Interview with David Thorpe, by Craig Schroeder
David Thorpe is the director of Do I Sound Gay?, a documentary that seeks to demystify the “gay” voice by examining Thorpe’s insecurities with the sound of his own voice. I had the opportunity to speak with Thorpe about his film, David Sedaris, Hollywood type-casting and my own misconceptions on what it means (or doesn’t mean) to have a “gay voice”.
Battleship Pretension: Your film is an examination of the “gay voice” and the patterns of speech often associated with or attributed to gay men. What are the trademarks of a “gay voice”?
David Thorpe: I have to preface any description of the “gay” voice with the information that there is no such thing as a gay voice, that phrase is just shorthand for the stereotype of the gay voice. There is no voice that every gay man has….and that’s limited to gay men. That said, there is of course the stereotype of sounding gay; and that’s basically a man who sounds effeminate…that generally comes from a man having a higher pitched voice. He might speak more kind of melodiously. Have more various pitch. He might articulate his consonants more [stressing the consonants]. That he might “sibil” an “s” is of course the signature sound [emphasizing the “s” sounds]….You can transcribe all of those “s’s”…. (The gay voice) has also become associated with up-speak because that’s become something that people associate with women. So all of those things kind of add up to a more feminine way of speaking.
BP: A big part of the film is you coming to terms with the idea that there is no gay voice, it’s just the perception that you’ve lived with for so long and (that) you’ve attributed to yourself, as an insecurity. Were you always aware that your voice was different? Or were you always aware that you were attributing yourself as having a “gay” voice?
DT: In the beginning of middle school I got bullied and called a faggot, because of the way I spoke and acted was—compared to other little boys—effeminate. So I learned how to fit in and sound more masculine but after I came out, I embraced everything that was gay including sounding gay. But one of the questions I ask in the film is was I embracing the stereotype or is that who I really am? And how do I figure that out and does it even matter?
BP: And have you figured it out?
DT: [Laughs] I think I have a much clearer understanding of why I talk the way I talk than I did when I started the project. For me, ultimately, the most important thing was sharing my anxieties in a way that was healing and also physically reconnecting to my voice through working with voice coaches. I had disliked my voice for so long that in a sense I was emotionally and kind of physically cut off from it. I had forgotten that your voice is physically as much a part of you as your eye color or the pain in your left knee or your height. And who we are physically plays a huge role in our sense of self.
BP: David Sedaris says something really profound and sad in the movie. He’s talking about his experience with being labeled as having a “gay voice”. When someone would tell him I didn’t know you were gay and that his voice didn’t give him away, that would make him feel good…:
DT: Yeah, when I said earlier that it wasn’t so much defining the gay voice that changed me, but one of the big things that did change me was talking to other people, especially to gay men like David Sedaris. He’s one of my heroes, he’s incredibly successful in so many ways and to hear him confess that he had this kind of lingering sense of shame was really earth shattering and liberating for me. Of course he doesn’t think that all the time, but sometimes you still have that reflex where you’re glad you fit in because that’s all you wanted to survive.
BP: It’s a powerful moment. He’s become this cultural touchstone with his confident writing and the way he writes, it’s great to see him (as) raw and vulnerable as he is in your film.
DT: Yeah, I think he’s vulnerable in his work but you don’t often see him. He’s never been in a movie before; this is his first film, scripted or documentary. I think there’s something very powerful in seeing someone speak–seeing someone like him in particular–speak off the cuff and in front of you.
BP: When did this very personal insecurity begin to take shape as a very public film?
DT: [Laughs] That’s a great question…The lightning bolt moment for me was the beginning of a major realization that I still had hang ups about being gay and about my voice. And it was time to address them; whatever that might mean. I think I knew right away that I was going to go to a voice coach. I didn’t know right away that I was going to make a film. I was a writer by trade and my original plan was to write a book which is of course much less raw and immediate and up-front than a film. But as I worked on the project and talked to people I met so many other gay men who shared my anxiety and realized that it was just such an incredible way for talking about homophobia and individuality that I just knew I had to tell my story and our story—of men, gay or not—in a way that I thought people could relate to, that anyone could relate to. It really was a mission for me. I never thought it would be a feature film; I just wanted to tell the story. It was an idea that has always grabbed people from the very beginning. And especially once I gave it a title, it became an irresistible question when I brought it up.
