“I Wanted to Explode the Will and Grace Stereotype about Idealized and Infantilized Gay Men and Women”: Writer/Director Jeremy Hersh Interviewed by Jeremy O. Harris About Hersh’s Powerful and Nuanced Drama, The Surrogate
Now streaming on STARZ and with a Gotham Awards nomination for its lead, Jasmine Batchelor, The Surrogate, Jeremy Hersh’s powerful and probing drama, begins with what might seem a familiar sort of indie film setup: a young, twentysomething Columbia grad, Jess (Batchelor) agrees to be the surrogate mother to the baby of her best friend Josh (Chris Perfetti) and his husband Aaron (Sullivan Jones). But very quickly writer/director Hersh establishes that The Surrogate will not be a bantery relationship comedy: a prenatal test reveals that the child will be born with Down syndrome, a development that destabilizes the progressive male couple while seemingly fortifying Jess. Uncertain of their ability to care for the child, and frightened of the potential costs, Josh and Aaron suggest an abortion. But after learning all that she can about raising a special needs child — meeting other mothers, investigating forms of public assistance — Jess is resolved to have the baby, a decision that even sets her against her own mother.
With a cool resolve that’s mirrored by Batchelor’s driven and nuanced performance, Hersh applies a prismatic approach to his story, dramatizing the fraying of its central relationships while deftly limning its political and social dimensions, which include the subject of race. Jess and Aaron are Black, and among the film’s dialogues are ones around the history of eugenics and a racist society’s stereotypes of the single Black mother. The Surrogate is both fearless and at times unexpectedly serene in its mulling over of these issues, qualities it shares with its protagonist. Batchelor gives Jess’s determination a quality that’s both hypnotic and mysterious. We wonder the origins of her implacability — an inquiry the film reveals to be happening internally within Jess as well.
The Surrogate is the debut feature of New York-based NYU grad Hersh, whose previous shorts, Natives and Actresses, played, among them, SXSW, Sundance and BAMcinemafest. To interview him we’re honored to have playwright — and former film journalist — Jeremy O. Harris, whose extraordinary Slave Play bracingly explores issues around race, trauma and power relations and received 12 Tony nominations for a Broadway run that closed shortly before the pandemic began. They talk about Hersh’s own journey from theater to film, his fascination with actresses, gay villainy and how his film challenges comfortable festival audiences.
Harris: So how did you, this theater nerd, end up doing something that very few cineastes who want to have done, which is make a film? How did you end up doing that before you made your big off-Broadway debut?
Hersh: Well, you know, I liked plays a lot in high school.
Harris: But you never want to be an actor.
Hersh: No. I mean, when I was from five to nine, I wanted that. There’s a story that I said to my extended family that I want to be an actress. I didn’t know that that meant a woman — I just thought it was a synonym. But by the time I was 10 I wanted to be a filmmaker. I loved Mel Brooks movies, the Zucker Brothers Airplane movies, and Keenen Ivory Wayans — Scary Movie was foundational to me. And then as a teenager I discovered Sofia Coppola. There was a Landmark Theater in my suburbs, Highland Park, so I [developed] different tastes and didn’t want to make parody films. Then I went to film school at NYU, where I was ready to find my community, and besides a few relationships, I didn’t find that as much as I’d hoped to among my film classmates. So I made friends with the theater kids — they were who I wanted to hang out with. For practical reasons, I wanted to know them to find people to cast in my [films], but then they became my friends, and I started seeing plays and learning more than I was learning in film school. When I made my final thesis project, Natives, there was this optional feedback session — the final crit where this panel of professors gives feedback on a rough cut. But by the time I showed it to them, it was very close to being finished. [The panel] was all men, and the general consensus was [that the short] didn’t work.
Harris: What was the film about?
