Filmmaker Roger Ross Williams is having a moment. He recently premiered a documentary adaptation of Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From The Beginning and before that, he directed episodes of Nikole Hannah-Jones’s The 1619 Project. His docuseries The Super Models, which focuses on the careers of icons Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, and Christy Turlington, premieres later this year. On top of all that, he won an Oscar for his documentary short Music by Prudence and was nominated for Life, Animated.
Now, the filmmaker is shifting gears with his first narrative feature, Cassandro.
Williams directed The New Yorker documentary The Man Without a Mask, which followed the real-life Saúl Armendáriz who, in the luche libre world of wrestling, is known as the spectacular and flamboyant Cassandro. Based on a 2014 New Yorker article by William Finnegan, the docu follows the life of the gay wrestler in a macho sport and culture. As soon as he met Cassandro, Williams knew that he had to continue this story beyond the documentary.
“I went down to El Paso, Texas where he lives and he walked into the room and I’m like, ‘whoa’,” Williams told GLAAD in a recent interview. “He just radiated this charisma, confidence, and beauty.” The director was blown away when he started to interview him for the docu. In fact, it got really emotional for the both of them.
“He started to tell me his story and I just couldn’t believe it,” Williams continued. “I started to cry. He started to cry. The crew started to cry. It was at that moment I said, ‘This is my first script to film’.”
Written by Williams, Dsvid Teague, and Julián Herbert, Cassandro bowed at Sundance earlier this year and is currently in theaters before dropping on Prime Video September 22. The films stars Gael García Bernal as Cassandro, who is known as the “Liberace of Lucha Libre”.
Roberta Colindrez, Perla De La Rosa, Joaquín Cosío, Bad Bunny and Raúl Castillo join Bernal as we see Saúl become a superpower in the luche libre world while subverting the machismo of the wrestling world. GLAAD had the opportunity to chat with Williams about Cassandro, what authentic representation means to him and why he shed so many tears of joy in the process of making this film.
Why do you think the lucha libre world is an ideal backdrop for an intimate story about Cassandro?
ROGER ROSS WILLIAMS: It’s a story about someone who, in a very macho homophobic culture, didn’t run away from it. He literally dove into it head on and broke down barriers to overcome it and become a star on his own terms, as he is: a gay man in full drag. It was such a beautifully inspiring thing to me. When I went to see the real Cassandro wrestle in a huge arena in Juarez, he came out in full regalia and the whole audience was singing “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor. They’re handing babies to him to kiss and hug and everyone’s shaking his hands. He’s taking the the ring in full drag – and that’s when I started to weep again, because I was like, “What the hell is going on here?”
This isn’t what I expected at all. Why, in this Latino machismo culture, do these families with children love these lucha libre matches? They love this man. They love him so much. How did this happen? That’s what led me on the journey.
Cassandro’s story is incredible and full of acceptance from his community and his family. The film is unexpectedly emotional in a way that gives more tears of joy rather than tears of trauma, a genre that many queer narratives tend to gravitate towards to.
RRW: Cassandro is really important to me… he is an amazing wrestler and he is doing it on his own terms and the way people adore him, it makes you cry.
Before we started shooting, I went scouting and watched a match in El Paso with JC Molina, the production designer, who’s a gay and Mexican American and went to a match and it’s all families. They have the part where the kids all go on the ring and they all jump up and down and it’s this big family affair. – and then Cassandra comes out and the whole audience is singing his theme song, “I Will Survive”. JC turns to me and starts to weep. He starts to fight an ugly cry. (laughs) . Then, we held each other and cried together.
There was something there that was so powerful that he couldn’t hold back. With all these the theme of family and acceptance, we start thinking about our own families. We’re thinking about our own struggles. JC and I shared this moment where everyone accepted everyone for who they are… imagine what a what a wonderful world that would be.
We are living in a time when people are craving authentic representation, LGBTQ and otherwise. It’s also a time when people are hyper-aware and have opinions about how their community is represented on screen. How did you navigate opinionated landmines when it comes to who’s telling Cassandro’s story?
RRW: The only thing I thought about was who is the best actor to take on this role? I have been a fan of Gael since Y tu mamá también but it was really Bad Education that made me think he was going to nail this role. That an important movie for me.
Acting is about transforming into something else and being something else but authenticity is really, really, really important to me. There’s many things to be authentic about [in this movie]. It was important that it was a Mexican actor who really dove in and understood the culture of a Mexican family that lives literally on the border wall and what that wall means and how that wall divides, and then breaks down. That was important.
There always seems to be a debate about casting roles as authentically as possible – especially for marginalized people.
RRW: Raul Castillo, who plays Gerardo, grew up in Texas on the border and is Mexican American. He understands the culture and has authentically played gay men better than anyone I’ve ever seen in Looking. It was important that Roberta, who plays Sabrina, a queer woman, also have an understanding of the culture.
Being Mexican and understanding Mexican culture and being a Mexican actor — that is, to me what was the most important thing because these actors understand the subtleties of being a Mexican.
The conversation when it comes to casting actors is more nuanced than people think.
RRW: I don’t think if you’re a queer actor, you should be restricted to only playing queer roles. It goes against the whole idea of being an actor. Being an actor is about playing some someone else. It’s about embodying the role of something. Your sexuality doesn’t matter. I understand correcting historical wrongs. I understand that. No one has worked harder at that than me as governor of the of the Academy documentary branch. That’s why I have a One Story Up, my production company that is really a place that hires and showcases BIPOC talent.
How do you think Cassandro speak to the queer experience in the bigger picture?
RRW: I understood what I wanted to say as a gay man. It’s about acceptance.
As soon as Cassandro came out, he found acceptance. [The movie] doesn’t have a big coming out moment or anything. You know, we’ve seen that stuff in queer films. This was a sort of a modern queer film. This is about this about breaking down all those walls… the border wall being the symbolic wall, but also the wall of homophobia that that Cassandro broke through.
Cassandro is good at what he does. He is true to himself. He’s authentic. He’s beautiful. Beauty wins and people just fall in love and accept it.
It’s Gael’s authenticity as a Mexican actor, that’s going to win people over. I’m not going to cast up, you know, a white actor to play a Mexican role. I’m not going to do that. But he knows how to play a queer, gay person, because he’s done it before and he’s done it well for one of the great queer directors of our time.
How would it have been like for you to see a film like Cassandro when you were younger?
RRW: It would have been transformative on every level. For so long, the stories of queer people were really depressing. I had enough of that in my own life and my own experience as a young gay man, that I didn’t need to see those stories. What I needed to see is story with myself as a hero. I never saw myself as a hero. Growing up, I didn’t know that that was even possible. This would have made all the difference for me. That’s why I made this film now because it still makes a difference for all kinds of people – not just gay people.
Everyone has to really believe and get into a mindset that is authentic to yourself. Take off your mask and be proud and you will achieve great things in your life.
Cassandro debuts on Prime Video September 22.