BP: It can be a tricky thing for a documentarian to make themselves the subject of the film, but I think your movie does a great job of indulging you the character and you the person and then balancing that with the film’s central, more objective thesis. What are the challenges that are inherent in making an objective film where your life and experiences are the primary focus?
DT: Do I Sound Gay? is definitely not an objective film. In some ways I don’t even think the phrase documentary really applies, to me it’s more of a personal essay.
BP: Yeah, almost like an op-ed.
DT: Yeah, exactly. In scripted films, we talk about thriller, science fiction, romantic comedy, costume. But documentary it’s just “documentary”. Certainly there are challenges but it’s also perfectly natural to make a film that’s personal and that’s not objective, just the way that’s true in writing. But the challenge of course in a big way is balance; I’m going from the personal to the political and back again, constantly in the film. We went through many, many cuts of the film and we showed many, many rough cuts and a lot of that was finding our balance, and also finding that no matter how political, or sociological or anthropological I got it always was strongly tied to my story. So when I talk about gender or race or TV or class or sociology it’s always very tightly linked to my own anxieties. Which hopefully people can relate to.
BP: You take a look at some of the gay stereotypes in pop-culture throughout film history, the two most predominant being the kind of sophisticated gay man and the conniving Peter Lorre-type gay character…:
DT: [Laughs] Yes! The Maltese Falcon!
BP: Yes! What does the evolution of these stereotypes look like on TV and in movies now?
DT: I think representation of gay men has improved greatly simply because there is just so much more of it and it is so much more varied. You have everybody from Ross Matthews who got famous on the Tonight Show because he is so adorably queeny to Anderson Cooper who is like your national, hot-spot journa-stud. I also think TV and film just aren’t as important as they were to gay people because there’s so many of us out. Kids in gay-straight alliance or they meet each other on line. When I was growing up there were no gay people. I didn’t know any. My family didn’t know any. So when I came out I had nothing to draw from except these Hollywood and TV representations and now people can look at each other and learn to be who they want to be (in real life), as opposed to from TV and film. I hope that because of the internet, because of YouTube, because millennials are so into putting themselves out there that TV and film representations just don’t matter quite as much. But, of course they matter and it’s really important to keep pushing institutions like Hollywood to represent LGBT people in three-dimensional ways. Because there’s nothing off-limits in terms of a gay character except when you’re falling back on these kind of insidious stereotypes.
BP: Right. And that’s another thing that’s brought up is that gay representation on TV and in movies has improved but gay sounding actors are relegated to playing overtly gay characters. Do you think this is more a product of Hollywood’s homophobia or is this a cynical response from Hollywood predicting the country’s homophobia?
DT: I think that’s a great question and I think it’s a bit of a chicken and an egg situation with casting. On Saturday [18 July 2015] I’m doing a Q&A…here in L.A. and Dan Bucatinsky—who was one of the creators of The Comeback and on Scandal—and Marcia Ross—who’s a prominent casting director—and I are actually going to talk about this issue…I really want people to come to that because I don’t know that the kind of taboo or the unspoken wariness of casting gay men who are effeminate in real life has every really been talked about publicly in Hollywood. As Jeff…, the wonderful actor in (Do I Sound Gay?) relates, it’s really hard not to get type cast. In many situations casting agents are looking for types. A lot of TV and film it’s just types, they’re not actually real people. I think advertising is a great example of that. On the one hand it’s easy to blame casting people; on the other hand they’re in a bind when it comes to doing their job.
BP: Going back to the kind of mythical source of the “gay” voice, your film offers a few theories. One of the subjects says that gay men in early adolescence relate more to women and give more weight to feminine sounding voices. David Sedaris observes that the gay voice, or specifically the long “s” sound, at least for him, stemmed from an impediment or a lisp. Someone else in the film says the gay voice is more a product of latent misogyny, that no one wants to sound like a woman. Which of these theories rings the most true to you and your experience?
DT: I do want to take minute and correct something you said and it’s interesting that you said it. It’s not that gay men identify with women; it’s any man who identifies and acquires language with women.
