André Phillips and Charles Vuolo’s LGBTQ+ drama Lupe follows a Cuban immigrant, Rafael (Rafael Albarrán), as she begins to embrace her identity as a transgender woman while searching for her missing sister in New York City’s sex worker community. Trans artist Celia Harrison, who is a co-writer on the film, portrays the role of Lana, Rafael’s confidante who helps her as she begins to explore her gender identity. Lupe premieres on HBO Latino this Friday February 26th at 8pm ET/PT and will be available to stream on HBO Max.
Ahead of the film’s broadcast and streaming premieres, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with the film’s star Rafael Albarrán and executive producer Kerry Michelle O’Brien about how their involvement in the film profoundly impacted both of their lives.
Rafael Albarrán is a non-binary Puerto Rican actor, playwright and poet. Their film credits include the feature Party Time: The Movie! and the short Ráfaga. A graduate of New York’s prestigious School of Drama at The New School, Albarrán’s playwrighting credits include I Catch You Dreaming at the Flamboyan Theater on the Lower East Side and Checkmate, which was part of the first Fuerza Fest LGBTQ Theater Festival on the Upper East Side in 2016. Their latest published work is the poetry collection Little People: Fifty Poems.
Los Angeles-based Kerry Michelle O’Brien is a transgender woman who has been a member of the film community for over three decades on both sides of the Atlantic. Her career has included editing and technical producing award-winning animated shorts and documentary features. As an active advocate for the LGBTQ+ community, Kerry Michelle worked against discrimination in her native UK in the 1980s.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Rafael, what was the draw of this role for you and did you have any reservations about taking it on?
Rafael Albarrán: “I had just graduated from my MFA in New York and this was the very first project that I auditioned for. It was a dream role. As soon as I got cast and read the script I was like, ‘I have homework!’ Back then, I identified as a gay man and I thought that I knew about the transgender experience, but it was mind-blowing for me how little I knew as soon as I started researching. I began by reading Janet Mock’s autobiographies about transgender women and their experiences. Something really beautiful and accidental and magical that happened was that at the same time that my character was discovering her womanhood, I was discovering mine. I feel like that’s very palpable to everyone who watches the film. Many people have said to me, ‘There’s so much truth in what you’re doing’, and I’m always like, ‘Well, it was very truthful for me and my experience.” Several years after shooting the film, I identify as a non-binary person and all that discovery started with this film. It was one of those projects that comes along to truly change your life. Back when we shot the film I never thought that this was going to take on this life and that it would be on a platform like HBO. I feel very rewarded and blessed and surprised; all the emotions. It’s a lot!”
Kerry Michelle, how did you become involved with Lupe?
Kerry Michelle O’Brien: “I was originally brought on to by Shiran Amir the film’s editor. We’d had a conversation in some forums and she actually approached me because I transitioned in June 2017. I was consulting for Disney at the time. When they did their second pride day on the lot I called them out on something and just outed myself totally. So Shiran came to me soon after that and told me about Lupe. The story just blew me away. I was just so touched by the anguish, the exploration, and the discovery and it helped me with my own discovery too. So I became more and more involved with the project as things went along. In terms of my own story, back in the 1980s we had clause 28 in the UK which meant you couldn’t express diverse stories or narratives in a public forum. I almost got thrown out of college for standing up against clause 28 when I wouldn’t take down a Hockney print and a Derek Jarman original from my student union. In those days I classed myself as a bisexual individual because we only had L and G in the alphabet back then. Having a film like Lupe come into my life allowed me to explore and understand and give input into this beautiful story. I have adult children in the UK who are 27, 25, and 17-years-old, who haven’t seen me for about the last four years and because of this film I actually felt confident enough to come out to them as transgender. I told them exactly who I am, but it was this film that gave me the strength to stand up and do that. I felt that I had to say something to them.”
Rafael, some of my favourite scenes in the film are with your character, who’s also called Rafael, and another trans character Lana, played by Celia Harrison. I believe that those scenes were mostly improvised, what were they like to shoot?
Rafael: “Yes most of theme were improvised and my experience with Celia was incredible. She was very timid at first and she was in the middle of her transition. This was her first job as an actress and I think she killed it, she was amazing and such a delight to work with. Obviously there was a script, but the improvisations were born from my idea to the directors. I said, ‘She’s very nervous and as she was one of the main consultants in the process of developing the script she knows the story so well and we both know what needs to happen in the scenes, so let us just go for it and improvise the dialogue.” The directors were super amazing and said, ‘Yes, let’s do that.” Because of that decision and the dynamic that we developed from the very first day of shooting, a lot of other scenes between us were added. There was just this truth which was very palpable and effortless. Kudos to her for how brave she was with her story and how giving she was with her talent. It was an incredible and really fun experience.”
To what extent did the conversations that you were having as your characters on-screen mirror the conversations that you were having off-screen?
