Director Roger Ross Williams Breaks Down Barriers with 'Cassandro' Starring Gael García Bernal
Frank J. Avella READ TIME: 11 MIN.
"Cassandro" tells the true story of openly gay wrestler Saúl (Gael García Bernal) in the late 1980s who grows tired of constantly being forced to lose his matches. He desires stardom but refuses to do it as a drag exotico, which is what was expected in the Mexican wrestling world known as Lucha Libre. Everything changes when he meets Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez), a pro-trainer who believes in him and helps him create the radical "Cassandro." Cassandro sets about subverting stereotypes and, in doing so, changes how Mexico viewed out gay wrestlers.
Bernal, in a wondrous, perfectly-modulated performance, captures the character's conflicts, including his role in the covert affair he is having with fellow luchador Gerardo (Raúl Castillo), who is married with children as well as his few interactions with his estranged father.
The film illustrates the magnitude of having queer role models and how simply knowing someone queer can change attitudes.
Williams, who also co-wrote the screenplay with David Teague, spent years developing the project.
The filmmaker first came to prominence when he became the first African-American director to win an Oscar for his 2009 Best Documentary Short, "Music by Prudence." The film centers on Prudence, 24-year-old Zimbabwean singer-songwriter, who leads a group of disabled Africans, showing the world just how able they can be.
In 2016 he was nominated for a second Oscar, in the Documentary Feature category, for "Life, Animated," about a boy with autism who found his way of communication through animated films.
Besides the Oscar, the out director has won an Emmy, Peabody, and NAACP Image award.
EDGE spoke to Williams about his exciting new film.
EDGE: You directed the documentary on Cassandro's life. Tell me about the journey to make the feature.
Roger Ross Williams: Yeah, so I directed a documentary about Cassandro for The New Yorker series on Amazon, called "The New Yorker Presents." ...And the minute I met Cassandro, I knew that Cassandro was going to be my first scripted film...It was his charisma. It was his inner beauty. It was everything about him. Then when he sat down to tell me his story, I was crying and moved. And I was like, 'This is it.' This story has everything. It breaks down all these stereotypes, especially what you might think about the Latino community and, especially, the Lucha Libre community. I was just so moved by it. So, I was like, 'I'm going to do this.' But then I had to figure out how to do it.
I called my editor from my film "Life Animated." And I said to David Teague, "Do you know how to write a screenplay?" And he said, "Well, I want to be a screenwriter." And I said, "Well, let's try to write it together." And here we are almost eight years later, and it's done. But the journey to write the screenplay was a big learning curve, obviously, for two first-time screenwriters. I had the help of the Sundance Screenwriting Lab, and great mentors, like Doug Wright, and Doug McGrath, just incredible. And we powered through it...Early on, Julie Goldman, one of the producers, she produced "Life Animated," ...she and I pitched to Amazon. And they signed on before there was even a screenplay. So, they were with me for the entire journey.
EDGE: Was Cassandro, Saúl, keen on the idea of a feature?
Roger Ross Williams: I mean, who wouldn't want a feature about their life? What performer who performs in front of hundreds and thousands of people, in drag, over the top, wouldn't want the spotlight? Saúl was absolutely thrilled, beyond belief. He couldn't really believe it was happening. I feel, for a while, he didn't. He thought, 'No, this is a dream, this guy's probably just talking. How's he gonna pull this off?' Then slowly, it becomes more and more a reality, until he's on set and watching Gael play himself. When I told him that Gael Garcia Bernal was going to play him, he almost fell over.
EDGE: You said Gael was the only person who could play Cassandro.
Roger Ross Williams: Yeah, well, "Y Tu Mamá También," "Bad Education," I knew that Gael could pull this off...I knew that Gael is an iconic Mexican actor that could really carry this role and could take it to the next level. There was never a doubt in my mind. It was just a matter of pursuing Gael and getting him to say yes.
EDGE: Having come from the doc world, what was it like on set? Did you find yourself working closely with the actors? Giving them freedom? Was it a combination of both?
Roger Ross Williams: I think for me, it's a combination of both because as a documentarian, I'm much more flexible, and I want to draw out the the actors in a way that is personal to them; what are their personal connections to the material? How can they use those personal connections and stories to bring a real truth to the character?
I learned in the Sundance Directors Lab, from Robert Redford who was my advisor, he told me to lean into my documentary skills on set. So that's how I really learned to talk to actors. I have those skills because I've made many documentaries. I know how to talk to real people and draw them out and make them feel comfortable. And it's really the same process with actors.
