In conversation, playwright and screenwriter Gary Lennon speaks softly and philosophically, with tremendous insight into the human condition. He speaks of a spiritual growth and a journey toward inner peace. But this journey has been extremely rough going, and his dramatic writing reflects the pain of his life experience with a tone that sounds diametrically opposed to his speaking voice.
His films .45 and Drunks, both adapted from his theatrical writing, are particularly horrific explorations of life on the edge. With his new play The Interlopers, Lennon is again investigating the fringes of society but adding a sense of hope and humor to his intense darkness.
Lennon describes the play as a “Romeo and Juliet story about two transgender who fall in love.Â It’s about the reaction of people around them. Thematically it is about identity. I was not trying to write the definitive play about being a transgender but about universal ideas of identity.Â Each character in the play — the mother, the father, the friend, the therapist — all are going through some form of transformation.Â All of us are in a constant state of transformation.Â That’s what life is.Â Nothing is ever the same.”
Generally the subject of transgender would be expected to fall under some adjective other than “gritty,” yet it is the word that is constantly buzzing around this playwright and this play. Lennon is happy to accept that description, but he is also pleased that this “grit” is always paired with credit for his wicked sense of humor and ultimate heart. “That is a part of my life experience.Â I was dealt a rough hand of cards and you have to tough it out to make it through. So I have a lot of compassion for humankind.Â I think that’s where my heart comes from.Â Humor is just part of who I am.Â It comes naturally out of the situation.Â August: Osage County is an amazing play, and it is heartfelt, humorous and gritty.Â Those are three things I love to do with my writing. I have been through so much but my final journey is inward.Â It really is to find out who I am and why am I here.Â I’d love to have a life that is purposeful.”
The hard life Lennon describes began with extremely poor parents in a particularly dark part of Manhattan. He credits his survival of a tough youth for his eclectic career, which moved from unsuccessful actor to extremely prolific writer for stage and screen. “Strange career, isn’t it?Â It did not come by design. I come to the medium as a playwright but I started out as an actor.Â I come from Hells Kitchen.Â My parents were both dead by the time I was 11.Â I was sort of a vagabond.Â I wandered into the theater world because my aunt was an usherette on Broadway. I remember seeing Equus on stage and thinking “˜Ah!Â Naked people on stage!Â I have to be part of this.
“I just got the bug. I started acting and wasn’t getting any work.Â As a result I started writing my own material and bringing it into class.Â Soon other actors in class started asking me to write for them.Â The very first thing I wrote that got attention was a series of monologues called Blackout, which became a play and then the film Drunks with Faye Dunaway and Dianne Wiest.Â Started as a series of monologues about my own recovery process.Â I am sober over 20 years now.”
A great part of his recovery was a lucky meeting with a Broadway legend who would turn the teenaged Lennon from a life on the streets to a life in the entertainment industry.Â “When I was 19 I met Gerome Ragni, one of the writers of Hair, to whom I dedicated the publication Blackout.Â He sort of raised me at 19.Â He was married and he had a child my age, and I sort of moved in with them and spent 10 years of my life with him until he passed away.Â It seems so crazy but he always believed in me.Â He would come to my little plays in 50-seat theaters and give me criticism.Â I became super-inspired and he changed my life. Theater was what saved my life because I found my tribe, like-minded people who helped me make gold out of my chaos.”
Ragni’s aid and inspiration, along with the positive feedback about his writing from fellow actors, led him to focus completely on writing. When his play Blackout turned into the film Drunks, he was suddenly in the eyes of Hollywood producers. He wrote an enormous amount and made plenty of money, but his sold screenplays never seemed to make it onto the screen.
“I had 20 film executives around who read me, knew me and bought material from me, but I didn’t feel like I had an audience or response. Then a bunch of my friends suggested I move to television:Â “˜At least on TV your stuff is shot and seen!Â My first TV job was The Black Donnellys.Â That job led me to the opportunity to write an adaptation of an unproduced play of mine called .45 ““ I got to direct it as a film, which landed me my job on The Shield.Â That gave me a great leg up on TV.Â It is hard to imagine me as a gay guy writing for a show like that.” Again that adjective to describe his work, “They said my writing has a lot of grit in it ““ real and gritty and raw.Â I walk into the room, you’ll see I sort of have a gentle spirit. But my background is very raw, having lost my parents so early and living on people’s couches and bouncing around.”
The harshness of his life filtered through a spirit of recovery has landed him in an increasingly expanding artistic career. Though he will continue writing for television and film, the experience of being back in the theater with The Interlopers has been an extremely happy one. He has worked closely with director Jim Fall to shape and reshape the script. “When I first wrote this play it was looooong!Â I have cut about 15 to 20 pages.Â Yesterday I cut two whole scenes out.Â As stand-alone scenes they really worked and the actors wondered why I cut them. But they didn’t service the play as a whole.Â It stops the train in motion.Â It was hard but cutting them was ultimately exciting because the play became tighter ““ it is heart-breaking and exhilarating – BOTH!”
A Director Falls Into Place
Gary Lennon’s New York period included a robust place in what is humorously referred to as the Gay Mafia, a not-so-secret cabal that wields great influence on the entertainment and fashion industries. One of his fellow gay mobsters was director Jim Fall, who ran in the same circles. The two never worked together in New York but knew each other socially. Fall recalls, “Our paths crossed a hundred times. We knew each other peripherally and both moved to LA about the same time.Â About two months ago he called and asked if I’d direct this play.Â I jumped at it.Â I had been a fan of his writing for a long time. He is a grittier writer.Â I tend to direct more comedy.Â There is a lot of humor in this play but much more of serious drama than I am used to.
