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Originally published Friday, October 20, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Movies

Willing to go along for a long, circuitous ride

John Cameron Mitchell's "Shortbus," opening today at the Egyptian, is such a playful and spontaneous movie. You'd never guess it took nearly...

Special to The Seattle Times

John Cameron Mitchell's "Shortbus," opening today at the Egyptian, is such a playful and spontaneous movie. You'd never guess it took nearly four years to reach the screen.

Since being cast in the film in January 2003, Peter Stickles has gone on to establish himself as the star of several low-budget horror movies ("Cemetery Gates," "Hell on Earth," "Dead Serious"). One of his co-stars, singer-songwriter Jay Brannan, who was cast at the same time, relies on day jobs (receptionist, proofreader) to support himself.

Both responded to Mitchell's trade-paper ads, which announced that he was looking for actors to perform in a movie featuring explicit sex. For a while, the movie was known by its Web site name: sexfilmproject.com.

"My roommate read the ad and said 'This is for you, Peter,' " said Stickles when he and Brannan brought the movie to the Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival last week.

"My best friend saw the same ad, which said they were looking for people who maybe had some acting background, maybe not," said Brannan. "They would need to be comfortable with playing a version of themselves on-screen, in a film that included explicit sex scenes."

More than 600 people sent audition videotapes, some of them shot and edited like professional films. About 40 were selected, all of them featuring unknowns. Mitchell felt that using established actors would be distracting.

The finalists then participated in a five-week workshop, much like the one that started "A Chorus Line," which was based partly on their sexual experiences. Months later, Mitchell held another workshop, then another and another, while the start date for the picture kept getting delayed.

Actors interview: Peter Stickles and Jay Brannan of "Shortbus"


"The money was a problem," said Stickles. "People were afraid to invest in it," said Brannan. They say they always believed Mitchell would come up with the financing. He had, after all, directed and starred in "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," which became a critical commercial success on stage and screen.

Stickle's character, Caleb, is a voyeur who has a ringside seat to the lives of a gay couple in a nearby apartment building. Brannan plays Ceth, who joins the couple in a sex scene.

"We were cast before there was any script whatsoever," said Stickles, who said he had something in common with the Caleb character, at least when the script was in its first stages.

"I was exploring sex clubs at the time," he said, "and not necessarily participating but watching from afar. I think John was attracted to the idea of this whole voyeuristic aspect of the character. ... How far would you go to touch somebody from afar?"

"I think all of the characters have elements of the actors playing them," said Brannan. "Sometimes elements of other cast members, or stuff that happened in the improvs, also elements of John and elements of fiction. It's a combination of all of those things."

Still, he added, "it was really important at a certain point to draw a line between ourselves and the characters." Some cast members dropped out "because they were concerned that the characters were becoming less accurate versions of themselves. When they needed to sacrifice that for the sake of the story or the film, they weren't able to do it."

Since it was shown at the Cannes Film Festival last spring, "Shortbus" has become one of the year's must-see independent films. And the sex scenes certainly haven't hurt it at the box office or with the critics (Time, Newsweek and The New York Times have all praised it).

"I really didn't expect it to be this big of a deal," said Stickles, who works in a nightclub while doing the occasional exploitation film.

Brannan, who has worked in restaurants, for a telephone service and other odd jobs, said: "In a way, for me, it's what's kept me going for four years. I'm very lucky to have a song in the movie, and on the soundtrack. It's my first professionally recorded track."

John Hartl: johnhartl@yahoo.com

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