Max Minghella: “I Was Raised Almost Entirely by Gay Men”

The “Teen Spirit” writer-director lives for Robyn and Ariana Grande, too.

Max Minghella, brooding star of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, has a shiny new tale to tell.

Following in the footsteps of his late father, Oscar-winning filmmaker Anthony Minghella, the 33-year-old actor makes his directorial debut with Teen Spirit, now in theaters. Elle Fanning plays Violet, a shy teenager who enters a televised singing competition with big dreams of escaping her small English town.

Minghella tells NewNowNext what inspired the female-driven fairytale and why it’s no surprise the soundtrack—packed with pop covers of Robyn, Ariana Grande, Carly Rae Jepsen, and more—sounds made for the gays.

Teen Spirit/LD Ent/Bleecker Street

One might expect your directorial debut and first original screenplay to explore something closer to home. Why make a movie about an aspiring young female singer?

It’s funny, because people who know me would say it’s almost comically close to home in terms of my interests and fascinations. I definitely was conscious of the fact that it’s very difficult to get a film made, and I had no expectations of getting to make another one, so I tried to squeeze all my favorite things into one 90-minute experience.

Good. The last thing we need is another coming-of-age movie about a straight guy.

Seriously, man, how boring would that be?

Did The Handmaid’s Tale influence the female-focused spirit of Teen Spirit?

I don’t know if it influenced the spirit, but I am very drawn to stories with female characters. I don’t know why. There’s no noble reason for it. I’ve always preferred to read or watch stories about women. As a young man, it was probably a curiosity thing. And, you know, actresses tend to be better.

The Handmaid's Tale/Hulu

Do you relate to Violet’s story?

It’s about a singing competition, but by the end of the movie, I don’t think you’re really interested in whether she wins or not. It’s much more about how she is going to maintain her integrity, faced with decisions that are quite difficult to navigate, especially as a young person going through a very vulnerable time. I think about that all the time—how to be a good version of yourself when the world doesn’t make it easy. That resonates with me a lot.

Should audiences look past all the fun pop performances to take away an important lesson?

I want to have my cake and eat it, too. I get very excited to see a certain kind of movie, and then I don’t enjoy those movies. I’m the first person out to see Transformers 11, but I don’t always enjoy Transformers 11. The movie I do love is maybe the one I was dragged to. So with Teen Spirit and anything I get to do going forward, my hope is to bridge that gap somehow. I want to create something fun and escapist on the surface, an excuse to go have a theatrical experience. But once you’re in the movie, it’s not patronizing or manipulative, and there’s something to think about during and afterwards.

Critics have been surprised and impressed by Elle Fanning’s vocal chops. Can you sing?

Not like that. I certainly shouldn’t be entering any singing competitions. I like to sing in the shower—very badly.

What about karaoke?

I do like karaoke. As you can tell from the movie, my taste in music is quite poppy, so maybe I’ll belt out a boy band number.

On some level, did you live vicariously through Elle and her character?

On some level? On every level! Believe me, man, I wish I could’ve been a pop singer. But I fucked up and became an actor.

Are you a fan of singing competitions like American Idol and The Voice?

Oh, yeah. I was watching American Idol in bed the other night. I really love those shows, but it’s funny how little I thought about them in making this movie. We all have a pretty clear understanding of what those shows look like, so that wasn’t high on my list of concerns. I was more interested in what we’re not allowed to see, so a lot of my research was around what happens off-camera.

The Idol judges would approve of your fresh song choices.

It really started with “Dancing on My Own,” the Robyn song. The whole movie kind of started from there, really. That song felt very cinematic to me, and it had a very interesting and specific tone. So I wrote Violet’s first audition scene with that song and built the movie out from there. Then the rest of the songs had to fit, so “Dancing on My Own” was the tonal set piece for everything else.

Robyn, Carly Rae Jepsen, Annie Lennox, Tegan and Sara—you’re really attracting a queer audience here.

