A Trip to the Russian Baths with Artist and Now Filmmaker Savannah Knoop

Jarrett Earnest

Photography by Nir Arieli

A still from Savannah Knoop’s performance in the Fire Island Pines, Nosferatu on the Beach (2018) uses every-day objects in a public space while referencing the 1922 German Expressionist horror film.

More than a decade after being revealed as the public face of the fictional author JT LeRoy, Savannah Knoop has a major Hollywood film out about their experience, Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy (2018) and a recent show of new video art and sculpture, “SCREENS: a project about ‘community’ at Essex Flowers gallery in New York. I met Knoop in front of the Russian-Turkish baths on 10th Street, the 126-year-old staple of the East Village that has operated under two different owners on alternating weeks since the early 1990s. “David week” has a computer at the door and caters to a clientele of Brooklyn hipsters and tourists with Groupons. “Boris week,” on the other hand, has a Russian with a ledger book behind the desk, and remains a haven for an eccentric cast of regulars. We’re there for Boris week.

Savannah guides me through the lobby, greeting the women behindthe desk, who check our wallets, and directs me to the bins of towels and “uniforms”—baggy cloth diapers with elastic waist bands, one-size fits all—then through the locker room and downstairs to the baths. With my shaved head and big beard I fit aesthetically with the schvitzing Orthodox men—as long as I’m not talking, or waving my hands like a faggot, which is to say never. Savannah sports a heartthrob hairdo: undercut, long on top, pulled into a bun. A small towel around their neck mostly covers their breasts, body muscular from years of serious Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I’d been there once before years ago during one of the men-only afternoons. It was very straight, but with a couple guys furtively jerking each other off. “Finally!” I say, settling into a steam room, about the pleasure of the heat and our getting together. “I know—we’ve been dancing feet apart in sweaty rooms for years,” Savannah says.

When I wrote about doing an interview, they suggested we meet at the baths, because they’d been making performances and videos there, culminating in their recent show at Essex Flowers. Typical of New Yorkers, after connecting we went into friend-overdrive. Because I didn’t want to cover any areas of the interview beforehand, our time in the baths meanders through talk of love, music and earlier art projects—instant intimacy.

I’ve known about Savannah since they were revealed to be the embodiment of hustler-turned-cult-“autobiographical fiction writer” JT LeRoy in 2006. As Savannah explained in their 2008 memoir, Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT Leroy, as an 18-year-old their then-sister-in-law, Laura Albert, asked them to pose as Albert’s fictional alter-ego for interviews and public appearances. With the success of JT’s books came friendships with celebrities ranging from Courtney Love to Gus Van Sant, and culminated in a romance with Asia Argento who adapted LeRoy’s The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things as her directorial debut in 2004. Laura Albert told her version of events in the 2016 documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story. Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy, the new film directed by Justin Kelly was adapted from Savannah’s book, which is being re-issued this year by Seven Stories Press. Savannah is played by Kristen Stewart, with Laura Dern as Albert. After two hours of cycling through steaming heat and icy cold, we went to a nearby Japanese restaurant to talk “on the record.”

When you wrote Girl Boy Girl, it served a very specific function for you, in terms of processing what happened. Did returning to the same material a decade later allow you to engage it on a less personal level? How did you approach going into Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy I think that each part of this process has been one of translation. Translation often uncovers questions of form—adapting remembered experiences into a book allows one to untangle a causality, and transforms you, at least somewhat, into a character around a set of events. The process of adapting the book into a film required a different kind of distancing altogether. Real estate in a film is tight. Events have to be compressed, and the moments that stay convey an emotional accuracy that often overrides actual logistics. At a certain point, after doing rewrites of a script for about 10 years, what you feel as a person melds with what you feel as a character—they are the feelings that make sense to the circumstances of the story. And making a film is also inherently collaborative. I noticed on set that I would call the character “Sav,” to distinguish her from me. But on set people called me “Sav” because in the script the character was of course written as “Savannah.” People were making that separation for themselves, and that viewpoint shifts. What I was calling the character and what people were calling me is a byproduct of the nature of this story. But it also points to the fact that, in general, we can never truly understand one another because of how our individual consciousnesses are housed in different points of view. Nonetheless, it is beneficial to try and understand one another as much as possible. This is why it is so important to embrace and celebrate fiction: it is simple proof of the existence and validity of other consciousnesses.

After you moved to New York you studied with the legendary artist Vito Acconci. How did that lineage of performance art recontexualize what you did as JT? I’m so thankful to have his pervy consciousness to turn to as a reference, as his student at Brooklyn College, and in the world. Vito’s work always makes me think about the power dynamics of intimacy and betrayal. I felt like an imposter way before I became JT, and Vito’s work serves as reference for me about quixotic conviction and hypnotization—work that doesn’t insist on being pious or “good!”

