EXCLUSIVE

Exclusive: See Maya Hawke Transform Into the Legendary Artist Kathy Acker

Courtesy of Aïda Ruilova

Since 1997—when she died of cancer at age 50—the late pioneering artist Kathy Acker has largely been remembered as a staunch feminist with a pixie cut, as memorialized through photographs taken by Robert Mapplethorpe and a 2017 biography written by Chris Kraus. Arguably, none of these preexisting depictions come as close to capturing the true Acker as the one portrayed by Maya Hawke—the buzzy, up-and-coming scion and breakout star of Stranger Things season 3—in the soon-to-be-released short film Memory Xperiment: Kathy Acker. Sure, each and every word that Hawke says aloud was actually written by the late artist, but that’s only one way in which Aïda Ruilova, who wrote and directed the short, managed to capture Acker before even she knew who she was herself. Composed of a series of vignettes, the film stars Hawke as a 20-something navigating the early stages of adulthood in the ’70s through sex and writing—whether splayed out on the floor surrounded by titles like Violette Leduc’s Thérèse and Isabelle, shaving off her hair, or scribbling away in the back of her workplace (a strip club). Ahead of its premiere at Nitehawk Cinema Shorts Festival next month, get an exclusive sneak peek via Ruilova’s annotated, behind-the-scenes Polaroids, here.

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Courtesy of Aïda Ruilova

“In the early ’70s, Kathy Acker performed at live sex shows on 42nd street at the club Fun City. She was in her twenties, and supporting herself through sex work. It changed her understanding of gender and power relationships, and had a profound impact on her work. Her boss was Marty Hodas, infamously known as ‘the king of porn,’ who was recently depicted on the HBO show The Deuce. In an early journal, Acker writes about being stuck in the club during a black out in Times Square, and Marty not letting anyone leave. She writes, ‘After four shows mostly lousy… half of 7th avenue blacked out… but of course we can’t leave in case the management can make another 5 bucks out of us.’ Here is Maya before we shoot her entering through the club past the dancer on stage.”

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Courtesy of Aïda Ruilova

“We shot the stripper scenes at the club Satin Dolls in Times Square. Four AM call time. There was a very small window of shooting time since those places like to stay open, keeping the dollars pouring in. Kathy Acker grew up on Sutton Place, and she went to an elite private school on the Upper East Side. She wore a uniform every day, which is why Maya wears one here. I had imagined a young Kathy in a dream sequence, reading in the club. She was a voracious reader, studying Greek and Latin. Alas, these scenes above didn’t make it into the short film.”

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Courtesy of Aïda Ruilova

“Maya is holding a journal that is a painstaking facsimile of one of Kathy’s original journals. The art department did a beautiful job. I love this object; it sits with a prized pile of books on my bedside table. Handwritten on the cover are different lines Kathy wrote: The color of raw velvet; Jane Eyre II; The Black Tarantula 1973; I become a child; Freud Kant Russell.”

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Courtesy of Aïda Ruilova

“This is an overhead shot of Kathy/Maya surrounded by books like Theresa and Isabelle by Violette Leduc (the cover features images of the film version directed by Radley Metzger), and The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats. Kathy wrote a chapbook called, ‘I explore my miserable childhood: I become William Butler Yeats.'”

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Courtesy of Aïda Ruilova
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Courtesy of Aïda Ruilova

“Kathy was known for her exceedingly long list of lovers, which started accumulating early in her life. She slept with both men and women. The scene above illustrated a passage Kathy wrote about sneaking out of her parents’ home to her lover’s place downtown. Our cinematographer, Sean Price Williams played the part of the boyfriend.”

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Courtesy of Aïda Ruilova

“When you Google ‘Kathy Acker Sex Tape,’ you can watch a bootleg of the infamous 1974 videotape starring Acker and the artist Alan Sondheim titled The Blue Tape. The artists and lovers have sex on camera. Their ongoing conversation is perhaps more compelling than the footage itself, they give a blow-by-blow of what is happening and what they’re feeling. It’s really the anti-sex sex tape. We re-enacted a portion of it.”

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Courtesy of Aïda Ruilova
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Courtesy of Aïda Ruilova
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Courtesy of Aïda Ruilova

“Me and Maya during shooting. I am literally resting on her shoulder, I took my break in that Polaroid.”

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Courtesy of Aïda Ruilova

“Kathy Acker was photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe dressed like this—we tried to reenact it exactly. This is Maya and our stylist Haley Wollens—thank the heavens for her, an angel transforming Maya into Kathy.”

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Courtesy of Aïda Ruilova

“Maya’s half smile here makes me think of something the artist Eleanor Antin, a close friend and mentor of Kathy’s, said to me during my research for the film, a period where I talked to dozens of her old friends and associates: ‘Kathy was darling, she was small and charming and cute and lovable and shy in a way. All of these attributes of sort of mysterious glamor that have been attributed to her, that’s fine, she took them on and she wore them very well, but the point is she was a young artist, she was playful and she babysat for us…'”