One of the LGBTQ+ highlights at the 47th Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), was writer-director Aitch Alberto’s adaptation of Benjamin Alire Sáenz bestselling YA novel, Aristotle And Dante Discover The Secrets Of The Universe. Produced by Alberto, alongside Lin-Manuel Miranda, Eugenio Debrez, and Kyra Sedgwick, the powerful coming-of-age tale explores the bond that builds between two Mexican-American teenagers, Ari (Max Pelayo) and Dante (Reese Gonzales), as they are each discovering the world and themselves in El Paso, Texas in 1987.
Following the film’s world premiere in Toronto, Max Pelayo and Reese Gonzales spoke exclusively with The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann about taking on their roles, immersing themsleves in the 1980s, what initially sparked their passion for acting, and which performers they most admire.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: what does it mean to you to have the movie premiere at TIFF and how would you describe the reaction?
Reese Gonzales: “It was really special. One of our producers asked how many people in the audience had read the book and nearly everybody stuck their hands up. This story has affected them so much and these characters have changed their lives and touched them really deeply, so being able to show this movie to them was amazing. To see the fan response and how much people care about this was wonderful.”
Max Pelayo: “It’s definitely a huge accomplishment to be here at TIFF and to release the film into the world feels great. If you look online, you’ll find people who say things like, ‘This book saved my life’. Usually when a movie comes out that’s based on a book, the book gets even more exposure and the story gets out there even more. So I hope that happens and also that the film can reach a huge audience and help lots of people out there and be there for them in the same way the book has been.”
Did each of you read the book before you started work on the film?
Reese: “I first met Aitch back in 2018, when she did one of the first table reads to promote the script. So I read the book for the first time before that table read. It was the only book that’s ever made me cry, like really bawl my eyes out. I connected with both Ari and Dante so much. It was unlike anything I’ve ever read before.”
Max: “I read as much as I could before my audition, but I was working at the time and I only had a couple of days to prepare for it. When I got the role I had more time to sit down with the book. It was great to dive into it and I fell completely in love with it. It’s magical and hypnotizing. The way it’s written is beautiful and it’s got so much to say about love and about being Mexican-American.”
In what ways could you both identify with your characters?
Reese: “Dante is notoriously a free spirit and someone who truly, freely expresses himself. I’ve always been someone who yearns for that and who naturally is that way, but in a lot of ways that was snuffed out of me. Growing up, I felt a lot like Ari, but when I first read the book and saw Dante, I was like, that’s how I want to be. I was so inspired by him and I’m still inspired by him every day. Every day, I’m reminded to take a page out of his book and to just be myself.”
Max: “I definitely resonated with Ari being an introvert because that’s how I am myself, but something that I really loved is how the story shows him managing to move past his own roadblocks. Like Ari, I am an anxious person and so I resonated with that too. In my life, I’ve found ways to deal with it and move past being anxious and allowed myself to be happy. I think there’s a lot about the character that is relatable to everyone growing up and finding your way.”
Tell me about working with Aitch on set, what kind of atmosphere did she create and how would you describe your experience of working with her?
Max: “The first day on set, she she got us all together and gave us a pep talk. She told us, ‘This is a story about love, so let’s lead with love’. That set the perfect atmosphere. Every day on set felt special.”
Reese: “Yeah, that speech set the tone for the whole shoot. The entire time, everyone was so fully in it and passionate about it. All the cast and crew kept saying that it was a labour of love and she really brought out a sense of togetherness, not just between the three of us, but with everyone. It felt magical to be a part of it.”
Max: “She is wonderful. As well as being a loving and caring director, she also runs a very efficient set.”
Reese: “She’s a powerhouse. It is really inspiring to see.”
Give me an insight into creating the close on-screen relationship between you, which is beautiful from the moment that Dante appears through the sunlight at the side of the pool with Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy playing on the soundtrack.
Reese: “When Max and I first met after we found out that we got the roles, we instantly clicked. The chemistry was already very much there, so it was it easy to translate that to the screen. One thing that helped us was creating music playlists inspired by our characters.”
Were they are all 80s songs?
Reese: “Well, Dante is very much into the oldies, but the oldies in 80s terms. So more like 1950s and 60s music. He also likes some early 70s music, like The Doors, The Rolling Stones, and David Bowie.”
Max: “I didn’t limit myself to that time period because my playlist was more about what I wanted to listen to when I was working at home on the script to help get me in the right mood. So it was stuff from from all over the place. But I loved working with a playlist and I’m definitely going to do that for each character I play from now on. I think music is always key.”