Do you think your experiences as JT relate to your subsequent artwork? You could call me an intimacy hound. All of my work has that engine in common, including playing JT for so many years. Also, I think being JT was pretty addictive in terms of realizing a performance platform. You started to feel as if you could go into a performance all the time. I find that in my art practice, I’m trying to locate a theme that will bring me joy and constant engagement, that adrenaline without that narrative of “exposure.” I’m in it for the long game of uncovering all the different dynamics of an experience, and then comparing and slotting it into other facets of my life. So, when I first moved to New York nine years ago, I found that fetish wrestling satiated many an old JT impulse, and so did/does jiu-jitsu. At this point, I have a whole “body” of work that stems from that world of random contact, spectacle, power exchange and body transmogrification.

In the steam room you described it as an activity where you could kill someone but also just like, hug them. Yes, violent hugging with strangers. When you are studying Brazilian jiujitsu, you “roll” with a partner at the end of class—I love how honest the exchange is. You can glean so much from another person when you are struggling with one another non-verbally. There is nothing to hide! It’s also such a rare and generative thing to have a space to swim in conflict with others.

It seemed like with JT, strangers would tell him very intimate things about their lives because they had read his “autobiographical” writing. Yes. Because he had been so open in his fiction, and his character in person was so silent and shy he offered this sort of opening for people toshare their experiences, almost like a priest in a confessional.

Did you ever think Kristen Stewart was going to play you in a movie?
No! I kept insisting to Justin that it should be someone that had never acted before—that that would be interesting for the project. He was like, uh-huh, well what about Kristen Stewart instead? And I’m so glad she did it. I never flinch when watching this movie—not even once. That is sort of a miracle!

Seeing “Sav” interpreted by Kristen Stewart—did you have a different understanding of the story, or its nuances? She did a lot of research beforehand, and when we spent time together, she was always pocketing my mannerisms for later. She is an amazing imitator. Watching her perform the two characters, I could see how different “JT LeRoy” and “Savannah” were, which was such a clarifying and surprising thing. In my memories, I felt that the two had merged together, and I wasn’t sure what I owed to this formative experience and what I had brought to it. All that had been confusing and also haunted me in some way. Being JT for so long with Laura Albert engendered some kind of schism of self—it blurred because we went so deeply into it and for so many years.

In terms of the visual look of the film, what was important to you to capture? I think that the “Sav” and “Laura” characters’ sense of style was absolutely imperative. Each one of their characters has a complete evolution of self as they go more deeply into JT-land, and it’s almost as if they are externalizing it on their bodies in the film. Getting that right was essential.

The JT and Laura looks were aced, but the “Sav” character was less documented and much more particular and specific style-wise, so I ended up contributing to wardrobe all the clothes I had brought along with me, all of my most favorite rags, for the five weeks of shooting. By the end Kristen was wearing sweatshirts as pants, and my favorite Comme des Garçons pants, and a boiled wool T-back tank-top that I had made years before, things that could never have been guessed—or sourced—by the wardrobe department.

Do you appear as a character in your project “Screens”? How did your performances in the Russian-Turkish baths begin? I started to do these performances in the baths right around the 2016 election. I was fascinated by the way people would fight about politics in a 240-degree room and be stretching at the same time. The baths are a hybrid of public/private space and people have amazing body routines in there, especially the regulars who go all the time. Some of the regulars have gone for over 20 years, and Boris week has engendered a very specific sociality that is partly based on him cutting cash deals, as well as keeping the rooms extremely hot. I was fascinated partly by the exhibitionism, but also the seriousness of many routines—for many people it’s actually, I’ve got to stick my tongue out and do my shoulder kundalini hair-flipping thing.

People shave and scrub and beat themselves in there. In my performances I would choose moves that were within the codes of the space but also a little off. Things like practicing air marshal signals—guiding planes in on the tarmac. Fake conducting. Or flapping my arms up and down like a flightless bird. Hanging on the side of the cold plunge like Meryl Streep in Postcards: From the Edge. Eventually these performances became the sort of backbone of a 20-minute portrait of the space and regulars that cohabit there, as well as an installation of privacy partition screens, objects that manifest the idea of the body and mind as a filtering system, and question the solidity of states such as insider and outsider.

What is it like performing as “Savannah” in “Screens” versus other forms of performances you’ve done? All of my performances are about inhabiting a certain body practice, i.e. how you move differently as a different person. My character in “Screens” is a bit hopeless and grumpy with a penchant towards explosive movement.

My biggest question seeing footage of JT has always been: Why did anyone believe this? How did this get so far? Justin and I are always saying it’s like the Emperor’s New Clothes. That is a big question for the audience and something we try to tackle in the film. And often the question is not only that it’s barely believable, but also why wouldn’t you believe it? We really are following certain contracts and codes with one another, to the extent that we don’t even realize it.

It seems like that is what “Screens” is dealing with also. I think so. Even breaking the code just a little bit is a lot. That is what the privacy partition screen signifies in the project. The “Screens” shows us something is there but also blocks our view. It’s a contronym.

Frames it. Right. And then lets you do what you like with that information.