By Pollyanna McIntosh
Actor Kenneth Hughes (500 Days of Summer; The Island) entered the room with his sky-blue eyes twinkling mischievously, and wearing a debonair three-piece suit by Milf & Mermaids offset by a mess of “I don’t care” hair and a smile that betrayed…
No, I can’t write that crap.
Thankfully, Honeysuckle isn’t the mag you go to for hyperbolic Hollywood bullshit. You want connection. You want to
be surprised by the bite of truth. So do I. Despite reservations about interviewing an LA actor who I feared might be vain or vague, as I chatted with Kenneth, on my bed, on the phone, in my Pikachu onesie (I’ve no idea what he was wearing) truth is exactly what I got.
Kenneth Hughes has been a working actor and dancer for over 20 years, a recognizable face in everything from Rent to The Muppets (2011) and all the TV procedurals in between. In 2007 he wrote and directed his first feature, Bad Dog and Superhero, an experimental urban musical about a couple of misfits trying to do good in the world. The film won two awards at festivals and found an impassioned following despite its shoestring budget. Kenneth felt he was on to something. Producing others’ material, as well as his own, followed. It was a reaction to being “desperate for original liberated narratives” in the face of what was on offer in the mainstream. He has since produced eight features, also acting in some. Defining himself as a storyteller above all else, Hughes is clearly passionate about producing. “I love it and hate it,” he admits. “All of humanity’s fears and courage spill out during production and it’s a mess of entrails but, you finally finish and you tell a story that connects us.”
Amongst the films he has recently produced that will come out later this year are the insane-looking The Bloody Indulgent, a vampire musical starring Kevin Richardson of Backstreet Boys fame; his Sci Fi thriller Einstein’s God Model about M-theory and lost love, and lastly, an adaptation of Tony DuShane’s book Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk with Eric Stoltz directing.
Hughes is also at the editing stage of a new documentary he’s producing called Blue Eyes, which is about a part of his life he’s previously kept private. Born and later raised in LA, he was fostered in Detroit from age two to four at a time when his single mother couldn’t care for him. This became a pattern and eventually, due to her mounting mental health problems, she went to live on the street. Hughes was 15 and went “bouncing around from here to there”. Though the theme of homelessness was also present in Bad Dog and Superhero, Blue Eyes is an immensely personal portrait of Hughes and his mother. Despite leaving him feeling vulnerable he hopes it will inspire and shed light on the plight of homeless women and single parents of either sex, something he feels particularly impassioned about since he’s a single parent of an eight-year-old daughter.
We talked at length about how his personal history has shaped his work and about how Blue Eyes came to be.
PM: How do you think your mother’s homelessness and your own influenced your work?
KH: As a producer it’s translated into where I’m not afraid of having little money to work with and this gives me a freedom to make films without being beholden to commercialism.
As a performer, when you have so little to lose, you’re basic in a way, not inhibited at all because it’s all you have really. Once I realized that performance could go as far as I could…From the simplest sweet gesture to being 40 feet above a stage, naked…it was a way I could match what was inside, a way I could feel, because my fear, my rage, I didn’t know how to focus it.
PM: How did it round out for you? Did it round out?
HK: I was dealing with Mom’s homelessness for twenty years. I finally met my dad when I was 21. And I found out my mom gave up three kids for adoption before me. I looked for and found them all. Some are fucked up, some are okay, some didn’t know. Then I was finding out why she did that. She was sliding into mental hardships my whole life. She never felt she could take care of any kids, which was true except when I came along. She apparently had a voice that said this one she could raise herself, which may not be true – time will tell! She’s now in a lockdown facility and has times of stability. I visit her every week or two and take my daughter most of these times.
PM: Was it at this time [of homelessness] that the documentary came to be?
HK: I was 21, loved documentaries but was totally untrained. Thanks to the West Hollywood-based forerunners of video filmmaking – EZTV – I was given equipment and support to begin my own. They put a camera in my hand and I started interviewing my mom. One of my first questions to her was,“How do you eat out of garbage cans and not get busted by the cops or shop owners?” I had been homeless too but not in the way she was. It was really cathartic. EZTV didn’t give a shit what they made, commercially speaking: they just made stuff they cared about. They gave me permission to be insane. Then they sat me in front of a $150,000 editing deck and offered help as needed. They not only gave me a platform as a filmmaker but they inspired me with what I’m building [now] through my own non-profit: Unified Everything Project. It’s in its infancy but designed to bring art and science together to encourage projects to enlighten and entertain with art in public areas for free. We’ll offer support and freedom to creatives who want to educate and inform without answering to commercial forces. Art, dance, science, design, fashion, music, puppetry, film, food; anything that awakens and inspires.
I finally thanked EZTV for the help they gave a homeless young man with a letter in 2013 telling them what an influence they were on me. They responded saying I should revisit the footage and do something with it. Uncomfortable directing something so personal, I presented the idea to director Li Lu without telling her it was my story. She was really into it but said, “If the guy can’t trust me, I can’t make it work.” That was when I told her it was me. “I’ll trust you,” I told her, “but I don’t want it to be indulgent.” Now it’s at the edit stage. EZTV are producing and as am I, but silent. I’m too close to it. I feel so exposed, naked, but I hope it can be influential to people and [especially] women who have this history. And I did it for my daughter. I want her to know from me my experience, honestly, to have this document when she’s a little older.
PM: Do you think this can tell her in a way you can’t?
HK: I think that’s it. They interviewed [all my] siblings and other people. It’s way more objective now, hopefully, with the balance of the collaboration. The raw footage is my perspective, but this is something different. I can’t even imagine the conversation my daughter and I will have. “How was it talking to your mom about being raped twice on the street?” I began to understand her [his mother] more and had more compassion for her. I also want people to understand that underneath this metropolis, this single mom, this woman had no net. Hopefully it will help further expose the situation a lot of women face. As a young man talking to my mother about it, I learned just how really difficult it is. The harshest thing is, people won’t talk to you because you’re dirty and you go out of your mind. The greatest thing ever is just to be able to blab. It’s really deep and really simple. I would like to raise that standard in myself. The old woman in the street – I want to stop and shoot the shit for fifteen minutes. I won’t give a quarter but I hope I’ll give enough time for a conversation.
So, no vanity or vagueness from Kenneth Hughes: just another reminder that people are not always as they appear.
Kenneth’s documentary will be released in 2016.
Keep up with Kenneth’s upcoming projects at www.kennethhughes.com
For information on his non-profit visit www.unifiedeverythingproject.com
For information on mental health issues see www.mentalhealthamerica.net
To donate, volunteer or learn more about homelessness in America go to www.helpusa.org