Best of 2021: John Cameron Mitchell on Veneno

The actor-writer-director, whose 2006 film Shortbus is re-released in theaters on January 26, on his favorite TV show of the past 12 months.

Veneno is a series from Spain created by Javier Ambrossi and Javier Calvo, who are a couple and go by the name “Los Javis.” Veneno, which premiered on HBO Max last year, tells the story of Cristina Ortiz Rodríguez, who was known as “La Veneno,” which means “the poison.” She was a trans sex worker who, in the 1990s, was plucked off the streets and became a celebrity on TV in Spain. She was part Hedwig, part Anna Nicole Smith. She was from a small town in Andalucía which was very homophobic and transphobic, and by moving to Valencia and then Madrid, she found the way to her womanhood. She worked the parks in Madrid and had a very rough life, with a lot of people, and with a real lack of love. In Veneno, her story is told with such humor, sympathy and empathy, through the eyes of a young proto-trans woman, who is based on the woman who wrote Cristina La Veneno’s biography. I didn’t know much about Veneno’s story before the show, so I was really blown away.

Peppermint, the trans singer who’s a friend of mine, was the person who told me about Veneno. The first couple of episodes just rocked me and now I tell everyone about it. I’m surprised that people aren’t talking about the show more. We go on and on about shows like Ted Lasso (and I’m not against Ted Lasso!), but there seems to be only so much oxygen to discuss the same series over and over. Somehow Succession gets five articles in The New Yorker, and Veneno gets none, but it’s a true classic series for the ages, beautifully made. The Los Javis worked with five different actors for the different stages of Veneno’s life, many of them trans, and they’re just brilliant actors. The show is just spectacular, and the Los Javis have become friends and are going to present my tour in Spain, when that’s possible once again.

For me, Veneno is up there with the other great series of the past few years, I May Destroy You, which also came out on HBO Max. That show was stunning, and incredibly nuanced. As I was watching, I thought, “Well, the American version of this, I can see it already: it’s paint by numbers and you’re always going to know what will happen,” while the show itself always surprised me by getting more and more nuanced about romantic and sexual politics in this day and age. She’s brilliant, Michaela Coel.

I do love the long series form, and I’m working on a couple of projects that would be in a series format, either for television or a podcast. With Anthem: Homunculus, my and Bryan Weller’s musical podcast series, I got a taste of what it is to tell a longform story. The feature film is a form I love, but it’s not the only medium that I work in. I love to do theater and make albums and podcasts and concerts, so, even as one form goes out of vogue, there’s always something new for me to do.

The small film is out of fashion at the moment, because of economic reasons, digital reasons, COVID reasons. The main reason, though, is that people aren’t going to see them. Even smart people would rather watch Real Housewives than an interesting art film, which is a change. 25 years ago, people would just go see the film that was best reviewed that week, no matter who was in it. Now, the smart people will go see some Marvel movie, expecting not to really like it, but they won’t take a risk on anything unusual. I’ve even felt that pressure myself, because in the digital world it’s about clicks and likes. If your day is complex, you want something simple at the end of it. Personally, I need a mix of both; I need something really interesting and something that’s just fun. My go-tos for fun are European cop shows or science-fiction shows. Recently, I’ve been bingeing on series I’ve never seen before. Over the past three weeks, I’ve watched eight seasons of Spiral, the French cop show, and I’m drunk on it and really care about those characters and actors. I really enjoy that experience.

Photo of John Cameron Mitchell by Matthew Placek.

John Cameron Mitchell’s 2006 film Shortbus, which he wrote and directed, is being re-released in theaters by Oscilloscope from January 26. He co-created and starred in the stage/film musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, for which he won Best Director at the 2001 Sundance Festival, four Tony Awards, and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor. He also directed the films Rabbit Hole (2010), featuring an Oscar-nominated performance by Nicole Kidman, and How to Talk to Girls at Parties (2017). He appears on TV in Hulu’s Shrill and in 2022 will be seen in Netflix’s Sandman and in the title role of Peacock Channel’s Joe Exotic adapted series. His musical podcast series Anthem: Homunculus starring Glenn Close, Patti Lupone, and Cynthia Erivo, was just rereleased as a free podcast. In 2020, he put out the collaborative album New American Dream and his ongoing The Origin of Love World Tour resumed in December 2021. (Photo by Matthew Placek.)