Ashlei Hardenburg: Queerly focused and on the rise 

Ashlei Hardenburg

It’s film festival time! In the next few weeks, if you’re a film aficionado, get ready to warm up your popcorn. We have not one, but two fantastic film festivals back to back — The Women’s Film Festival (TWFF) and qFLIX Philly (more on that next week). TWFF runs from March 14-22 and has plenty of queer content. Full disclosure, I’m one of the programmers. The feature film “Heavy Craving” beautifully explores a friendship with a young trans person and a school chef. “Pulse” is a fun comedy short from Israel. One of my favorite films is “Queering the Script,” which illustrates the power LGBTQ fans have in shaping storylines, including how Xena fans influenced the tone of the show, and there will be a Xena trivia contest. “Mud and Honey” about teen angst and love is part of the “Home Grown” segment devoted to local filmmakers, and there is an entire program devoted to LGBT short films. Highlights include “Nice Chinese Girls Don’t” with poet and bodybuilder Kitty Tsui, “Say Grace,” another nun-based film(!), and “Kama‘āina (Child of the Land),” a moving film about a homeless LGBT youth. The fabulous Heather Raquel will host a special “After Dark” program of films at Tattooed Moms. “Eat Rich,” a film with a majority trans cast and crew, will be featured in that program. The closing night film “Clementine” is a lesbian psychological drama featured at Tribeca and starring Otmara Marrero (“Start-Up”), Sydney Sweeney (“Euphoria,” “Sharp Objects,” “The Handmaid’s Tale”). And our “Sex, etc.” program (followed by a burlesque performance), will feature “A Single Evening,” a film directed by this week’s Portrait, Ashlei Hardenburg. Dates and times can be found at

I read that you self describe as a bi/queer Germa-Rican filmmaker from Jersey.

Yes! But my father was in the military, so I was actually born on an airbase in Germany. It’s funny, both of my parents were born and raised in New Jersey, but they met and fell in love in Texas before moving to Germany where I was born. Then they came back to Jersey and I grew up here. 

What’s your background?

My mother is Puerto Rican, and my father is white — German, Irish … and Polish sort of stuff. 

How would you describe little Ashlei?

She read a lot of books, and she asked a lot of questions. She was kind of a loner. Anytime I run into my mom’s friends, they still say, “You were so cute, you were always quietly sitting somewhere in a corner reading a book.” I spent the weekends with my dad, and he loved movies. He would record a bunch of them on a VHS tape for us to watch all weekend. He would know all of the lines to all the movies. He could name every actor in every film. He’d watch a lot of action films along with some weird comedies, and that’s where the love of films first came into my life. 

You were a reader. What was your favorite book?

I had the whole Nancy Drew series. My grandparents noticed how much I loved to read, so they got me the set when I was really young — all hardcover, and I read all of them. I liked the mysteries, and I loved that it was a girl that I could identify with. I was also a big OG Harry Potter fan before it got popular. [Laughing] After that, it wasn’t cool for me anymore! 

What were your extracurricular activities?

I did choir; I was a lawyer for mock trials; I was into acting and singing, but there wasn’t a program for it at our school. So my friends and I got together and wrote a musical which we performed at the school. We used the funds we raised from that to create and launch a drama program at the school. We even installed a stage in the cafeteria. Now kids are able to do all kinds of theater at the school. Before that, all that was being taught was a little Shakespeare, and don’t get me wrong, I love Shakespeare, but it gave people more of an opportunity to do something more. I really was interested in musicals, and my school didn’t have those “High School Musical” type opportunities, so we made it for ourselves. 

Nice! Who was a mentor for you?

I’m really glad you asked that. Dr. Sara Solberg was a huge mentor for me. She was my Shakespeare teacher and my English teacher. She absolutely loved theater and would invite students to come over to her house to read a Shakespeare play, and we would sing Shakespearean songs around the piano. It gave us a chance to lift our voices and just hang out with each other. Sometimes she would bake; it was just so lovely. And I also had a mentor in Ms. Ellen Gibney; she was just awesome. She introduced me to a ton of the classics and to screenwriting. She was the first one to say I had an aptitude for it — that I had the eye to see stories and adapt them on paper. 

And you took that skill to the prestigious Vassar College.

Yes, I did! I am a Vassar girl. 

What was that like?

It was interesting. I went there thinking I was going to be an actress, but I just wasn’t feeling the acting community there. It was very exclusive in many ways. But once I took a film class, I loved it. I got immersed in film theory, which had to do with the history of film and studying how films are created and critiquing them. Film classes also gave me opportunities to create my own stories, and I learned how to direct, how to light a scene properly, how to use the cameras.

What turned you away from theater?

Um, It’s an amazing school, but in the theater department especially, I was kind of turned off because it seemed like everyone there already thought they were professionals and took themselves extremely seriously. They had vocal coaches and agents already. I didn’t have the same background as a lot of them, so people would be like, “What’s your favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein musical?” and I didn’t even know who they were because there was no musical theater in my high school. Some of my peers were already doing off-Broadway shows. Film was much more inviting, and there were more opportunities to create what I wanted. 