[Laughs] Yeah, and I love that. But there was no agenda there at all. Those are songs I just felt were right and all lived together under the same roof. There are also some songs in there chosen for totally selfish reasons. Like the Ariana Grande song, “Tattooed Heart,” there’s no narrative purpose for it—it’s just a song I love, and it was an excuse to get more people to listen to it.

Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Turner

attends the 24th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at The Shrine Auditorium on January 21, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. 27522_011

Growing up in London with a filmmaker father and dancer-choreographer mother, what was your introduction to the LGBTQ community?

I was raised almost entirely by gay men, so I’m not surprised we share similar taste in music. My godparents—who are actually the choreographers on Teen Spirit, Jonathan Lunn and Amir Hosseinpour—really were as present in my life growing up as both my parents. They were more like co-parents than godparents. My father’s best friend, Duncan Kenworthy, was also a massive part of my life, and we’d go on every Christmas vacation together. So from a very early age, I’ve been surrounded by and very comfortable with gay people. That’s been a part of my reality since before I can remember.

Your father’s film adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley brought the novel’s gay subtext to the forefront. Are there queer stories you’d like to explore as a filmmaker?

Absolutely. I want to tell more stories about people who haven’t had their stories told. I’m certainly not interested in telling stories that’ve been told a hundred times. Really, I’m looking at a blank screen, thinking, What film doesn’t exist that I wish existed? What is the movie I want to put on but I can’t put on? Even though Teen Spirit is a traditional fairytale, we’ve tried to reinvent it, hopefully in a way that feels new and unique.

You played a gay character, Richie Castellano, on The Mindy Project.

I absolutely loved that show. I actually reached out to Mindy Kaling and asked to be a part of it.

It was heartwarming to watch Danny, a conservative Catholic curmudgeon, be so accepting of his younger gay brother. How did you approach the character?

What I really cared about with Richie was not making him a stereotype. I wanted him to be a representation of a young gay male character that I hadn’t seen before, especially on a sitcom where often those characters end up being very broad or played very flamboyantly. I saw it as an opportunity to do something completely antithetical to that, without betraying his orientation and still letting him being true to himself. The more we did the show, the more dimensional and real he became.

The Mindy Project/Jordin Althaus/Hulu

THE MINDY PROJECT -- "It Had To Be You" Episode 610 -- Pictured: (l-r) Chris Messina as Danny Castellano, Rhea Perlman as Annette Castellano, Max Minghella as Richie Castellano -- (Photo by: Jordin Althaus/Universal Television/Hulu/NBCU Photo Bank)

The dystopian society in The Handmaid’s Tale oppresses not only women but also LGBTQ people. How does it feel to be giving voice to these persecuted communities at this moment in history?

I’m just so pleased and proud that the show is on the right side of the conversation. I think every time I’ve cried while watching the show has been tied to Alexis Bledel’s character. When she’s separated from her wife and child in Season 2? As a viewer, that absolutely ruined me.

It’s a cautionary tale that’s becoming more plausible in our current administration. Has the show made you more socially and politically active?

I like to think I’m socially and politically aware—I’ve always been a big news junkie—but I don’t know that I’m interested in bringing that out into a public forum. Maybe later in life I will, but I don’t think I’m somebody who has a clout to advocate for things on a big platform and make a difference. I do things in my personal time, quietly, that I hope are helpful and contribute in some way. I get nervous, man, mixing politics and social media. That seems dangerous.

Your fans are probably too busy posting about your eyebrows anyhow.

[Laughs] Yeah, my eyebrows have their own seaport and economy.

GQ has used your face to champion bushier brows. There’s even unofficial Handmaid’s Tale merch for sale with the phrase “Under His Eyebrows.” How do you feel about that attention?

I’m not somebody who’s very comfortable with any kind of attention, to be honest. That’s why I loved getting to write and direct a movie. I definitely feel way more comfortable hiding behind a camera.

Teen Spirit is now in theaters. The Handmaid’s Tale returns June 5 on Hulu.

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