Oliver Sim and Xavier Dolan perceive a new world for queer youth

The bassist and vocalist for The xx joins the Cannes regular to discuss his debut solo album ‘Hideous Bastard’ and the formative impact of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'

A modest proposal: Oliver Sim’s Hideous Bastard is already the best album of 2022. So it’s appropriately ironic that he had no burning desire to follow Romy Madley Croft and Jamie Smith, his bandmates in The xx, in making a solo album. Nor did he think he had the nerve. But when they were messing around on a track a while back—it eventually became Sim’s first single, “Romance With A Memory”—Smith said, “I think you should make a record.” And that was the beginning of the long and painful gestation of Hideous Bastard. “Almost three years of me asking myself questions,” was how Sim described the process.

Now, with the unleashing of Hideous Bastard on an unsuspecting world, there will be many other questions from many other people. In an effort to control such curiosity (initially at least), Sim approached Document with a suggestion: He would like to be interviewed by the film director of his choice. Movies—particularly scary movies—have been fundamental to his evolution. Hideous Bastard is a tour de force of character studies, amplified by the film that accompanies its release, directed by Yann Gonzalez, whose 2018 Knife+Heart sits high in Sim’s pantheon of horror.

Sim chose the French-Canadian prodigy Xavier Dolan as his interrogator. The parallels between the two are striking. Born the same year (1989), they were both 19 when fame came knocking: for Dolan, an eight-minute ovation at Cannes Film Festival for his first film, I Killed My Mother; for Sim, the huge critical and commercial success of The xx’s debut album. When he won the Grand Prix at Cannes for It’s Only the End of the World, Dolan was a mere 27, the same age as Sim when The xx’s I See You topped charts on both sides of the Atlantic.

But prodigious achievement is not why Sim wanted Dolan. He recognized himself in the director’s work: the acute queer sensibility, the insecurity and loneliness, the secrets and masks, and also the painful revelations that rarely yield the hoped-for resolutions. All the threads in Hideous Bastard’s rich aural tapestry. That gave the pair a lot to talk about. Too much for one Zoom. Dolan is back in Cannes this year. Sim is also there for the first time with Yann Gonzalez’s film. Dare we hope for a sequel?

Xavier Dolan: So, how are you?

Oliver Sim: I’m doing good. I’m doing very good. I’m quite wired at the moment, I’ve had lots of coffee. About an hour ago, I was at that sweet spot where I felt like the best version of myself, and now I’m slightly tipping over into the dark side. But quite fun. How are you doing?

Xavier: Good, good. A little bit hungover. Went to bed really late, or really early, depends on your time zone and your perspective. I’ve been listening to your album and it’s absolutely beautiful and really fascinating. I listened to it all night. So your video for ‘Fruit’ has just been released?

Oliver: Yeah. It came out on Wednesday. It’s not out yet, the full thing. What came out on Wednesday was just a scene from a 25-minute horror film that I made for the record, with Yann Gonzalez, which we’re going to release in stages. The next song that comes out is ‘Hideous,’ which will be another scene from the film. Actually, Xavier, something I wanted to ask you—the film just got into Cannes, and I know you’re a frequent—

Xavier: User?

Oliver: Frequent user of Cannes.

Xavier: I’ve been there [laughs]. I haven’t been in a while, but I’m gonna be there this year.

Oliver: We can meet in person.

Xavier: I would love that. I haven’t seen [the film], obviously, but I’ve seen your video, and what transpires for me, personally, is a need for acceptance and validation. The entire album, in fact, through the songs and the lyrics—which I asked for, because English is not my mother tongue—gives me that. A need for acceptance from others, and even from yourself. Is that a proper reading? Or is that misguided?

Oliver: I definitely crave acceptance, like all of us. My main mission with this record was to just put all of the ugly, monstrous things I feel about myself out into the forefront, to air them out, and to open myself a bit more. I’m deep, deep in therapy. I’ve become a firm believer that the best antidote to feelings of shame and fear is just shining some light on them and not allowing them to rattle around in my head and grow, in a bid to find some acceptance from my little self, from mom, from dad, and from the outside world.

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Xavier: In the beginning of the ‘Fruit’ music video there’s a host who asks, ‘If you could meet yourself as a kid right now, what would you say?’ I feel like the rest is the answer in itself, but how would you phrase it? What would you say to yourself?

Oliver: I think I’d give myself a hug, I’d give little Oliver a hug. So much of what I’ve learned, in the past few years, is distinguishing between my own shame and other people’s shame that I put on myself. Without treading too much into cliché, I’d tell myself to go with my gut a bit more. And if it feels good, go for it. It’s a tricky one.

