Savannah Knoop, fka JT Leroy, talks Kristen Stewart, Queer Spaces

The artist behind the J.T. Leroy is back in the spotlight with film adaptation of memoir, out Friday.

Savannah Knoop has come out more than once—first, and most momentously, as “Savannah Knoop.” For much of their 20s, Knoop was known as “J.T. Leroy,” the authorial persona of Knoop’s sister-in-law writer Laura Albert. As Leroy’s saga—that of a young, gay hustler-turned-writer-savant, grittily detailed in magical-realistic, purportedly semi-autobiographical works like Sarah (1999) and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (2001)—took off with readers and a bohemian set of Hollywood, Albert enlisted Knoop to “be” Leroy on the publicity circuit. Soon, with Albert posing as their handler, Knoop was walking red carpets in oversized shades and a synthetic blonde wig, attracting celebrity suitors like Courtney Love, Billy Corgan and Gus Van Sant.

In 2005, with Albert’s hoax still animating downtown social networks (2004 saw a solo show at Jeffrey Deitch), a New York magazine exposé identified Knoop as the personage behind the Leroy avatar. Knoop weathered the fallout (see: Albert’s 2016 documentary), publishing a memoir in 2008 and coming out as gender-queer, all the while cultivating an artistic practice and seeking out queer spaces (their 2019 exhibit at Essex Flowers was rooted in New York City bathhouse culture). Their memoir is now the subject of the Kirsten Stewart/Laura Dern vehicle J.T. Leroy, a peppy Justin Kelly-directed feature that doubles as a master class in perception, cult fame and queer identity.

Here, we catch up with Knoop about reuniting with Courtney Love, modern-day queerness and mastering the art of “posing.”

V The premiere of J.T. Leroy is tomorrow. Are you looking forward to the hubbub or is that not something you’re naturally drawn to?

Savannah Knoop I am looking forward to this moment—the thing being out. The rest is all a bit awkward. But I have been thinking of poses—different historical poses to do on the red carpet because it’s such a weird environment, and it is so much about posing. So I am studying Buster Keaton, Grace Jones, Lee Bowery, and different kinds of classic, statuary poses.

V So did you feel the need to do pre-red carpet research? Because you obviously had experience with that as J.T.

SK Yes. J.T. had a performative aspect, all on its own. [Now] It feels completely new, but then also meta; its very strange in that way. I am kind of trying to be open to all the different nuances of the experience because it is definitely strange.

V So, you met Justin Kelly in 2009? Is that right? Was it in the context of adapting your memoir?

SK No. It was through mutual friends in that queer puddle—people you see over and over. We had one dear friend in common, who sent me Justin’s short films. I was blown away by them. For me, Justin has an amazing rhythm. It’s so staccato, but smart and simple.

V Were you more involved in the writing process? Or did you work together with Justin, in a practical sense, and with Kristen to nail the performance?

SK Because we worked so closely and collaboratively up until [the shoot], there wasn’t a separation. I think it is unusual for a writer to be on set. I had planned to just go for a few days but then ended up staying the whole time, to just cover the bases. I was there if Kirsten and Laura had questions of figuring out their characters. And there were moments where I helped with wardrobe.

There was one amazing moment, for the scene when Courtney Love is like “What are you wearing?” [The costume was something] my sweetheart, who was also on set, and I had thrifted and dyed. It was just a table cloth that we dyed, hours before the scene was shot.

V It sounds like you had to be resourceful. Where did you shoot?

SK it was actually Winnipeg, Canada. For casting the queer party scenes, my partner Lee and I were like, where do we find the queers? We go to the health foods store! There are queer communities everywhere; You just have to go to the local health foods store [laughs].

V What was it like working again with some of the folks you’d encountered in Hollywood as J.T.? Courtney is in the film, and we heard Gus Van Sant gave you some advice about Kristen’s costuming.

SK He did, he gave some advice. But actually Gus has always been a great mentor and supporter of Justin Kelly, so that was more [the connection], actually. I think [the film] is a testament to how both Courtney and Gus are just so generous and open in terms of their [art].

V How long did it take for you to feel like you had found your own queer community? Could you do that kind of thing at J.T.?

SK It did actually take me quite a while. I didn’t have a community for many years and I am sure it partly had to do with that being so involved with the J.T. Leroy saga. I had friends definitely but I wouldn’t say I had a community. Until kind of right before I left San Francisco, when I found all of these wonderful friends.

V During the J.T. saga, did you feel like an outsider looking in on certain communities that you longed to be a part of?

SK I always had friends in different contexts, but it was interesting to see, in terms of the film, [to look back on] the playing of this performative character, J.T., inside of Laura’s world. It is sort of one of those things, like when you look back on your life, like, God, I’ve been doing the same thing over and over.

That’s something that runs through a lot of my work, for example the bathhouse piece. In a place like the baths, that state is literally always shifting because our bodies are cycling and filtering in the heat, so it’s more about questioning the solidity of states. [That] can branch into other themes: being in control, being out, winning and losing, topping and bottoming, etc. In other words, it’s a challenge towards the binary!

V Much of your work is tied into the idea of “coming out.” Do you consider coming out on the other side of the J.T. Leroy saga a kind of “coming out,” that was then followed by additional coming-outs?

SK Definitely. I’ve come out so many times, and I am sure I will continue to. [laughs] It definitely doesn’t stop. Forever transitioning.

Kristen Stewart, director Justin Kelly and co-writer Savannah Knoop on the set of the film J.T. LEROY. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures Content Group
Laura Dern as Laura Albert and Kristen Stewart as Savannah Knoop in the film J.T. LEROY. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures Content Group
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