American Dreamer

Wes Hurley proves truth is stranger than gay fiction with ‘Potato Dreams of America’

Wes Hurley (center) on set for ‘Potato Dreams of America’

Never have we felt such kinship with a potato.

We owe that very odd feeling to writer/director Wes Hurley, the filmmaker behind the wonderful, queer comedy Potato Dreams of America. The film plays Frameline45 beginning June 15. The film also plays the Provincetown Film Festival beginning June 18.

Potato Dreams of America dramatizes Hurley’s own life story of emigrating from Russia to the United States. Growing up in Vladivostok in the last days of Soviet rule, young Vasili/Potato (Hersh Powers) grows up hooked on the hope and glamour of American movies, praying to Jesus (Jonathan Bennett, yes, from Mean Girls) for deliverance. As he grows up, however, both Potato and his mother, Lena, (Sera Barbieri) both begin to realize he’s gay. That will mean almost certain death in Russia, so Lena becomes a mail-order bride and spirits Potato away to Seattle. There, Lena (now played by Marya Sea Kaminski) struggles in her marriage to the tyrannical John (Dan Lauria), as Potato (Tyler Bocock) fights to lose the vestigates of his Russian identity, much to the objection of his liberal teachers. He also must conceal his budding, queer sexuality from John, who harbors secrets of his own.

We snagged time with Hurley to talk about his own story as a gay, Russian immigrant, the struggle to tell his story on film, and the fate of his real-life mother and stepfather.  Potato Dreams of America plays Frameline45 beginning June 15. The film also plays the Provincetown Film Festival beginning June 18, and is currently seeking distribution.

They say truth is stranger than fiction. Well, this is a strange, wonderful, true story. It’s also your first feature in six years. Why did it take you to this point in your life and career to tell your own story?

To be honest, it took that much time just to raise money. I wrote the script eight years ago, and it very closely—99%–is everything that happened to me. But it was such a struggle to get money raised. Everything I’ve done before has been guerrilla-style. I didn’t want to do this one that way.

It’s one of the fascinating contradictions of Russia that—prior to Putin—gay life really flourished, and I know in some parts of the far east, it still does. What does that say about the Russian character?

I mean, I think it’s the old story of a government making us a scapegoat and rally people around a common danger. We’ve always been a popular target. It’s very sad. I never experienced the openness there. When I was growing up, it started to feel like it was going to get more open—though not for gay people, just in general. But it was going to be more Western. That got shut down fairly quickly. So, I don’ know what the future holds for Russia. It’s never been in a good place, really. It’s hard to be hopeful, but I would like it to change.

Do you think people there actually want change? Or are they just resigned to it will always be this way.

I think a lot of people are resigned. But, you know, I never experienced any kind of gay life there. I thought I was the only gay in the village, like that character from Little Britain.

[Laughter]

Now that I do know some gay immigrants from Russia who have been there, they say the gay culture is in a place where most people are afraid to push for any rights. The attitude is the more discreet we stay, the better it is for us. That’s the mentality of a lot of folks. And there are great people fighting for equality. It’s hard to know what will happen. Putin, sooner or later, will die, so the question is, what happens then? One of the great things about the age of the Internet is it’s hard to shut down or hide how far equality has come in other places. So I hope that comes to Russia as well. Younger people there are very aware.

You also have a lot of fun with Vasili coming to America, and wanting to lose his culture since he escaped it. But he meets this very liberal teacher who pushes him to not lose his culture, or his language. Were Americans reluctant to let you assimilate?

Constantly. There are wonderful things about living in a liberal bubble like Seattle, so I’m fortunate in many ways. But that’s one respect where people would just really push it on you. And people would drive you nuts with that. It’s funny—the teacher in the film, their conversation is very much lifted from my first day in school.

That’s terrible.

Now I can laugh at it, but I hated my teacher at the time.

You use a lot of long takes, particularly in the Russia segments in the film—the streetcar scene for example. Why?

I mean, I am definitely influenced by old school cinema, a lot of older Hollywood films, or Japanese films like those of Ozu—compositions that show a character in a tableau for a while. I love that simplicity, but there are incredible details in every shot. My background is in painting, so I’m all about cinema being painterly. You just create a beautiful composition and stay with it. I know that’s the opposite of Hollywood that loves lots of quick cuts with a shaky camera.

I love long takes like that. I think there’s such artistry in that.

I think it helps the actors in the sense that they get to stay in character. It’s more like theatre in that regard.

Related: Musicals, male burlesque, Jonathan Bennett as Jesus and drag: The Queerty Frameline45 Preview

It helps that you have a very talented cast here. Tyler Bocock, who plays Potato, is very good here in his first feature lead. But there are two inspired bits of casting I want to talk about. How did you arrive at Jonathan Bennett as Jesus?

I mean, we’re really lucky we got him through our casting agent in New York. I love using gay actors in non-gay roles. I feel like that’s interesting, especially when you don’t expect it. Jesus, in the film, is the idea of what a gay little boy’s Jesus would be. So I thought it would be hilarious. And it really paid off. He came to Seattle for a few days and really bonded with Hersh Powers, who plays young Potato. They really hit it off and had this amazing chemistry.

