There are two films called The Surrogate. The first is a made-for-TV movie about an obsessive fan who cons her way into a writer’s life by carrying their baby.
“I’ve seen that movie,” says the director Jeremy Hersh, pulling a face. “I hope no one settles on that looking for this. It’s basically anti-women. The implication is that surrogates are crazy and calculating and out to steal some poor woman’s husband.”
Hersh’s film is different. It begins with a positive pregnancy test. “I’m just the vessel!” Jess (Jasmine Batchelor) announces brightly to a waitress at the Brooklyn restaurant where she is celebrating with the baby’s future fathers, Jess’s best friend Josh (Chris Perfetti) and his husband Aaron (Sullivan Jones).
Batchelor and Hersh are speaking to me over video call. It’s the former’s first film and she is extraordinary: real and raw, with an emotional precision that makes her compelling to watch. “When you read a script, especially as a black woman, it’s usually the wife or the girlfriend or the assistant,” she says. “To see a fully fledged character with flaws – I was like: I have to be part of this.”
A few weeks into Jess’s pregnancy, a prenatal screening detects that the baby has Down’s syndrome. Josh and Aaron feel they don’t have the emotional or financial resources to parent a child with learning disabilities. The abortion is booked, but Jess has doubts. She arranges for the three of them to go to a stay-and-play at a centre for children with Down’s. The men look uncomfortable, but Jess throws herself into the Down’s community. She is a Columbia masters graduate working as a social media manager for a charity and a little lost in her career. Advocating for this child becomes a kind of mission.
The Surrogate is not “about” one thing, but surrogacy, abortion, racism, Down’s syndrome and white privilege are all in the mix. Leaving the cinema, I felt as if I had devoured five long reads. Hersh’s script is packed with dialogue that is emotionally brutal, compassionate and funny – often all in one scene. If anything, what it is closest to is a divorce movie, chronicling the messy collapse of Jess and Josh’s friendship. And Hersh does ask the audience to pick a side: Jess’s.
It’s not that Josh and Aaron aren’t decent guys, but they seem monumentally uninterested in how Jess feels. In one scene they tell her that after the abortion they’d like to try for another baby with her. It’s one of Batchelor’s favourite scenes in the film. “They are saying it in a way like they are offering her an opportunity,” she says. “It’s bringing to life this stereotype of the black woman being the mule of the world. I hope that people see that in the film.” In the film, Jess is African American; so too is Josh’s husband Aaron. Josh is white and Jewish.
When I think about queer representation, I want to make characters who are relatable because of their flaws
Was Hersh, who is gay, worried about offending gay audiences? “No. As a viewer I want to be challenged and to see interesting representations of us,” he says. Actually, he’s sick of an idealistic, Will and Grace-style stereotype of gay men. “When I think about queer representation, since the 90s a lot of it has been so focused on a positive representation. But I want to make characters that are relatable because of their flaws.” The film, he says, partly came from the desire to twist the “gay best friend” trope.
Surrogacy, too, is something that Hersh has been thinking about for years. When he came out aged 15, his mother said: “Just so you know, this doesn’t let you off the hook, you still owe us Jewish grandchildren.” In college, he assumed that surrogacy would be his path to parenthood as a gay man. “I was taught that everything could be the same for you. But that’s just not true, logistically.” Although the surrogacy in the film is an informal “altruistic” agreement in which no money changes hands, surrogacy, Hersh points out, is more usually an option for the privileged few. “They say anyone can do it. No. Anyone who has $100,000 of disposable income can do it.” These days, when he daydreams about his future, it’s as an adopter. “But that still feels a long way off. I want to find a husband first.”
Hersh filmed the scenes where Jess takes Josh and Aaron to a stay-and-play at GiGi’s Playhouse, a community centre for people with Down’s in Harlem. Hersh began dropping by early on in the film-making process. “Then it got to a point where I wasn’t only going for research; I wanted to be there. It felt good because I was useful. That’s where I met Leon and his family, and we hit it off.” Hersh ended up casting Leon, a bright, engaging, funny child, in the film, and worked as his babysitter during the pandemic.
