VIDEO: Peter Keough interviews Cleve Jones
Few of us get a chance to relive our youth, let alone with Gus Van Sant directing and Emile Hirsch as our stand-in. That's one reason Cleve Jones is happy, as Milk — the bio-pic about the San Francisco city supervisor who was the first openly gay man elected to public office — opens today (November 26), one day short of the 30th anniversary of Harvey Milk's murder. As you'll see in the movie, Milk turned the young Jones onto politics back in the '70s, and the protûgû has since kept up the good fight, as one of the founding creators of the AIDS Memorial Quilt in the '80s, and more recently in the campaign against California's Proposition 8, which calls for a ban on same-sex marriage. But that last is one reason Jones isn't happy: unlike Proposition 6, a ban on gays in government jobs that Milk helped defeat in 1978, Proposition 8 passed, along with similar initiatives in three other states.
You played a role in the film?
I have three cameos. I played Don Amador [an activist friend of Milk] calling with the news of winning in LA [to defeat Proposition 6], and then I'm slumped over a cocktail in a bar when Emile Hirsch bursts in and says, "Out of the bars and into the streets!" And then I'm also on stage clapping when Sean as Harvey gives his speech at City Hall.
Is that a beginning of a movie career for you?
Oh God, I hope not.
What's it like in the scene when your younger self comes in and confronts who you are 30 years later?
It was poignant and eerie and odd, but it was also great fun because all of our cast and all of our crew were so excited to be part of this project, and there was this great sense of family. We all became friends, and we've remained friends. Everyone was so respectful of Harvey, of the neighborhood, and of the movement. I'm 54, and this is the most wonderful year of my life — truly, it's just great.
Did your first meeting with Harvey happen as it did in the movie? [Young Cleve dismisses Milk as too old and square.]
It is very accurate. I didn't take Harvey seriously at first. He was this character always running for office, and he had a ponytail, and I wasn't that interested in electoral politics. I thought we needed a revolution. I'm more hopeful today. I'm excited and inspired by Obama's victory.
Do you think this film would have been more effective in the campaign against Proposition 8 if it had been released before the election?
Of course everybody is asking me this now, and it's very frustrating. All of these details were planned months in advance, when Proposition 8 was losing by 10 points. I don't think any of us in California thought there was a chance we could lose. We wanted the film to come out on the 30th anniversary of his murder, and we didn't want it to come out during the height of the campaign season because we were afraid people would not have time to see it. I mean, I would not have had time to see it; I was canvassing for Obama in Nevada.