EDGE: There's a marvelous queer sensibility to the film. The Lucha Libre world isn't something that many are familiar with. And you allowed us this in, through a queer lens...
Roger Ross Williams: Well, it had to be through a queer lens because I'm a gay man. And David's a queer man. Also, it's Cassandro's world. And Cassandro's reality and sensibility and so it was so important to to capture that. The story is told through Cassandro's eyes and to get into his head, and to be in the world and see this world through his lens was really important. And that is a queer lens. That's who Cassandro is. He's always been out. He's always been open. And he's always been flamboyant and true to himself.
EDGE: You explore these antiquated ideas of masculinity in the film. There's this idea that if you're gay, it somehow makes you less of a man. And Cassandro up-ends that.
Roger Ross Williams: Of course! The beauty of the film is it breaks through all of these different stereotypes, or the way people think about gay people or gay culture. It breaks all those down...That was really important to me as a director and as a filmmaker, to really hammer that message home.
EDGE: Raúl and Gael had great chemistry. Did you guys have a rehearsal period to explore that?
Roger Ross Williams: Yeah, we rehearsed. But Raúl is just the best actor. I'm so blown away by Raúl's talent. Raúl has done this many times before. He was in "Looking," the iconic gay series on HBO, and he's played this role. He made Gael comfortable, because he was so comfortable. The great thing about Raúl is that he's from Texas, from the border of Mexico. He's from that community, so he understood the culture and the nuances, and the language...For me, no one else could play that role other than Raúl.
EDGE: Speaking of, there's this ongoing debate about casting out gay actors vs. casting the best actor for the role. Can you share your feelings about that?
Roger Ross Williams: I think that when you decide to become an actor, you decide to become other people. You have to go on camera, and you have to personify someone else. And whether that person is gay or straight, or whatever they are, that's what acting is...For me, it's about who is best to do the role. When I discussed Gael with Cassandro, Cassandro was like, 'Of course, Gael is the perfect person to play me because he gets it, he understands it. He has the depth as an actor to really pull (it) off.' I think it's about who is best to play the role, and not about their sexuality. The movie is about breaking down all these stereotypes about sexuality and all these limitations. A great actor is a great actor.
EDGE: There's this wonderful moment in the film where when Cassandro is being booed, but then all of a sudden, they're these faint cheers, that become louder. And as much as that was great storytelling, I think it also speaks to us as a society and how we can easily be swayed.
Roger Ross Williams: Yeah, it's about breaking down these walls between us, right? There are these set ways of thinking, 'Oh, this person is homophobic, and they can't change, or they can't be educated, or they can't see the world in a different way.' ...People fell in love with Cassandro. I wanted to show, in the fight scene, how he could win the audience over (with) his talent and his moves. And the audience just ends up falling in love with Cassandro. And that breaks down barriers. And that's really important to me, because people may look at me as a black gay man, or as a black man and think about all those stereotypes. But when you meet me, it's a different story. I love the idea of breaking down barriers, I think that's really important.
EDGE: And you're also somebody who breaks down barriers. You're the first African-American director to win an Oscar (for "Music by Prudence.") What was that experience like for you?
Roger Ross Williams: I mean, how do you describe the experience of being on that stage and winning an Oscar? It's not really something you can describe. It's an out-of-body experience. It's wonderful to get recognition from your peers. It has taken me far. And I got nominated again for "Life Animated." I was like, 'I'm back here. I can't believe it. I'm back to the Oscars!' Who knew? Twice, in a lifetime, is a big deal. So, I'm grateful for that. But it's an amazing experience, through the whole award season to the actual nail-biting moment.
"Cassandro opens in select theaters on September 15 and streams globally on Prime Video September 22.
Frank J. Avella is a proud EDGE and Awards Daily contributor. He serves as the GALECA Industry Liaison and is a Member of the New York Film Critics Online. His award-winning short film, FIG JAM, has shown in Festivals worldwide (figjamfilm.com). Frank's screenplays have won numerous awards in 17 countries. Recently produced plays include LURED & VATICAL FALLS, both O'Neill semifinalists. He is currently working on a highly personal project, FROCI, about the queer Italian/Italian-American experience. He is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild. https://filmfreeway.com/FrankAvella https://muckrack.com/fjaklute