Heather Cassils is the awesome-looking woman who plays Lady Gaga's prison girlfriend in the "Telephone" video. But she's also a well-known artist in her own right. And she loved making out with Gaga.
Doree: Were you familiar with Gaga's work before and what did you think of it?
Heather: I was not really all that familiar with her work. I had heard her music (how can you not) but what I really noticed was her appearances at the Grammys and I recall appreciating the radical outfit choices, the birdcage on the head and the bleeding performance. This is more what stuck in my head than her music because as a visual artist it was interesting to see her making reference all across the spectrum of performance art from Lee Bowery to Ron Athey. I was impressed that she was bringing these tropes into her work to bring these visuals to an entirely different audience.
D: How'd you meet Gaga? Describe the process of getting asked/selected to be in the video. Were you immediately interested?
H: I run my own personal training business out of a small gym in Silverlake. At my gym there is another trainer named Dallas Malloy. She is an amazing bodybuilder who is also a talented actor. Dallas called me randomly one day from an audition telling me that she a casting agent was looking for female bodybuilders. Apparently they could not find enough of them so Dallas thought of me because, although I am not as huge as pro builders, with the right camera work I can look massive. I thanked Dallas and told her that acting was not really my thing but when she told me it was to play a security guard in a woman's prison for a Beyoncé/ Gaga video. With the mention of Beyoncé's name I told her to give me the address. (I LOVE Destiny's Child especially) I ended up being cast as an inmate and I went to set that day for the "camp" factor. I figured I could cross Beyoncé video off my list. Upon arriving, I was sent up to set, saddened to learn that Beyonce was rehearsing for the Grammys. We blocked the prison yard scene with a Lady Gaga double a few times. Escorted by an entourage, The Lady herself, came on set. Within minuets her people called me over. Draped in chains and clad in cat suit she extended her manicured hand to me.
"Hello, I'm Lady Gaga."
"Hello, I'm Heather Cassils."
That's how I met Lady Gaga—a bizarre and organic unfolding of events that can only take place in Los Angeles.
D: Did you know what the storyline of the "Telephone" video was before you shot the scene? How was your role described to you? Are you wearing your own clothes or did they design a costume for you?
H: I had no idea about the story line, except that I was to be a security guard in a woman's prison scene ( which I thought was hilarious). My initial role was not described to me at all with the exception of the interactions I had with Gaga after meeting her. She looked me over and told me she wanted me to play her "girlfriend in prison." She mulled over our interactions and said finally in definitively: "when I want some one I never go to them, they come to me… so you come to me." She then told me I was to "touch her inappropriately."
As for costuming, the night before the shoot we were sent a list of clothing options to turn up in, items such as bikinis, thongs, high heels etc. At this point I panicked and called the casting director informing her that I do not do bikinis and heels. She assured me it would be okay if I turned up in some dark form fitting clothes. So I actually wore my girlfriend's pants and leather vest that day. (Great thing about dating women is that you double your wardrobe possibilities). But generally I wear similar garb. I like to fashion my self after a Tom of Finland drawing or the illustrious art hustler of the '70s Peter Berlin. I showed up dressed as you see in the video and was sent up to set.
D: How does this video dovetail with your own art?
H: In my artwork I use my body as my medium and I address many subjects, gender representation being one of them. I see the construction of my physique as a performance which purposely toys with the traditional process of Greek sculptors, who were said to find their ideal form by chipping away at a block of marble and discarding any unnecessary material. I see my body as a conceptual sculpture, a critique of the social pressure we feel to make our bodies conform to an aesthetic, binary gendered and cultural ideal.
People have all sorts of reactions to my body, within the context of my art work as well as being out in the world. When I lived in London, I had a group of people pull their car over to ask me what gender I was, they just had to know, because the in between was too much for them. Not knowing and the suspension of disbelief and what that does to people—it starts with the body, but it can translate into all kinds of other important things. Visual impressions have a lot of power, more power than language, for this reason I see my being included in the Gaga video as a sort of infiltration. So if my job as artist is to think about how various symbol combine to make meaning, than I guess one could say that being in the Gaga video, and all the dialogue that has come out of being included in the video, is an extension of my art practice.
D: How many takes did you have to do to get the kiss down? What was it like to kiss Lady Gaga? Is she a good kisser?