Hersh has been interested in disability as a theme since arriving in New York as a student. “When I first moved I was expecting this leftist paradise, and in a lot of ways it’s not that. I heard the R-word pretty frequently, which has always made me cringe. I was also shocked by how inaccessible the city is. How could there be subway stations without elevators? My peers were quite vocal about other injustices but silent about this topic.”
A couple of times in our conversation Hersh says he wants to hold a mirror up to the audience that goes to see an indie film, rather than preaching to the converted: “How can I criticise my audience, my community, myself?” he says, earnestly.
It leads to some uncomfortable, stinging scenes in the film, including one in which Jess postpones her abortion appointment. By this point she is considering raising the baby on her own. In a showdown with Josh and Aaron, Josh quotes a controversial Richard Dawkins’ tweet at her about the morality of bringing a child with Down’s syndrome into the world. Jess accuses him of supporting eugenics. Josh is a descendant of Holocaust survivors; Jess is African American – their conversation is tough. Hersh says people are surprised when he has brought up the history of eugenics in the US. “America has a history of forced sterilisation of indigenous women and black women. Hitler got some of his ideas from America,” he says.
Medical racism still exists, adds Batchelor. Women of colour are less likely to be believed by the medical profession. “It’s a whole thing on social media; black women giving each other advice on what to do if a doctor denies your request and how to navigate that conversation.” She mentions the tennis player Serena Williams, who spoke publicly in 2018 about her childbirth ordeal. After developing blood clots following a caesarean, Williams described how her requests for urgent help were dismissed by medical staff. “If Serena Williams is not believed and she almost loses her life giving birth to her beautiful baby girl, you can only imagine what happens when people don’t have that kind of money,” says Batchelor. Black mothers are three to four times more likely to die in the US – and the UK – from pregnancy-related illnesses.
I expected New York to be a leftist paradise, but I heard the R-word pretty frequently, which has always made me cringe
It’s something Batchelor thinks about: “If, in the next five or seven years, I want to have a child, my main concern would be finding a woman of colour to be my ob-gyn [obstetrician-gynaecologist]. Then you also have things like medical bias, which is not something that a lot of people in America know about. There was a long period of believing that black skin is thicker than white skin, so a needle wouldn’t hurt us. These are ideas that stem from slavery that still reside in minds today.”
One of the great pleasures of the film is watching Jess learn to stop people-pleasing and discover her autonomy. Batchelor says she could relate to that. “Sometimes as an actor you find yourself going on the same journey as your character. During the filming of this, and the year prior, I was really learning what it took to say what you mean and mean what you say, and not apologise for it. There’s a lot of power in saying: ‘No, thank you,’ and leaving it at that. I think that is the backbone of Jess’s journey, learning to ask for what you need.”
Did Hersh ever consider trying to upgrade his film’s budget, or the name-recognition of his actors? Even if he’d wanted to, he says, the list of so-called bankable female black Hollywood stars is “shockingly tiny”.
“People in the Hollywood world will say: ‘We’ve got to attach some bankable names to this.’ I think that’s an inherently racist way of thinking, and it’s very prevalent. Think about the actresses who are bankable and black and 30. If you can’t get this person or that, what does that tell you? That you need to change the character to white.”
Did anyone suggest he make Jess a white character? Before he can answer, Batchelor lets out a surprised “Ooh”. The thought does not seem to have occurred to her before. Hersh squirms and pulls a face as he nods. “Yeah, a handful of times. People would just kind of float it.” The funny thing is he could list a dozen black theatre actors for the part. “The reality is that there is an amazing talent pool.”
Batchelor nods enthusiastically. “I personally know a lot of incredible black actresses. All my friends are blow-your-mind talented, give beautiful, stunning performances and with a work ethic like crazy. But if you are not of a certain look, socioeconomic status or race, it’s difficult to do more than one film a year or to be discovered. I’m hoping our film will open minds to black female leads in complicated roles.”
• The Surrogate is in cinemas from 9 July