Thirty years ago this week, Neil Jordan’s acclaimed The Crying Game, having been nominated for six Academy Awards, received a wide release. It had been a long road getting there. The movie—which starred Stephen Rea as Fergus, an IRA operative, Forest Whitaker as Jody, the British soldier whom he is tasked to kill when a prisoner exchange fails, and Jaye Davidson as Dil, the girlfriend of Jody whom Fergus later falls for—had to get many investors from outside the U.K. During the cash-strapped production, Palace Pictures owner and Crying Game producer Stephen Woolley had to siphon profits from his own arthouse cinema in London to keep the production afloat.
Ultimately, American audiences embraced the movie both for its memorable characters and its exploration of what it means to be human. Yet because the Miramax marketing campaign revolved around the surprise revelation of Dil’s transgender identification, that plot twist became more of a focus, one that likely distracted many people from the bigger picture of the story. That scene of sexual revelation—which involves Fergus vomiting in his initial shock—was understandably distressing for many trans members of the audience.
The scene and the reaction has led some to assert that The Crying Game is transphobic; it has also been argued that some people have projected their transphobia onto it. The story’s romantic relationship, however bumpy because of Fergus not yet being comfortable with his sexuality (as opposed to Dil, with hers), continues after that moment. He also goes to jail for her. Dil was a landmark character in cinema in 1992—a confident Black trans woman whom the audience could sympathize with rather than shrink from.
Three decades later, even debating its sexual politics and that controversial scene, for many The Crying Game remains a highly charged political thriller and a moving love story. Writer-director Neil Jordan sat down for a video call with The A.V. Club to look back on the film’s creation, themes, legacy, and why it still resonates with many people today.
The A.V. Club: As I recall, this story existed three or four years earlier as A Soldier’s Wife, but you only finished about a third of it and couldn’t get past that first act?
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Neil Jordan: I had the story about somebody who had been responsible for somebody’s death in the north of Ireland, and went to meet his wife in London out of a sense of guilt. Every time that the story came to London, it just became dull somehow. There was a captivity at the start of it. There’s a very well-known Irish short story [from 1931] called Guest To The Nation. It’s set in the ’20s. It’s about an IRA unit of the period who are looking after a prisoner, a British soldier, a young guy, and he realizes at a certain point that his death is going to come up. They realize it too, about which time they’ve befriended each other and recognized each other’s humanity. Then they have to go out and kill the guy. It’s a beautiful story by this Irish short story writer, Frank O’Connor. It was also turned into a play [in 1958] by Brendan Behan, which he called The Hostage. I wasn’t copying that, but I was taking a situation that would have been familiar to revisit the story. But I wanted to do something that was more metaphorical, not a piece of social realism that Ken Loach could have made. He’s a great director, but I felt the need for the story to go into more elemental areas.
When I came up with the character of Dil, it changed everything. When the character became what you’d nowadays would call a trans woman—but that’s not quite the term for the character that I came up with—it changed everything. And it reflected on the period of captivity between Stephen Rea’s character and Forrest Whitaker’s character. It became an examination of what it means to be a human being really and what any one individual’s responsibility to another individual means in its broadest possible terms. That’s when it became really exciting, and that’s when it became the kind of story that nobody ever wanted to make, including Miramax, I might add. I remember Harvey Weinstein read it and said if I cast a woman in the role of Dil he would make it. Otherwise, he thought audiences would be too revolted by the experience of having attached their affections to a beautiful woman and finding out it was a man. And he was terribly wrong.
It was very hard for Stephen Woolley, the producer, and Palace Pictures to finance. But eventually they financed it independently, and we made the movie.
AVC: I watched The Crying Game again recently, and I was thinking that you go from a situation where Fergus is dealing with toxic masculinity with the IRA kidnappers and how he’s a sensitive person. Then he meets Dil and starts learning about his sexuality.
