Close Encounters of the Celebrity Kind...
Cleve Jones Talks Milk
Expanded Edition of 11-19-08 Windy City Times Interview
by Richard Knight, Jr.
Jones with Emile Hirsch, his onscreen self in Milk and greeting old friends and fellow gay activists Victor Salvo, Lori Cannon, Art
Johnston after a Chicago screening of the film
San Franciscan Cleve Jones has been on the forefront of gay activism for 30 years and is probably best known as the founder of the
NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. His introduction to queer politics began with his association with Harvey Milk, San Francisco’s first
openly gay elected official who was assassinated along with Mayor George Moscone in 1978. 30 years after that horrific tragedy
Harvey Milk’s life story is finally being brought to the screen. Jones, as one of Milk’s closest friends, has been working on Milk, which
stars Sean Penn, James Franco, Josh Brolin, and Emile Hirsch as Jones since the project’s inception and he acted is a historical
consultant on the film. He was recently in town to attend a screening of the film and conduct interviews. At 54, the soft-spoken
Jones is thrilled to finally have the project reach an audience. Excerpts from his interview with Windy City Times:
WINDY CITY TIMES (WCT): The first thing I want to ask about is how you became involved. Last night at the screening you told the
audience this was an 18 year process.
CLEVE JONES (CJ): Yes, I met (director) Gus Van Sant 18 years ago during a previous attempt to tell this story that was based on
Randy Shilts’ book, “The Mayor of Castro Street” and Gus came to San Francisco and looked me up, moved into my apartment and
it all fell apart but our friendship did not. We stayed in touched through all these years and basically, I’ve been badgering the guys
for 18 years to make this movie (laughs). But I always wanted it to be Gus and a great many other people always wanted it to be
Gus. It wasn’t just me – it was many of Harvey’s friends and many people in San Francisco.
WCT: Because he’s a good filmmaker and a queer one, right?
CJ: I would say his being gay was the least part of it. Gus is able to turn his camera on all sorts of marginalized people and he’s
able to tell dark and complicated stories without apology, without over dramatizing because he’s humble – his films aren’t all about
him. Then, of course he’s queer but I really think that is not the most significant part of why he was perfect. So, we knew each
other, we stayed in touch and then three years ago I met Lance Black. He came to my home with a mutual friend who was
interested in writing a musical rock opera sort of thing about my life. That project didn’t go anywhere but Lance and I became
friends. I was really touched that he knew Harvey’s story – I think he was 29 when I met him – and I was surprised that he knew as
much as he did. He said that he’d always wanted to write this screenplay. He told me about growing up without a father and wanting
to have that gay father figure. He’s a very genuine guy and very smart and very real. I trusted him immediately.
So I took him up to San Francisco and I introduced him to Harvey’s surviving friends and encouraged them to tell him stories. I kept
saying, “If you ever write this thing I have a director in mind” and finally at the end of February, 2007 he showed me what he’d
written and even though it was a rough draft – I’ve read many versions of Harvey’s story – this was the best. One thing I love so
much about the script is that some of those conversations between myself and Harvey are almost verbatim. You know, Harvey was
my gay dad and I did go to him for comfort when I was dumped by my gorgeous but stupid boyfriend and Harvey did see in me
strengths and skills that I had no clue I possessed.
WCT: Somebody finally got it…
CJ: Somebody got it just right. I remember being so pleased to feel like I could hear Harvey’s voice in it. On March 1, 2007 I took
Lance to meet Gus and to me, that’s when the project began and 18 months later it was finished. The perfect script, the perfect
director, the perfect cast, and it’s been like magic.
WCT: When it came time to cast your role, did they consult you?
CJ: Gus said, “Well who do you want to play you?” and I said, “I don’t know” and either Lance or Gus told me to watch this Alpha
Dog – this horrible movie but it has a lot of young, male actors in it and that’s where I first became aware of Emile (Hirsch) and Gus
suggested him and I saw Into the Wild and I thought, “Wow.” You know he’s cute but he’s way more than cute. He’s a real serious
actor. So I was sold on him and then we met up a couple of weeks before production started and became friends. I really love him;
he’s a very good person and I got incredibly lucky and I feel very protective of him. I think he’s going to have an extraordinary
WCT: Was it rather eerie to see him come out of the makeup trailer as your younger self?