Rafael: “Oh my God 100%, because as I shared with you that’s when I started my own discovery. All those conversations about gender, about identity, about sex were an ongoing thing. At the end of the process Celia sent me this beautiful letter telling me how healing and important this process was for her, and I was like, ‘Girl, you don’t understand how healing it was for me as well.’ It was really beautiful and there are not enough movies like this for the trans community. Having the opportunity to meet in a space like this and discuss and explore truthfully was pretty remarkable and I think that it speaks volumes about the need and the hunger that we have for projects like this.”
Kerry Michelle: “I came in on this film very early in my transition and working on this film helped me to accept and understand myself. One of the things that I used to be obsessed about was the fact that I don’t pass and now I really don’t care about that. I’ve seen that I can be okay and I can get a message across and talk to people. I can be my genuine self. One thing that we all desire, irrespective of gender bias or anything else, is to be genuine and loved by those around us. So to have engaging stories like this expressed in the way that Rafael and Celia spoke in those scenes helps things to move along, it really does help. Lupe is an every person story in that everyone’s trying to find out who they really are and what is important to them and what family means and belonging in a strange country. So essentially it’s a universal story that I hope will open up discussions and catalyse thoughts in other people’s minds about the level of acceptance for those around us.”
Rafael, as you mentioned you identify as non-binary, given that there is a sensitivity around the portrayal of transgender characters on-screen, with a shaper focus on that following last year’s documentary Disclosure, have you encountered any resistance to you playing a trans woman?
Rafael: “Well, actually it’s funny that you say that because as soon as the movie premiered at Cinequest that was the first thing to come from the critics. That in itself proves the point of the movie and it was hurtful, but it also speaks volumes to the healing that we need to have as a community, and the way that we as a community are often the first ones to put people into boxes. No one asked me for my pronouns when they wrote those articles, they just assumed because of how I look. Until this day I still face that from people who are like, ‘What do you mean you’re non-binary? You’re so cis!’ I don’t need to prove my femininity to you. I don’t need to prove my sexuality or my gender identity to you. I am what I am and I feel very proud of who I am. Like Kerry says, I don’t need to pass for anyone. I’ve done the work, I know who I am and ultimately that’s your biggest strength. I feel like this movie’s a journey about getting into your strength, into who you truly are for yourself, not for anyone else. At the end of the day, no one can take that from you. I couldn’t be more proud to be part of this project and to have grown with this project. It’s just such a reward that this project is getting the exposure that it’s getting on HBO, because it is about a conversation that we all need to have as a collective, as a country, and also as a community. Our own community is very fragmented, it’s very divisive, it’s very violent towards each other at times, and that’s the reason that we need more champions and stories so that these conversations can happen and so that the healing can happen.”
Kerry Michelle: “I came in late to the project when it was in the the editorial and post-production stage and I was so engrossed with Rafael’s journey. I wasn’t bothered as a transgender individual that someone who doesn’t obviously exhibit as they/them was doing the story because you can see their genuine growth throughout the whole narrative, you can see that they’re really living it and believing it and understanding it, which is way more important in my mind. If someone understands the narrative, has the passion which Rafael so clearly did, to really express themselves and go on this journey, that’s what’s important. Those are the level of discussions we should be having in the community, and as Rafael says, not be divisive, not split ourselves up and go, ‘they are this’ or ‘they are that’. There are only a few of us and we have so much against us already, why should we turn on our own? Why shouldn’t we embrace each other and understand each other’s stories and not care about passing or not passing, looking cis or not cis? It should just be a case of, let’s just come together and understand what our fight is and actually so many of our fights and stories are the same irrespective of which side of the fence we’re on.”
Rafael comes from Cuba looking for her sister in brothels in New York and as she’s searching for her she discovers her own trans identity. What did you make of that aspect of the film?
Rafael: “Rafael is not only looking for her sister, but through going to the brothels and meeting sex workers she also finds the most compassion. I love those scenes that she has with different sex workers. The writer-directors Andre Phillips and Charles Vuolo were so good at humanising those characters. I love the way that Rafael’s first explorations of her own womanhood, her femininity, are from her experiences with sex workers, his sister being one. From my own personal experience, I live in West Hollywood in LA, and have I lived in New York and other big cities, and some of the best people I’ve known have been sex workers. Sex workers have always been at the frontline of the movement, breaking down barriers, having conversations about sex and identity and pleasure. There’s so much repression in our culture and sex workers are those people who are on the frontline of the movement and their work is healing. So in the film I think it’s so beautiful how my relationship with the sex workers heals my character and gives her the confidence to say, ‘This is the woman I am’. I think that that’s one of the best aspects of what the movie explores.”
