sex scene week

Stephen Rea on The Crying Game’s Surprise Penis

Welcome to Sexpositions, a weeklong Vulture celebration of sex scenes in movies and on TV.

Is there a more purely surprising cinematic sex scene than the one between Stephen Rea and Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game? Not these days, anyway, when a movie’s secret is often spilled long before its release date. In 1992, though, when writer-director Neil Jordan’s psychological thriller hit theaters, few audience members fully grokked that Rea’s character, Fergus, would be in for a gender-bending twist via his lover, Dil, played by Jaye Davidson. 

Rea told us about filming the movie’s key revelatory scene.

It wasn’t shocking to do. I’m sure everybody that does love scenes tells you: All you’re thinking about is the camera position. So it looks pretty shocking in the movie but it wasn’t shocking to do. The shock for me was when Neil Jordan — before I’d even read a script — I had dinner with him and he said, “Do you want to do this movie?” And he explained the whole story to me, and then says, “And then they go back to her apartment and she undresses and she’s a guy.” I immediately said, “I’ll do it,” because I was aware of what the impact of it was. But it was quite daring at the time. I must say, I don’t think I’d ever seen a penis on a screen before.

Somebody said to me, “Look, no matter if [Dil was] a guy or a girl, if this guy was in love with you, why was his penis not erect?” Of course the thing was, you wouldn’t be allowed an erect penis [on film]. You were allowed a penis, but not an erect penis. A lot of men will tell you, sadly, it isn’t always erect when it’s supposed to be [laughs], but anyway, that’s just a technicality. Most people were just shocked at the presence of the penis, not whether or not it was aroused.

Doesn’t Dil say, “I thought you knew”? “I thought you’d guessed”? That’s the only reason he’d gone that far. But of course our little Irish man was so naïve, he hadn’t guessed. Anyway, it was believable at the time, wasn’t it? Sometimes people knew that is was a boy, you know? Women sometimes told me that they guessed. But men never guessed because men are fooled by surfaces. I met a lot of red-blooded Irish men who said, “Nah, nah. That couldn’t be the guy. It was only a guy for that shot.” And then one guy said, “there’s a credit for prosthetics; the penis must’ve been prosthetic.” They just wouldn’t accept that they’d found this male person attractive. The thing was that Jaye was a beautiful boy. He was sick one day, and a doctor came to the set. The doctor said, “Is there any chance you could be pregnant?” This is a doctor! Jaye said, “No, I don’t think that’s possible.”

The shoot was done very quickly. It couldn’t have been more than three takes. Not that it was that embarrassing for anybody. Everybody knew it was going to happen, and there was no prurience. But I must say I had no premonition whatsoever that it would be so successful. There’s no question that the marketing campaign, “Don’t tell …” was the big thing. It was just a completely different world at that time, wasn’t it? Hard to imagine, but that was what was so touching about it was that people really listened to Harvey Weinstein and said, “Okay we won’t tell.” It’s kind of rather sweet. It’s like Santa Claus, you know? The title of the movie when they released it in China was, apparently, Oh No, My Girlfriend Has a Penis. And when Jaye was nominated for [an Academy Award for] Best Supporting Actor rather than Actress, that, of course, revealed the secret right away.

I don’t know what happened to Jaye. I think he made a couple of movies and found that it wasn’t for him. He was quite young, and he was really brilliant in the movie. Maybe Jaye had second thoughts — “Oh, why did I do that?” You know yourself that the film world can be tacky and repulsive in lots of ways. Maybe anything he was on after that just seemed stupid. I certainly thought he could’ve had liftoff in a very big way because he was an extraordinary figure, and the world had become ready for ambiguous sexuality or transgender experiences. But maybe he just didn’t want it.

I don’t think The Crying Game was an exploitative experience for Jaye because none of it was gratuitous. As Neil said, you have to see his penis. The audience has to feel the way Fergus feels — a genuine shock. It’s no good if it’s suggested. If they don’t see it, they might say, “Was there one there at all?” or “Was it really a woman?”

The funny thing — we used to laugh — was that Fergus’s reaction when he sees the penis was to run to the bathroom and vomit. We said, “This is an Irishman.”  The Irish see a penis where there isn’t supposed to be one, and they go and vomit. If it were De Niro, he would’ve smashed her across the face and said, “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?!” It would have been completely different had it been an American. The Irish are so oversensitive about these things. [Laughs.]

The big turning point in the film is when Fergus says to her, “Look, I can’t go on with this because you’re … ” And she says, “Why not?” and he says, “You’re a guy! I can’t do this …” and Dil says, “Okay. I understand. Just kiss me once before you go.” And then, he kisses her and it’s terribly beautiful because he does love this person. To me, the kiss is more potent than the big shlong, if you’ll excuse the expression.