Hersh: A young couple who are going to meet one of their parents on the Seneca Iriquois reservation that she grew up on. It’s from the perspective of the white Jewish girlfriend, who wants her [Native American girlfriend] to get in touch with her culture and who has like a white person’s idea of what that means. It’s about how their relationship breaks down over a weekend when [the white woman] is trying to get her girlfriend to connect to this Two-Spirit history that is not a part of this family’s life. Like a lot of the reactions by men to my work, [the panel said], “She’s not likeable” — and they were talking about the Native American girl, who is the likeable one! They said, “Can you add voiceover? We don’t understand what she’s thinking or where she’s coming from?” And I wasn’t going to add voiceover.
Harris: “I am Bergman, dammit!”
Hersh: At the end of the year they were giving out awards to the thesis films. Out of 70 films they ended up giving an award to maybe 15 of them, and I didn’t get one. I thought, maybe I’m not a filmmaker. Maybe I’m more of a theater person. So I started writing plays, doing readings with friends and feeling good. I was getting people at The Public and Playwrights Horizon to read them. They were like, “This is solid. We’re not going to producing this but thanks for sending it.”
Harris: “Keep going.”
Hersh: Yeah. So I continued to write plays, and the film that was not so well received at NYU went to SXSW, where it was well received.
Harris: I want to go back to your story of calling yourself an actress as a child. Something I was really drawn to when I saw Actresses, which is a phenomenal short, was the sensitivity and adoration you have for the actress as a type of performer and as an anchor for your film. For a long time, queer men in storytelling have looked to the actress as their surrogate, or their anchor, within stories about relationships. And now there are voices saying, “We want women telling these stories,” and other voices saying, “No, no, no, Paul Thomas Anderson can still write women because we love what he does with Julianne Moore.” You know what I mean? What is it about the actress that lives inside of your psyche, lives inside of your being? Is it just a function of being a gay man, or is it something else for you?
Hersh: A lot of my previous work, like my early shorts, operated from this classic gay male idea — like, “I get women.” And then the central theme of my work since then has been interrogating that. That’s a lot of what inspired The Surrogate — the extent to which these feminist-identifying queer men are looking at their blind spots and the problems you can create when you overestimate the extent to which you understand what someone else is going through. But also, I mean, it’s a numbers game. No one can deny that there are more people who are good at acting who are women in America. There are twice as many women in acting programs. That’s twice as many people going out for half as many parts. So the math of that is that basically every actress is going to be four times as good. If you’re a nobody, and you want to get a good actor to be in your movie, you’re much more likely to get someone who’s much better who’s a woman.
Harris: Right now there are a bunch of men reading Filmmaker magazine [saying,] “How dare you! We are great as well.” And it’s like, “No, let’s just let the facts speak for themselves.” The reason we don’t just have a “Best Actor” category is because any man would lose to Meryl Streep every time. Like, Viola Davis can do every role Denzel Washington has ever done, but I don’t know that he could ever play any of the women that she’s played. I’ll just put it like that. But I was wondering about your casting — it would have been easy for you to abandon your love of theater and to say, “Get me two of the cutest out gay actors in Hollywood who need a job right now. Let me put Matt Bomer and Jim Parsons as the leads and get a $15 million budget.” Or whatever Netflix plays for movies with Matt Bomer and Jim Parsons in them. What made you not go down that route of chasing for years the big fish gay actor and deciding instead you wanted Sullivan Jones and Chris Perfetti to be the queer couple inside of your film?
Hersh: Obviously the real central puzzle piece was finding our Jess. And it’s interesting, if you asked, “Who are the super-famous Hollywood actors who are 30 and Black women,” that list is shockingly tiny.
Harris: I know that list doesn’t exist because I looked for that list when I was casting Slave Play. It’s like Issa Rae and Lupita Nyongo —
Hersh: — and Keke Palmer–although actually she isn’t even in that same age group.
Harris: So how did you get to Jasmine [Batchelor]?
Hersh: Through Erica Hart, our casting director. I am a little bit “anti-audition.” I would always rather just cast someone. Starting off the relationship with an offer is a great way of doing so much of what directing is, which is making the actor feel empowered to take control of the character. Also, the audition room —
Harris: — is an anti-art space.
