A chance meeting at a New York City hotel brought together multi-award-winning actor Gael García Bernal and Roger Ross Williams, an Academy Award-winning director who wanted to discuss Mexico’s Luchadores Exóticos, specifically trailblazer Saúl Armendáriz, better known as Cassandro.
Luchadores Exóticos are male wrestlers who performed in drag in the ring, who at the start of the movement in the 1940s were just a form of entertainment and didn’t necessarily reflect the performer’s sexual orientation. They would usually fight with macho male wrestlers who were closer to heels than heroes who would most often win the match.
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The film, currently available to stream via Prime Video, tells the courageous story of real-life wrestler Cassandro and his journey of self-love and acceptance while breaking barriers for wrestlers everywhere. But back to how the story came to be begins with García Bernal and Williams chatting in the Big Apple.
“I grew up with the hype of Lucha Libre and there were a few wrestlers like Atlantis and Octagon, Rayo de Jalisco, Perro Aguayo, Conan and Los Porkys—there were so many. Los Exóticos were Cassandro, Rudy Reyna and Pimpinela, amongst many others. [Roger] discussed all of that but at that point, it was all wishful thinking.” García Bernal shared with Deadline.
“We all have great ideas but we never know what’s going to happen. But little by little, the pieces started to come together and so our company La Corriente Del Golfo [co-founded with good friend and collaborator Diego Luna] got involved and we teamed up with great people at Amazon, so together we moved forward,” he added.
As seen in the Prime Video Original Film Cassandro, the real-life wrestler embraced his sexuality and didn’t shy away from flamboyant costumes nor did he hide his face behind a mask. In a historic moment captured in the movie, Cassandro would go on to beat one of the aforementioned competitors who always bested the Exóticos. And slowly but surely, a life of struggle rife with homophobia and hatred started to change for the better, not just for Cassandro, but for other wrestlers like him, too.
“In hindsight, of course, I had to make this Lucha Libre movie. Just like I have to do a boxing movie and a cowboy movie, but more for the indigenous perspective like the old films from Mexico. It really was a pleasure to embark on maybe the only project I will ever do about Lucha Libre, a sport that I loved watching and I admired but I didn’t know how hard it was until I started to do this and how interesting it was also.”
The idea of him playing the lead also evolved with time. He was emphatic during our chat at the Chateau Marmont over breakfast one chilly December morning that he never considered playing Cassandro himself, though it was not because Armendáriz is gay.
“No, no, no. Never,” he said when asked if he had wanted the role early on. “But that’s the good thing about Lucha Libre, you can play so many characters. With Cassandro, it’s Saúl playing Cassandro to find himself. I played a version of Cassandro that is mine that only I can play. It’s the joy of acting and representation. Interpretation is when you put yourself in somebody else’s shoes through a process of empathy to another level. That’s why we love watching things because [the actor] is constantly in our control. We see something about their nature and the character that they’re portraying has something very interesting. And the [actor] normally doesn’t even know what he’s doing, which I love.”
He continued, “I strongly disagree with someone’s sexual orientation defining what characters [actors] can play or not. This is a very deep and complex conversation and I will one day write everything I have been thinking. But first, the nature of doing theater, of interpretation and representation, in itself creates a world where anyone can be anything. Whatever mask you put on you can tell something that has a lot of truth and it doesn’t matter who’s behind the mask. Therefore, you start to deconstruct gender as well. We are so transgender in the world of acting. I grew up in a family of theater actors and I’m from Guadalajara and yet, I have never played a character from there. I grew up and was good friends with some of the first gay couples and their families in the community of theater. The theater is a tender place to explore your sexuality. Growing up, I felt like I could explore whatever. I had a very beautiful and loving upbringing, as well. Acting has allowed me to explore the transgender we all have inside.”
The film also highlights the breaking of taboos in male-dominated spaces that can often be toxic to anyone not part of the status quo. Of course, there’s Armendáriz at the center of this tale but also Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, better known by his musical moniker, Bad Bunny, who had a small but impactful role in Cassandro. Both Armendáriz and Martínez Ocasio are groundbreakers in their respective industries helping to make wrestling and Urban Latin Music a safe space for everyone. Oh, and he even shares a tiny kiss with García Bernal in the film.
“He grew up in a more fluid way,” García Bernal says of his co-star Martínez Ocasio. “What he manages to play with and subvert is very interesting. He also appeals to young kids, too, in an interesting way, like he helps them feel more free. I think he represents a lot of freedom, especially in the world of reggaeton because other genres are totally the opposite and more welcoming of people of any sexual orientation. As a society, we’ve come such a long way but still have further to go.”
Portraying the titular character, as with the myriad of characters he has played across his more than three-decade career, helped him learn more about himself. In addition to the flamboyant wrestler, García Bernal has portrayed fascinating and thought-provoking characters in both film and TV. Honorable mentions include Octavio in Amores Perros, Julio Zapata in Y tu mamá también and Ernesto “Che” Guevara in Motorcycle Diaries for the big screen; Rodrigo de Souza in Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle, Arthur Leander in Max’s Station 11 and Jack Russell the werewolf in Werewolf By Night for Disney+ for TV.
“All the characters I’ve ever played, especially the ones where I’ve had to reach some cathartic moments, helped me learn something new about myself. You know those moments that stand out when you’re watching a movie, like when Joaquin Cosio says this line to Cassandro in the film, ‘The world is f**cked and people are f**cked.’ People want to experience a moment where good beats evil, which is what Lucha Libre is. We want to feel,” he said. “Playing this character has been a healing process and a formative experience. Thanks to being an actor, I can explore this transgender character that I have inside and I can access different things without even rationalizing them or having to explain it. This film allowed me to play what I used to play as a kid, Lucha Libre. I played with other kids and we knew all the moves. Thinking that I get to do this as an adult, wow, it’s incredible, and I’m getting paid. I love being an actor and being able to do what I love.”
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