Xavier: It’s easy to ask the question, but it’s not an easy answer.

Oliver: Do you know what you would say to your little self?

Xavier: No, I don’t. It makes me think of RuPaul’s Drag Race. I love the show, it’s entertaining. Or enter-tainting, as he would say. That specific moment I really look forward to is where the queens—the individuals who we’ve watched for a whole season, being cruel or really harsh on each other and bitch—are asked, ‘What would you say to your younger self?’ And it’s not because it’s the cry-your-eyes-out moment. It’s the one where you get to see who they really are, and you see them completely letting their guard down. I’m not trying to make cheap links or associations or connections here but, for me, the entire album is about that. It’s about you letting a guard down.

Oliver: It’s interesting. Going back to RuPaul’s Drag Race, those moments that are, like, extremely earnest, I really struggle with.

Tim Blanks: Because they’re totally performative?

Oliver: Not even! When you asked me that question, ‘What would you say to little Oliver?’—even though I put it in the video, I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh…’ I have a real issue sometimes with stuff that is overtly earnest. Sometimes I have a gut reaction, which is repulsion. My instant reaction is, ‘This is so insincere.’ The moments that are blown out of proportion, like the fights and stuff—when there’s clearly a level of performance to it, I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m getting more of an idea of who the person is.’ Making this record, and making the film, I’ve tried to keep an element of fantasy and surrealism. I need a package, I need an entertaining fantasy package for the core truth to actually get into my head. Especially over the past few years, throughout isolation and lockdown, seeing a lot of very earnest content from, in particular, musicians performing in their bedroom and presenting themselves like, ‘This is me at my most real and my rawest,’ I’m instantly like, ‘This isn’t you.’ Give me some fantasy. Entertain me.

Xavier: So you feel like that authenticity, stripped down from any notion of performance—when you see people at their most bare—is insincere? Or it’s just the idea of someone performing without any… What’s the word?

Tim: Bells and whistles.

“My main mission with this record was to just put all of the ugly, monstrous things I feel about myself out into the forefront, to air them out, and to open myself a bit more.”

Xavier: Yeah. You feel that there’s something insincere about that? Or do you just feel uncomfortable with that?

Oliver: I think it’s half my stuff, half their stuff [laughs]. I think it’s probably where I am at the moment, having just come out of a couple of years of isolation. But I do need a level of showmanship and a level of bells and whistles for stuff to sink in sometimes.

Xavier: We’re born in the same year. Going through the album and everything you’re saying on the record—all the lyrics—I’m assuming that, like me, you didn’t grow up with notions of queerness in general culture, or even in pop culture. I grew up in the suburbs, and I would watch every Warner Brothers show, like Smallville, Buffy, and I never found a proper representation of myself as a gay boy. When I did hear anyone mentioning queerness or homosexuality, it was always in a very shameful way where it was people dying or being battered. In the first episode of Smallville, the lead female role was asking Clark Kent if he had a girl in his life, and he was like, ‘No.’ And then she said, ‘A boy in your life?’ And he was like, ‘No, no, no, no, no.’ That scene really stuck with me. All these years, all that pop culture, it just really sank into me that there was something wrong with my sexuality, that it was something to be ashamed of, and I guess that’s pretty common for a gay boy growing up in the suburbs.

What was your upbringing like? And what was your relationship with culture and representations of queerness in culture?

Oliver: Mine is very similar to yours. I was watching the same TV shows as you—Smallville, Buffy. I was really kind of digging and salvaging any kind of character or queerness that I could find. So much of my education around queerness came from television. I remember there used to be a late-night TV show on Channel 4 called Eurotrash, which was presented by Jean Paul Gaultier, and it was where you would go to learn about tits and bums and willies. It was the kind of TV show that I would watch in the living room with one hand on the door and my finger on the TV remote. But it was real digging, and trying to find any moment I could. I mean, Cruel Intentions was such a formative film for me. Joshua Jackson and Ryan Phillippe were game changers for me. You know the scene!

Xavier: Oh, I know the scene. He mentioned, ‘A boy’s mouth is like a vacuum cleaner,’ or something? When you hear that, and you’re young, you’re like, ‘Oh, he knows about these things.’

Oliver: What’s the first character for you where you felt like you saw a little queer kid that wasn’t being beaten up or dying?