“It is part love story and part drama revolving around the transgender couple and their families’ issues around the transition.Â One is straight male to female and one is a female to male who liked women.Â She’s still a woman, he’s still a man; he wants to be a woman, she wants to be a man: this presents something of a complication.Â But they befriend each other first and they fall in love before their operations, then drama and comedy ensue.”
Though Fall was slightly intimidated by the harshness of the drama, he was also intrigued by the depth of the dark comedy. “My first reaction was that there was such a big heart in the middle of this dramatic story.Â It gave me an opportunity to direct something with more teeth than usual, yet still do what I do well, which is underscore humor and heart.” The comedy in the play comes from some fascinating side characters. “There are a couple of transgender characters – one named Victoria played by Darryl Stephens from Noah’s Arc.Â He is hilarious comic relief.Â He is the mouthpiece as he questions whether he’s going to go through with the operation.Â Just a lot of humor in all of it.Â Every character contains wit and humor in dialogue.”
Working closely with the playwright has been a joy for Fall. “Gary admits he overwrites. The play was very long, so we found some of the redundancies in dialogue or scenes that don’t necessarily need to be there any more.Â It has been through the process of any new project, discovering what is superfluous and stuff starts falling away and simplifying and clarifying. It is going well.Â There are huge hoops to jump through, but the writing and the cast is so strong that if we performed it on a bare stage with just chairs it would play beautifully.Â It is a testament to Gary’s writing and the fact we ended up with a really wonderful cast.
Fall originally aimed at a film career and enrolled in NYU’s film school. “I dropped out, by default started directing theater, because I told myself if I want to be a director I have to direct.Â A friend from NYU was writing a very funny original play and asked if I would direct. That led to 10 years of directing theater in New York.Â All my plays seemed to have exclamation points on them.Â First was Chorus Girls on Mars!, then Christmas on Hell Island!, followed by Blood Orgy of the Carnival Queen! It was sort of a cult comedy theater called Vortex Theater Company. We performed at Sanford Meisner Theater, a very classy name for a very campy theater.Â I am not sure Sanford Meisner would have approved of my shows back then.”
During his New York period Fall began work on an independent film which would be in development for five years but would ultimately land him the Hollywood film career he had originally planned. The film Trick, which was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and won several awards from international festivals, followed the travails of two young gay men who fall in love but who can’t find a place to be intimate. “To raise money we did readings of the screenplay as it progressed.Â Every time we did a reading we got to work on the script.Â Thank God we didn’t find the money too soon. When I got up to talk at the Sundance screening, I said, “˜I want to thank everyone who said “˜No!’,Â because it forced us to back to the script to fix it, and we got to hear it with different casts.Â You get to learn about your material that way.Â It wasn’t exactly rehearsal but by the time we shot it I knew the movie inside and out.Â There are no deleted scenes in Trick, everything we shot was used.Â I knew exactly what I wanted. One of the reasons I loved it was when I first found it wasn’t about AIDS, it wasn’t about coming out, it was just about two boys who are gay and the potential of falling in love. The first blush of meeting someone you are attracted to.”
So how does a young independent gay filmmaker follow up on the success of a cult gay movie?Â Naturally, The Lizzie McGuire Movie!Â He laughs, “I am very proud of that movie.Â It was my first studio film. I was thrilled Disney hired me from a gay indie film at Sundance.Â It was totally of out of the blue and exciting to make a big fun movie with a big musical number at the end. Going in, the script was kind of weak and I was proud we whipped it into shape.” And the movie will probably make more money than all of his other films combined. “Yes, there is the money.Â A guy’s gotta play the rent.Â I honestly love the movie.Â It was my first experience with a studio. I wondered if they would torture me but, no,Â they really let me make the movie.”
Since then he has worked steadily in film and television, including the A&E feature Wedding Wars with James Brolin and John Stamos. But he is most excited about his upcoming project. “I am adapting Barbara Suter’s novel called Dorothy on the Rocks. A really wonderful story about a boozy cabaret singer in her late 30s. Her gay best friend has just died and she is swirling around the drain; she has to get her shit together and put on a show.Â It is a moving story. Marisa Tomei is attached but I have work to do on the script before it comes off the back burner.Â “
Since coming to LA and finding success on screen, Fall has missed the process of stage directing.Â He directed a campy show for one of his Trick stars “Miss Coco Peru” but has been looking for a strong theatrical project. “The big difference is process.Â My last film was a little Christmas movie Holiday Engagement with Shelley Long and Jordan Bridges. Because of the schedule, I didn’t even meet most of the cast until the day we started shooting.Â You can imagine how little rehearsal there was involved.Â It’s all about budget.Â In film, actors need to be paid for their rehearsal time unless they are doing you a favor, and usually they fit movies into their tight schedules.Â In theater you automatically build in weeks of rehearsal. It is a joy to have some time because you get to find so much stuff. As a film director, you are expected to have everything planned before you have a chance to actually figure it out.Â That’s why really good movies are little miracles, because you rarely have the time to really discover the heart.”
**Production photography by Ashley West Leonard
The Interlopers, presented by Bootleg Theater; opens June 17. Runs Fri-Sat, 8 pm and Sun, 7 pm. Closes July 17. Tickets $25; $18 for students/seniors. Visit www.bootlegtheater.org or call 213-389-3856. Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Boulevard, LA.