Cleve Jones gives us "MILK" dish
Cleve Jones went from being a young protégé of America's first openly gay politician to becoming himself one of the most respected gay heroes of our time. Now we can follow the early life of Jones in the new film "MILK, "which chronicles the final years of Jones' mentor, Harvey Milk -- the legendary San Francisco supervisor. Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Gus Van Sant and set three decades ago in the Castro (then a gay district in bud), the movie features a powerhouse cast that includes It Boy Emile Hirsch (of "Into the Wild" fame) as the young Jones, whose evolution from "obnoxious, foolish" Castro crawler to fiery activist is a significant storyline in the moving biopic.
Jones -- who went on to cofound the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and mastermind the AIDS Memorial Quilt -- speaks to Gay.com as a "MILK" insider about the astonishingly great performances of A-list actors Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, James Franco and of course Emile Hirsch, and then goes on to discuss what community activists need to do now to reclaim the passion of Harvey Milk's time.
Do you believe Gus Van Sant captured the spirit of Harvey Milk?
Oh yeah, I’m so proud of Gus. I’ve known the man for 18 years and I was always confident that he was the best person to do this story, but still I found myself in awe at how the film ended up -- especially the performance of Sean Penn [who played Harvey Milk]. He absolutely nailed the part. Watching him bring Harvey back to life was one of the most remarkable things I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot.
Do you think Van Sant and Emile Hirsch did justice to your character and your life at that time?
Yes. It was kind of eerie to watch Emile, because [his portrayal] was really true to what I was like when I was 22. My whole family watched the premier with me, and all agreed that Emile became me.
I came to love Emile. He's such a good kid. We spent a lot of time together before shooting began -- driving around San Francisco and walking around the Castro. I showed him a lot of old photos and we actually read the script together, and he would say, "Would you have said this? or "How would you have said this?" or he would ask how I had felt in certain situations. I don’t think he realized what kind of obnoxious, foolish child I once was.
Were there actors up for any of the roles that you thought might have done a better job?
We had hoped Matt Damon would play [Milk's murderer] Dan White, but he wasn’t able to do it because of a scheduling conflict. But that ended up being a stroke of luck for us because Josh Brolin, who took the role, is uncanny as Dan White. I’ve seen the film several times now, and Josh still makes my hair stand on end. I met with Josh before we began shooting and told him what I remembered of Dan White, and I looked at Josh’s facial structure and thought, OK this will probably work all right. Then on the set on the first day of shooting Josh walked by me [styled to look like White] and I guess I looked pretty horrified because he laughed and said, "I guess it worked."
One of the things that surprised me was James Franco [the "Spiderman actor who plays Scott, the love of Harvey's life]. I watched his scenes being shot and didn’t see their power until I viewed the film for the first time.
When you watch the filming of a scene you can generally tell instantly how powerful they're going to be on the screen, for example the interaction between Dan White and Harvey Milk at the end of Harvey’s birthday party when Dan shows up drunk. That was just so cool to watch -- two brilliant actors, Sean Penn and John Brolin, who like each other very much and enjoy working together ... there was just an electricity in the air.
With Franco’s performance I didn’t really see how great he was going to be until he came up on the screen. Then I was just blown away.
Who do you consider to be the new Harvey Milk?
I think probably the last leader to emerge from our community in the old-school leadership-type role of Harvey is [Pulitzer Prize finalist and gay activist] Larry Kramer.
But it's a very interesting question, because times have changed. When we talk about Harvey Milk, we’re talking about a time when there was no infrastructure and no organization. Everything that was accomplished was accomplished through the sheer force of individual will.
We could use someone like Harvey to help us remember our roots as a social movement. One of the things that concerns me is that our leaders are losing their bearings a bit. They don’t remember as clearly as we ought that we’re part of a larger social movement, with roots in the antiwar movement and the civil rights movement and the feminist movement. [The gay and lesbian community is] more than a market. We’re more than a demographic subset for corporations to market their products to.
"MILK" chronicles in part the work you and Harvey did in the '70s to combat California's anti-gay initiative Proposition 6. Are you surprised at the tactics the present-day anti-gay movement is using to deny marriage equality with Proposition 8?
Not at all. It's been 30 years [since Proposition 6] and the tactics of the opposition are unchanged. It’s the same attempt to distract people from the real issues. Prop 8 has nothing to do with children or education or churches.
So again we see the opposition going to great lengths to confuse and inflame. They’re really playing to the worst attributes of humankind.
But I have to say I don’t feel the level of fear that I felt with Proposition 6. That was a really perilous time -- had we lost, there would have been a massive witch hunt. But history is on our side now. A profound generational shift has occurred. If we end up losing on Prop 8 I believe it will be only a temporary setback.