Xavier: Being a kid or adolescent or teenage boy, I cannot think of a reference, in queer culture or in general, popular culture, of a gay man or any member of the queer community who’s not deeply suffering, or being bullied, or who’s suicidal, or who’s running away from his family, or who’s in conversion therapy, or who’s dying. I can’t. Maybe when I was 19, 20. Mysterious Skin, by Gregg Araki, which is one of my favorite films—even in that film, you can’t say that the representation of queerness is joyful or happy or not shameful. Even when I think of movies like My Own Private Idaho­—it is a love story where River Phoenix ends up being heartbroken by Keanu Reeves, who, after just wandering in the queer community and prostitution world, goes back into normalcy and heterosexuality, as though he was stranded and now he had found the right way. I don’t even know who my examples of gay characters who inspired me or liberated me are. It’s still unclear.

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Oliver: So many of the characters from film and television that helped me were actually women. Buffy did so much for me because she was what I wanted to be. Or, like, Ripley from Alien, or Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween—these women that were still thin and sexy, but were angry and powerful. They were just the combo of things that I wanted to be, but couldn’t be. Inside I felt like Buffy, but couldn’t present as Buffy. I think they were the characters in lieu of the queer characters.

Xavier: It’s funny because, listening to you, you’re talking about female examples and references, but a lot of them are from the world of horror. I think that world is really appealing to you, right? You love the aesthetics and cosmetics of horror and disguise. Am I wrong?

Oliver: I love horror. I’m a very fearful person. So on paper, it doesn’t make sense for me to love horror as much as I do. But yeah, since I was a little boy. It comes down to that bells and whistles thing.

Xavier: Yeah. The performance aspect. The fantasy, actually.

Oliver: The fantasy. I don’t necessarily go to horror to feel scared. I go to it because it excites me. As a person with a lot of fear, there is something that just resonates with me and connects to me. It’s been a long-standing love of mine.

Tim: Xavier, do you think there’s an element of psychological horror in some of the films you’ve made? I think of someone like [Pedro] Almodóvar, as well, where emotions edge into psychodrama that has an enormously destructive, disorienting impact on the people in the scenarios.

“The more fantastical horror—the world of science fiction and fantasy and wizardry and superpowers—that’s always been an escape for me.”

Xavier: I guess some of the events or stories that I’ve been trying to tell are horrific moments for these characters. But I never really thought about horror being the genre that I had embraced. I don’t actually think that I’ve embraced any sort of genre, they’re just familial dramas and stories about people trying to fit in. Apart from Tom at the Farm, I’ve never really thought of horror as being an attribute of my work or inclination.

Oliver: It’s funny. I’m not scared by ghouls or monsters or men with knives chasing me. The things that scare me—like, Carrie scares me, but telekinesis doesn’t keep me up at night. My relationship with my mother keeps me up at night. I rewatched Mommy last night, and the scene you made where she’s dropping her son off—that’s a scene I will actually watch behind my hands. If we’re not talking about the genre of horror, but we’re talking about fear, that scene scared me. My fears are just a lot more close to home, a lot more local than ghouls or monsters. Getting into ghouls or monsters is sometimes quite a relaxing thing.

You said horror wasn’t really formative for you, but it seems like fantasy played a big part for you growing up. Buffy, Smallville. You’re a Harry Potter fan, I think. I wanted to ask, if horror hasn’t played such a big part, what drew you to It Chapter Two? I’m just interested in how you ended up there.

Xavier: I asked.

Oliver: You asked?!

Xavier: I loved It, the first one, so much. I was at a party and Andy [director Andrés Muschietti] was there, and I said, ‘Can I be in the next one? Please?’ I was in Vancouver, and Andy just called and said, ‘Can we talk about It Two? I think I have a part.’ I was like, I can’t believe that I’ve asked and it just came true. What you realize when you get there is that Pennywise is actually Bill Skarsgård, so that’s great news, and dying in his arms is really, really okay. I was dying in his arms with my full weight on his body, and he was behind me with his big arms, and he was like, ‘Are you okay, Xavier?’ And I’m like, ‘Actually, I am great. Thank you. I will have another 11 takes, please.’

If horror includes psychological horror, like you said earlier, or if it includes fantasy and the actual horror of life—which is ultimately, for me, violence, murder, the fear of being battered—all of that obviously inspired me and formed me as a human being. The more fantastical horror—the world of science fiction and fantasy and wizardry and superpowers—that’s always been an escape for me. In all these shows, there were always these incredibly good-looking guys, and they had special powers, and they were different, and they came from another planet. Not to sound tacky, but you’re trying to find parallels with your own difference. So aliens and wizards and witches who are trying to fit in are always a good mirror. Not that I feel that abnormal anymore, I don’t. But when I was a kid, I did. So, yes, if that’s what we mean by horror or fantasy, of course it’s been at the center of my life and identity.

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Tim: Do you feel let down by reality?

