The ATL Twins are Spring Breakers forever
Sidney and Thurman Sewell might have your attention now, but it will never be enough
Any story about Sidney and Thurman Sewell starts with a party. People are always hanging around their Midtown loft, sipping vodka and soda and staring out the floor-to-ceiling windows 26 stories above Peachtree Street. Sometimes it's a music video director and a girl they met in the strip club or a guy they used to skateboard with and a few girls they met while, well, they really can't remember. Maybe Trinidad James is on the stereo. Maybe Gucci Mane. Some pictures that Terry Richardson took for a fashion magazine are framed on the wall. Sidney and Thurman hang out with reporters a lot. One January night, a photographer and I are the journalists at the party. The next weekend it will be a couple of guys with Vice. The month after that, a Page Six spy will report their activities at a club in New York. There isn't much to do at their loft except sit around on the white leather couch or their bed and watch music videos and get drunk. Everyone is just here to hang out with Sidney and Thurman, better known as the ATL Twins, identical twin brothers who share everything — their women, their bed, their car, their lives.
Most people have trouble telling the Twins apart. If you hang around the party long enough, you'll hear one of the girls say, "Wait, am I talking to Sidney? Or Thurman?" right to one of their faces. (The trick to telling them apart is in the skin. Thurman's looks slightly older, more dull and worn out, than Sidney's.) It's true that Sidney and Thurman like to share. Here at the party, the Twins are trading sips from a fifth of Grey Goose and they're passing the same cigarette back and forth and they're snorting lines from the same bag of coke. They're generous with these things; they like to share with everyone who comes around. Later in the night, Thurman tells me, they plan to share one of the girls, a masseuse. People usually get hung up on the mechanics of two brothers having sex with the same woman. Like, how does that work? The answer is one after another, not three at a time. Usually, that's the answer. In any case, they don't bother waiting for people to leave before putting the moves on the masseuse. No one here is very inhibited.
At the party, a life of sharing doesn't seem that hard. Nothing does. The women and the coke and the money and everything, all of it always seems easy. What the Twins are good at, perhaps more than anything, is making their lives look easy, even if that hasn't always been the case. The Twins have created an image, a life of decadent leisure, of having an unlimited amount of anything they want, especially attention.
The Twins can't imagine reaching the point of having enough attention.
There's the story about them in Rolling Stone's Hot List issue, the one that ends with Sidney saying, "We want to be as big as Justin Bieber!" Not enough. There's the 10-page spread in Hustler with the porn stars. They've done better. There's the end of the music video for the Black Keys' "Gold on the Ceiling," when they pose and boast behind a cake baked to look like gold bars. They had a bigger part, they say, but it got cut down to the last few seconds. There's the 2011 interview in Vice that introduced them to the world, and then the new one, with them on the magazine's cover. They'd like to see more. There's the short film they showed me one night, commissioned by Gucci and directed by James Franco, with an operatic score and a bunch of people, including them, in very nice suits. It's unreleased. What the fuck good is a movie if people haven't seen it?
So, anyway, on the cold January night on which this story of the Twins begins, most of the talk at the party is about their next big thing, a movie called Spring Breakers, starring the inexhaustible James Franco, Justin Bieber's ex-girlfriend Selena Gomez and three other pretty young girls, the occasionally incarcerated rapper Gucci Mane, and the Twins. James Franco plays a rapper and criminal whom the girls get mixed up with when they head down to Florida for spring break.
Spring Breakers' director, the idiosyncratic auteur Harmony Korine, discovered the Twins through the original Vice interview. In the story, which of course begins at a party at the Twins' loft, skateboarding reporter and pornography critic Chris Nieratko asks them questions like, "Have you always dressed the same?" and "When you're double-teaming a girl is it always double penetration?" The Twins, whose responses have been transcribed as a single speaker, offer up lurid details and outlandish claims. "We got big ass dicks, man," they say. "We always got a bitch in the middle, every night," they say. In the photographs, the Twins strike exaggerated poses next to a half-naked stripper. The Twins look pale and thin, like the Appalachian characters that populate James Dickey's Deliverance, but dress in a style appropriate for a rap music video: gold teeth, crisp shirts, blinging chains. The interview seems to be either a self-mocking freak show or a fantastically shrewd media stunt. The truth is somewhere in the middle. Most of the stories written about them since have essentially been rewrites of Nieratko's interview, with the same stories about double penetration and shared anything and everything.
