In the early 1980s, gay wrestler Saul Armendariz regularly crossed the border from El Paso in Texas to Ciudad Juarez in Mexico to participate in lucha libre wrestling matches. He wrestled as El Topo until he met a new trainer who suggested that he should compete as an exotico — aka a male wrestler who appropriates feminine aspects in his wrestling persona — leading to his new identity and increasing success as Cassandro.
Cassandro, directed by Roger Ross Williams, premieres on Prime Video today. Gael Garcia Bernal — the Mexican actor with prolific credits like Bad Education, The Motorcycle Diaries, Amores Perros, Y tu mamá también and Babel among others — plays Cassandro in the film that marks the feature film debut of Williams. Williams is the first African-American director to win an Academy Award, which he earned for his 2009 short film Music by Prudence. In the run-up to the release of Cassandro, t2 chatted with Williams.
Having made the documentary Cassandro, The Exotico! in 2018, what compelled you to direct a feature film on the same subject?
I fell in love with Cassandro. There is something very powerful about his story as a gay man that spoke to me and I wanted to tell a really uplifting and powerful story about a person in the LGBTQIA+ community. So often, the stories that we hear about the community are depressing. That’s why I wanted to tell an inspiring story. That was really important to me.
Is there any specific aspect of Cassandro’s story that caught your attention the most?
It was how Cassandro conquered a macho, homophobic world and he did it on his terms. The theme of the movie is to be your authentic self. Throughout the movie, he (Cassandro, played by Gael Garcia Bernal) is searching for some sort of love from his father, but at the end of it, he learns to love himself. He doesn’t need his father’s love anymore because he’s found his purpose in life.
It’s a complex, heavy-on-emotions film. What went into putting it together?
Choreographing the wrestling scenes was not easy. Each of those
scenes tell a story. The challenge, for me personally, was working with actors. I had never worked with actors before! It’s a language that takes time to learn. It was the Sundance Directors Lab and (actor-director) Robert Redford who taught me how to work with actors. Redford said to me: ‘What do you do with your documentary subjects?’ I said: ‘I try and make them comfortable and open up and tell their truth....’ And he goes: ‘Oh, that’s the same thing you do with actors!’
For me, in Cassandro, it was about getting Gael to connect to his relationship with his own father and his own experiences. That’s how you get great performances out of actors.
What made Gael the apt choice to play Cassandro?
He’s a chameleon, a very strong emotional actor... you can see the emotion in his eyes. I had seen him in Pedro Almodovar’s Bad Education (2004) where he plays a transgender person and his Y tu mamá también (2001), of course, and I have been a fan of his over the years. There was no other actor, in my eyes, who could play this role.
How much of him is there in the fight scenes?
He did most of the stunts himself. Some of them were pretty hard and needed professionals, but he mostly did it himself. He worked very hard and spent months and months learning to wrestle. It’s a sport where you get injured a lot. But he took it very seriously.
You have had a prolific career but this is your feature film debut. Does that make you nervous, despite the years of experience?
It makes me completely nervous! I like that. It’s challenging and new and I always want to challenge myself as a storyteller and film-maker. I am excited and I also believe that fear is a good thing. I believe that fear is your friend.