Xavier: Do I feel let down by reality? Like, it doesn’t live up to the reality that I covet from films and these worlds, and do I wish reality would be more Harry Potter-esque?

Tim: It’s a theme of the record, in a way. There’s something so compensatory about making things—making music, making movies, making books, making art. There’s always a debate—is it engagement, is it escape? I think that’s what’s very, very strong in Hideous Bastard, that tension. I get the feeling that it’s in your films. I get the feeling it’s in just about everything, actually—everything you listen to or see or read.

Xavier: I don’t feel let down by reality, I feel let down by society and the world we live in. But I think that when you’re writing, when you’re acting, when you’re singing—any form of art is necessarily an escape from reality, and you are creating your own reality hoping that it will influence life, that life will become art, that art will become life. My latest film is called Matthias & Maxime. There’s this guy who’s really muscular [and] really, really straight and I have him be such a figure of comfort for the character of Max, who’s wondering if he might be gay. By making that my reality, and the reality of Matt and Max, I am hoping that it’s going to become reality, and that it’s going to give an image of acceptance from masculine figures, and that it might have an influence on men.

Tim: Something you wish that you could have seen when you were young, you mean—something that would have had an impact on you. So Ollie announces his HIV status on the album, in that vein of announcing something which will give some form of inspiration or reassurance to the guy that he used to be.

“There’s something so compensatory about making things—making music, making movies, making books, making art. There’s always a debate—is it engagement, is it escape?”

Oliver: When I made the choice to put my status in a song, I spoke to my mom, and my mom was like, ‘Hold on, hold on. This seems a bit extreme. How about you start having some conversations with people in your life as a starting block?’ Because there were quite a few people in my life that didn’t know, or people that I’d maybe told once and just been like, ‘Right, that’s done, we don’t talk about that.’ That piece of advice from my mom was the best she’s ever given me, and I’ve spent the past, like, two years having those conversations. When I made my friendship with Jimmy Somerville and I asked him to be on the song, again, he was just like, ‘Oliver, don’t try to be a martyr.’ He’s like, ‘You’re doing this, essentially, for yourself. You’re not going to cure the world of its stigma against HIV.’ Not to say it won’t help people or anything, but he was like, ‘Do this for yourself, if you feel ready and if you want to.’ I think that, honest to God, has been my intention behind it.

It would be great to make a difference and to help people. When I found out I was positive, I was 17. The only person I knew of [who had been diagnosed with HIV] was Freddie Mercury, and he was dead. So if another young person has somebody being open about their status, great. But, primarily, I think I’ve done it for myself. I never necessarily think I’m gonna change the world, but I would love it if it did make a difference.

Xavier: You will change the world of someone. It’s inevitable. You are inevitable. You cannot deny that it will have an impact, it will. Is it going to change the world? It’s going to change lives. And changing lives will change the world, eventually.

Tim: It comes right back to what we were saying at the very beginning. This is a huge shift, I think, over those decades. It hasn’t happened very often, God knows. I’m really curious to see—because there’s nobody, apart from John Grant, there’s nobody else who’s open about their status, is there?

Oliver: Increasingly, more and more. Billy Porter, recently, Jonathan Van Ness, John Grant…That’s it. One thing that I have done consciously, when making the video for ‘Fruit,’ and Yann suggested that kiss—that kiss one hundred percent is for little Oliver, because I used to cling to music videos, and I would really dig for moments like kisses and stuff that I could hang on to. So putting that in that video has an element of, This is for a little kid out there, somewhere, that is looking for a queer moment. Because a lot of my queer moments were straight moments I tried to make queer.

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Xavier: It’s a great kiss.

Oliver: It was a good kiss. It’s funny, before that kiss we did a consent and intimacy exercise, which was one of the strangest, most bizarre things I’ve ever done. ‘Would it be okay if I touched the side of your face?’ Then you give your consent, and then he would ask, ‘Would you like to touch my face?’ And then slowly working your way up to a kiss.

How do you find on-screen kisses?

Xavier: God, I hope that I haven’t violated anyone’s intimacy now. I love kissing. I realize I’ve always done it with people that I know, so it’s never really been such a big deal. Taylor, the actor who was my boyfriend in It Two, we had a huge kissing thing. We didn’t know each other, but I found it very enjoyable, to be honest. I think he did, too. But yeah, I feel comfortable with kissing. I don’t know about intimacy. I’ve never had intimacy like sex scenes or more explicit stuff. I don’t have that experience at all, so I wouldn’t know. Apart from kissing, I’ve never gone there on-screen.

Oliver: It’s a completely new world for me, and a very fascinating one.

Tim: Is that a happy ending?

Oliver: Ending on a final kiss. Loved it.

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