‘It Girl’ from The Advocate Jan 1995. Interview by Diane Salvatore.
Guinevere Turner, star and co-writer of 1994’s Go Fish, takes her low-budget fame to the big time
For a woman who made a movie about why looks shouldn’t be a factor in falling in love, Guinevere Turner-cowriter and coproducer, with Rose Troche, of Go Fish- is keenly concerned with appearances. “Yes, you can interview me at my apartment-if you promise not to say how tiny it is,” she cautions. And topic A of the interview is how much Turner, who also played the film’s lead role of Max, hates the photo of herself in Interview magazine-a sultry full-page showcase most newcomers would kill for. “It infantilized me!” she says. “I look like a junkie or a rock star. I look like a starlet, not an artist!”
If Turner is feeling self-conscious, she can hardly be blamed, because the enormous success of Go Fish-the lesbian low-budget film that could-has thrust her fully into the glare of celebrity. The movie, snatched up at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival for distribution by no less than the Samuel Goldwyn Co., went on to receive glowing reviews in more than a hundred major magazines and newspapers. The Los Angeles Times called Turner and Troche “fresh and lively talents; Newsweek called the movie “a blithe and funky stylish celebration”, Time called Turner “a charmer,” and People “a find”; and The New York Times said she played Max with “feisty energy” and “real comic verve.”
But Turner, 26, has an almost Woody Allenesque ambivalence about nearly everything. She’s both thrilled about Go Fish’s success (“It’s great-we’ve started a boom!” she says, smiling widely) and rattled that she’s lost the innocence of creating work simply to please herself, without having to worry about the expectations of a following. And while she doesn’t mind that being “pretty straight appearing” may have helped the film get attention, she also chafes at now being called the ‘Doris Day of lesbians, the poster child for goodness and positivity.”
“Doris Day? I think she’s more the Audrey Hepburn of lesbians, “says comedian Lea DeLaria, currently writing the foreword to the book version of Go Fish. “Everywhere I go, lesbians want to do her. They see her as such a hot sexual item. That’s how it was for Audrey Hepburn too. But Audrey had brains as well as talent, and that’s why she ran UNICEF. Guinevere could do that.” DeLaria pauses for a moment, then grins, adding, “Of course, I too would like to fuck her brains out!”
Swigging Samuel Adams beer and smoking hand-rolled cigarettes as she curls up in ripped jeans on the couch in her candlelit East Village studio, Turner calls to mind a cross between a leprechaun and a Mademoiselle cover model more than anybody’s poster child. Her maroon hair is newly blunt-cut at chin length, and she alternately twirls or tugs at strands of it as she talks, which she does in great, rushing spurts, like a faucet being turned on full-blast.
“Go Fish was supposedly a crossover film,” says Turner. “I don´t know how much that’s true or how much people just wish it were true. But the industry will tolerate anything if it makes money.” Turner is proud that the film achieved many of the personal goals she set for herself: It made lesbians feel good, and it made the industry come to terms with a sizable lesbian audience. Yet she’s not convinced that lesbian films are anything more than the pet rocks of the 90’s.
Despite her cynicism, she’s hoping they’re here to stay because she’s working on another script, Cahoots, about two lesbians who host a hit cable show and the chaos that ensues when their lesbian fans pressure them to come out on the air. “It’s drawn a lot from my experiences with being so public, she says. “If you’re a lesbian and you do something that’s not related to queerness, is it your duty to be out?”
Only some of the projects Turner has in the works now are queer-related. After the publication of the Go Fish book (the script, along with new essays by Turner and Troche, is coming out in June from Overlook Press), she may play a nun in a Catholic-school movie, The Trouble With Mary, that Troche may direct. But don’t expect any other Troche-Turner collaborations. “Rose and I have a very intense relationship-intense hate, intense love, intense completion. For the sake of our self-worth as artists, we have to work separately to prove to ourselves and to each other that it was not one or the other of us who tipped the scales into success.”
Turner’s also hoping to be picked to write the screenplay of Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues, which Christine Vachon (executive producer of Go Fish) is making. “I was just blown away by it-it’s an amazing book,” Turner says, adding that it made her more respectful of the history of butch and femme.
