Photos: Phil Bray
Not since 1993’s Philadelphia has Hollywood gotten behind a film as gay as Milk. From learning to ride a motorcycle to donning the ’70s garb for a stroll through San Francisco’s Castro neighbor hood, Alison Pill (Dan in Real Life, Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen) recreates the 1978 version of Anne Kronenberg in the Gus Van Sant biopic. Chronicling the last eight years in the life of Harvey Milk, a San Francisco city supervisor and the first openly gay man elected to public office, Milk highlights the early years of the LGBT movement and particularly illuminates the unification of lesbians and gay men as a political force in the United States.
How familiar were you with Milk’s career before the film?
I knew the basic story and, like many people, I was like, “Was he the mayor?” But I heard the horror story of what had happened—and more, what had happened to Dan White—after the fact. I was shocked. Once I got the job I saw the documentary and read the book and got really into it and more fascinated with the time period, not just in San Francisco but in terms of gay rights and what was going on in the community and the organization that was starting.
One of your first lines really sums up the role of lesbians in the San Francisco gay rights movement at that time: “Is there a place for us?” What did you discover about this historical period?
Harvey was one of the first people to really try and create a coalition among like-minded people who really had been separated from each other, and he was one of the first to really try and involve the lesbian community and also the minorities around San Francisco. He opened everything up to people with the same interests [but] who didn’t necessarily socialize together—suddenly [they became] part of the same community. He was one of the first to recognize the strength in that. Especially here, but it played out elsewhere and created a really vibrant LGBT community.
What were your concerns with taking on the role?
I just wanted to do it justice. It was incredible meeting Anne, because she has this fantastic way of speaking and controlling a room. Not being loud, not being anything aggressive, but just being able to control a room of men, women, whoever, and just knowing exactly what she wants to say. I just wanted to try and capture that, this amazing woman would come down so young, to be able to run a campaign and to run an office in City Hall with not a lot of experience but with a lot of wit and smarts and strength.
Was there any one scene that really resonated for you?
Oh my God, the candlelight march, when they shot it on Market Street. That was maybe my second day of shooting. They basically shot James Franco and I standing in the middle of the street thinking that nobody had come to Harvey’s
funeral and just walking out into Market Street, which had been closed down. All these volunteers marching. So many people who had lived through it, so many young couples, different races, different ages, gay, straight, lesbian, whatever. It was just all these people walking with candles and it was one of the most moving nights of my life.
You mentioned in the past that one essential about being an actor is reading. What did you read to prepare?
I read And the Band Played On and the Harvey Milk biography. I live in New York and to read about the history there and where Harvey started from and how his view point changed—it’s fascinating. There are a lot of people who don’t know what Stonewall is, who don’t know who Harvey Milk is. It’s sort of been ignored, which is unfortunate. I’m hoping that more people will learn about it, and it will be part of a more general history that is taught along with the civil rights movement.
The lesbian activist Anne Kronenberg, whom Alison Pill credits with having “smarts and strength,” was Harvey Milk’s campaign manager for his fourth and only successful run for the city supervisor post. Now, she remembers the hope behind the history.
What was your reaction when you realized the size and scope of the film?
I was thrilled, after all of these years—it will be 31 years on November 27 since Harvey was assassinated—to finally have something happening. There had been so many false starts and to have the likes of Gus Van Sant directing, and Sean Penn playing Harvey, and James Franco. It was just as if 31 years hadn’t gone by.
In one scene your character asks, “Is there a place for us?” Was there a divide between how gay men and lesbians approached politics in San Francisco at that time?
I think there was everywhere. I think that the gay movement started as a men’s movement. It didn’t start as a gay and lesbian movement. We women who were politically active were very much involved with the feminist movement. You have to think back to that time frame, and we were fighting for our equal rights as women. So it’s not that the gay men necessarily were trying to keep us out, but we were really busy ourselves. Harvey saw how important it was to unite different disenfranchised groups, and so he was a natural ally for women. He used to speak at feminist rallies. It was a brave thing for him to bring me into the campaign, because the campaign had been all men and with me came many other women.
One of the first things that struck me upon seeing Milk was its obvious parallel with what’s going on now politically, especially with the Prop 8 battle in California. Why do you think it wasn’t rushed out before Election Day?
I can’t answer that. I certainly thought about it while watching, too. But this is my first, and it will probably be my only, brush with Hollywood and, you know, [its] mysterious workings. I have no idea.
You got involved in politics very young. How has your perspective changed over the years?
I got involved with politics before Harvey. I did a recycling center in Washington state in high school then became very involved with the women’s movement and the environmental movement and I was very idealistic through that whole time. When Harvey died, I lost my idealism. Not that I have not been involved in politics, but I’ve really changed my focus. I’m much more of a behind-the-scenes kind of person, trying to get things done and to fill those needs in my life in different ways, because that was a really, really painful period of time. Some people, like Cleve Jones, just went on to become bigger advocates and continue to be out there. I didn’t have it in me.
What will people take away from the experience?
I just hope that this film educates a whole new generation of people [about] who Harvey Milk was and [that] it gives at least one young person out there the hope that Harvey gave me. It was a very special time and I was very lucky to have known him.