The Woman Who Played J.T. Leroy Tells Her Side Of The Story In A New Movie About The Scandal
There's yet another new addition to the canon of content about the infamous literary hoax, J.T. Leroy. This time it's a feature film with Kristen Stewart playing Savannah Knoop, the person "played" J.T., a fictional young author created by Knoop's would-be sister-in-law, novelist Laura Albert. While there have been onscreen iterations of this story before now (Author: The J.T. Leroy Story and The Cult of J.T. Leroy), Knoop has not been a part of them, despite having been at the center of the spectacle. But Knoop co-wrote the screenplay for J.T. Leroy (in theaters now) with director Justin Kelly, basing the story off of her memoir of her time spent pretending to be a person who literally did not exist. This take on a seemingly well-trodden story has something else to offer than most of the others: her side of the story.
"There's no sense of who I am or what I was feeling in a lot of the other stories," Knoop tells Bustle. "So I guess this an exercise in specificity in viewpoint."
The story of fictional author (or, as creator Laura Albert oft-referred to him, "avatar") J.T. Leroy has endured for the last two decades. Since the 2000 publication of Sarah, the first novel under Albert's pen name, anyone paying close attention to popular culture has probably been aware of the bait-and-switch Albert was pulling until 2005, when reporters from New York Magazine and the New York Times began to uncover that Leroy, who was alternately represented as either a gay cis man or a transgender woman, didn't actually exist. The literary wunderkind, embraced by the chicest of celebrities and coolest of musicians, was actually a character created by Albert but played, in the flesh, by her boyfriend's sister, Knoop. Yet despite there having been countless articles and two documentaries about Leroy and the fallout Albert inevitably endured, Knoop says her own thoughts and feelings and experiences were too often left out of the narrative — something that is at the heart of J.T. Leroy.
In the film, Stewart plays Savannah as a quiet aspiring artist in awe of Laura Albert (Dern), her brother's partner and an enigmatic author who Savannah quickly learns is behind J.T. Leroy. Laura is high-energy, spinning quickly on an axis that sucks Savannah inside. It's not far into J.T. Leroy when Laura asks Savannah to portray her character for a photoshoot — Laura has done many interviews over the phone in character, but the media is clamoring for more. She feels like she has to provide them with something, but that she doesn't have the physical characteristics to pull the portrayal off. Savannah, androgynous and unassuming, is much more easily passed off as the shy, sheepish author who is a creative genius, not a conversationalist. Her discomfort is palpable, as you watch Stewart as J.T. moving awkwardly, wearing shaggy blonde wig and big black sunglasses. Despite her purpose, she doesn't seem to want to be looked at.
Knoop refers to the entire experience and the subsequent projects and pieces that accompany the J.T. Leroy story as a "juggernaut," one with "so much to unpack." But, she says, unless curious audiences read her memoir, they're missing a big half of the whole — hers.
Knoop, who co-wrote the screenplay, was on set for J.T. Leroy, which depicts how she felt about becoming involved with what turned into a facet of cultural fascination. Because while Savannah was the physical embodiment of Leroy, she had little control over Laura Albert's narration. What started as a simple photoshoot evolved into a persona that Knoop herself was not in charge of.
"The Savannah character didn't make up J.T. Leroy — J.T. Leroy had been in existence for many years before," Knoop says. "It's kind of like you come in and you're an insider and an outsider at the same time."
Knoop credits the seasoned Stewart with pulling off a character within a character within a character, and while speaking about how difficult this can be to follow she laughs, saying she's finding herself talking in the third person a lot during interviews. But Knoop says watching Stewart play a version of herself and then a version of herself as Leroy was illuminative. Because she didn't create or know LeRoy, the only LeRoy she could embody was essentially a version of herself.
"Kristen is such an amazing performer so it was sort of like watching something live from the outside," Knoop says. "Just seeing the differences between those two characters and how separate they truly were, and how much of a different character I was playing than myself when it was J.T. Leroy — because in some ways that had blurred in my mind. I guess that's what the whole project sort of is about — that at some point you can't tell what's yours and what's J.T.'s."
Because the act lasted for a handful of years, there was a lot to pare down, Knoop says, to get to the heart of the film. "What we need to get is how close and fast [Savannah and Laura's] connection burns; how strongly and fast they connect," Knoop says.
Savannah in the film, like Knoop in real life, was enamored with Laura and her ability to convince famous authors, artists, and reporters that Leroy was the one not only writing such detailed "autobiographical" novels about life as a downtrodden HIV positive truck stop sex worker, but corresponding with them via email and in intimate phone calls. The tension between Savannah and Laura is heightened once the former begins to take more ownership of the character she is playing in public, and wants to begin playing him in private, too, specifically when it comes to a relationship with an actor (in the film, Diane Kruger's Ava who is based on Asia Argento, per BuzzFeed).
In reality, Asia Argento reportedly courted J.T. Leroy in hopes of getting the rights to adapt his book The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, according to the New York Times and Knoop's memoir, Girl Boy Girl, per BuzzFeed. In J.T. Leroy, Savannah is enthralled with Ava, who is looking to do the same and is ultimately, like Argento, successful. (Argento directed the film version in 2004.) But Savannah isn't privy to the late night phone calls Laura is taking with Ava as J.T., and begins to feel excluded from what they start to feel is their own narrative. She's often caught off guard, complicating an already difficult act. The frustrations mount, and a friction develops between Laura and Savannah.
"I think this story does focus on the collaboration of these two — the Laura and Savannah characters and this creative collaboration where it's almost like they're inhabiting one body together and there's not much room in this body," Knoop says. "Things get tricky when there's no space. They're also sharing this fictional character together and sort of living through this character together. .... [Savannah] doesn't actually get to go home with that character, so to speak. [Savannah and Laura] are sharing the intimacy of the Ava relationship and kind of picking up where the other one left off."
If it sounds confusing, it's because it was — a messy scenario destined to fall apart once someone (anyone, really) questioned who J.T. Leroy truly was and decided to dig deeper. But with the authenticity of Knoop's involvement and significant skills on behalf of Stewart and Dern, J.T. Leroy provides an opportunity to watch this tangled ball of yarn carefully unravel; to understand how something so often referred to as a clever con or literary scandal could happen and be believed for a significant amount of time. And what this film adds, beyond other related projects, is the question of how much of Savannah Knoop was J.T. Leroy, and how much of J.T. Leroy was, in all actuality, Savannah Knoop.
"To me, it's almost likened to this experience of what is it like to be a dancer who fulfills a choreographer's work as best they can, or like someone who does sports and someone who's coaching them. You want to fulfill them, and also what do you bring to the table?" Knoop says. "It is about casting: What did I bring to the J.T. character that someone else didn't? All these amazing actors who are in [the film] — it's so interesting how casting is like this filtering of the character through them. It comes out differently than if someone else had played these characters, so it's very meta in that way, that Laura asking me [to portray J.T.] ends up being a sort of study of that sort of process."
In that way, J.T. Leroy is ever evolving. The lines were and are still easily blurred, which is why this juggernaut continues to be of interest. Knoop is happy that the story hasn't been forgotten, especially with J.T. Leroy offering her an alternate perspective of who she is — and therefore who is J.T. Leroy.
"It's nice that people feel curious and engaged with the story," Knoop says. "I couldn't ask for something more."