At the party tonight, a little less than a year after shooting Spring Breakers, they've just finished the last of the coke with us and a few girls are lounging on their bed watching music videos and the bottle of Grey Goose is finished, which means it's time to move on to the bottle of Jack Daniel's, and this seems like a good life. The Twins believe it will be a better life when Spring Breakers finally gets here. That's when people will really know who they are.
The Twins have been masterful at creating their notoriety out of practically nothing. (They've never had an agent or a publicist.) It used to be that people got famous for actually having done something. The Twins are part of the more recent phenomenon of people achieving celebrity without doing much of anything. When Spring Breakers comes out on March 25, it could be the Twins' moment to become that old kind of famous. The Twins want to be actors, but the roles they're primarily interested in playing are themselves. Each time they meet up with a reporter, they seem to be performing as an indivisible character — a set of perverse, identical twin brothers from Atlanta who party with rappers and strippers — that blurs the line between their life and their work.
Question: If you keep acting like you're rich and famous, will you wake up one day and suddenly be rich and famous?
About a week after that party in January, the Spring Breakers trailer is finally released. There are lots of skimpy bikinis and shirtless shots of James Franco and guns being fired into the air. Gucci Mane mean mugs for the camera. The neon-drenched frames and rapid cuts seem to explode on the beat of Skrillex's "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites," a dubstep tune with 125 million (and counting) plays on YouTube. Gawker, MTV, Huffington Post, and Slate all pick it up. For maybe two-tenths of a second, the Twins are visible in the out-of-focus background of a single shot. Basically, they're not in it.
A few hours later, my phone buzzes with a text message:
When the photographer and I arrive back at the Twins' loft that night, the mood is somber. Thurman is slouched on the couch. Sidney is talking to someone on the phone in the bathroom. They've already started in on a bottle of Grey Goose. Thurman looks tired.
"You have to understand," Thurman says, "what it feels like to tell all of your friends and family about some shit like this." For more than a year, the Twins have been telling people that they're going to be in Harmony Korine's next film. They have multiple framed photos of James Franco on their walls. They took a month off work. They told everyone to look for that trailer and see how famous they're going to be.
"It makes you seem like a liar," Thurman says.
It is easy to assume that the Twins are liars. They tell stories that sound obviously exaggerated. The events of their lives are hard to fathom. "Liar" isn't the right word, though. The Twins are hustlers. Hustlers like to say what other people want to hear, but, more importantly, what they want to be true, what could be true if you just give them enough time.
In an interview with New York Magazine, they said, "We're making an HBO show with Harmony Korine, Spring Breakers' director about shit ... Half reality, half scripted." There is no contract with HBO for a show, reality or otherwise, directed by Korine about the Twins. There is, according to the Twins, the promise of Korine's next project being a vehicle for them. This is the kind of lie one tells with the hope that it comes true.
They told me they've turned down "a bunch" of reality show producers who want to turn their lives into a cheap footnote of the "Jersey Shore" era. Which networks? "All of them." Maybe that's not exactly true, but give them enough time and attention and it could be.
The story about the Twins in Rolling Stone (written by Jann Wenner's youngest son, Gus) describes them as "25-year-old skateboarders." The Twins are not 25, they're 32. It is a known fact that people who are trying to break into Hollywood films should not be thirtysomething; they should be in their 20s or younger. In a way, the Twins are not even lying about their age as much as they're just saying, "Yes, we're employable."
The Twins think and talk a lot about their public perception. During a photo shoot for this story, our photographer followed them to a jewelry shop to pick up new grills. When leaving the loft, they took a backpack stuffed with issues of the magazines they've been featured in. Out in the world, they showed the magazines to anyone who would look at them, like proof that people should know who they are. They showed them to the lady who owned the jewelry shop and then tried to get a discount for being famous. It didn't work.
As much as they crave the attention, they also think they've been misrepresented by the media. The Twins took turns explaining to me that they felt the first Vice interview made them sound homophobic, when they say that couldn't be further from the truth. They wanted to stress that they understand what it's like to have a sexuality and lifestyle that society regards with skepticism or disgust; they wanted be sure this story would express a kind of solidarity with anyone who might be misunderstood in a similar way. In the middle of making this point, one of the brothers looked down at his phone and said, "Hold on, this bitch is calling us." Bitches, as the Twins would put it, are often calling them.
