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Craig Johnson On 'Alex Strangelove'


In the new movie "Alex Strangelove," Alex is a funny, smart, slightly neurotic teenager with a lovely girlfriend, Claire, and a new friend he meets at a party, an openly gay teenager named Elliott, and that new friendship makes Alex question if he's actually straight.


MADELINE WEINSTEIN: (As Claire) Who are you texting?

DANIEL DOHENY: (As Alex) I'm texting that guy Elliott from the party last night. We were hanging out in the bedroom.

WEINSTEIN: (As Claire) The gay kid?

DOHENY: (As Alex) Yeah. He's going to this show in Brooklyn, and he has an extra ticket, so, you know.

WEINSTEIN: (As Claire) Whoa, Brooklyn, look at you, hipster man.

DOHENY: (As Alex) Yeah. You can come if you want, but I think he only has one ticket.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Craig Johnson, who wrote and directed "Alex Strangelove," told us the story is largely autobiographical, but is he an Alex or an Elliott?

CRAIG JOHNSON: Oh, I was Alex 100 percent. I was confused and overwhelmed and anxiety ridden about sex, dating, the whole nine yards. But you know what? It didn't take long for me to realize that that's a pretty universal feeling for teenagers.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It is very typical, but I think there's an added thing - right? - which is when you're trying to decide or uncover what it is that you really want and who it is that you really are.

JOHNSON: Yeah. Well, one of the centerpiece storylines in this is Alex's relationship with Claire, his girlfriend...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right, played by Madeline Weinstein.

JOHNSON: Yeah - who he loves very much and very authentically, but it gets confusing when he meets this kid Elliott who he's also attracted to. And I think what is sort of at least fresh to me about the story was that Alex's conflicts are not so much external. You know, he goes to a pretty progressive high school. It's not like, you know, he's going to get beat up if he comes out of the closet. So the conflict becomes internal. It becomes what am I really into? It's OK to date boys now in high school. It's OK to date girls. So it's all on me. Where do I fall into all of this? And that's kind of what the movie is about.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. But there's also a deep undercurrent there that I couldn't help coming back to, which is as a girl also who's young and trying to figure out her sexuality, to be in a relationship with someone who may not be heterosexual is painful and difficult and makes you question all sorts of things about yourself. And on the other side, you have Elliott, who also is interested in Alex, and he's out and he's very sure of who he is, but he's not sure what kind of relationship he's going to have with Alex going forward. And so there's just a lot of sort of - I don't know - collateral damage around that.

JOHNSON: There is, very much so. And that just is pulled from my experience in life. But I wanted to honor that relationship between Alex and Claire, and I wanted to see it from Claire's perspective. I wanted to see the heartbreak. I wanted to see the crappiness of it and kind of the inevitability of it but then also how you deal. You know, I was very interested in what choices Claire had once she realized that it wasn't going to work out for her.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to talk about the high school because you brought it up. So this high school, the kids, you know, throw around terms like polyamorous and genderqueer. Was there a school that you modeled that on?

JOHNSON: Well, you know what? It's based on my observations of teenagers, especially more so over the last couple years. There's really been a sea change in kind of the open-mindedness of teenagers - not everywhere, for sure, not everywhere, but I have noticed that when it comes to sort of embracing and accepting sort of sexual experimentation and gender identity experimentation, kids are a bit more open to it. And so I wanted Alex to go to kind of a progressive high school. I just thought it made actually the conflict more dramatic because it made it all about what am I really into, which doesn't necessarily make dating and sex in high school any easier. It kind of makes it harder. You get paralyzed by choice.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. In fact, there's a scene in the film where one of Alex's friends talks about exactly that - a lot of choice.

JOHNSON: Yeah, that's his buddy Dell, who is kind of a little bit of a dweeby (ph) pipsqueak. He's a straight kid, and he's just a little overwhelmed by the sea change and just trying to make sense of it in his own sort of goofy way.


DANIEL ZOLGHADRI: (As Dell) It's like "Mad Max" out here, you know? Guys doing guys, girls doing girls - not that I object to that - girls turning into guys and doing girls that used to do girls and guys. Isn't anyone just plain straight anymore?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) Let me ask you this - as a filmmaker tackling these kinds of stories, you say that there's something in the air. Do you really think that this is a different moment? Because clearly there are two competing narratives happening in this country about whether or not we should be entertaining these kinds of storylines and talks.

JOHNSON: Right, right. There are two competing narratives, but I got to say I think the gorilla is out of the cage, you know? You're not going to put the toothpaste back in the tube on this issue. I feel like the national legalization of gay marriage really did so much to just sort of justify and to legitimize LGBTQ relationships. And with those floodgates open, I felt in the last couple years I started to see so many stories, so many movies, with LGBT storylines. And you saw kids kind of shrugging their shoulders about it, you know, where - my own experience, I've met, you know, my friends who have young teenagers, and they're coming out of the closet in middle school. And they just have role models that I certainly didn't have. So the moment is just based on kind of what I've noticed and what I've seen and what I've felt, again especially over the last couple years.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Craig Johnson - his new film is "Alex Strangelove" and it's out now on Netflix. Thank you so much.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF POPPY ACKROYD'S "TRAINS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.