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Jaye Davidson: Oscar’s Big Surprise

“The Crying Game’ star breaks the silence

Jaye Davidson, The Crying Game

Jaye Davidson, New York City, April 13th, 1994. (Photo by Steve Eichner/Getty Images)

Steve Eichner/Getty

READ NO FURTHER. Or at the very least, be warned that this article will reveal a now-legendary plot twist from Neil Jordan’s mind-bending thriller The Crying Game. Knowing the Big Secret will not ruin the movie for you. In fact, it will make you feel worldly and superior when it comes time for the Big Scene and everyone else in the theater gasps in horror. In any case, you’ve been warned, and as of right now, you’re on your own.

The Crying Game is about many things, but mostly it’s about an Irish Republican Army man who falls for a woman who is not a woman. Stephen Rea is that man, and Jaye Davidson is that woman. Or, rather, Jaye Davidson is not that woman. Jaye Davidson, after all, is a man. Now you know. Davidson plays transvestite named Dil, who spends his/her days cutting hair and his/her nights in a bar called the Metro, pining over margaritas and lip-syncing to the odd pop tune. Rea plays a freedom fighter named Fergus, who abandons his country, his cause and his IRA sweetheart, played by Miranda Richardson. Fergus and Dil meet up in London. Fergus doesn’t know that his exotic little flower is a man – and neither does the audience – until the truth is staring him in the face.

When The Crying Game was released, the film’s distributor, Miramax, asked movie reviewers to keep Jaye Davidson’s gender a secret, and they did. And did. And did. The movie, which was made for less than $5 million, became the proverbial hot ticket, as well as the subject of a bizarre publicity melee in which journalists vied to see who could write the longest article without actually saying anything. Jordan, Rea and Richardson all walked off with awards.Davidson, however, was largely passed over because some critics nominated him as an actor, others nominated him as an actress, and still others didn’t know what the hell to think. Then, in February, Oscar weighed in. The Crying Game had snagged six Academy Award nominations, including one with Davidson’s name on it: Best Supporting Actor.

Jaye Davidson came from out of nowhere and, as you’ll see, would not mind going back. (Rumor has it, though, he’s been considering an offer from Claude Chabrol, who directed Madame Bovary.) Neil Jordan cast the twenty-five-year-old Londoner after auditioning a slew of unknowns, many of whom were transvestites and did campy, but not terribly feminine, variations on the Bette Midler-Zsa Zsa Gabor theme. “I knew Jaye could sail through it if he was just to be beautiful and aloof,” Jordan says, “but I worried about whether he could allow himself to move you as an audience. Then we did the scene where he gets his hair cut for the first time, and he suddenly began to act with this pain in his voice. It was extraordinary. Acting is a mysterious thing – you don’t know where it comes from.” But you do know when it works. Stephen Rea says: “If Jaye hadn’t been a completely convincing woman, my character would have looked stupid. Everyone would have said, ‘That’s one sick Paddy.’ ”

There are people who have seen The Crying Game – seen Dil open his robe and twist in the wind, as it were – and yet persist in thinking that Davidson is a woman and that the penis in question is some sort of special effect. (Claymation perhaps?) Davidson has heard of such people, and he has an answer for them: “How mad! I mean, as if!” Of course, there are also people who insist that they knew Davidson was a man from the get-go. Charles Busch, the peerless New York based writer and drag actor behind Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, says: “I knew in the first scene, but I couldn’t believe that that was the big surprise everybody was talking about. It’s no surprise to me that a girl has a dick. So I kept waiting for the big twist. I thought Miranda Richardson was going to reveal that she had a dick, too. I mean, there’s a surprise for you.”