In any case, being cut out from the initial trailer seems to well up a lot of feelings for the Twins. (They did end up appearing in the red band trailer about a month later.) We're supposed to be talking about their family, but I sit on the couch while they type a seemingly long and pissed-off email to Korine on an iPhone. First Sidney types while Thurman looks over his shoulder, then Thurman takes the phone and does a revision, Sidney looking over his shoulder, occasionally pointing at a word or two on the screen. I want to ask if this is how they write all of their emails, but it doesn't seem like the right time.
Later, I notice that when imitating the script of their detractors by saying things like, "They're disgusting! They're perverted! They're so creepy-looking!" the Twins seem to be hung up on the last point. I ask Thurman if he really thinks that people consider them "creepy" looking.
He says only, "Yes."
Such a clipped response is unusual for the Twins, who tend to supply 25 words when two would do. So I push him on the point, "Why?"
"Because they don't know us," he says.
The Twins have repeated the details of their biography in most of the stories written about them. They grew up in a working-class part of Chattanooga, Tenn., and from a very young age rejected the idea of ever being separated. Their father suffered from debilitating illnesses and died in front of them when they were 14. Their mother wasn't much of a parent, and they stopped regularly going to school around eighth grade. To the best of my knowledge and efforts to confirm the broad outline of their shared life, the stories that the Twins tell about their adolescence are true. Though the smaller details, like the age in the Rolling Stone story, occasionally are wrong or fuzzy, the stories that seem harder to believe always turn out to be true. Trying to understand why they're telling these specific stories is less clear.
Take, for example, the story about losing their virginity. Around the same time that their father died, the Twins discovered skateboarding, which came with the world of teenage parties, drinking, smoking weed, taking acid, and skipping school. They lost their virginity at one of these parties to a woman they described to me as "this pedophile bitch." The woman, apparently seven years their senior, asked someone else at the party to tell the Twins to come her bedroom. When they arrived, she was naked and asked them to take off their clothes. She had sex with one brother, then the other immediately afterward. Since that moment, the Twins explain, they've always been interested in having sex with the same woman.
It feels easy to pop-psychologize these moments, to suppose that by repeating a traumatic moment aloud, they are able to control and feel power over events in their lives that they were not able to control at the time. Or you might say that they're escaping feelings of abandonment by seeking the attentions of fame. Any of that might apply to retelling the story of watching their father die or talking about the girl they were simultaneously engaged to who decided to leave them. The Twins aren't particularly interested in psychological interpretations of why they do things, though. They are interested in being rich and famous.
The career that the Twins are trying to build depends on the viability of themselves as characters. They're aware that the image of wanton debauchery and decadence they project is more interesting when juxtaposed against the darker narrative of their childhood. Whether you're writing a memoir or aspiring to be in a reality show, when the line between your work and your life starts to blur, you have to decide which version of the story you're trying to tell.
The Twins spent years trying to become professional skateboarders. Ask almost anyone involved with skateboarding in the Southeast and they will tell you they knew or knew of the Twins long before that Vice interview went viral. They went out of their way to party with visiting skateboarders, to always be heading to a new spot, to maintain the odd discipline of relaxed focus and fearlessness that's required to skateboard at a professional level. For whatever set of reasons, it never worked out. Ask the Twins about it and they'll brush it off and tell you that they've always skateboarded as a release, as a form of self-expression, and that going pro wasn't what it was about. They'll say it with the kind of terse directness of people who don't like to talk about failure.
Often in conversation, one of the Twins will absentmindedly but repeatedly flip and catch his phone, turning it the same way that a skateboard turns in a kick-flip. It is an oddly specific physical tic, one that only a skateboarder would have or recognize.
The Twins count only two incidents in memory when they were separated. One involved a trip to the hospital and the other a trip to jail. It's understandable that they would look for a nontraditional way to make money. Work can be hard to find if you refuse to be separated from your identical twin brother. They were able to find menial teenage jobs, bagging groceries or stuffing envelopes in a junk mail warehouse in Doraville.
At the encouragement of their former fiancée, the Twins backed off of skateboarding and focused on finding a career. They got jobs as couriers, which led to being hired as assistants for a personal injury attorney. As they explained it to me, their work now largely consists of delivering contracts for wrongful death or car accident claims and making sure that the paperwork gets signed.
The Twins were uncomfortable about letting me know which lawyer they work for, afraid that the image they've created could jeopardize their jobs. Eventually they gave me a name after I promised to leave it out of the story. I called and left a message trying to confirm their employment. The lawyer called back the next day. He did not sound happy. When I tried to confirm what duties they perform, he simply said that they are "legal assistants." He then asked if that was all and hung up. In the recent documentary Vice put together, the Twins told me that they faked the shots that appear to be them working in suits during the day.
