Freak Show

Producer dishes on all-star cast led by Bette Midler

Alex Lawther as Billy. Photo courtesy of Maven Productions.

By Sarah Toce, December 2017 Issue.

Based on James St. James’ award-winning cult novel by the same name, Freak Show is a coming-of-age heart-warmer that relays the timely tale of Billy Bloom, “a boldly confident and eccentric teenager who faces intolerance and persecution at his ultra-conservative high school, and decides to fight back on behalf of all the misunderstood freaks of the world.”

The kicker in the equation? His overbearing mother, Muv, is played by real-life gay rights icon, the incomparable Divine Miss M herself – Bette Midler.

In addition, Alex J. Lawther, Abigail Breslin, Laverne Cox, Anna Sophia Robb, Ian Nelson, Celia Watson, Willa Fitzgerald and Larry Pine also star in the film produced by actress/director Trudi Styler’s production company, Maven Pictures, and Drew Barrymore’s company, A Flower Films Production, in association with Bruno Wang Productions.

Styler, 63, studied Drama at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in the United Kingdom and was a leading player with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Her credits include spots on Empire, Love Soup, The Night Of…, Falling Water, and a new Netflix original she can’t yet divulge. Styler has been married to British music legend Sting, 66, since 1992. The power couple share four adult children.

“In keeping with the message of the movie, most of the music I chose to support the narrative was composed by LGBTQ artists, for example our own Eliot Sumner, Boy George and Perfume Genius,” Styler said. “The cast features the great gender rights activist Bette Midler and Laverne Cox, herself a notable transgender activist.”

When Connecticut-raised Billy (Lawther) is shipped off unexpectedly to live with his father (Pine) in his southern mansion, a whole bunch of crazy transpires. Not one to trade in his face glitter for a letter jacket at his new high school, Billy takes an alternate road to finding new friends and, more importantly, himself. Part Mean Girls, part Napoleon Dynamite, part Clueless, Styler’s take on Freak Show is an intersectional/multi-generational story that aches to be told.

“Before we started casting the film, I met James for dinner and just found him delightful – so full of spirit, and enthusiasm,” Styler said. “It was a real treat to meet him and see how committed he was to remaining true to himself, like Billy. We talked about how we had both felt like outcasts when we were growing up. We talked about our childhoods and why it was so important to make a movie that touched upon sex and gender tolerance.”

Lawther garnered fame starring as the young Alan Turing in the Academy Award-winning 2014 film The Imitation Game.

“I found Alex just through the normal casting process you go through … when Alex came in and auditioned he brought a vulnerability to the character that made Billy sensitive and appealing underneath all the apparent confidence and self-possession,” Styler said. “I’d been looking for those extra layers to come through, and Alex brought depth to Billy from day one.”

Breslin was cast as Alex’s very unlikely rival, Lynette.

“I love Abigail’s performance as Lynette! She managed to bring such a brashness and superficiality to the screen, she’s fearless,” Styler shared. “We’ve all known those kinds of kids at school who seem to have zero empathy with anyone and are determined to be top dog at whatever cost. As adults we can see that Lynette is a product of her limited society and probably been spoilt rotten by her parents, and so perhaps she can’t be blamed for how she’s turned out. Lynette is the epitome of extreme conservatism, and I think what’s shocking to the audience about her attitude is that there is a general expectation in society today that young people will tend to be liberal-minded and tolerant – but we can’t assume that. When young people are not exposed to people who challenge them with their differences, they’re at risk of becoming ignorant grown-ups as well.”

Styler and the crew had four weeks to prepare for production and an ambitious total of 22 days to shoot the feature. Ultimately, funding was secured because of Midler’s involvement.

“Muv became the linchpin to our finances and the very great Bette Midler accepted the role of Muv,” Styler shared. “From that we were able to really start the Freak Show machine turning and to get the movie in the can by the night before Thanksgiving.”

Alex Lawther as Billy. Photo by Andrew Cooper FS.

Midler wasn’t sure she wanted the part; she hadn’t worked on film in over four years. Ultimately, Styler called her and asked her to read the script. She did – and immediately signed on.

For Styler, this project had a profoundly personal connection to her own childhood.

“When I first began to work on the movie, as a story about bullying it resonated with me on a deeply personal level,” Styler shared. “I was bullied myself as a child and teenager, as my face bore the scars of being run down by a truck when I was only two years old. My own children also suffered from being bullied, especially my daughter Eliot who has only recently talked about what a hard time she had at school.”

There’s a direct message throughout Freak Show that is perhaps relevant now more than in recent years.

“The message of Freak Show is that we are all one in our shared humanity, a humanity which encompasses and connects all colors, sexes, races and religions,” Styler said. “That is one of the most important lessons we must communicate to young audiences today.”

Styler’s theatrical inspirations include Perks of Being a Wallflower, Mean Girls, Clueless, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Party Monster and Hedwig.

“From the classic teen comedies to the more avant-garde, experimental films. We wanted our film to combine the best of both,” Styler shared. 

Celebrated costume designer Colleen Atwood is a nine-time Oscar nominee as well as three-time Oscar winner for Into the Woods, Memoirs of a Geisha, and Chicago. She boasts an additional 60 nominations and 30 awards in recognition of her talent, including Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. She brings her unique blend of talent and vigor to Freak Show.

For more information on Freak Show, visit facebook.com/freakshowmovie.