Last December, Jaye Davidson came to America to shoot a Gap ad with Annie Leibovitz. While he was here, he granted two interviews, one as a woman and one as a man. The former interview was published in the New York Times, and though it did not make a single reference to Davidson’s gender, it was accompanied by a photograph of the actor in a necklace and hoop earrings, his springy black hair swept up in a bun. The latter interview is now in your possession. It was conducted between nine at night and one in the morning in a clangorous Mexican restaurant in mid-Manhattan in the middle of a rainstorm. Davidson wore a bulky gray sweater, black jeans and Harley boots. He struck one as preternaturally poised, utterly sure of who and what he was.

Not long ago, Davidson went for a shiatsu massage, during which he was told, “Your heart is empty, and your liver is full.” He took that to mean that he was guarded and that he drank too much. You be the judge.

This is the first time you’ve seen yourself in a movie.

Oh, it’s scary. Very scary. I saw the final edit about six months ago. I’ll never see it again.

Why?

Because I don’t want to look at myself. I know what I look like.

When you saw the movie, what was your first reaction?

“Oh, shit.” I’m not a performer, do you know what I mean? I don’t leave messages on answer phones, in case of the hideous possibility that I will hear my own voice.

How do your friends know that you’ve called?

Well, they don’t. I try and call back later, and eventually I get them.

So the idea of being in a movie must have been terrifying.

It was. It was repellent. In fact, I nearly backed out of it twice. When I first went out for the part, I didn’t think in a million years I would get it. I just thought: “Yeah, I’ll go have a look at this, why not? It’s no skin off my nose.” And when I got it, I just laughed my head off. I was at home. I got a phone call from the casting director, and I didn’t know what to say. I just said, “Oh, thank you very much.” And then I put the phone down and just had hysterical, nervous laughter. It wasn’t joyous laughter. It was a nervous reaction. People close to me said, “Don’t do this film – you won’t be able to handle what happens afterwards.” They said: “You’ll be reviewed. Your name will be in the papers. People will recognize you.” So I had it written into my contract that I didn’t have to do any publicity whatsoever.

But here you are.

Unless I agree on doing it.

It’s not often that a newcomer refuses interviews.

No, it isn’t. People who are usually in films are very hungry for it. It’s their life and their passion. This is not my main passion.

We’II get to that. How were you “discovered”?

Do you know who the director Derek Jarman is? I was at the wrap party for Edward II, and I was very drunk. Someone said, “Oh, are you an actor?” I said no. They said, “Would you like to go out for a film?” And I said no and staggered off drunk. I was so drunk that I didn’t remember it happening. But the person I was with gave them my number, and then I got a phone call.

Had you done any acting?

I’d been Spear Carrier on the Right – yeah. We’ve all done school plays when we’re very young.

How did you approach the auditions?

What makes a good actor? It’s not a question of being theatrical, is it? It’s a question of being real. When I went into the screen test or whatever, I just thought, I’m going to do what I think is right and wait to be told if it’s wrong.” And that’s what I did. It seems like a blur now. A lot of it had to do with Dutch courage.

You drank before the audition?

Yeah. Apparently, I hold my drink very well.

What was your first impression of the script?

I thought: “This isn’t going to work. We’re not going to get away with this film.” I thought everyone would hate the subject – the IRA, the racism, the relationships. I thought people would be very turned off by it. Then I heard who else was in it. I just thought, “My God, I can’t be in a film with these people – they’re all actors!”

In the film you have a relationship with Stephen Rea. Were you comfortable with him?

I would imagine that Stephen would have been more uncomfortable with me than I would have been with him. See, I’m from another world from Stephen’s life. Stephen is an actor – a Belfast actor, married with children. And he ends up working with someone like me. I felt sorry for Stephen. I can’t speak for him, of course, but I just thought, “This poor man has to kiss me.” That’s what I thought: “The poor sod.”

For ‘The Crying Game‘ to work, the audience has to believe that you’re a woman. What made the casting director think you could pass for one?

I haven’t got a clue.

What were you wearing at the party when you were discovered?

A pair of jeans and a T-shirt.

Do you enjoy wearing dresses?