It’s one of his best performances. He’s having a lot of fun.

So much fun. He got it. It’s just funny. He’s delightful.

The other inspired casting here is Dan Lauria, both because I think he’s a very talented, underrated actor, and because he’s probably best known as an All-American dad from The Wonder Years. Here’s he’s kind of the antithesis of that. How did you approach him?

I mean, it’s a big part of what you said. He’s a great character actor and doesn’t get enough good work in film. He’s so, so good. That iconic presence he has because of The Wonder Years, this iconic dad—turning that upside down was fun.

It’s a bold thing to cast him in a part like this, but that’s what makes it exciting and fun.

Racial, ethnic, and foreign fetishization is a hot topic right now, particularly within our community. It’s come up in a lot of my interviews recently. Potato, for his part, doesn’t really seem to mind all that much. Is it exploitation if he’s enjoying it? I’m guessing this is autobiographical.

Yeah, it’s definitely autobiographical on that point. One reason I wanted to put it in there was to show the passage of time and the evolution of consciousness. As I assimilated, I became less insecure and less self-conscious about stuff. Then, once I figured out I could get things out of it…why not? I definitely, in the beginning, when I came to this country, it was really hurtful that I felt like gay guys did not like me, and those that did, only liked me because I had an accent. So that felt very personal, and I try to show that in the beginning of the montage.

Yes.

But honestly, now I barely have an accent, and I’ve lived here so long I feel more American than Russian. So it doesn’t bother me. I think it’s something that was frustrating to me, but I wouldn’t compare it to racism. It worked to my benefit, and I don’t care at this point. It’s funny: the reactions from some older gay men are really uncomfortable because I go into the stereotype of being a slutty gay man. But I was slutty…

[Laughter]

I just want to be true to that. And I hope it reads that it’s over the course of many years. One reason I wrote it that way was to show his accent getting smaller and his confidence growing.

It’s a fun sequence. Though, it’s a bit weird to have someone demand a partner say “Chernobyl” in bed.

[Laughter]

Well, that’s the thing about a lot of the fetishists—they don’t know anything either. It’s not about substance.

What do you realize about yourself, your family, and your story in sort of walking through it all again? Do you find catharsis in that?

I don’t really think of it in terms of realization. It’s more like purging. The very early drafts of the screenplay, the ending was just me saying why I made the movie. And again, I don’t get it as much anymore, but it used to be that everybody would ask where I was from. So I’d end up regurgitating the same story over and over again. But it’s really like the character says at the end of the movie: I wanted to make the movie so I didn’t have to tell it anymore. Ironically, by the time I made the movie, I don’t get the question much because I’ve assimilated.

The underlying thing about Potato the character is that he watches American movies—Ghost, Working Girl—because they always have a sense of hope, of aspiration. Do Russian movies not? How does that influence you as a child?

I think what happened with Russian cinema was that during the early Soviet era, they only made propaganda films. And they were uplifting, but they were propaganda. There was such censorship that when things started to open up, they started calling it Chernukha—black cinema. Filmmakers started to make films that showed how things really are, but I think they went a bit overboard. I feel like that’s what’s happening to art cinema in America too. People try so hard to say suburban life is the worst, everything is the worst. But I understand that impulse: they have the freedom to show reality.

Yeah.

But ultimately, you have to wonder how it will affect people’s mindset to know things are hopeless. Not everything will end badly. But, before we had any idea we could leave Russia [American films] provided temporary escape like a drug. We’d watch and be in that world, in that American reality to not thing about our own lives. It was pure escapism. Then, as my mom started to explore the idea of leaving, we became more obsessed with that becoming our lives. It’s interesting: I know so many foreign filmmakers from all over the world in my generation also use the same references: it’s Ghost, it’s Working Girl, Pretty Woman—the big hits that made it out and were translated.

Where to next with your career?

I guess I’ll always be attracted to films about sexuality. Not necessarily being gay, but I’m fascinated by sexuality and how it affects life. And unusual stories that are unlikely. I’m writing a new script right now based on a series of memoirs written by a friend that are, if you can believe it, ten times crazier than Potato. They’re really wild.

Oh wow.

I like over-the-top comedy. I’ve written a third season of my Capitol Hill web series. I would love to do that, but I don’t want to do it for no money. So I’m hoping to find the financing somewhere. I’ve been working while I was trying to make this movie, but it feels really good to be done so I can move on.

SPOILER ALERT: [Read further only at the risk of learning a major plot twist]

What’s your relationship like with Janis today?

We were, but Janis passed away about four years ago. We were really lucky: my mom and I got to hold her hand the day before she died. We told her how much we loved her, how much she changed our lives and gave us a future that we wanted. So we were very lucky, though we had a very interesting, rocky relationship. When we were living with James [as he was then known] and I was a teenager, I was so mad at him. It was very frustrating. Then I started to come out, and she started to come out at the same time, and so for years my mom was living queer life.

[Laguther]

Her husband was trans. Her son was gay.

Potato Dreams of America plays Frameline45 beginning June 15. The film also plays the Provincetown Film Festival beginning June 18.