Based on Neil Gaiman’s short story, How to Talk to Girls at Parties is a new film from director John Cameron Mitchell about three teenage boys who, in search of an after-hours punk party, stumble upon a group of human-like aliens gathered in a London suburb for a rite of passage. What unfolds is an unexpected love story between Enn (Alex Sharp), a shy punk-loving boy, and Zan (Elle Fanning), a beautiful and rebellious teenage alien who becomes fascinated with her human suitor. Set in 1977, the film, in some ways, is a love letter to the punk scene at the time, but also major British influences like David Bowie, who was just coming out of his Thin White Duke era.
Rounding out the cast as the adult figures in the film are Joanna Scanlan, Matt Lucas, The Affair’s Ruth Wilson and Nicole Kidman, who has enjoyed a standout year with memorable performances in The Beguiled and Big Little Lies, and who steals every scene here as punk maven Queen Boadicea.
The film marks the first time Kidman and Mitchell have worked together since 2010’s Rabbit Hole, which earned the actress an Oscar nomination for playing a woman who is overcoming the unexpected death of her 4-year-old boy. Boadicea, however, is a very different character: a punk mother figure who mentors Zan and helps lead a crusade against the aliens in defense of Enn.
“I hadn’t really seen her do a role like this and I thought it would be perfect,” Mitchell tells ET, revealing that the two have “always tried to find something to do again together. She’s offered me a lot of wonderful things, but I didn’t feel strongly about them as Rabbit Hole.”
This film, however, spoke to Mitchell, marking only his fourth feature film as a director. He previously helmed Hedwig and the Angry Inch, in which he also starred, and Shortbus. “I’ve always wanted to make a YA story for myself, when I was that age. In some ways, this is the story for the 16-year-old misfit in all of us,” he muses, adding that it met two qualifications for him: he felt passionately about it and he got final cut.
When it came to getting Kidman for the part, it was a matter of getting her schedule to work. The actress was busy onstage, in the 2015 West End production of Photograph 51. Luckily, the timing worked out, Mitchell says, adding: “We were rehearsing in her dressing room because she finished the play and immediately shot with us.”
“I said, ‘Yes of course, I’ll do anything for you — my John!’” Kidman tells the Croydon Advertiser, the publication of the London suburb where the film is set. “I love that he’s bold and he just tries anything.”
“She was like, ‘Put the wig on me. Here we go!’” Mitchell recalls of her go-to attitude before revealing that she was vomiting on the first day. “It wasn’t the kind of vomiting that I was wanting to record. But she did it pretty quickly.”
Decked out in a spiky, gray-and-black wig with a tattered black tuxedo jacket paired with drop-crotch pants, Kidman got a lot of media attention when spotted filming the movie in December 2015, with outlets comparing her look to that of Bowie’s in Labyrinth.
“As soon as I met with costume designer Sandy Powell and she showed me this look she had for me and I put on the clothes, I thought it was fantastic,” Kidman added in the same interview.
Kidman’s costume was ultimately a riff on Powell’s previous work for Shakespeare in Love and The Tempest, with Boadicea’s ruffled shirt and jacket drawing from the Elizabethan era. But some of the aliens’ costumes, particularly one of the colony’s blue, skintight latex outfits, Mitchell says, were an homage to Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” music video.
“We have a little joke in there,” Mitchell says of their nod to the singer. “Bowie influences us all.”
How to Talk to Girls at Parties (A24) is in theaters May 25.