NJ: The structure of the film was confronting this character. I’m Irish. I’m not from the north of Ireland. I was born in Sligo, but confronting this character who’s Irish, probably Catholic, I don’t know what he is. He could be a Protestant, he could be Jewish. But he’s Irish, he’s nationalist, he’s male. He is willing to use violence to achieve ends that he thinks are justifiable. So the structure of the plot was a series of mechanisms to confront every aspect of what he thought would be his definition as a human being. He’s Irish and has captured a British squaddie. He has to learn that this guy’s a human being. He’s white. The British squaddie he captures is Black, and the racism that was expressed towards Black British soldiers in the north of Ireland in the ’70s and ’80s was really shocking. There was a huge irony there that I was anxious to explore. You’re talking about an oppressed nationalist—or what they imagined to be an oppressed nationalist community in the north of Ireland—suddenly using all the language of racial hatred and oppression against Black British soldiers who are patrolling the streets. It was a strange thing. So eventually, he’s confronted with his idea of whatever he defines his sexuality or his gender. The word that people didn’t use much then.
Eventually, he has to confront his basic facts of his humanity—what kind of responsibility he has to another human being. It turns out to be Dil, and not Jody. That was really cool to see audiences all over the world responding to this basic progression of ideas.
AVC: Before making The Crying Game, you and Stephen Woolley had been out for drinks at Madame Jo Jo’s, a famous burlesque and cabaret club where mainstream and gay culture intersected. It was supposed to be a cool place.
NJ: It was a cool place. London at the time was a cool place, it still is a cool place, but it was just a party. There was no particular revelatory thing for us going to Madame Jo Jo’s. The interesting thing for me at the time when I was making the movie was we had to populate the bar [The Metro] with people from the trans community. Which wouldn’t have been known as the trans community. I remember when we were casting for all the extras, and some of the actors who would play in that bar were going through what people now call transitioning. Maybe it was called transitioning then. So I experienced a community that I had no idea existed, and a lot of them had the same story. They would meet a man, as a woman. They would begin a relationship, and the point would come where the individual would have to disclose what they were [and] their sexuality. Generally the new partner would say, “Well, that’s fine. I kind of knew that already.” To me, it was interesting. It was a subculture that’s now become a part of the main culture that I didn’t know existed.
AVC: What was the main inspiration for the character of Dil?
NJ: I don’t know. I just dreamed her up, really. I just thought of her. Maybe with Shakespeare. It was the opposite. Boys pretending to be girls in Shakespeare, but not many girlfriends pretending to be boys. Maybe it was the idea of Shakespeare, maybe plays like M. Butterfly. The character just emerged. Once I thought, if I make this character a far more complicated woman, let’s call it that, the story would just become far more interesting and more profound. That was my instinct, that was something I was following.
AVC: When you were casting for this, did you talk to a lot of trans people about their personal stories?
NJ: No, no. I remember talking to Stanley Kubrick at the time, and I described the story I was doing and he said, “You’re gonna cast a Black guy as a girl?” And I said, “Yes. That’s what I have to do.” And he says, “Have you found anybody?” And I said, “No, I’m looking.” Stanley said, “Well, you’ll still be looking in three years’ time, believe me. When are you shooting?” I said, “We’re shooting in a month’s time.” But I was helped by [director] Derek Jarman who, through the costume designer Sandy Powell, knew of an extraordinary person who inhabited the gay club scene in London. It was Jaye Davidson. I met Jaye, and I thought, this is the character. But Jaye had never acted before. I think he was a clothes designer at the time. He was part of the crew that designed Lady Diana’s dress or something like that. He was a star in this small scene that Derek knew about.
AVC: I think Jaye still works in fashion today.
NJ: I hope so. He doesn’t want to work in movies anymore, believe me. He made a couple of million dollars on some big Hollywood [movie].
NJ: He was rather wonderful, but I think he just got sick of the movies. When we had a screening of the movie about two years ago, Jaye turned up. He’s still as sweet as ever, but he looks different.
AVC: There are trans people who have issues with the way Fergus reacts when he discovers Dil is trans—by vomiting. One trans woman blogged on Medium about how that scene negatively impacted her when she was younger, and she wondered if many people would reconsider transitioning if this would be the reaction they’d expect to receive.
NJ: The only thing I can say is the guy was surprised, and he would have been surprised. But it kind of depended on the story that he should be surprised, and I think in real life, he would have been surprised. Maybe he wouldn’t have been surprised in exactly that way. To me, it’s surprising that the elements in fiction can traumatize people anyway. But that’s a different issue.
