You may not know The Assignment by name -- it's had a number of different titles, after all, at various points known as TomBoy: A Revenger's Tale and (Re)Assignment -- but you might recognize it by its premise: Sigourney Weaver plays a vengeful plastic surgeon who performs a retaliatory sex-change operation on the assassin who killed her brother, turning Michelle Rodriguez wearing a prosthetic penis into just Michelle Rodriguez. It's...wild. The movie has also proven controversial since first screening on the festival circuit, with claims that the premise is either somewhat insensitive or wholly transphobic. "In retrospect I'm glad I took the plunge," Rodriguez wrote on Instagram. "The industry seems to be running low on edgy creativity & 'real take a chance' controversy, sometimes it makes me want to scream."
The Assignment is a passion project from pulp director Walter Hill (who helmed 48 Hours and The Warriors and produced all of the Alien films). The short version of how the movie came to be involves a 40-year-old script, an impromptu trip to Paris and lots of talk about comic books and Tales From the Crypt. Hill got on the phone with ET to defend his film against its backlash and reveal Rodriguez's one request for picking out her prosthetic.
ET: There has been controversy over whether the movie is anti-trans even from the time it was first announced. Did that surprise you?
Walter Hill: Well, I think it always surprises somewhat when a movie, unseen, is condemned. Not only unseen, [but] unread. I think it's an extraordinary set of circumstances that-- Look, we all know the ball game: you make a movie, people sometimes don't like it, they can write bad reviews or they can write letters to the editor or something. That's part of the game. But usually the movie is at least seen before condemnation! [Laughs] I guess this is what I feel: I don't think too much of identity politics. I don't like the notion of political correctness. I think people -- some people -- probably wrote and had opinions way too soon. I think it's intellectually indefensible to condemn a creative work without seeing it. But I didn't want to enter into a political struggle. I always said the movie would be my defense -- which it is -- and I certainly don't think the movie is in any way harmful to or contradicts transgender experience or theory. The movie's not about the transgender idea. It's about revenge. It does deal with genital alteration, but that's a very different thing than the transgender movement.
With the movie about to be released in theaters, what would you say to the transgender and larger LGBT community that may still be hesitant about seeing this?
I mean, look, if somebody's mind is already made up, there's not much I can probably do in that direction. I will say this: there is absolutely nothing in the movie that is contrary to transgender theory. It accepts the idea -- and not only accepts but endorses the idea that we are who we are inside our head, which is the essence of what it's all about. There are transgender people that have seen the movie that do not find it objectionable. So, you know, go see it and see what you think. If you still feel that it's somehow contrary or demeaning to the transgender community, then it seems to me it's fair to write about it, and somebody can have a discussion about it. But to condemn it without seeing it is just, as I say, it's intellectually indefensible.
Sigourney is really fun to watch in this. You've obviously worked together before this movie [on the Alien movies]. What did she think when you pitched her the role of The Doctor? Do you remember what she said when you approached her?
The character had actually been written, originally, as a male character, and I decided to flip it. In the gender fluid times we live in, I thought it would be a good idea to make the doctor a woman. I didn't want to end up with just a villain. I want the film to end up where you have sympathy for her character, even though she's done some things that are certainly not proper. Anyway, I did change it to a woman, and I sent to it to her and I said, "Look, this is different than the kind of stuff somebody usually sends you, but see what you think. I think it's a good part. I think it could be a real challenge to play." She called back the next day and said she loved it and wanted to do it. But we're old friends, we've known each other for many years and we've worked together, but we always wanted to work together where I would get a chance to direct her. It worked out really well. I think she's wonderful in the movie.
What about Michelle? What was her first reaction when she read the script? Or when you pitched the role?
I never pitched it to her. Her representatives contacted me [and] asked me if I'd be interested in her. I said, "Absolutely." She read it, we had lunch, she said she wanted very much to do the movie. She kind of challenged me to hire her. She's a very direct, very strong person. [She] has a rather explosive personality. But we got along great! I love her. I not only think she gives a really good performance, it's a really brave performance. She never shied away from a lot of the difficult stuff in the movie. She was foursquare for it and then she's, as you probably know, rather explosive in her defense of the movie, and she doesn't want to hear any criticism along gender lines.
How many times have you been asked about her prosthetic penis?
[Laughs] Well, I will say this: she said, "I don't want to be embarrassed. I want a big one!" And I said, "Everybody, all the men on the crew, will envy your endowment. I'll make sure of that." She was pleased with the result.
How much work actually goes into choosing the prosthetic for something like this? Did Michelle get final say or was it chosen by committee?
Oh, no, no, that's my job. I'm the committee. But, you know, you don't want the actor to be not comfortable with what you're asking them to do. She was fine with it. You rehearse the shot very carefully ahead of time with clothes on. I always said, "If you don't even want me here, I'll trust you on this. It can be just you and the camera operator, if you want." And she said no. She wanted to make sure I was there to watch and make sure it all went well. But she didn't really have an attitude. She accepted it as a job she was doing.
What were your first thoughts when you saw Michelle as Frank Kitchen for the first time, done up as a man with the beard and the hairy chest?
There are two things. Quite unbeknownst to me, quite unanticipated by me, when she was in her makeup as Frank Kitchen, she uncannily looked like my wife's brother, who is deceased. She looked enormously like Roger did. I can't tell you, it's almost like a photo double. So, it was kind of a real shock in that sense, and in the other sense, I was just struck by how -- I think some people would just look like they're wearing makeup and you never really quite believe it. But I thought [with] Michelle, it was more than makeup. It was her stance and attitude. I thought she really pulled it off. I could see that right from the first.
What did your wife think, then, when she finally saw the movie?
The first thing she said was, "She looks just like Roger," her brother. Which was a bit of a mixed thing, because they were very close and he'd passed away very suddenly a little over 10 years ago. But I'd prepared her a bit for it, needless to say.
The Assignment is in theaters on April 7.