What did you enjoy about spending time in the 1980s through making the film?
Max: “It was interesting to tell a love story in in the 80s, there’s something special about it. Valerie Stadler, one of our producers, told us that when they were pitching the movie they’d often be asked why it had to be set in the 80s, because it’s a lot more work to make a period film. But if it took place now it’d be so different. Ari and Dante could get on FaceTime and talk to each other for one thing. But in the 80s there’s the aspect of longing and yearning that’s heightened because they can’t see each other and they have to write letters.”
Reese: “I love the letter writing sequences and that’s not really a thing now, it’s a rarity. My favourite thing about the 80s was the clothing. I’ve always loved 80s style and wearing those clothes helped me to get into the physicality of Dante so much. It’s crazy how much building that atmosphere around you can instantly help you get into the period. Even the crew was immersed in the 80s and we were all listening to 80s music on set. There was such an 80s vibe all around!”
Another aspect is that it was harder in the 80s for LGBTQ people to safely come out. Was that something that you talked about with Aitch?
Reese: “Yeah, that was something that we talked with her about a lot on set.”
Max: “Especially for LGBTQ people in Texas, in the Latin community.”
Reese: “One of the big points of the book and the movie to explore is how LGBTQ+ people are seen in traditional Latinx culture.”
Something that’s so meaningful and very touching, is how accepting Ari’s aunt is of Ari as well as both sets of parents. It’s quite surprising to see. You got to work with some amazing actors on those scenes too, like Marlene Forte, Veronica Falcón, Eugenio Derbez, Eva Longoria, and Kevin Alejandro.
Max: “Getting to work with those big names was awesome, because they have been representing Hispanic people in Hollywood for years. So for us to work with them on our first movie is a huge honour. The acceptance aspect in the film is wonderful and I’m very excited for people to see that, especially those who maybe don’t have that in their own lives. Hopefully it can set an example for parents who see the film too.”
Reese: “Exactly. It’s something that we really don’t see enough of. My dad grew up in a very traditional Mexican household and both of my grandparents were very conservative, so I was around that a lot growing up and related to it so much. Being able to see that acceptance and how that’s unexpected means a lot.”
Can I take you back to before this movie and ask what sparked your interest in acting?
Reese: “I was about 10 years old, in fifth grade at elementary school, and back then I didn’t really have a lot of close friends. I had people that I knew, but I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I had all this energy and didn’t have anywhere to put it. Our school was putting on a production of Willy Wonka, and I thought, I’ll be Oompa Loompa just to occupy my time! But then I ended up getting one of the lead roles. When I was on stage, people laughed at all of the jokes and I remember a very distinct moment when I was standing up there and looking out into the audience, with all those lights on me. I thought, I love this and I want to do more of this. One of my sister’s friends had an agent and so I met with them, and the rest is history.”
Who did you play if you weren’t an Oompa Loompa?
Reese: “Mr. Salt. Which was really funny, because the girl who played my daughter, Veruca Salt, was way taller than me!”
Max: “I remember being sick at home with a stomach bug one day in second grade and instead of just laying down, I searched through our DVD cabinet and pulled out The Matrix. When I put it on I was like, ‘Wow!’ That was the moment when I said, ‘This is it. I love movies. I want to do this.’ I’ve always been a cinephile my whole life and wanted to work in film. I love what it contributes to the world. A movie can inspire someone to live their best life, it can teach them an important lesson, and it can motivate them.”
As you embark on your own careers, is there an actor or performer that you particularly admire in terms of the work they’ve done and what they stand for?
Max: “I’m a huge Keanu Reeves fan. I love Keanu. He makes great movies, but what I like even more is that he’s very generous. You always see him doing good things for people and that’s really cool. I also love Paul Newman. He was an amazing actor and he had the Newman’s Own Foundation. I’d definitely like to do something like that.”
Reese: “For me, it’s always been Robin Williams. Growing up, I was really inspired by him and his whole mentality about making people laugh and smile and entertaining them, while also being as kind and as generous as possible. I never like seeing anybody in this industry, or anyone who has a lot of influence, being rude or unappreciative of the people who love their art. Robin Williams was someone who always gave 100% in his work and appreciated all the people who came up to him and I’ve always wanted to be that way.”
By James Kleinmann
Aitch Alberto’s Aristotle And Dante Discover The Secrets Of The Universe received its world premiere at TIFF 2022 and opens in US theaters on Friday, September 8th, 2023.