The Guardian profile: Lilly Wachowski

With Lilly joining her film-making sibling Lana in coming out as a transgender woman this week, the Wachowskis’ tales of fluid identities and brave leaps into the unknown take on even greater poignancy

“I’ve been thinking about life and all of the mistakes that I’ve made. The ones that stayed with me, the ones I regret, are the ones I made because of fear. For a long time I was afraid to be who I am because I was taught by my parents there’s something wrong with someone like me. Something offensive. Something you could avoid, maybe even pity.”

Those aren’t the words Lilly, formerly Andy, Wachowski chose to use when coming out as a transgender person earlier this week. In fact, they’re spoken by Nomi, a trans character in the sci-fi series Sense8, co-created, written and directed for Netflix by the Wachowskis. Nomi, a trans blogger living in San Francisco, is the best-written character in the show. We are introduced to her by way of a sunny sex scene in which she’s being pleasured by her girlfriend with a strap-on. Nomi is unique in mainstream entertainment: she is a trans character, played by a trans actor (Jamie Clayton), in a series made by trans film-makers. In art as in life, the Wachowskis continue to break boundaries.

Lilly Wachowski did make a written statement of her own, claiming, among other things, that she was forced to go public by a doorstepping journalist. The experience goes some way to justifying the Wachowskis’ near-legendary levels of secrecy. Before Lilly’s elder sister, Lana, formerly Larry, came out as transgender in 2012 – partly as a result of press speculation – the Wachowskis hadn’t given interviews, attended premieres or engaged in public movie promotion since the release of The Matrix in 1999. They’ve kept a close-knit “circle of trust”, invariably working with the same crew and the same actors. They live close to each other in their native Chicago, where they also have a studio.

Lilly, then Andy, Wachowski at the premiere of The Matrix Reloaded.
Lilly, then Andy, Wachowski at the premiere of The Matrix Reloaded. Photograph: Fred Prouser/Reuters

As Lilly told the New Yorker in 2012, “My desire for anonymity is rooted in two things: an aversion to celebrity and the fact that there’s something nicely egalitarian about anonymity. You know, equality and shit.”

That cherished anonymity looks to have been fatally compromised now, but the fact that the Wachowskis were ever able to achieve such a publicity blackout doubly affirms their status: few film-makers have the negotiating power to do so, but also, the Wachowskis no longer require publicity. They are a brand name. After The Matrix, whatever they did was guaranteed to attract attention. And even if much of that work has fallen short of expectations, it’s generally been due to an excess of ambition rather than a lack of it.

In her statement, Lilly cited the queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz: “Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality for another world.” It’s a phrase that, in retrospect, does much to unlock the Wachowskis’ previous work. Their heroes are all about rejecting the “here and now” – none more so than Keanu Reeves’ Neo in The Matrix. Strip away the sci-fi framework, the dazzling effects and the pop-philosophical mysticism and The Matrix is, at heart, the story of a person who doesn’t feel like they belong. Neo is offered the choice between staying in his conformist, constructed reality (his “here and now”) or taking a leap into the unknown and fulfilling his potential – and accepting the attendant risks. His choice between the red pill and the blue pill has become part of our cultural language.

Naveen Andrews and Daryl Hannah in Sense8.
Naveen Andrews and Daryl Hannah in Sense8. Photograph: Murray Close/AP

People facing gender and sexuality issues can relate to that, says Jason Barker, a programmer for the BFI’s LGBT-themed Flare festival who is also part of Gendered Intelligence, a London community group dedicated to helping young trans people and increasing understanding of gender diversity. “I’ve often referred to The Matrix – before either of the Wachowskis came out – when working with young trans people,” he says.

“Particularly when someone is young, being trans can feel like being separate to the rest of the world. There’s something about having considered massive questions about identity and gender at a young age that can leave some of the people I’ve worked with feeling like they can’t quite connect with others at school. It’s not surprising that so many trans people love sci-fi – we’ve been imagining other worlds and possibilities all our lives.”

Nomi’s character in Sense8 has also been praised by LGBT groups. She makes her speech about not being afraid to be who she is right before she goes out to join San Francisco’s Pride parade. But then she mysteriously collapses. When she comes to in hospital, she is greeted not by her girlfriend but her estranged mother, who clearly disapproves of her lifestyle and insists on still calling her Michael. She is told she has a brain condition that requires a lobotomy. The door is locked and she can’t escape.

