A lot of people believe Marsha P Johnson should be the lead character in Roland Emmerich’s upcoming film Stonewall.
Instead of focusing on a trans hero of the riots like Marsha or Sylvia Rivera or lesbian activist Stormé DeLarverie, it is a coming-of-age tale about a white, cis, cute, fictional guy called Danny played by Jeremy Irvine.
But what does the actor who plays Marsha think? GSN spoke to Otoja Abit, the New York City actor who is playing Marsha, and what he thought of the backlash, the accuracy of the film and much more.
He is currently performing in off-Broadway production Fulfillment at The Flea Theater and recently created and starred in a TV pilot Harlem Knights that will premiere at the New York Television Festival.
GSN: What did you know of Stonewall before the film?
Otoja: Before the film I was aware of Stonewall in the sense of that it was the birthplace of the Pride that we celebrate every single year, I was aware of that. But then I wasn’t aware of the characters involved, the people that were at Stonewall, I wasn’t aware of how deep it goes. Especially now at a time where there’s riots against cops, #BlackLivesMatter, these riots were going back in 1969 when the gay community didn’t have a voice. This riot was something that highlighted that. I became more knowledgeable about Stonewall as I did my research and I was awarded the chance to be in this film, and that was probably the best thing that could happen to me in my life.
It’s an amazing opportunity to support this movement and also for myself to learn about the fact that this all happened before me and it’s all happening now. It’s very interesting to me. I’m a black man in New York City. Growing up, I had no idea who Marsha P Johnson was when I was at school, I only heard her name a little bit later from people in the LGBT community. We celebrate Black History Month every year, we know Martin Luther King, we know Rosa Parks, but Marsha P Johnson was a pioneer in the gay and trans movement and she’s not honored and she should be. I feel very disappointed that this amazing, heroic African American figure is not learned about every single year in school and I hope this film brings her to the forefront. I hope more people learn about Marsha.
How did you first get attached to the film?
First I saw a breakdown for the film, I saw a casting notice and I saw Stonewall and I knew immediately that it was something I would love to do. I had to see if there was a role for me. I saw Roland Emmerich was directing it and I’m a big fan of his work, and I saw Jon Robin Baitz had written the screenplay, and that’s a very interesting pairing. Jon Robin Baitz is a playwright and a screenwriter for TV. He’s fantastic and I’ve always said he writes the best type of ensemble pieces and in our film it shows. It’s a group of guys, there’s Danny, there’s Ray, there’s Marsha and we all speak – our whole conversation is almost one voice. That’s how brilliant Jon Robin Baitz is.
I was able to see a breakdown and I saw there was a few different roles that I could play. There was Annie, who went to Caleb Landry, I didn’t get it. There was Ray, that went to Jonny Beauchamp. And then there was Marsha. I first noticed she was tall. I’m 6 foot 4. Marsha had a few similar characteristics to her that made me think I could do this. When I researched for the audition, I realised that I have a lot of similarities to her. I realised I look like her, I resemble her, and I hoped she would guide me through this process and see what happens. I also thought that, what do I do? Do I go in there dressed up for the role? Do I go in as my authentic self and just find the heart of the character? I went in as myself and she shined through, so I’m very grateful for the opportunity.
So when you got cast for the role, did you feel the responsibility to get it right?
Yes, yes, yes. The first five minutes I was jumping up and down celebrating, I called my mother, I told her the great news, I told the whole family. But then I sat down with myself and I realised, wow, I have to do this. The first time you audition, it’s like 20 minutes. But then they award me the chance to play this character for two months while filming, and I felt a bit of fear. I felt it because of how big of an icon she is and I knew it was a big undertaking. I talked to Jon Robin Baitz about it, and he told me which was brilliant advice, ‘Don’t let your fear debilitate you. You’re playing Marsha P Johnson, luckily for you you’re first, and this is your interpretation of her.You’re not imitating her, it’s your interpretation of Marsha P Johnson. Just like Anthony Hopkins when he played Nixon, you’re playing Marsha P Johnson and you’re first. Just interpret her. You’ve got it.’
Do you feel like everyone on the set, from the actors to Roland Emmerich, were trying to get it as right as possible?
Yes, yes. While filming, I know Roland used his own money to help finance the film. No studio wanted to do it. That’s what I love about the project, that everyone in this company is very special. We’re not making a movie to make a movie. We’re trying to give our interpretation, a film inspired by true history. While filming it, it felt like everyone was taking it very, very seriously. We all played our roles very seriously, the cast, the crew, the people who worked from top to bottom. A lot of them were a part of the LGBT community and they wanted to be a part of this historic film.
Honestly, how big of a role is Marsha in the film?
Marsha is a big part of the film. There’s a group of people that Danny comes to be with at Stonewall and these people, Marsha was the older but she was still around that group. Marsha was in and out of that group, supporting that group, and she’s a big part of the film. She’s a part of the riots, she’s a part of the film, she was a part of the everyday life. Marsha helps at the riot as well. See, the trailer didn’t reflect that at all. The film shot for 42 days, and I was there for 30 of the 42. I was there just as long as Jeremy [Irvine] who is the lead of the film.
So in terms of how accurate it is, is Marsha’s birthday in the film? Or was that left out?
Sometimes as actors you have back stories. I played it with the idea that Marsha was having a birthday party there, she was dressed up more than you would see her in different parts of the film, but that wasn’t the main focus of the riots. For me myself as an actor, going into that day, I knew it was Marsha’s birthday. I was celebrating that for myself, with the people, while we did the scene. But it’s not part of the riots at all.
Yeah of course, but I was thinking about the lead up to the riots. It was Marsha’s birthday, she was a central figure, it would have made sense to feature that before the bricks were thrown.