I asked Thurman how much money they make working for the personal injury attorney and he responded, "Ain't no money like motherfucking insurance money."
At some point during that second night I spent hanging out with the Twins, drunk and head buzzing from the coke, I looked over at one of the Twins, I couldn't tell you which, and asked, "Do y'all ever fucking eat dinner?"
"Oh, yeah," he told me. "Most nights aren't really like this. We usually order Fresh to Go or Chinese food or some shit and watch a movie."
None of us were eating anything that night. We were standing in the bathroom doing coke when they demanded that I understand something.
"If he dies tonight," one Twin said, red-faced and pointing a bottle at his brother. "Like, if he doesn't wake up in the morning and I wake up and he's dead. The first thing I'd do is walk out to that balcony and jump off."
"Yeah," the other Twin said. "His life is my life. That's how it is."
It seemed spontaneous, the kind of drunken declaration that comes when you go off script. About a month later, I read that they said pretty much the same thing to Vice.
It isn't hard to understand what Korine sees in casting the Twins for Spring Breakers. Last month, he told Purple Magazine, "Philosophically — everything with them boils down to the quest for the double penetration. Do you know what I mean? That's at the core of who they are — all they want to do is double-penetrate the same bitch. Like, that's it. What can you say to that? It's like they're characters. And ... there's a sweetness that they have, too. So, yeah, it's fun for me to put them in. They embody a lot of the mood and psychology of the movie."
For the Twins, being cast by Korine is something closer to life-changing. The first film that Korine wrote, 1995's KIDS, came out when they were teenagers and is probably the first and only authentic-feeling movie about skateboarders of that era. They told me that Gummo, Korine's 1997 directorial debut, is the only film that has accurately described the kind of damaged Southern environment they experienced as children in Tennessee. They constantly talk about his work with near-spiritual reverence, and they seem to have bet their future on the idea that Korine might eventually make a project that casts them in the lead.
The Twins are not the leads of Spring Breakers. They don't have a single word of dialogue and their screen time lasts for about 15 minutes. They show up about a half-hour into the film at a raucous hotel party, pouring little bags of coke onto a girl's breasts and licking her. At the party, they're arrested along with the film's young, bikini-clad stars, and then flirt with them through the windows of a police car. We come to understand that they're henchmen for James Franco's character, standing in the shadows behind him as if coke-dealing demons simply lurked behind every tree and doorway of central Florida. They do get one big break, though, when James Franco tries to explain to the girls about the henchmen. He says that the Twins are identical brothers who share everything: their women, their bed, their car, their lives. Something like that. Anyone who walks into that theater unfamiliar with the Twins will leave knowing their mythology.
The last afternoon I spent with the Twins was for a photo shoot. Throughout our conversations, the Twins talked a lot about what we needed to do for the cover of Creative Loafing. They get kind of giddy with excitement when talking about photos that are going to be taken of them. Their friend Matt Swinsky, of rap-video production company Motion Family, suggested painting bikini-clad girls gold and posing them like a throne for the Twins to sit on. The logistics of how exactly to pose the women for a proper throne proved too complicated.
At some point, they mentioned that they knew a guy who had some guns that they could use in a photo shoot — big, scary-looking, real automatic weapons. They said they wanted to do something that looked Spring Breakers-themed. When we arrived, it was apparent that they weren't exaggerating. Their bed was covered with an M-16, a Mac-10 with a massive suppressor and long clip, and a few different handguns. Two girls arrived and sweetly flirted with the Twins before changing into bikinis and ski masks. For their own part, the Twins had their hair braided into cornrows the night before.
More than getting drunk and partying, the Twins actually seem to be most at ease while having their picture taken. They take directions easily, moving an inch to this side or that, putting on a serious face or a comic one. When the pictures needed something extra, they pulled out some movie money from the Spring Breakers set, very real-looking counterfeit bills, and threw it around while the photographer's shutter clicked.
I only noticed later, while going over the pictures with our photographer to decide what to use, that they'd styled themselves to look more like James Franco's character than their own roles in the movie. That's a sly move, to recast yourself as the star, and I don't think it was an accident. The Twins have always thought of themselves as the stars of their own film. In the pictures with the guns pointed up to the sky and the money floating around in the air and the girls propped up around them, they look like the stars they want to become. Counterfeit bills become real money when placed inside the frame of a photograph.
Sitting there in the office, I remembered what one of them said during the photo shoot: "I've never even fired a gun."