Kerry Michelle: “I got a lot of acceptance for who and what I am and what I was exploring from sex workers who are close friends of mine. The BDSM community were also very accepting of me. Initially people would class me as a cross-dresser, but I’m not, I am a genuine woman, this is what I am. I got that level of self-validation and acceptance through them. So, as Rafael was saying, they do help bring down barriers and they’re some of the least judgmental people I’ve ever met. Talking of non-judgemental, the little girl that’s popped in behind me a couple of times during this Zoom call, her and her sister, they are seven and nine, and they accepted me as a woman straight away. When I went to see the in-laws they said to their grandpa, ‘This is Kerry, she’s not a man in a dress’. They were essentially saying to him, irrespective of what you think she is genuine, she is real. It’s so important that people can understand that and just accept it for what it is, but some of that comes from the growth and understanding of myself that I got through working on this film. The level of acceptance and understanding for myself that I got when I came out to my children in the UK was amazing. I’ve yet to come out to my youngest who lives with his mother in Germany. His mother said to me, ‘Every time you go out, you walk out the door with a target on your back and I can’t have that for our child’, and I understand that, I don’t want to put him in danger or anything like that, but then again, I need to be genuine. When we split up she said, ‘If you’re seeing him you need to tame it down’, then a few weeks into our separation my little guy comes to me and says, ‘Daddy, I miss you looking pretty because when you’re pretty you’re happy.’ The kids know how we are and accept us, it’s just social norms or whatever you want to call them, that can suppress us and make it difficult to be around others. That’s why it is important that we see people like us represented in the mainstream.”
Rafael, your character is a boxer and she also gets into some fights. There’s a brilliantly choreographed sequence when she takes on three pimps and really holds her own, which is a lot of fun to watch.
Rafael: “It was Really fun to shoot too!”
Her boxing also touches on those themes of what’s masculine and what’s feminine, when Rafael talks to Lana about not going to the gym anymore because she feels like she shouldn’t be so muscular.
Rafael: “Yes, but she loves boxing, and to add to what Kerry was just mentioning, these are the things that make us happy and we should not stop doing those things just because we need to pass for others. A woman can have muscles, a woman can be strong. That’s also one of the biggest assets of the movie, the whole discussion about what womanhood is and what strength is and what femininity looks like. The answer is infinite.”
Kerry: “Equally you can ask those questions about masculinity. Why can’t men cry and why can’t men be soft and understanding? We need to push the boundaries both ways. Let’s not judge them, let’s just let them be ourselves.”
These are questions that are raised in the film partly through the character of Arun whom Rafael trains with and doesn’t accept or understand Rafael’s gender expression.
Rafael: “Yes, he represents that resistance and fear of what’s not known; he’s like, ‘I don’t know this and I don’t understand this, so I’m just gonna shut this down’. He’s not opening the opportunity for a conversation and when we do that we forget that humanity which connects us. Before Arun knew that Lupe was a girl he had no problem connecting with her. He had no problem being social with her and inviting her to hang out, but she’s the same person, she’s the same human he has that connection with. The problem is when someone comes out to their parents or others around them, they can often take it as a reflection upon themselves, as a betrayal towards them, but as humans we are all in an everlasting discovery of ourselves. Me changing who I am or my appearance or how I feel or how I identify has nothing to do with you, but your love and support will only bring us closer.”
Kerry Michelle: “When I came out to my adult children in the UK, at the same time my eldest came out to me as being bisexual, so it was a door opener to a level of discussion and closeness in our family where we could understand and share things better. It was such a beautiful moment and these are the discussions that we need to have as a community and to have as families.”
What’s your favourite LGBTQ+ culture or person who identifies as LGBTQ+. Someone or something that’s made an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?
Rafael: For me it’s Janet Mock, hers was the first book about being trans that came into my life; Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More. That book truly changed my life. She as an Islander, I’m from Puerto Rico so I’m also an Islander. Her relationship with her father resonated with my relationship with my father; there was a very strong mirroring in our experiences in a lot of ways and it was the beginning of my discovery. Janet Mock is forever in in my heart. I haven’t met her yet, but I cannot wait to one day. So Janet, if you ever read this, I’m a fan, I love you! More recently, the Spanish series, Veneno on HBO Max, just blew my mind in every possible way; the storytelling, the life of this woman. I immediately bought her biography and it’s amazing. And again, another sex worker. Like I was saying, they’re always on the frontlines shaping the narrative.”
Kerry Michelle: “Growing up in the community in Soho and around London in the early to late 80s, one of my favourites in the community is Marc Almond, because he pushed everything with his songs. A couple of years ago, before Covid hit, I went to one of his Sex Cells events here in Los Angeles. He pushes the boundaries for us so much through the acceptance of songs that everyone listens to, but also have a beautiful meaning underneath. So it’s very much Marc Almond for me or anything by Erasure. I’m very much old school! Back in the 80s in London, I was fortunate enough to go to the early days of Heaven, and the Kit Kat Club, and the Intrepid Fox, and the Pillars of Hercules; so many great places.”
By James Kleinmann
Lupe premieres on HBO Latino this Friday February 26th at 8pm ET/PT and will be available to stream on HBO Max.