CJ: Oh, it was surreal. I got goose bumps. I couldn’t believe it. I kept saying, “Well, he doesn’t really look like me” but then he
came out of wardrobe with the hair and the glasses and the attitude and I was like, “Oh my God” (laughs). My family got such a
kick out of it. They were just dying, he was so real.
WCT: You’ve had the rare experience of getting into a time machine and going back 30 years – it must have been tremendously
moving and bittersweet.
CJ: Cried a lot, I cried a lot. The first scene we shot was Dan White declaring his candidacy and Lance picked me up at about five
o'clock in the morning and it was pouring rain and we’re driving out to the edge of San Francisco and we get there and for the first
time I see all of the different parts of our army assembled in one place – the trailers and the trucks and the lights and the
equipment – and it’s just pissing rain and at 8:28 – a couple of minutes before we were supposed to start shooting Lance and I went
up the hill to where the canteen was set up to get some coffee and we looked down on fire house where the scene was about to be
shot and at that moment it stopped raining, the clouds parted and a fucking rainbow appeared over the set (chuckles). And Lance
and I looked at each other and just lost it. For the first couple of weeks I think I cried everyday. I was reminded of people who were
gone and things like that. So yes, there was a lot of crying but it was also just so exciting and everybody in San Francisco was so
WCT: The sad memories must be balanced somewhat knowing that after so long a large audience is finally going to see Harvey’s
CJ: Yes. I mean it’s bittersweet but it’s mostly sweet. I’ve waited a long time for this. I’ve had a very full life and I’ve done a lot.
I’ve met a lot of people and been to a lot of places and it’s never been dull and it’s never really been rational but I tell you, this has
been the best year of my whole life. It’s just been so full of laughter and love and the team that worked on this – we all got along
so well – and I finally understand now that when people get their awards and they show up with these long lists of all the people they
have to thank I really get it now. Film really is a collaborative art.
WCT: Did Sean Penn talk with you about Harvey? Do you have any clue about how he built that character? Is he Harvey?
CJ: He’s Harvey. He becomes Harvey – it’s an amazing transformation and that’s not just my opinion, it is the opinion of all of us
who knew Harvey. Sean just became Harvey. The first thing I did was meet with Sean. We had dinner a couple of times and then I
put together some dinners with other people that knew Harvey so that Sean could hear their stories. He was shown the archival
footage and then at one point, still a few weeks before we started shooting, I asked, “Do you have an idea how you’re going to
approach this?” and he said, “Basically, I’m just going to try to show him as a kind man” and something about that relieved me a
lot. But it goes way beyond mimicking tone of voice or mannerisms. He really communicates the spirit of Harvey in an amazing way.
WCT: As I told you earlier, it’s hard for me to be objective about the film because it’s such a huge part of gay history that I’ve been
waiting for so long and I think, obviously, the gay audience will come in droves. But excuse me if I play Devil’s Advocate for a
moment – why should straight America care about a – excuse me – a dead faggot killed 30 years ago?
CJ: I think it’s much more than that – it’s a much broader story. It’s the story of an ordinary man who changed the world and I
think it’s an incredible source of inspiration. We’ve shown it to a lot of young people, gay and straight, and they all respond the
same way. Every kind of audience we’re showing it to – young old, gay and straight – are deeply moved by it. It is a universal story
about justice and equality and much more interestingly, it’s the story of an ordinary guy whose personal life was in disarray, who died
penniless, who as he says in the film didn’t do anything of any consequence for the first 40 years of his life and then changed the
world. So I think that’s an important story (laughs). As frustrating as it’s been for me to wait 30 years to see it happen I feel now
that worked in our favor because now I think America’s ready to hear this story – all of America.
Check the Archives for other Milk Interviews with cast members and historical consultant Cleve Jones