Austin has to find a way to keep its weirdos, says fitness and film star Erica Nix
If Jane Fonda can conquer film, surely Austin's own workout maven has a place on the big screen.
Erica Nix, the beloved fitness personality whose body-positive, queer-inclusive exercise experiences have kept the city moving for years, just made a movie. "Erica's First Holy Sh!t" premieres on April 29 at Distribution Hall.
The poster calls it "a psychosexual lesbian fantasia of adventure and discovery." It's also a tribute to a kind of "old Austin" that Nix says is struggling to survive.
"A lot of it is about being an artist in Austin and feeling like it's not sustainable, or you're not able to actually be here as an artist," she says.
As the synopsis reads, the film follows a version of Nix "in the wake of a divorce and reeling from the reality of the pandemic," as she "contemplates the changing tides of Austin’s value system and the plight of creatives like herself being priced out of the city."
Nix and her artistic collaborators, the collective This Is Not a Cult, pursued a cinematic project after the success of their 2019 live multimedia show. The filmmaking process let Nix explore a darker side of her personality, she says: "Most people know me as my hyper positive fitness self, which I am, but I think people are also (attracted) to the fact that I’m part of the joke — it's all very satirical."
"Abstractly, it's based on anecdotes from my real life," she says of the film. "It's definitely grotesquely exaggerated." Nix would talk about her experience with her collaborators, producer/lead writer Sawyer Stoltz and producer Jeremy Stilb, who would "make it a million times funnier." Producer Jess Gardner did much of the video, audio and directing work.
The laughs come amid explorations of spirituality, group sex, therapy and ad-driven self-help, Nix says. This film very much continues the tradition of queer underground cinema: "It's COVID, and we have no money," she says.
"The most obvious person to talk about is John Waters," she says on the topic of influences. "I wish we could still produce movies for as much as John Waters made them. It's pretty punk rock."
Along with Nix, the film features a cast of Austin's queer creatives, including nightlife sensation and music artist p1nkstar and longtime drag performer Christeene Vale (aka Paul Soileau).
The presence of those artists underscores one of the film's messages. As Austin's affordability crisis worsens and rising rents price people out, Nix thinks the outlook for artists being able to function here is "devastating and bleak."
"When I moved to Austin, you could work at Wheatsville and be an artist and have a really good life," she says, alluding to the 1990s version of Austin seen in Richard Linklater's movie "Slacker." Nix thought that as the city grew, she would also grow and get more creative work.
"For real weirdos like me, which is what Austin’s supposed to be for, that isn't the reality," she says. One example she cites: The current redevelopment plans for the Warehouse District, which would displace several LGBTQ bars that host DJs and drag performers.
Nix talks candidly about the personal struggles in recent years that have now been filtered through a cinematic lens. Around the time the film project came up, she was going through a divorce. She also was recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. During parts of filming, she says she couldn't walk on her left leg, or sometimes, see out of her right eye.
Her parents have been a big support, she says, including financially after she was displaced from the home she'd been renting.
Nix brings up a long-ago family memory: "My mom came to visit, and she's amazing and supportive and great, but she doesn’t always get me. She had this moment where she broke down, because she was worried I was going to end up like Leslie." That refers to Leslie Cochran, the Austin cultural fixture who often experienced homelessness before he died in 2012.
"At the time, I was pretty infuriated, because she made a big deal of it. It was like a hilarious thing to be afraid of. But it's become this Shakespearian self-fulfilling prophecy. I do actually relate to Leslie, in this way of a community treasuring that weirdo that wears a thong, but not actually being able to get a job in a way that supports my thong wearing," she says.
Nix is on an aggressive course of medication to treat her M.S., and it's working well now. She can dance on both her feet, and "things couldn't be better," she says. Now, seeing her film to the finish line feels like a birth.
Writing the movie with her friends was cathartic. She's proud of what This Is Not a Cult has created and thinks that perhaps the film could end up in a festival.
"All these artists that are a pretty big deal showed up for basically free when I was having the darkest moment of my life," she says. "It was like I was being lifted up by my community."
Amid all the uncertainty, it also feels like it could be "the last flipping hurrah," Nix says. But she hopes not.
"If you are a city that says that you love your weirdos," she says, "then you have to find a way for them to exist there."
If you go
"Erica's First Holy Sh!t" world premiere
When: 7:30 p.m. doors, 8:30 p.m. screening on April 29
Where: Distribution Hall, 1500 E. Fourth St.
Tickets and more information: workoutwithericanix.com