Film

Anne Carlisle Looks Back on Her Electrifying Dual-Role Turn in the New Wave Classic “Liquid Sky”

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The 1982 downtown cult favorite Liquid Sky made a triumphant return to the big screen earlier this month, with the debut on April 13 of a new 4K DCP restoration. (It currently has screenings running through Thursday.) Slava Tsukerman’s film is noteworthy for its colorful abstract makeup and wild New Wave–meets–science fiction costuming. The world of Liquid Sky, brimming with sex, drugs, and alien life, is singularly strange, both seductive and ominous. The stylized tableaus are anchored by Anne Carlisle, an ultracool denizen of the legendary club world of the time, who manages to pull off playing dual roles: a glamorous female model, Margaret, and a menacing male junkie, Jimmy. The Voice caught up with Carlisle by phone to look back at the fabulous film and ask about what she’s been up to since.

In addition to starring in Liquid Sky, you co-wrote it. How much of yourself did you bring to the role?

Right before I met Slava, I was really enmeshed in club life. I had this idea that I was a different kind of woman, and I would wear a man’s jacket and a man’s shoes and a miniskirt. I was Margaret and Jimmy together, in one. After we wrote the script and determined I would play Jimmy, I split that and made Margaret more feminine than I had originally planned to play her.

Were there challenges in playing the two genders?

It was easy. It’s much easier to play something that you were involved in the writing of. Also, I had been a tomboy when I was younger. It wasn’t difficult at all. I enjoyed it. It was such a release to finally get to do it, since there’s a lot of waiting in the film process. We had very little time. We didn’t have a lot of takes, since it was 35mm and the budget was so constrained. You really had to get it right away. That was stressful, but it was a joy to play. Especially Jimmy, it was a lot of fun. You actually feel powerful playing a man, back then especially. Things are really different now, but back then it was nice to play a guy.

Was there improvisation involved, or did you stick pretty closely to the script?

Because we had no focus depth, and there were so many neon lights, there was no room to improvise. We literally couldn’t move or we’d be out of focus. So we did a lot of rehearsals beforehand. We had to rehearse so it would only be one or two takes. We couldn’t mess around.

What was the scene like at the time, and what drew you there?

Well, at the time artists could live in New York. Since there was so much crime, the middle class didn’t want to live there. We lived together with other people at different times. There were characters that I knew in the club scene that I had written these parts for. We were kind of nihilists. We didn’t think we were going to live very long. We couldn’t break into the art world, so we made our own kind of creative world. We were the art. We were doing almost performance in life, and we were sick of trying to be nice and sweet and fit into a world that we didn’t really want to be part of.

How did the costumes in the film play into that?

Marina Levikova did the costumes, and she came from a creative place in Russia where there was a similar thing. She made a colorful world out of nothing. It’s not really the New Wave, but it was reflective of the same mentality. She likens her creative process to Russian influences. I don’t know — I saw it as a mix of both. We tended to exaggerate what was real to make it more palatable for film. You have to be dramatic. Certainly I knew designers in the New Wave who were doing fabulous things.

What were some of your influences in conceptualizing and writing the film?

For a very long time I studied acting before this happened. You just don’t get up and do something like this. I think Pinter and Bergman were people we studied, but this was its own thing, its own style. There wasn’t anything else quite like it out there at the time. We went to see The Elephant Man at midnight while we were writing the script. And Slava had done science documentaries that had drama and philosophy, so he was coming from a science background in Russia.

How did the two of you come to work together?

Slava was casting for a film. He used the acting teacher Bob Brady as the casting director, and I went up for it. I showed him a Super-8 movie I had made and was showing at clubs, called Fish. It was about sexual politics. Since it was Super-8, it hasn’t survived all these years. He and his co-writer, Nina V. Kerova, came to see it. Nina was working on a script and wanted me to help her with some dialogue. I was working with Nina, and Slava decided to write something, and I started writing with him. It was a series of things that caused it to happen. The movie that Slava was casting had funding pulled at the last minute. He cast from the group of actors at Bob’s studio and a lot of the actors in the film were people that he knew from that class.

Did you feel like there was controversy around the film’s depiction of gender at the time?

I’m bisexual. People didn’t go around saying that very much, but I did. And since I only knew the club world, really, when I went out, it was just interesting. Later on in my life, I thought, “Oh, people don’t go around saying that. No, they don’t.”

Do you have a favorite moment from the film?

I guess when Jimmy says, “I’m going down.” You know? He’s talking to his mother, his mother offers him a lift uptown, and he just says, “No, I’m going down.” There was that division then of uptown and downtown. A lot of people never went uptown. Downtown was where we were. It was a different world uptown.

So, are you still downtown, or have you left New York?

I’m in Florida and New York. I make artwork and it takes a lot of space and it’s messy. You can’t really do that in an apartment. In Florida I really enjoy the weather, and I do painting and sculpture and enjoy water aerobics. I’m really happy. I have a gallery down there.

What was your post–Liquid Sky career like?

I had a small role in Crocodile Dundee as a transvestite. They were looking for somebody who was playing a man playing a woman because the lead actor was so homophobic he didn’t want to touch a man. I had a small role in Desperately Seeking Susan. I have to tell you, I went up for a lot of things, but I didn’t really understand how it worked and I didn’t read a lot of scripts that were that good. I did it for a while, and I modeled for Ford and made my living doing that. After a while it was clear I was getting older and there was no way I was going to continue modeling.

I went back to school and got a degree in art therapy and worked in a psych unit for a while. Then I had a great job working with people who had been homeless. So, I was a therapist and I was helping people. I think that after AIDS hit and people started dying from drugs, it hit me really hard. I had to re-examine what I was doing with my life. I had to decide whether the pursuit of a narcissistic thing was really who I was. Art therapy is a very interesting field, and I really loved it. But then my parents became ill. Here I was helping other people, and they were down in Florida, so I moved there. There weren’t a lot of art therapy jobs there so I worked in substance abuse for a while.

When you modeled, were you able to bring any Liquid Sky vibes to your jobs? Or were the assignments more mainstream?

I brought some of it, but modeling is its own thing. It didn’t last very long. I was more of a cultural person than a model. One thing that was really funny was I modeled for a book of knitting patterns for sweaters. That was really an acting job!

You also posed for Playboy, in 1984. What was that like? Was it uncomfortable at all?

I really said I wanted to be Jimmy in the pictures. They did a whole shoot with Jimmy but only one of those pictures ended up being used. It got uncomfortable only once: The photographer tried to get in the closet with me. It was gross. I just said, “What are you doing? Really? Get out!” You got to be kidding me. But that was near the end of the shoot.

Do you see the film as being feminist? So much of the dialogue and the presentation of gender still feels so relevant.

Absolutely. The whole idea was that Margaret couldn’t fit in with the world as it was. So, she had to find her prince from outer space. It’s a science-fiction fairy tale.

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