DT: And in the film I met with a straight guy who we speculate acquired his more typically female speech pattern from women. It’s funny, when you put a straight guy in the film who sounds gay, a lot of people walk away thinking “oh well gay men identify with their mothers” [laughs]. I think it’s just really important to point out it’s so hard to counteract short-hand stereotypes.
DT: There are two theories present in the film. One is the way we acquire language and the other is, as an adult, kind of finding a tribe of people, of gay men that we identify with and want to be identified with. And for me, both of those ideas are very solid. I know that I identified more with women when I was growing up. I also know that when I’m with a lot of gay men I have this impulse to be part of the gang. But I think that’s true of anyone when it comes to raising our voice. We all have kind of nurture characteristics. We all have social impulses. It’s not just that the so called “gay” voice comes from two theories, it’s that all of our voices are heavily influenced by language acquisition and our chosen peer groups.
BP: We all have those different speech patterns that are influenced by society it’s just that not everyone’s has a spotlight shined on it so heavily.
DT: Right. And that spotlight is shined on the way gay men talk because we do live in a culture that is sexist and misogynist. And gay culture is, in that respect, no different than mainstream culture.
BP: At the beginning of the film you say you hate the way you talk. What has the film done to that? What does that hatred of the sound of your voice look like now?
DT: I would be lying if I say I’m never self-conscious about sounding gay. Or when I hear my voice part of me kind of flinches right of the bat. But I’ve gained so much confidence from what I’ve learned and from the way people have responded to the conversation that I’ve opened, that those momentary reflexes are fleeting. I’ve really come to like my voice. To me it feels authentic and it feels like my voice. I can feel and hear my larynx kind of settle into its most natural position and I don’t have to force it in some way. But I think because I’m more confident I’m more comfortable with how I sound. And also in the last year since the film came out, I have been talking a lot [laughs]. To a lot of people. It sounds silly, but practice makes perfect. I’ll spend all day talking about the subject and that’s had a big impact on me.
BP: Do you still do the (vocal) exercises from the film?
DT: I do not.
DT: And I’m really not tempted. I would only do them if I felt like I was really going to have to talk a lot. Your voice is a muscle and it can get stronger. Just like your pecs are a muscle and they can get stronger. The fact is, the stronger you are the more you can lift [laughs]. The same thing with your voice, the healthier and stronger it is, in some respects, the more capable you are of producing it and producing it in a way that feels natural.
BP: You won first runner-up at the premiere in Toronto…
DT: Yes sir!
BP: And you opened last year’s DOC NYC…
DT: Yes we did!
BP: So what’s next for the film?
DT: It’s now in theaters and on cable on-demand. It opened in New York on July 10, it opens in L.A. this Friday [17 July 2015] at the Sundance Sunset Cinema. It’s going to play in theaters around the country over the course of the summer. And I think after that it will be on streaming sites and downloadable.
BP: And what’s next for you? Another film?
DT: I made Do I Sound Gay? because I felt that I had to. And I don’t know what it’s like to make a film in any other way. So I’m hoping that I feel like I have to make another one, because I really did love it despite the sometimes grueling emotional roller coaster. Our voices are such a great platform for talking about ourselves and for talking about homophobia in particular. I’d like to sort of continue exploring this general area……[Silence]…..So the short answer is I have no idea.
BP: [Laughs]… Last question: in this moment right now, if you had the option to fully customize and rebuild your voice, would you?
DT: [Laughs] Great question, I’ve thought about it. I would definitely be tempted, but I wouldn’t. At the beginning of this process if I could have pressed a button and sounded you know, [like a] warm, sexually-masculine George Clooney, I would have done it. And today I would be tempted but I wouldn’t because it wouldn’t be my voice.
Do I Sound Gay? is in theaters in New York and opens in L.A. this Friday, July the 17th, at the Sundance Cinemas on Sunset. David Thorpe will be conducting a Q&A, with Marcia Ross and Scandal’s Dan Bucatinsky, at the Sundance Cinema on Sunset following the showing on Saturday evening July 18th. You can find Do I Sound Gay? on iTunes, cable On-Demand, and on other streaming services. And it will be in theaters throughout the country this summer.