Trudie Styler, best known as Sting’s better half, doesn’t like an audience. As she sits down at the rooftop restaurant of a Cannes hotel to discuss “Freak Show,” her feature film directorial debut, she gently asks if her publicist can grab a coffee, saying she gets nervous talking in front of several people.
At 63, Styler is elegant and regal, every inch a rock star’s wife, but she connected with the story of “Freak Show” because of her own sense of being an outsider. The film follows Billy, a gay teenager, who struggles to fit in after being transplanted to a high school in the deep South. Despite facing harassment, he decides to run for homecoming queen. It’s based on a book by James St. James, best known for his involvement in New York City’s club scene in the 1980s and ’90s. “Freak Show” will be released in the U.S. by IFC later this year.
“Every teenager feels like a freak,” Styler said. “It’s part of being a teenager, part of the individuation from child to adult — those teenage years are who am I? What am I? Where am I going? We all struggle to find our place and schools can be cruel to kids who aren’t part of a pack.”
For Styler, finding a safe haven as a child was difficult. An accident with a truck when she was two and a half, and subsequent surgeries, left her face lined with deep, red scars. She remembers having a group of kids stand in a circle around her, calling her “scarface.”
“That wasn’t great,” Styler said. “That didn’t do a lot for my self esteem, but as the scars faded, and I became an older teenager and started to date, things got better.”
Styler said she became an actress in order to experience other lives, to play queens and powerful women, as a way of coping with that childhood trauma.
“It let me get away from me,” she said. “Becoming an actor let me escape the me that I had in my heart, which was I’m a loser.”
Styler had been thinking about directing for a while, but she only decided to slide behind the camera after the filmmaker that had originally been hired for “Freak Show” left at the eleventh hour. A relative novice, she decided to concentrate heavily on assembling her case, imploring Bette Midler, a friend, to take the part of Billy’s mother, and tapping Alex Lawther from “The Imitation Game” to play the main role. She had met Lawther at a film premiere and was impressed with his way with a bon mot.
The project was shot before Donald Trump was elected president, but Styler believes that his election gives the picture and its message of tolerance and compassion greater resonance. It also hits as North Carolina’s “bathroom bill,” which states transgender people must use the bathroom corresponding to the sex on their birth certificate, continues to be a hot button issue.
“We’re marching backward,” Styler said. “The environment has changed since Obama has left. It’s become meaner. It’s become, for people who are figuring out gender issues, terrifying.”
Though Styler didn’t originally intend to direct “Freak Show,” her move behind the camera is in keeping with her work in recent years. In 2011, she joined with “The Kids Are All Right” producer Celine Rattray to form Maven Pictures, a company dedicated to promoting female talent. Together they’ve backed Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey,” Maggie Betts’ “Novitiate,” and Kasi Lemmons’ “Black Nativity,” acclaimed works by women. The push to close the gender gap comes as female filmmakers account for just 7% of directors on top-grossing films and 24% of producers.
“When you look at the majority of narratives in most movies, they are male-driven narratives because in almost every aspect of the entertainment industry, from the exhibitors backwards to distributors and financiers, it’s a male-driven society,” Styler said.
Maven, she hopes, will be part of a larger change.
“We are a small company, but we’re making our mark,” Styler said. “I hope when people see that female-led production companies are working, there will be more of us.”