Being smitten with Dustin Lance Black is unavoidable. The Oscar-winner (of Milk fame) has a kryptonite combo of movie star good looks, GQ style, talent for the ages, and Texas-brand charm guaranteed to melt hearts. Yet it was his 2008 Oscar acceptance speech that turned the Hollywood newcomer into a voice for the disenfranchised—after he assured “all of the gay and lesbian kids out there…you are beautiful, wonderful creatures of value. And no matter what anyone tells you, God does love you and very soon, I promise, you will have equal rights federally across this great nation of ours.”
Black hasn’t relented on that promise. He’s fought on the front lines—from publicly challenging President Obama on his sluggish “evolution” for marriage equality to advocating within the community he himself grew up in. “I do work with the Mormon Church,” he says. “I’m out in Utah all the time, trying to introduce them to gay and lesbian families.”
Black continues: “You see attitudes change so quickly. I would say, eighty to ninety percent of the time, once they do see the truth about gay and lesbian people—who we really are—they change their minds. I want to be effective [in the political world] because I’m fighting for my people and our families.”
But the activist-writer-director proves he’s needed in Hollywood as much as he is in Washington with Virginia—his directorial debut—starring Jennifer Connelly, Emma Roberts, and Ed Harris. The film follows Connelly’s character Virginia—a schizophrenic, unhinged single mother who dreams of escaping her small town; she finally gets the chance by blackmailing Harris’s Sheriff Richard Tipton—an ascending Mormon official—with a pregnancy scam.
Amidst the current electoral state—Obama backing marriage equality and a Mormon running for president—Black’s plot seems perfectly timed. But the film is intensely personal—not political—he says. “I was raised by my mom, who had polio. It meant we had to take care of her most of the time. And then, I also had another family member who had the same level of schizophrenia that Jennifer portrays in the film,” Black explains, continuing: “My growing up experience was Mormon, southern, poor, with a single parent… In the South, you wear your trauma like a badge of honor. And really what you’re judged on and valued for is how big you can dream and how much you can rise above your station. It doesn’t much matter if you are ever going to get there.”
Black—who has definitely dreamt big and risen above his station—blends all of this together to get Virginia, who desperately yearns for a “happily ever after” ending. The three possible outcomes? Leaving her small-town with her son for a big city; having a baby with the man she loves; or going to heaven—and just like that, Black find the unlikely intersection of religion, fairy tales, and schizophrenia.
Virginia opens in theaters today.