Do I enjoy wearing dresses? I never, ever did drag. Never.

Were you shocked when they asked you to do drag?

No. I’m unshockable, fortunately – or unfortunately. I mean, when I went up for the part, I knew they wouldn’t want me to play a gunslinging truck driver.

How did you know you could pass for a woman?

I’ve been mistaken for a woman in the street, so I thought, “Yes, I could get away with this.” Maybe I should be locked away for a year and have all the psychoanalysts in the world pick my brain apart. Maybe I’m coming from somewhere completely new. But I keep telling people that I thought I could do it because of other people’s reaction to me when I’ve been completely normal and I’ve walked across the road to get a pint of milk. I’ve worn a vest and a T-shirt, and I’ve said, “I’ll have a pint of milk and twenty cigarettes, please.” And they’ve said, “Yes, thank you, luv.” Maybe I’m fooling myself, maybe it’s some sort of defense mechanism, but it’s always other people. What other people see, they are welcome to have.

When drag queens see ‘The Crying Game,’ they know that you’re a man instantly, don’t they?

Yeah. And so would I. I can read a pass queen and a drag queen and a sex change like that. It’s like when you know someone is gay. They will say, “No, no.” And their wife and children will say, “No, no, blah-blah-blah.” Then, ten years later, you hear tricky little stories, and you just think, “Get over it, you’re gay!”

Are you surprised that audiences believe Dil is a woman?

Yeah. Constantly. I don’t have a brilliant body at all. I’ve got very broad shoulders. I’ve got very big feet. I’ve also got a very muscular neck. It’s disgusting – it’s just like a big, thick cord of muscle. But again, I know people take me for a woman. It happens all the time.

I must say that having seen your performance as Dil, I find it hard to believe that you’ve never done drag.

Before I did the film, I did have one night out in drag. I wore a white, silk-crepe, baby-doll dress. I had my hair up, and I had lilies in my hair. It was a fierce look and all that, but it was too much hard work.

How did it feel? Was it like Halloween or something?

No, it was kinky in London. It was during a Trinidadian carnival – in 1989, I think. It was the middle of summer, and it was a really hot English summer, which is rare. Three of us got up in drag, and it was just gorgeous. Just hysterical.

How did people react to you?

Well, funnily enough, there’s someone called Miss Shalimar. She’s this very odd queen who drives this fabulous white Jaguar and lives just down the road from me in a very swanky Georgian house. I just know her to say hello, but all her friends are like Arab princes. They just could not believe that I was a man. They kept poking me to see if I had tits. It was mad. It was a good night.

Let’s back up for a minute. Where were you born?

I was born in California. I’m an American citizen, but I grew up in England.

What do your folks do?

My mother’s a businesswoman. My father’s dead.

Were both your parents black?

No, my mother’s white.

How did your parents meet?

My father came to London, my mother was in London, and they met.

Can I ask how your father died?

No. We shall skip all that. We shan’t even mention him. My mother would be very annoyed.

Are you close to your mother?

We’ve always had a fabulous relationship. We’re very, very similar. We’ve both got a great sense of self-worth. And when we find something that we want to do, we do it hammer-on. We really do it. My mother’s very correct and very beautiful. She’s to be admired. She brought three children up and worked full time and ran a house – all on her own.

You grew up in the country. What’s to do?

What does one do in the country? I dunno. I had a great time. Well, I used to smoke a hell of a lot of pot and still do.

Where did you go after high school?

I started working for Walt Disney in their office in London. It was like earning pocket money. It was mad. You know how you have people who are inside the costumes? I was like that.

What costume were you inside of?

Pluto. It was hysterical.

What did you want out of life then?

I wanted to work in the arts. My dream come true would be to be an architectural historian and work with the royal palaces and all the fabulous art collections. But I’m not committed enough. I’m too trashy. I like to go out and get drunk.

What were you doing before you got the ‘Crying Game‘ role?