But whatever you do, don’t call Turner femme. “For our generation and class, butch/femme has come to mean an entirely diffrent thing-and one that pisses me off a lot. When Rose and I were together, we were constantly treated by our peers like ‘You’re the man, you’re the woman; you hammer the nails, you cook the dinner’. I’m offended to be called femme because you’re talking about what you look like, what kind of woman you go for, what you do in bed-meaning that you’re a passive lover, which I would never want anyone to think, because I’m not!-and that you’re looking for a butch to take care of you. I can take care of myself!”
So what do all her past girlfriends, including the current one, look like? “Butch as all hell!” she says with a delighted laugh. “That’s just who I’m attracted to. But it still doesn’t mean those femme sterotypes are true of me”. Today, she doesn’t agonize over her looks the way she used to, taking offense if someone whispers that she looks so straight, she’ll be back with guys soon. “I’ve reached a new realm of lesbianism now,” she says. “Whatever I do, however I look, is OK.”
It may be precisely because of her femme appeal that she’s been able to audition for roles in mainstream movies. And the idea of playing a straight part doesn’t put her off. “I have no problem with that,” Turner says. “If someone thinks it’s funny to put me in a straight role, the joke’s on them. Lesbians play straight every day all over the world.”
Still, when she doesn’t get a part, Turner admits, she wonders if the directors got cold feet concerning her out-lesbian status. But she says she was the one who “chickened out” on reading for an upcoming Joe Eszterhas (Basic Instinct) movie in which she would have played a high-class prostitute who lusts after other women and is decapitated by a plate-glass window. “I couldn’t deal with getting the part, and I couldn’t deal with not getting it,” she says, still obviously torn.
Fortunately, acting for her is mostly a lark, not a serious career goal. “I don’t really want to be an actress,” she says. “It makes me feel like I’m in high school again, like maybe I’m too short, not thin enough, and maybe I should wax my mustache.”
Turner also has mixed feelings about a project that has nothing to do with her sexuality: She is considering writing a memoir about her childhood. She was raised in a Boston-based cult that her mother, a stockbroker by day, had joined. “It was the full nightmare: drug use, mind control,” Turner recalls. Her mother left the cult when Turner was 12 and her youngest sister was 4, taking the family to upstate New York. “I hated my mother for making us leave, because that made you a traitor,” she says. And to Turner, who had never met her father, the cult represented all she’d ever known of family. Leaving also made fitting in at public school, after a 12-year cultural time warp during which she was home-schooled, especially tough.
Although publishers have called offering advances for the story, at present Turner wants to write it just for herself. I’ve already sold my sexuality,” she says. “I don’t know if I want to sell my childhood.”
Meanwhile, there’s love-or thereabouts. Turner’s girlfriend of two years is a 24-year-old student at Sarah Lawrence College, Turner’s alma mater. “When we met, we’d both just gotten out of really intense relationships” – Turner’s (with Troche) was only her third serious romance since she’d come out in college – “in which we almost killed ourselves. So we set ground rules: No promises. No monogamy. And I will never, ever live with you.” Not to worry: Turner´s girlfriend plans to move to Russia after graduation to continue her language studies.
And Turner continues to adjust to her new celebrity status. “This summer I felt I couldn’t go anywhere without being asknowledged as a public lesbian,” she says. “For the most part that was really fun, but sometimes I felt people wanted me to do the lesbian act, and that makes me want to say, ‘Look, tomorrow I’m marrying a man’. I wish I had the urge to…just to rock the boat. I get sick of going out, because people are either too intimidated to talk to me or they only talk about the movie or they get drunk and come on to me. I used to be just a really cute girl in the bar. I’ve lost that sense of identity that’s just me and not some persona.”
Turner’s not sorry, though, that her professional debut was a lesbian project, although she says she didn’t debate the repercussions at the time. “We couldn’t imagine what Go Fish would become,” she says. “I’m really glad I didn’t know, because what we made was so sincere, so from-the-heart, so innocent.” And while she acknowledges that the media hype of lesbian chic helped the movie, she’s not sure its success signals long-lasting change.
“You make little baby steps,” she says, holding a cigarette between fingers heavy with silver and turquoise rings. “But no one’s going to forget this as the time when gays were trying to take over the world.”