Ponyboi is a pressure cooker of sequins and bullets. Taking place over 24 hours on Valentine’s Day in early ’00s New Jersey, the film follows Ponyboi (River Gallo), a pink Motorola Razr-toting intersex sex worker. After a drug deal goes bad, Ponyboi is on the run from drug dealer Vinnie (Dylan O’Brien), who’s married to Ponyboi’s childhood friend Angel (Victoria Pedretti), a full-fledged glam mob wife, complete with mink coat and razor-thin eyebrows. Gallo also wrote the film, which debuted at Sundance Film Festival earlier this month, and it’s as much a love letter to New Jersey’s high-wire mob associations as it is a hypnotic meditation on intersex identity.
Gallo originally wrote, directed, and starred in a short film of the same name, which premiered in 2019, when Gallo says they became the first intersex actor to play an intersex character. Now, it continues: Gallo is the first intersex actor to play an intersex character in a feature film. “The weight of that is not lost on me,” Gallo tells NYLON. “But also I’m learning to celebrate that more.”
Below, NYLON caught up with Gallo and Pedretti following the film's premiere, where they talked about everything from the current mob wife moment to their love of Garden State.
River, where did the initial inspiration for Ponyboi come from?
It came from a performance-art theater piece I made at NYU, which was inspired by a trip to Walmart. I don't think I shared this story with anybody yet. I was standing in line at a New Jersey Walmart and I saw this baby in a stroller with a pacifier that said “I love my daddy.” She was a girl, I'm assuming, because she was in pink. I looked at this child and I was like, “How does she know that she loves her father at this stage in her life?”
The wheels started turning around gender: this young girl and this assumption that she already loves her dad. I spun this story around a queer sex worker in New Jersey who had daddy issues that would later become the foundation of the theater piece. I used that as inspiration to make the short film. I wanted to express my experiences around being intersex and my relationship with my dad and my family.
Victoria, what attracted you to the script?
One of the main things that drew me to the script was River. I enjoyed spending time with them and the conversations we were having about art. I think the most important films to be made are the ones that deal with subject matters that people aren't well-versed in and with characters they haven't seen before. This was an incredible opportunity for that to happen. I'm really interested in stories about worlds that people don't necessarily get to see a lot, especially when it comes to queer identity.
How did you go about creating this fabulous mob wife character?
VP: I love Angel. I've admired so many women like her. It was fun to embrace this place and this time. I spent a lot of time with the look. Angel doesn't just happen. She's a whole process. I went to this eyebrow threader in New Jersey and I was like, “Can you do this [thin brow]?” And she was like, “Are you sure? I don't want to do this to you. We learned in the late ’90s, early ’00s, this isn't it.” There were a lot of late nights trying to get self-tanner into areas that were very hard to reach.
How do you feel about the current mob-wife trend?
RG: We were ahead of the culture. I was jokingly telling my friends, “My culture is not your costume.” These girls wish they're from New Jersey or the East Coast. I think it's really funny because the timing could not be more ironic that we release this movie at the same time everyone's having nostalgia specifically for The Sopranos and the early aughts, and now the mob-wife aesthetic, which is the whole vibe of the movie.
Do you have any favorite New Jersey movies or TV shows?
RG: I love The Sopranos. Garden State is one of my favorite movies. It was one of those moments of early ’00s indie sleaze where you're like, “I am a real person with artistic taste and sensibility.”
VP: That was one of those movies where I was like, “These independent films are where it's at. These are the movies I feel are really saying and doing something interesting.”
Can you talk more about the role of New Jersey in the film and what it was like shooting there?
RG: We shot the laundromat a few blocks away from where my parents live. We shot in Asbury Park, which was really meaningful to me because that's where I decided the name of the short film would be Ponyboi, based on the Asbury Park music venue Stone Pony. It’s one of the first venues where Bruce Springsteen played professionally. The crew was all New York and New Jersey people, so everyone was clued in on what we were trying to make. It was a very fun, wild, and sometimes intense set, but I think the results felt very authentic to the actual material.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.