The Matrix
The Matrix (1999) became part of the cultural landscape, spawning two commercially successful sequels. Photograph: image net

While it’s certainly a situation that strikes a chord, this should not be mistaken for autobiography. The Wachowskis have spoken of their parents in terms of having won the lottery. Lana said they reacted to her coming out with great understanding and compassion, even if they sound relatively conventional – their father owned a machinery business, their mother was a nurse who reportedly became a painter.

The Wachowskis grew up in south Chicago with their two sisters, and like so many film-makers, their childhood seems to have been one of immersion in pop culture. Their parents took them to the cinema all the time; they wrote and drew their own comic books. Later, having both dropped out of college, they got jobs as writers for Marvel, then began writing screenplays of their own. Having seen one of them butchered into a third-rate Sylvester Stallone movie (1995’s Assassins), the Wachowskis realised they needed to direct, too. Visiting the film-makers on set, their father was struck by how harmoniously they worked together. “They have the same picture in their mind without talking,” he said. “I watched two bodies and one brain.”

Queerness was very much a feature of the Wachowskis’ work from the start. Their feature debut, Bound, was a noir thriller that centred on two lesbians, played Gina Gerson and Jennifer Tilly. (For extra authenticity, the Wachowskis hired the feminist pioneer Susie Bright to help get the sex scenes right – something they have clearly gotten the hang of in Sense8). Simply having lesbian characters who enjoy sex and don’t get punished for it makes Bound a rarity in mainstream movies.

Lana, formerly Larry, Wachowski in 2012.
Lana, formerly Larry, Wachowski in 2012. Photograph: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

Likewise, Cloud Atlas’s ambitious set of stories also dealt with themes of revolution, past and future, accommodating Ben Wishaw’s gay composer and Hugo Weaving’s female nurse. Their most recent sci-fi epic, Jupiter Ascending, was another rebellion story, entertaining notions of hybrid identities such as humans who are part-bee or dog. It also featured a ridiculously camp performance from Eddie Redmayne, who went on to play a transgender woman named Lily in The Danish Girl. Lana apparently recommended him some reading to help him prepare for the role.

In her acceptance speech for the Human Rights Campaign’s visibility award in 2012, Lana bemoaned “the pathology of a society that refuses to accept the spectrum of gender in the exact same, blind way they’ve refused to see a spectrum of race or sexuality.”

We’re all still stuck in a world of ones and zeros, in other words, but the Wachowskis have always reached for the infinity in between. The sentiment is there again in Sense8, whose premise focuses on eight people who find themselves psychically connected. They’re from all parts of the globe, and the ethnic and sexual spectrums (albeit with recourse to some fairly broad stereotypes) – a veritable rainbow nation. And their connected consciousness enables them to occupy each others’ bodies, rendering qualities such as race, sexuality and gender irrelevant.

You sense that, for the Wachowskis, this future cannot come fast enough.

CV

Born: December 29, 1967, Chicago.

Career: House painter and comic book writer before entering the movies, always working with sibling Lana. Sold their first script, Assassins, in 1994 but were disappointed with the resultant movie. Their feature debut, Bound (1996), was well received. The Matrix (1999) made their names and spawned two commercially successful, if critically derided, sequels. Produced and second unit-directed V For Vendetta (2006, directed by James). Speed Racer (2008) was a box-office flop. Cloud Atlas (2012, co-directed with Tom Tykwer) slightly less so. Jupiter Ascending (2015) another flop. Sense8 series also debuted on Netflix in 2015. A second season is in progress. Has also co-authored and produced comics and video games.

High point: The Matrix. More than just a box office smash, it has become part of the cultural landscape. It also gave the Wachowskis a degree of control most film-makers can only dream about.

Low point: Jupiter Ascending. A widely ridiculed space opera and an expensive box-office bomb. It threatened to ruin their reputation.

They say: “Working with the [Wachowskis] and being on set with them, they have this way of curating groups of people. The actors, the crew and every single person on set wanted to be there and was grateful that they were there.” – Jamie Clayton

She says: “I will continue to be an optimist adding my shoulder to the Sisyphean struggle of progress and in my very being, be an example of the potentiality of another world.”

Contributor

Steve Rose

The GuardianTramp

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