This is what is so brilliant about this film, Roland wanted to highlight the fact that there’s all this homeless youth, and 40% of them are LGBT. So in this film, you see Danny, Jeremy Irvine’s character, and he’s a homeless boy in New York City, and this group of kids take him in. I’m a part of that group as well, and you see him navigating, trying to get through the city with this group of friends. Mainly we see him come of age, we see him growing up, and it all leads up to the riots. At the riots, we tell the stories of the people that were there. You see the group of people that were there, and how the riots affected them. You see my character, and you see how it affected me. That’s what the film is mainly about.
Have you seen the finished film?
Yes, I have seen the finished film. Roland brought me to LA and I watched the film and I was very proud of the film. I mean, it gave me the chance to play Marsha P Johnson. I’m an actor, I love being Marsha, I think any actor would be thrilled to get a chance to play her. And I’m very grateful to be first. Even when I read the script, I knew that they didn’t have to put Marsha P Johnson in the film. They didn’t have to do that, but they did. It’s a beautiful film. I don’t want to give it away, but heading up to the riots it’s hard to watch because you know you’re watching this for entertainment value but this really happened to people. Forty-six years ago this happened, and there were no answers apart from being forced to fight. And they knew they had to keep fighting back. It’s very moving, and it’s funny too. It’s entertaining. What saddens is me the backlash after the trailer is that some people won’t see it, they won’t give it a chance.
Yeah, I was going to ask you about that next. What did you think when you saw the backlash to the trailer?
When I saw the backlash from the trailer, I thought, I understand. It’s the internet age of social media and people can say whatever they want. The problem is with the internet now is that one person’s opinion becomes a fact and then it travels. That’s the problem now. When I saw the backlash, I thought, I’ve seen the film, I’m in the film, I play Marsha P Johnson, why is everyone so upset? But I also appreciate the fact that their anger stems from them wanting to see the real life heroes. They’re going to see Marsha in the film, they’re going to see other people of color in the film, so what they want to see they will see. What’s happening right now with the backlash is that people are seeing the movement of the LGBT, they’re wanting to see more trans characters in films. They want to see more people of color in the film. That’s the right conversation that we should be having right now.
Do you think Stonewall should have centered on a white, gay, fictional character or do you think it should have been on someone else?
I personally, I mean I agreed to do the film right by the way so I can’t say whether it should have had this or not. I think that how Jon wrote the screenplay, how Roland filmed it, that’s the film they wanted to make. And to make the film they wanted to make a success. I mean, do I think Marsha P Johnson should have been highlighted more in the film? I think the film is exactly what it is. It’s a beautiful film showing Marsha, it’s a beautiful film showing this history, and it’s a film showing an outsider seeing the world happening around them. I think it’s beautifully made.
Feel free to not answer this, but I have to ask this due to the film, but are you straight, gay, bisexual?
I happen to be straight but the issue of the LGBT rights is important to me.
No of course, but what I wanted to ask, is that as a straight actor what was it like to play this trans hero?
It means a lot to me. If people don’t know who Marsha is, you may see pictures of her and mistakenly call her a drag queen because you look at this woman dressing up. But when you get to the core of it, and luckily for me I got to walk in her shoes, or I would say her heels, and really do the research and find out the truth and the core of who Marsha was. At that time in 1969, I always think of the strikes against her. She was black, that’s a strike, she was gay, that’s a problem in ’69, and on top of that she was a trans person who had pride in who she was. She stood out in Christopher Street. She walked around with pride, and that’s who I wanted her to be, I wanted her to be a very prideful character. When she walks down the street, you know she’s coming. Marsha P Johnson is someone who wouldn’t back down at anything.
She gets arrested a lot of times in the film and I think that’s great because she defied the cops. And I think what really meant a lot to me is that she took on that civil rights movement that had been going on for generations. Marsha, as a black transgender woman, I definitely empathise with her. As I said before, I’m disappointed that I didn’t know about her when I was growing up. But I’m very glad that at this point in my life, I’m thankful to know so much about her now. I’m hoping to educate kids and help educate anyone else. I think Marsha’s struggle is a struggle that everybody should be aware of. Now this film is going to highlight her and highlight other people in the LGBT community, and it helps open the conversation. We’re not trying to change history with this film. We’re just trying to help the conversation be made.
So finally, why do you think people should go see Stonewall?
I think people should see it because it’s a wonderful film that is told great. It’s a film that one should support, not even if you’re gay, straight, bisexual whatever you are. It’s a film that you heard all this craziness with the backlash and you hear what’s happening now at the 46th anniversary. It’s a big year for the LGBT community with rights. I think it’s a film that celebrates that. This isn’t a downing film, it’s a film that celebrates Pride. I think that’s what one of the most important things.
What I’m also happy about is that Roland hired a lot of unknown actors like myself to tell this story. He has had a success with big stars but he wanted to tell this story of young kids that wanted to tell this story too. He just told the story and a lot of us are grateful for the opportunity. That’s admirable because he didn’t have to do that. He wanted to tell the story and it’s unfortunate that people think this story isn’t just because of one trailer that centered surrounding someone that he wanted to highlight. That’s how I feel. It’s a beautiful film. it looks good, it’s funny. I’m proud of myself being in it. I’m proud Marsha’s in it.
I just think without the backlash, it would have been openly celebrated. It’ll still be celebrated but the people who backlashed against it after seeing the trailer, they’re going to have to secretly watch the film and realise they loved it and hopefully they’ll retract the comments they made in the past.
It was unfortunate it was shot down early as if we’re not artists producing art. It wasn’t some form of business deal. We’re all trying to create art together. I think that a lot of things should be on the horizon for me, and hopefully this film helps that too.
Stonewall is released on 25 September.