Exclusive Interview: Wendell & Wild star Sam Zelaya “to not only have this kind of trans representation but to also be part of it is amazing”

If you’re looking for a treat to stream this Halloween, you’ve found it. Following its world premiere at the 47th Toronto International Film Festival, acclaimed stop motion animation filmmaker Henry Selick and certified horror hitmaker Jordan Peele’s delightfully macabre Wendell & Wild launches on Netflix on Friday, October 28th, just in time for the spookiest night of the year. The endlessly imaginative film follows orphaned teenage goth, Kat (Lyric Ross), who becomes entangled in the misadventures of two mischievous demon brothers, Wendell (Keegan-Michael Key) and Wild (Jordan Peele), and is aided in attempting to save the town by her loyal friend Raúl (Sam Zelaya). The stellar voice cast also features Angela Bassett, James Hong, Ving Rhames, and Maxine Peake.

Wendell & Wild. Kat voiced by Lyric Ross. Netflix © 2022.

Zelaya, who makes his feature film debut as the voice of Raúl—a talented artist who happens to be a trans teenager—studied at London’s Royal Holloway University, taking on roles like Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet, and appearing in musicals such as The Addams Family and American Idiot. Last year, he originated the role of Max in the musical Ameliore at the Camden Fringe.

Ahead of the premiere of Wendell & Wild on Netflix, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Sam Zelaya about taking on the role of Raúl, being part of such meaningful LGBTQ+ representation, and his admiration for David Bowie.

Wendell & Wild star Sam Zelaya at a NewFest event celebrating trans and nonbinary actors working in Netflix animation. Photo credit: Yifu Chien. Courtesy of Netflix and NewFest.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: when was the performer first ignited and when did you decide that you wanted to seriously pursue acting as a career?

Sam Zelaya: “I did a lot of drama at school and always really enjoyed that, but for a long time I was under the impression that it wasn’t a career option. I knew it was so hard and you had to be really good, and thought, ‘Am I good?!’ Then when I was doing drama at university, I met people who were making a career out of it, who were going out there and going for things and that made me realise that it was what I wanted to do and what I needed to do. I couldn’t see myself doing anything else.”

Wendell & Wild. Raul (voiced by Sam Zelaya) and Kat (voiced by Lyric Ross). Netflix © 2022.

How would you describe Raúl, your character in Wendell & Wild, and what did you particularly enjoy about lending your voice to him?

“He’s someone that hopefully a lot of people are going to be able to relate to in a way that they maybe haven’t with other movies because they haven’t necessarily seen themselves represented like this before. He’s really cool. I love him and I hope that other people are going love him too.”

He’s very into art isn’t he? I love that scene where he’s painting a beautiful mural on the roof of the school.

“That scene was amazing! There’s no dialogue, but it was all described beautifully in the script, so I knew it was in there but I hadn’t realized quite how cool it was going to turn out, with the music and incredible visuals. That was really cool to watch for the first time in the finished film.”

Wendell & Wild. Raúl voiced by Sam Zelaya. Netflix © 2022.

Did you get an insight into the process of making a stop motion animation film?

“I live in London, that’s where I’m from, so unfortunately I didn’t get to go to the studio to see any of the making of it, but I have so much admiration and respect for everything that those guys do. It’s really cool seeing how it all comes together.”

How did the recording sessions happen, were they done remotely?

“Yes, the recordings were all done over lockdown, so everyone was in isolation. I did my recordings with Henry Selick over Zoom.”

What was Henry like to interact with and to be guided by?

“Oh, he was so great to work with. I had such a good time during those sessions bouncing ideas off him and trying my lines in as many different ways as he would let me.”

Wendell & Wild. Raúl voiced by Sam Zelaya. Netflix © 2022.

What did you make of the way Raúl’s trans identity is handled in the film?

“I think it’s handled really well. It’s really refreshing to see a character who is trans and is open about it, but that isn’t his whole identity. He’s an artist and he’s got his friendships and his relationships with the other characters that are just as important to him as this one thing about him. It’s all given equal weight, which is really nice to see.”

What would seeing a character like this have meant to you when you were growing up?

“I probably would have figured some things out a lot sooner. Representation has come such a long way, even in the last few years. I remember when trans identities weren’t talked about at all, or if they were it was in a disparaging way or we were being poked fun at. When you see very exaggerated, stereotyped representations of transness—and that’s all you know about it—it’s easy to not look twice at it and go, ‘Well, that’s not me. I’m not like that.’ If I’d had a movie like this it could have been really helpful and I hope that it is to someone in the future who sees it.”

What does it mean to you to be part of creating this kind of representation?

“It’s huge. Even hoping that representation would get to this point felt like such a long way off that to imagine that I would then also be part of it is just crazy. It’s not something that I would have let myself get my hopes up about when I was first figuring myself out. To not only have this kind of trans representation but to also be part of it is amazing and I’m really grateful for the opportunity to bring this character to life and to to introduce him to people.”

You write and perform original music, and you’re also writing some scripts at the moment, how did that come about?

“I started writing at university because when you’re training as an actor as a visible minority you learn very quickly that if you want opportunities then you have to create them yourself. I’m still figuring out what it’s going to look like, but I’m working on some things that I hope can give people like me those opportunities that they don’t always get.”

Do you find yourself drawn to a particular genre? Is it funny or dark or a mix of things?

“I like to keep things balanced between the lighter side and the more serious issues. I like exploring things in my writing around queerness and identity, but other things too, because I always say, I’m trans, but that’s not the most interesting thing about me. It’s maybe not even top 10. It’s just a fact.”

Dance Magic Dance! Jennifer Connelly and David Bowie in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (1986). Photo credit: Tristar/Everett/Rex/Shutterstock.

Finally, what’s your favorite piece of LGBTQ+ culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you?

“David Bowie had a big impact on me growing up, particularly around figuring out my gender stuff. Knowing that there’s not just one way to to be a man or to be queer or to be an artist. He embodied so many things for so many people. He’s probably one of my favourite artists that’s ever lived.”

Do you have a favourite track or Bowie movie performance?

“I don’t know if I could pick just one, but Labyrinth is very fresh in my mind right now because I just watched it again the other week. That’s a really fun one.”

By James Kleinmann

Wendell and Wild premieres on Netflix on Friday, October 28th 2022.

WENDELL & WILD | Official Trailer | Netflix
WENDELL & WILD | Official Artwork | Netflix

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