Milking it

In a new biopic, gay-rights activist Cleve Jones sees an icon honored at last.

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BASED ON A TRUE STORY Cleve Jones (left) coached Emile Hirsh (center) and Gus Van Sant on set

BASED ON A TRUE STORY Cleve Jones (left) coached Emile Hirsh (center) and Gus Van Sant on set Photograph: Daniel Nicoletta

After badgering his pal Gus Van Sant for almost 18 years to make a film about Harvey Milk, Cleve Jones finally got his way: On Wednesday 26, Milk comes to New York theaters. Jones met Milk—the owner of a San Francisco camera shop—when he was a 20-year-old drifter with a wild set of locks and a tight pair of jeans. He later worked on his friend's political campaigns, helping Milk become the first openly gay elected official in the United States, in 1977. Though Milk served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for less than a year before he was assassinated at City Hall, he remains an icon for gay activists. Jones, portrayed in the film by Emile Hirsch, extended his friend's legacy in many ways, most notably by founding the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Serving as on-set historical consultant, Jones made sure the cast and the script stayed true to the inspiring story of the "Mayor of Castro Street."

I just dialed the wrong number and got some fantastic ring tone of Rihanna's new single.
That definitely wasn't my ring tone, though it sounds great! What did you think of the film?

I loved it! But I was wondering what you thought of it.
Well, I won't even claim any objectivity, but I love it and I'm really proud of it. We got the perfect script and the perfect director and the most amazing cast. The most astonishing part was watching Sean Penn become Harvey Milk. It goes way beyond impersonation, way beyond the tone of voice or mannerisms. He became Harvey.

Is Sean Penn going to win an Oscar?
He certainly should! And that's not just my opinion, that's the opinion of every one of us who is around who knew Harvey. He absolutely nailed the role. That is also true of Josh Brolin's portrayal of Dan White and Emile Hirsch's portrayal of me.

Did Emile Hirsch get your look right?
Yes, and that's his own hair, by the way. It wasn't a wig, and that is exactly how it looked. I had the silly big hair and the silly big glasses.

You know, those glasses are totally in right now.
As they should be.

What was it like to hang out with Hirsch? Did you get along with each other?
Yes, very well. He's a sweet kid, very serious about his acting. The coolest part of the premiere for me was introducing Emile to my family; they were all surprised how he portrayed me and my long-forgotten youth. It doesn't get much better.

Was it emotional to see doppelgngers of people from your past?
The whole process was very emotional. Just looking at the set—we shot the camera-store scenes in the actual location of Harvey's camera store. Just seeing what the art department created was emotional.

I was in San Francisco earlier this year and happened to walk past the camera shop while they were filming. All these extras were hanging around looking like they came right out of the '70s.
It was so much fun. Every night when we were done, we would post a guard at the camera store to protect it, and in the morning the guards would report to us about all the old-timers who were stopping by throughout the night to peer inside the windows and cry and tell their stories.

Is there anyone out there today who is an inspiration to gay people the way Harvey was?
I think there are lots of Harveys out there, but the movement has changed. The charismatic individual leaders who were able to get things done by the sheer force of their personalities—we don't see them anymore. In Harvey's day, we didn't have infrastructure. We just had individuals with big ideas and big mouths. When Harvey ran for office, we had to raise $30,000 to get him elected, and that was a challenge. Today there are hundreds of gay organizations around the country that routinely raise and spend millions a year. We didn't have community centers, churches and youth groups, and of course, we didn't have HIV/AIDS. I think people like Harvey and myself are really anachronisms. Probably the last leader of that style was Larry Kramer.

If Harvey were here today, would Prop 8 have passed in California?
If Harvey had been here we would have run a better campaign, I can tell you that for damn sure.

Milk opens Wed 26.

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