I was a fashion assistant. I bought the fabric. I made sure that everything was smooth in the workroom. And I scrambled all over London on the Tube, looking for buttons. It was great.

So why do a movie? Don’t you have to want to be a movie star to do a movie?

No, you have to want the money. I earned almost half my yearly salary in seven weeks.

Your identity was such a well-kept secret that movie reviewers seemed afraid to mention you at all. Was that frustrating?

No, that was brilliant. The less said the better. So far in this interview I’ve probably come across as very arrogant, which I wouldn’t like to. When I compared my personal performance to Miranda Richardson’s performance, to Jim Broadbent’s performance, to Stephen Rea’s performance, to Forest Whitaker’s performance, I just thought, “This is very amateur.” At any moment, I quite expected to be fired. I thought Neil had just settled for what he could get. It was a hard part to cast. He managed to find me, and he thought that I could possibly do it, so he settled for that.

Are you any better off financially than when you started the movie?

No, I’m in hideous amounts of debt. I’m overextended everywhere: banks, credit cards, everything. I am the original prodigal. I have to have the best of everything, and yet I am incredibly poor. I’m on the dole, and they give me forty-three pounds a week. On that I have to feed and clothe myself and pay gas and electric bills.

You said that acting isn’t your passion. But you don’t want to spend an entire lifetime as a fashion assistant, do you?

Yes. I can see myself doing that job for a lifetime. I enjoy doing it. I don’t want the responsibility of making a picture of a bloody dress. I want to make their vision real. I’m creative in my own life. I’m creative when I step out the door. I’m creative when I pick up a glass. Do you know what I mean? I’m one of those dreadful people who probably should have been born at the end of the nineteenth century and been in café society and just sat there chatting about absolute bollocks. That would have suited me fine.

Your agent’s phone must be ringing now.

Well, I don’t have an agent, because I don’t want anyone to offer me another part. I don’t want to be tempted out into crap films just for the money. And of course I’m tempted by money. I mean, we all want loads of money, don’t we?

Someone must have approached you.

One person has, actually. It’s the part of someone I really admire.

Can you tell me who?

No. You’ll know about it when it happens. Oh, now I owe our producer, Stephen Woolley, fifty quid. He bet me fifty quid that I would act by the end of the year, and I’m going to do it. I’ve just decided, actually. This is the first time I’ve said I’m going to do it.

Would you like ‘The Crying Game’ even if you weren’t in it?

Yeah, I would, actually. I would like the subject matter, which hasn’t been explored. The movie is about how you just never know. You never know what you will be attracted to – or who you will love – till it happens to you. I’ve only been in love once in my whole life, and I never thought I’d fall in love at all.

Why not?

I thought I was a bit hard-boiled. I couldn’t really see it happening to me. I thought, “Who would be stupid enough to get involved with tricky Jaye?” I’m not really a shy person, but no one wants to be rejected, do they? Also, my looks are not attractive to the gay community. To be homosexual is to like the ideal of the sex. Homosexual men love very masculine men. And I’m not a very masculine person. I’m reasonably thin. I have long hair, which isn’t very popular with gay men. My behavior is often appalling. And I have a terrible reputation in London for being one of the unapproachables.

In the movie, Stephen Rea has no idea that your character is a man until he’s confronted with irrefutable evidence. Is it possible to have a relationship with someone and not know?

Apparently so. Two of the people who were up for the part were in those relationships, and I just thought: “You’re playing very tricky games. It’s not going to come out well for you at all!” I mean, how mad, don’t you think? I would never let anything go that far. Not in a million years. When I met my last lover, I said, “You know I’m a man, don’t you?” And he said, “Yeah, I do.” And I said, “Well, all right then.”

There must be some people who can’t deal with you.

