Interview: Cleve Jones - Played by Emile Hirsch in Milk
by Kevin Powers
November 26, 2008
In anticipation of director Gus Van Sant's biopic Milk, I had the opportunity to chat with the real life Cleve Jones (played by Emile Hirsch in the film), an activist and friend of the late "Mayor of Castro Street" - Harvey Milk. Jones was in his early twenties when he befriended and began working with the soon-to-be first openly gay elected city official. During his time alongside Milk, he also helped battle Proposition 6, an initiative that sought to legalize the firing of gays and lesbians (and those who supported them) in the California public school system. Following Milk's tragic assassination in 1978, Jones continued participating in various outreach organizations and eventually founded the AIDS Memorial Quilt.
As I sat down with Jones one Friday morning at the Ritz Carlton in Georgetown, the first (obvious) question that poured out is how he thought the film performed in showing the true events of the time. "It's a beautiful film and it's very real. I've always wanted Gus to make it, and I've been badgering the man for 18 years! But I was very nervous before the premiere…I had seen it twice before and loved it, you know, but I'm hardly objective. And there was something about seeing it at The Castro theater with all of my friends and family. It's a beautiful movie and very real and very true to the time and spirit."
At the end of the film you see side-by-side photos of the actors and the individuals they portrayed. I was startled by the resemblance of Hirsch to Jones and Penn to Milk. But while the appearances fit exceedingly well, I was of course curious if the performances matched up, too. "I love it. [Emile's performance] is very real. My mother and father agree. So if anyone has any criticism of Emile, they can just forget about it. And that's his real hair, by the way. And I did look like that, and acted like that. I'm just so lucky to have had Emile take on that role. I've come to really love him. He's a sweet kid and very serious about his acting. Getting to know him and become friends with him is one of the loviest things about the whole experience. Ditto for Sean. Sean nails it, and it's not just my opinion. That is the opinion of every person left alive who knew Harvey Milk. Who were all invited [to the premiere]… Gus was so welcoming, so open. Without exception, every person I know who knew Harvey agrees that Sean nails that part."
So much of Milk's story is rooted in The Castro neighborhood of San Fransisco. During the 1970s, the area was a hotbed of radical ideas and movements, and eventually became a primarily gay neighborhood in which Harvey Milk established his camera shop and political base. Considering 30 years have since past, I wanted to know how Jones felt the area has changed. "It's changed a lot. Part of it is economics. My rent in 1978 was, I think, $50 a month. Probably the most significant change is that it's no longer new. At that time, you had hundreds of young kids arriving every day from all over the world to be part of something that had never been seen before. Everyone was very much aware of that. It seemed like every week somebody was coming up with some brand new, often outlandish, idea. So it was an incredibly exciting time."
"The Castro is still a fun place to go, but there are places like that in every city in the country now. It's not quite as unique as it was then. And things are only new once. We've come a long way. When I was young, I was very impatient. I wanted everything and I wanted it now. And I want young people to have that same sense of impatience. I want them to demand justice and equality. But I also have learned that some things take a long time. And I've seen enormous change and progress in my life. But I'm concerned for young people today because… this country, this culture that we have is very good at taking radical ideas, revolutionary ideas and turning them into products. But looking back, I think it was the newness of it. I think that's what I really wanted to see come out the film."
Part of what makes Milk so powerful (see my review) is the chilling timeliness, considering the recent passage of Proposition 8 in California last month. During much of the film, Milk and his activists battled Proposition 6 that, while not a complete parallel to Prop 8, sought a similar degree of discrimination. I wondered if this wasn't a really bad case of deja vu for Jones. "I don't feel the gut-level sense of fear that I felt with Prop 6, because 30 years ago we were loosing everything. There had been a few early rights ordinances passed by municipalities, by city councils. And then there was just one repeal after another with this popular referranda vote speared by Anita Bryant and the right-wing Christians. And we were loosing, loosing, loosing. So, if we'd lost in California, I believe we were on this slippery slope down to McCarthyism or worse. The next step would have been to start firing people. It would have been outrageous. So I don't feel that kind of fear this time around because I think history is on our side. We're going to win. California law is kind of stupid this way. It allows our constitution to be amended by a simple majority. So if we lose this one by a point or two, we'll win in a year or two. I have that confidence."
I think it's safe to say that Milk will be a divisive film and the heterosexual turnout is a big question. Open-minded, liberal, and left-leaning is all one thing, but gay intimacy (even if it's Sean Penn and James Franco) isn't as widely supported as gay rights. It's hard to use the events in Brokeback Mountain as comparison, because Milk handles this in a very different way. Jones says, "I liked the way the sex is handled in the film. It's playful and it's affectionate. It's very different from Brokeback, and I think it's much more realistic. And I think that strategically… for straight people that go to see it, it's sort of like, 'well… you're not going to see anything more sexual than what you see in the very beginning of the film.'"
"But I love that there's so much kissing. It was very intimate and real. I went to a test screening in Las Vegas, and it was a very straight audience in every sense of that word. And they responded very well to it. I think this is also a situation that we were so lucky on the creative side and were equally lucky on the business side, because this is Focus Features. They have the experience of marketing Brokeback, which was seen widely and made money. I don't know anything about the film business, but these people do. And they know what they're doing. So I think that's really encouraging and the community should know that there's probably no company around that has the experience that Focus has."
I want to thank Cleve Jones and the good folks at Focus Features for working with us on this interview. Milk opens everywhere this week and is certainly worth your time and money. If you need any more encouragement, read my review published today as well.