Hersh: Yes. Erica had been following Jasmine since seeing her at the Juilliard showcase two years before. She hadn’t been in a movie before, but her level of craft was at this incredibly high caliber. But going back to your original question, aside from the fact that Sullivan and Chris are these amazing actors who I’d seen give these incredible performances on stage, I also didn’t want this to be a movie that people were like, “Oh, this is the movie with…'”
Harris: I feel the same way. When we started having actors come in for Slave Play, I saw the poster for Bryan Cranston in Network. And [I thought], “People aren’t going to see Network as a play. They’re going to go see Bryan Cranston act for three hours.” So whether Ivo Van Hove’s direction is genius, or the writing is good, the production is going to hinge on how much the audience is enthralled with the celebrity for three hours. How much they’re going to like being in a room with Walter White again. I didn’t think people wanted to do that for a play that’s about ideas, you know what I mean? I think there’s a power in letting our ideas be at the center of our creations and having true vessels for these ideas. One of the great things about phenomenal actors, even when they’re supremely famous, is that they do become true vessels — like shamans of our work. They allow our work to be seen in a language that’s universal and otherworldly and ancient. So what were some of the ideas that you wanted to channel through these three performers in the your film? What were you trying to leave the world with?
Hersh: Well, as I was saying before, part of it’s [about] the insidious misogny of gay men. And the fact that she’s Black is not a coincidence.
Harris: It’s not an accident, and it’s not “colorblind casting.”
Hersh: It’s intentional casting.
Harris: And I want to just say this on the record in Filmmaker Magazine: if I’m ever again at a fucking white man screening of a movie, one of those [feedback screenings], and I ask a question — like, “Hey, X, Y, or Z, who’s Black or Brown does this, and that feels weird, and why?” — and they ever again say to me, “Oh, I didn’t even write them to be Black, they just happened to be the best actor,” I will jump over the table and choke them. Just stop doing that and start being aware that even if you didn’t write this character to be Black, the minute you cast them Black, they are Black. And so now you have to start thinking about what that means to the world that you most likely created within a weird white bubble. Sometimes I feel like there’s this weird thing that happens inside of the independent film space, especially now when people are talking more about race. Some people are still trying to hold onto this ‘90s ideal that they have don’t have to have a real shape to the race relations in their films. It’s more imperative now that people do have a shape to those things. Anyway, keep going.
Hersh: I was at these queer film festivals with the two shorts, and the audiences were pretty homogenous — white, pretty wealthy cis gay men. And the work was not challenging them. It was for the most part confirming narratives. So I wanted to make something that would challenge that audience. It’s a gift that we have these queer festivals, but let’s use them to have a conversation. I wanted to explode the Will and Grace stereotype about idealized and infantilized gay men and women. And then there’s this political thing happening, all these different bills — anti-choice people using the disability rights community and the community of people with Down syndrome as a wedge, saying in these bills that you cannot have an abortion for the reason that the child has Downs syndrome. [The anti-choice activists] are [co-opting] these people who are coming from a really good [position] that I agree with, which is that people with Down syndrome are people. The idea that we should just abort all of them, eradicate [Down syndrome], is based on misconceptions about Down syndrome and how limiting it is. It’s eugenics. So [the film deals with] two different things that I’m really passionate about: choice, access to abortion; and those ideas [about Down syndrome]. When two groups that are less powerful are forced to fight each other, that benefits —
Harris: The power structure, the status quo.
Hersh: Exactly. We like to think that eugenics is this thing that happens in other countries. In Germany, one of the first things [the Nazis] did was sterilize all of the Black women. And in America there’s this history of forced sterilization. So if we’re going to talk about eugenics, and I’m an American, it should be a character who’s coming at it from a place that’s personal to her.