Some people can’t deal with me at all. At least once a month I’ll be walking down the street and a bloke will look at me and then look at me again. The first time they looked they thought it was a woman, and the second time they look they see it’s a man. And then a look of hatred comes on their face. And when I see that, I just think: “Fuck you, you’re scared! You’re scared of me, and you’ve got every right to be scared of me.” What happens in the film is most men’s worst nightmare come true. It’s very scary to them, and it should be.

What are they scared of?

They’re scared of their reaction. I feel very sorry for them, but it’s their problem, and I shall let them deal with it. It doesn’t wash on me at all. I don’t have a problem with people hating me.

In the last few years, there’s been some controversy about the way gays are portrayed in movies. Was that a concern of yours?

Some people are so precious – all this hoo-ha about bad role models and positive images! Of course gay people are murderers, bigamists, drug addicts and nasty people – just as much as heterosexual people are all of these things. You may be homosexual. You may be heterosexual. You may be black, white, European, Afro-Caribbean, whatever. What it all boils down to is, we are all people, and we all have the same human desires. It just happens that some desires go this way and some desires go that way. Some people desire men. Some people desire women. Some people desire drugs, and some people desire to be very nasty. It’s sad when people are oppressed. But it’s a question of rising above it. Personally, mentally and, if you have to, physically.

Have you?

I have been involved in physical violence. Absolutely. I don’t take any shit from anyone. I am an incredibly strong person and an incredibly fast person. And once I do start bashing you about, you will not get up off the floor. It’s as simple as that.

Your friends warned you that if you did this movie, you’d be recognized on the street.

It’s happened constantly. It happened at the airport as I walked through customs. It’s weird. I said to someone who’s very famous, “Don’t you find it very scary?” And she said: “What are they going to say to you? Either they’re going to say, ‘Oh, I fuckin’ hate you,’ or they’re going to ask you for your autograph, and all you’ve got to do is sign a bit of paper.” I suppose that’s true. I’ve yet to have someone come up and say something nasty, but I am dying for that to happen. I want someone to come up and say, “I think it’s disgusting.”

And what will you say?

I’ll say to them, “Well, I’m glad you think it’s disgusting, because if you’re that small, you deserve to be disgusted.”

You said earlier that you’ve decided to take a second role.

Yeah, I should be really bigheaded and really schmoozy and say, “Oh, you’ve got an exclusive.”

After that film I bet you’ll do another one.

Possibly. If it’s good enough, I’ll do it.

I’ll interview you in ten years, and you’ll have done ten movies. Then what?

Early retirement. All this is very nice and entertaining, but it’s not important.

If you go back to the fashion world permanently, you’ll be remembered as someone who came out of the woodwork, played a few roles, won some awards and…

And went back into the woodwork.

How does that feel?

It feels absolutely fine. It’s other people that have a problem with it.

Won’t it be hard to go back to being a fashion assistant?

No, all that was normal. This is bizarre. This is another world. Last night I met this girl who’s a producer, and we went over to the Village in a massive black limousine. And I just sat in the back snickering away, thinking, “What’s going on?!” At home I would be in a cab. Do you know what I mean? I’d be in a cab with some cockney driver bending my ear. I shall look back on all this. And everything will go into the box that I keep under my bed. Annie Leibovitz gave me her book, and she signed it: “To Jaye, blah-blah-blah.” These are all wonderful memories. I have photocopies of all the reviews from America and England. They’re all in the box, and I shall treasure them forever.

What’s most important in your life?

My life.

That’s not an answer.

It is the ultimate answer. The most important thing in my life is to live my life and to enjoy it – to do what I think is right and what I think is good.

What else is important?

Self. Self-worth. Self-evaluation. Self-respect.

What about leaving something behind?

Well, I’ve left this film behind, haven’t I? There’ll always be a copy of this film somewhere. I don’t want to make an impression on the world. I don’t want to make an impression on society. That’s not important to me at all. The people I know and love can say, “Oh, do you remember Jaye, blah-blah-blah?” And someone else can say, “Oh, yeah, great, blah-blah-blah.” And that’s more than enough for me.

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