H: The kiss was down from the get go. It happened very naturally and organically. I leaned into smell her and I started by kissing her neck. It was electric and when I got to her mouth, she actually kissed me. Kissing lady Gaga was like kissing any beautiful woman you feel a connection with, as soon as I touched her she was just that, very sensitive and responsive. It even eclipsed the crazy cigarette glasses that were smoking. I think we did four or five takes, it all happened so fast, it was a bit of a blur. By the last takes we were brushing ashes off each other and coughing and laughing. Talk about second hand smoke! But really it was a performance and that yes she is a good kisser but kissing my girlfriend is even more powerful as I'm totally under her spell.
D: Why is it important for queer artists to increase their visibility? What are other ways you're doing that? Do you consider yourself a political artist? Why or why not?
H: It is important for queer artists to increase their visibility because it offers up options. Since I have done this video I have had over 15,000 people look at my artist website. To my surprise I have gotten a ton of really young people contacting me, telling me how much they appreciate what I have been articulating in the media and also how much they connect with my art. Some of these letters are from very young queer and disenfranchised people, who live in smaller cities with no support. Teens have written me from Germany, France and Scotland, telling me of their feelings of alienation and that by being the artist that I am, and by being outspoken about my beliefs that I have helped them alleviate their own personal feelings of shame around gender identity and sexuality. To me this is truly an honor and the ultimate service I can provide as a cultural producer.
My work starts with my own body, which I have manipulated via diet and exercise to produce a physique that is not usually associated with the female gender. I see life as a sort of performance art work and that every gesture you make, every way you present yourself is a possibility to author an experience for those surrounding you which could be art. As for my more formal art practice, I create living paintings where you use a live element to have people really stay with the composition of the piece.
For my most recent performance "Tiresius" I stood in a plexi podium, and fit my body inside a classical Greek male torso carved from ice, which I melted over a 5 hour period with the heat from my body. Tiresius, the Greek mythological character, makes frequent appearances in the arts – from Dante's Inferno to T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland, he is a crucial but almost always marginal figure straddling time, gender, life and death. Here I cast the story of Tiresius as one of endurance and transformation, in which masculinity both freezes the body, and melts away.
I perform Hard Times blind, wearing prosthetic mask that makes my eyes appear to have been removed from their sockets. I wear a frosted blond wig and the deep tan of a bodybuilding lady. Clad in a coral body thong, I teeter seven feet in the air on plank of slippery wood upheld by construction scaffolding. For six minutes I perform a body building routine in slow motion. I manipulate my body into the poses with a very controlled, methodical and deliberate slowness borrowed from butoh dance. Holding such deep muscular contractions for extended periods causes an overload of the central nervous system—all my limbs convulse and shake uncontrollably. Culturally and politically, we are in a state of rotting from the inside out. Hard Times responds to the culture of consumption and denial with an image of a body that sputters and twitches with exertion to maintain its manicured surface.
I will be doing a performance of Hard Times in an upcoming Movement Research Spring 2010 Festival entitled "HARDCORPS" curated by A.L. Steiner, Aki Sasamoto, Melanie Maar and Walter Dundervill.
My art is a thermometer of sorts, which takes the temperature of our cultural climate. Am I political artist? I suppose I am, because nothing exists outside the realm of politics. To say you are political is a political statement.
D: Did you find anything problematic about Gaga's video when you watched it in full? Do you feel that the LGBT community was fairly represented, or is it in itself a step forward that the community can be satirized in a mainstream video?
H: No, I find nothing problematic about Gaga's video. For some one to say that it is bad to have representation of LGBTQ people in prison in a music is just ludicrous to me. To be able to poke, to parody ourselves means we have come along way. They are missing the point. In addition, Gaga is exploiting all images in the video, including herself. The structure of the video claims everything from Thelma and Louise to early sexploitation films. My friend Michelle Johnson is an EXCELLENT filmmaker has mad a film recently called Lezploitation, which reclaims of exploitation films of this era through a lesbian gaze. While Gaga may not be a lesbian, Gaga is clearly not straight but certainly she is queer. I don't see any problem with her reclaiming these images as well!
D: Anything else you'd like to add?
H: In a world where technology is king, where we interact more and more on line with social networking and e-mail, it is all the more important to construct real relationships in which you effect social change for the better. It is SO important to know where our hard fought free expression comes from. If Gaga's work speaks to people, they might also be interested in the art work of amazing trans artist Zachary Drucker, David Wojnarovich and Leigh Bowery who died of AIDS, Ron Athey, Eleanor Antin, Michel Clarke, Marina Abramovic, Adrian Piper and Emory Douglas - the lead graphic artist for the Black Panthers. Some of these artists have more notoriety than others but there work is spellbindingly beautiful and so necessary for our consciousness.
[Photos by Clover Leary]