By Noémie Attia
JT LeRoy was a jaded, vulnerable boy with an endearing Southern accent and two best-selling books in the early 2000s.
He was always hiding behind sunglasses and blond wigs – because JT LeRoy was never a real person. He was actually a persona born in writer Laura Albert’s brain and embodied by artist Savannah Knoop for nearly six years.
Director Justin Kelly adapted Knoop’s memoir, Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy, into a film called JT LeRoy about the six-year hoax.
The film portrays the true story through the eyes of Savannah (Kristen Stewart). We see them discovering their creative legitimacy as a young artist leaving their hometown for San Francisco. Laura (Laura Dern), the experienced writer, fosters that confidence through encouraging Savannah to play the part of LeRoy.
“When you’re young, you’ve just gotten out of high school, and you meet someone who’s an amazing artist – I read both books and I loved them,” Knoop tells BeatRoute about Albert. “When she eventually asked me to perform this character, it was sort of like accessing a creative path. It was getting the feeling of what it could be like to be an artist after you’d already made the work, which is a strange process.”
The film portrays the genius of Knoop’s impersonation of LeRoy. More importantly, Knoop’s agency glows through Leroy’s dark shades.
“I think it was just good casting. I was a good person to play that character, because I already had some of those interests.” Becoming LeRoy also coincided with Knoop’s exploration of their queer identity: it was an outlet for them to learn more about themself.
However, one thing is clear for Knoop: “I’m pretty sure I would be where I am now, regardless of playing JT LeRoy. But of course it affected me as a young person, deeply.” Knoop, who co-wrote the film’s screenplay, didn’t become a writer because of LeRoy.
The movie illustrates how the limits of Albert’s and Knoop’s identities became blurred through Leroy’s ethereal and commuting persona.
“Me playing JT was sort of quixotic,” says Knoop. “It brings up that question of when you play something, you become it. What are the boundaries around that?”
Stewart’s interpretation of Knoop’s character is particularly convincing. Knoop was a consultant on set for any emotional and logistical questions. They donated their favourite DIY clothes from that period to Stewart’s wardrobe, which makes the character even more authentic.
“It’s very meta,” Knoop says, when asked how it felt to have someone play them playing another character.
“There would be moments when I would see Kristen do something I had done as JT. There’s this specific way of clapping at readings. I feel like I didn’t know I was doing it when I was playing JT. I really did get to see how JT LeRoy was a very separate person from me, that I was playing a role to the best of my ability, and that that character was not me. I don’t know why, but I didn’t totally understand that, probably because I didn’t really have any footage of me playing JT and it was very blurry in my memory. So to see the differences was illuminating.”
JT LeRoy poses questions on identity and truth when a story is constructed by many perspectives, even fictional ones.
“Can you only write on the page, or can you write out in the world?” asks Knoop. “What happens when you write out in the world? What is different than when you write on the page?”
Above all, this story seems to be about Knoop’s ability to become what they already had inside them, no matter what physical form it took.
Friday, May 17 (5:30 p.m.)
Sunday, May 19 (7:30 p.m.)
Monday, May 20 (6:00 p.m.)
Wednesday, May 22 (6:10 p.m.)
Tix: $13, viff.org