ‘I’m bisexual.’ I wanted to make sure audiences understood that I believe it’s a legit identity itself.

Can you touch more in the flashback in the film? The movie never hints at it until it happens.

I was bullied in seventh grade. Hell hath no fury like a 13-year-old boy, especially when they sense something in a queer kid. I didn’t even know I felt those feelings yet and here I was getting bullied. Then puberty hits and you have this horror within you and you think, ‘Oh my god, these assholes are right. They know something about me.’

So you turn it off, bury it, shove that down.

I wanted to give Alex that backstory so we understand his anxiety. I also wanted him to go to a progressive high school, where there are out students, so the conflict would be internal.

One of the things I love about this movie is that Alex isn’t perfect and you never make his journey an excuse for his poor decisions. How do you balance a character who can be mean but still make people root for him?

It is a fine balance. Honestly, it has to do with your casting. Daniel Doheny has an affability, a sincerity, and the real sense that he is struggling.

So while you see him making a mess of things, you understand on some level. And you also see him making efforts to change. To the degree he gets away with it, though, has to do with his opennes and his warmth.

Your past movies, like Skeleton Twins, show imperfect characters are a theme for you.

Oh, absolutely. We are dirty, messy people. We are also people that are capable of love and laughter. I am endlessly fascinated by the convergence of those things within us. That will play out in any movie that I do.

I am drawn to difficult people. They make us feel less alone.

Antonio Marizale in Alex Strangelove
Antonio Marizale in Alex Strangelove | Photo: YouTube/Netflix

Going back to the casting. The chemistry between Alex and Elliott is off the charts.

Good, I’m glad you feel that way.

Was it the same on set?

 hundred percent.

Those two boys loved each other, love each other to this day. They are not dating, but they love each other. And that kind of chemistry, you can’t invent. It just has to be there. It was very real.

What do you hope young people take from this film? Did you have any queer media you were able to consume when you were younger?

I went to high school in the ’90s and I remember, I rented this French film cause I read about it in Rolling Stone. It’s Wild Reeds by André Téchiné. It’s a smoldering teenage gay love story.

I rented it secretly. I was so starved for representation of kids my own age.

As for kids now, I hope all of them can see something of themselves in this movie. Figuring yourself out, the angst about sex, that is universal when you’re a teenager. I think you don’t have to be a queer kid to relate to that.

But if you are queer, or questioning, you can watch this movie in the privacy of your own home and see that your journey is out there.