Harris: Like, “This is the history of my body. And you’re projecting this history onto my body.” When I hear that it makes me so excited. I feel like I should have started this interview the way Ziwe started hers with me — I should have just asked you, “Do you hate gay men?” There’s something inside of the narrative that I find really exhilarating — a fearlessness, asking the audience to sit with the question of how much queer culture has become a weird eugenics project, a literal fascistic relationship to the body. So much of that [concept of] the idealized body harkens back to the Supermensch and is really frightening, you know? I wonder how you as a Jewish queer man were processing that in this film.
Hersh: It’s something I think about a lot. I wouldn’t say it’s more prominent among gay men, but it’s no less prominent. Something I’ve been thinking about for a long time is how New York is not physically accessible to disabled people. The culture surrounding clubs and cool bars is that they are tiny and exclusive, where wheelchairs can’t fit in. So, again, there’s this added richness to the film that comes from the character being Black. She’s noticing this stuff and realizing, “I’m in these very white spaces. Why is this what I’ve aspired to?” And then she rejects it.
Harris: Have you thought about where you are positioned in the film? Do you feel aligned with either of the men?
Hersh: The character of Josh is the closest one to me. I started with that character, and it was about equally him and Jess. And then there was the husband, but Jess’s narrative is just more interesting. I thought, okay, this should be her movie. She changes more. But when Josh talks about his relationship to eugenics, and being the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, that’s a huge part of my lens. So I can use him to critique and explore all the things I’m afraid of becoming — to ask myself questions about myself.
Harris: It might exorcise darkness that might be there.
Harris: I love that. When I first read the script, I was like, “This is important. This is a necessary film.” When I finally saw the film, I [thought], this has the chance to make ripples and shifts and changes. I’m so tired of movies about faggots being faggots and happy — and I can say “faggot” because I’m gay. I talk a lot about how so much of our darkness gets erased in our need for representation that feeds the status quo, like good nutrients and good vitamins that they’re not going to eat anyway. I don’t need to worry about what the bad people will think about me or my identity. I want the people who are my identity, or who are smart about my identity, to start questioning things that we do wrong, to start questioning the ways that we haven’t woken up. I don’t care about rich, white straight people and what they’re going to think about my thing. I feel like a lot of queer art is geared towards homophobic parents and unsupportive coworkers. I genuinely don’t care what [those people] have to say about me beause they’re going to feel that way whether they see Moonlight or not.
And maybe that’s not true. Representation does matter. It does shift things. But the people that I have liked the most are the queer punks that fucked shit up and not given a fuck if you like it or not. I feel like your film has the patina of standard indie fare but beneath that it’s queercore — asking questions of its audience that I haven’t seen asked at queer film festivals or at SXSW. And it’s not being careful about how it’s asking those questions. It’s just putting it out there in a way that’s very blunt and raw. So I’m wondering how you feel that COVID-19 has robbed you of that chance of having the world intimately interact with your ideas the way I got to [with Slave Play].
Hersh: Obviously it’s a bummer, but you can get it on iTunes for 3.99 so it’s accessible to way more people.
Harris: So what have people said to you about it?
Hersh: What’s interesting is throughout the process of the script and then getting notes on the edit, there’s been a small but noticeable contingent of people who are like, “The guys are so sweet. It’s such a shame that she puts them through what she puts them through in this way.” They like [her character] in the beginning, but they don’t like her actually expressing herself and asking for boundaries. There are people who think the guys are victims, and then there are also people who think the guys are terrible. There are also a lot of people who actually get what I was going for.
Harris: I want to see these people fight it out.
Hersh: I’ve been waiting for more arguments.
Harris: You’ve had some beautiful, incredibly well-written reviews about the work that you’re doing inside of the film — like your interest in a sort of gay villainy. It’s such a discursive film, when it streams it’s going to create a space where two people sitting on the couch are going to have two different feelings. I know my boyfriend and I immediately did.
Hersh: What did your boyfriend say?
Harris: He really liked it, but he was kind of like, “I don’t know, like, were [the men] wrong?” And I was like, “Yes, they were.”
Hersh: I also I can’t say that I wouldn’t do what they do. You know what I mean?