What was your first gig after college?

I was really scared. I had a film degree, but you’re always told that you can’t do anything with a liberal arts degree. But my first job was as an intern/office PA on a movie called “The Last Five Years.” It was a musical, which felt like a godsend, even though I wasn’t paid. We got a $5 stipend, which didn’t even cover my trip from Jersey City, but because it was a small budget, I got to learn everything. I really worked hard and shined enough for them to bring me up on other projects with them. I started getting paid and involved in TV projects. I got to work on Netflix shows, and it all went uphill from there. 

It sure did. You’ve worked on some of the most popular shows in the community, including “Jessica Jones” and “Orange Is the New Black.” Tell me about those experiences.

There’s a huge learning curve once you make the jump from working with non-celebrities to being around Rosario Dawson, Laverne Cox and all of the big Marvel people. You have to learn how to keep your cool, and you do that by knowing that they’re just here doing a job, and you all have one goal, which is to make the project. Learning that helped me on a lot of future projects. I’ve worked on several big-budget projects. Being on big shows, with giant sets, really helps you with figuring out how everything is done — from fight choreography on “Jessica Jones” and “Daredevil” to how the sets are built up and torn down over and over on “Orange Is the New Black.” On OITNB, I was the producer’s assistant, and part of my job was taking notes at the meetings. I got to see the whole process and hear the conversations about everything that went on from the art department to hair and makeup to logistics and how each department affected each other. 

That’s great. 

Yes, it was really helpful when I was ready to start doing my own projects and taking a bigger hand in other work. That’s when I started working with A.J. Mattioli, a really wonderful trans producer who produced the film “Killer Unicorn,” which is a queer horror film. I started as a script supervisor and got promoted to 2nd assistant director, and since then, I’ve worked on a lot of their projects. It was my first time being surrounded by other queer artists, and it was invigorating. There were drag artists and queer screenwriters. One of them, Jose Alvarez, produced the film “A Single Evening,” which I’ll be screening at The Women’s Film Festival. It’s great that we’re able to support each other. 

I worked on a large feature, and we pretty much started each day with the assistant director trying to get things going by shouting, “I’m standing here with my d–k in my hand! Why aren’t things happening?” It was his favorite phrase. 

Oh yeah, when I was on bigger projects, there were a lot of teamsters hanging around and very male-centric crews, so there were a lot of microaggressions. “Hey sweetie, do you know how to cook? Shouldn’t you be at home doing that for your husband?” Working with queer artists, you don’t get the same alpha-male mentality. It was the first time I didn’t feel like I had to be on guard the whole time.

Let’s talk about your film. It’s a musical about a young queer woman trying to navigate the dating scene with the help of several dating apps. How much of it is autobiographical? 

It’s very autobiographical! I’ve certainly had people question my bisexuality — met people who start out texting, “So? When are we hooking up?” All of the songs were written from my own experiences, and then I molded the songs around the plot. 

I understand the crew was very diverse.

Yes, that was important to me. We had a lot of queer folks, most of us women and people of color. I think we had one straight cis, white guy! 

What was one of the craziest moments?

After we cast the lead, Rebecca, who is absolutely fabulous, she told us, “By the way, I’m moving to Iceland soon.” So we had to race to finish the film and to record all the original music! 

I do have a bone to pick. What is wrong with Pineapple pizza!

[Laughing] Honestly, I’m a fan! But so many people have such a visceral reaction to it, I used it in the film. And people did react!

When did you come out?

I had a moment when I said to a friend, “You know, I think I might be bi,” and he said, “Yeah, we all know,” and I was like, “Wait, I didn’t know!” When it came time to come out to my family, I was really nervous about it. I didn’t do it until I started working with queer filmmakers and felt safe. Finally, I just called my mom and told her, and she said, “OK, great, so what?” [Laughing] It wasn’t the big dramatic reaction I wanted, but it was such a relief to not carry a secret and feel like I had to hide a part of myself. 

Offbeat question, are you affected by the moon?

Not directly, but I directed the play “Hair” in college, you know, “When the moon is in the 7th house…,” so I do always take a moment when I see a full moon.

That’s an impressive undertaking for college. Did the actors do the nude scene and all? 

It was an awesome experience. Yes, they did, and we did the show outdoors in 45-degree weather! They were very cold, but they were very committed and talented actors, and it was a beautiful time together. No one was obligated, but everyone wanted to participate. 

Favorite body part.

My eyelids — I love makeup, so I like doing up my eyes and being able to reshape them. 

Any phobias?

Oh yes, I can’t deal with sharp objects; I can’t look at needles. If I see one in a movie, I have to turn away. I have trouble watching hockey because those blades look dangerous, and I don’t cook because I’m afraid of fire, and there are too many knives involved. 

Any distinguishing marks?

I have freckles on my left hand but not on my right, and I have a beauty mark under my left eyebrow. I don’t know why they call it that. Does it really enhance your beauty?

Favorite saying?

Do you?