AVC: In retrospect, knowing that now, would you have done the scene differently?
NJ: I think he would have been surprised, you know. I think he would’ve been shocked. And I think he would have been shocked in such a manner as he would have had to make a personal effort to get over his shock, which is what the story was. He was shocked in a way that upset Dil, and it really devastated her. Then he came back, and he talked to her. And he apologized. He said, “I get it.” That’s the way the character would have reacted, really.
AVC: Later on, when Fergus cuts Dil’s hair to protect her from the IRA, she starts to look like Jody. There’s imagery of Jody throughout the movie, like when Dil first goes down on him and there’s the image of Jody in his mind. Later, when they’re talking in Dil’s place, there’s the image of Jody’s cricket uniform hung up, and the cap is down and reminds us of the hood that had been over his head.
NJ: The whole movie is about how a human being can be many different things at the same time. That’s what I hope. The main objections I got at the time in Britain were for casting an American, Forest Whitaker, as a British squaddie. That’s what was strange. It just shows you how times change. And many people objected to the way he threw that cricket ball. Cricket is very important to English people, believe me, it really is.
AVC: I always remembered that the likable character of Dil was funny and charming. At the time, most trans characters on screen would be portrayed as serial killers or freaks.
NJ: That was the big barrier towards making the film. Could you make a movie about a trans character that actually would be beautiful and sexually attractive and a nice, beautiful human being. Brian De Palma and The Silence Of The Lambs constructed trans characters that were wielding scalpels and [were] interested in cutting people up and all that sort of stuff. I did present a trans character that the world fell in love with, basically.
AVC: Is it true that the U.K. reaction to the film wasn’t as positive as the American one?
NJ: They just didn’t like a movie about an IRA guy that was a human being. Everybody had an objection to this movie at some level. They really did. That’s why it was so impossible to finance. People thought, “Oh, I don’t want to make a movie about Irish terrorism.” People thought, “Oh, I don’t want to make a movie where there’s this interracial relationship.” Even though it’s only a friendship between Stephen Rea’s character and Forest Whitaker’s character where one guy has to unzip his pants and take out his penis as he goes to the toilet. They didn’t want that. People didn’t want a relationship between a straight person and a gay person. People didn’t want a trans character in the movie. There were all sorts of reasons why people could turn down this movie, but look, the good thing is that it was about something. For me to make a movie that actually was about something that became successful was very important because I didn’t want to keep making movies if they’re about nothing.
AVC: Do you think Fergus exploring his sexuality started when Jody called him handsome?
NJ: The love relationship starts with Jody, it starts in the captivity. It absolutely does. Those guys kind of love each other. They just don’t know how to express ... Fergus, in particular, doesn’t know how he likes this man.
AVC: But Jody senses something in him.
NJ: Oh, absolutely. He senses a humanity, which I suppose an IRA [member] or a soldier would call a weakness. But he senses his humanity there that will perhaps save his life, and if not save his life will perhaps lead to something else.
AVC: The Troubles in Northern Ireland were a hot-button issue back then, and I imagine some critics were angry about it.
NJ: They were. Look, I live in Ireland. I made four movies based on the persistence of political violence in this country. It’s over now, thank goodness. I made Angel, The Crying Game, and Michael Collins. I made a movie called Breakfast On Pluto, which in some ways did address those issues. People would say to me when I was making The Crying Game: “How can you present an IRA terrorist as anything other than a psychopath?” And I would say, “Well, the problem—and it’s a broader military and political problem—the problem is that they are not psychopaths. The problem is they’re doing psychopathic things, but they have an ideology that to them is coherent.” I mean, I had no sympathies either way, really. One of the things I wanted to do in The Crying Game was forensically analyze that entire militaristic mindset. It was a movie that was just questioning things that were around at the time, really. It’s as simple as that.
AVC: What do you think would have happened when Fergus got out of prison? Would they have finally gotten together and gone off somewhere, lived a different life?
NJ: I have no idea. I’d love to see those two characters together, in some strange way.