Something about Lena Hall screams (sings?)queer.
The actress most famous for her Tony Award-winning role as Jewish drag queen Yitzhak in the Broadway revival of Hedwig & The Angry Inch also famously played opposite Lena Dunham in Hannah’s sexually experimental episode of Girls as a lesbian yoga teacher. Now, Hall is starring as the gay lead of Becks, a musical indie film that has her swaggering into the home and heart of Mena Suvari’s “straight” housewife. She does it quite convincingly perhaps because, as she tells INTO, she had a lot in common with the character.
“I love playing roles that are very suave,” she says. “Like, to me, it’s just so fun. I love playing a role that is desperate to find themselves or find their way. To me, this role is all of that. She’s strong but she doesn’t know it yet. She doesn’t think that she can survive on her own.”
As the titular character, Hall plays a musician living in New York whose lover (Hayley Kiyoko) just left her right when they were set to move to L.A. together. Having quit her day job and sold all her things, Becks has no choice but to spend some time with her mom in St. Louis until she can recalibrate and recover from her heartbreak. She’s self-deprecating, but finds herself creatively inspired, and a regular gig at her high school buddy’s local bar has her emoting to sizable crowds. Soon, a local shop owner Elyse (Suvari) becomes a fan and requests that Becks teach her how to play the guitar. It’s sort of a spoiler, but to keep it succinct and not too specific, romance transpires.
“Well, I flipped out when I found out she was going to play my love interest,” Hall says. “I was like ‘Are you kidding me? This is awesome.’ Because, I mean, I loved her when she was really popular back in her American Beauty days, and I own the movie Loser.”
To really challenge the two, though, co-directors Daniel Powell and Elizabeth Rohrbaugh threw Hall and Suvari into a sexy/awkward scene involving a strap-on their first day on set.
“We had spoken before, like we did a little bit of scene before, but the ease that she has on set–she’s just a total professional and I learned a lot from her,” Hall says. “She’s done sex scenes and stuff like that before–I had never done anything other than Girls, which was a crazy sex scene, but it wasn’t anything like scenes that we have in our film–and she was just so chill about it.”
Hall’s other on-screen love interest is played by out pop star Hayley Kiyoko, whose role as the heartbreaking chanteuse also had Hall in some sensual and Sapphic scenarios. Hall praised Kiyoko, who was only able to be on set for two days,for her willingness to try anything Powell and Rohrbaugh requested.
“I feel like I’m lucky because I got to make out with her,”Hall says. “She’s like being touted as the lesbian Jesus, which I love!”
What Hall praises in her castmate’s unabashed authenticity is akin to her own career choices, specifically when it comes to selecting the kinds of universal but specific stories she wants to be a part of telling.
“The way we love, the way we walk, all the emotional hardships we all go through; no matter you’re sexuality, no matter what you feel you are gender wise, we all go through the same thing,” she says. “That’s why it’s like so important to like take the kind of taboo off of lesbian and gay and just write a normal script. …If you just turned Becks into a man, it’s something that we’ve seen before. But by having her represented as a woman, suddenly you have a very real and very kind of normal coming of oneself; a discovery of oneself, a love story and a loss story.”
What Becks does very well is having a lesbian protagonist whose raison d’être is not simply to be a lesbian. Perhaps that’s because co-writer Rebecca Drysdale is an out gay woman and also a talented humorist who knows how to write about women she knows; women like her. (She also has a small role as another St. Louis lesbian that locals try to set Becks up with. They ditch a straight BBQ for the local lesbian watering hole in a hilarious scene.)
The story itself is also sprung from truth. Becks is loosely based on Rohrbaugh’s friendindie musician Alyssa Robbins, who moved back to the Midwest after a painful split from her ex and found new inspiration before returning back to Brooklyn. (Robbins wrote some of the songs Hall performs in the film and that appear on the soundtrack.) That the film has such a strong musical element also brings some more emotion to the storytelling, which Hall says she connected with.
“It’s not like a musical musical,” Hall says. “The tone of the film reminds me so much of One and that it’s almost like the way they directed it, the way it was filmed, the cinematography and all that kind of stuff. It’s so intimate. It feels almost like you’re getting a real close up look at this real person’s life. The reality of it, the way it feels almost like a documentary–it’s so cool.”
Watching Hall in Becks, it’s hard to imagine the role could have ever been given to anyone else. As a multi-faceted performer who has the musical chops, the theatricality, and the sense of humor, but also the subtlety in more quiet moments, the range to approach all of the above in a low-budget film that too many might consider too niche. Though it wasn’t written for her, Hall was the first and only person the directors had in mind for their lead.
“Maybe it has to do with immediately like this kind of masculinity that I have. I have a very strong, maybe a little bit masculine energy about me.”She pauses. “I guess masculine is the wrong word, because women are strong, too. So maybe it’s a kind of strength, and when people think of like a lesbian, they think of strength, which it’s going to take a lot of strength to be lesbian or gay, it really does.
“I’m also kind of a chameleon,” she continues, “so I’m also able to play a really wide range. I’m representing these roles a lot because of Hedwig, and also because now is the time for the strong women to be like represented in film. And I think seeing the journey of someone who it broken find their strength again is really important.”
The “lesbian”thing is just a bonus.