When Roger Ross Williams met Saúl Armendáriz, better known as Cassandro, for a 2016 documentary he was directing for The New Yorker—The Man Without a Mask—the filmmaker immediately knew he’d found the subject of his first scripted narrative feature. Making the move from amateur wrestling in El Paso, Armendáriz became a Mexican-American icon with the character he’d created, the “Liberace of Lucha Libre”, Cassandro. As an empowered openly gay exótico wrestler, his authentic self both in and out of the ring, Cassandro upended the macho world of wrestling.
Gael García Bernal takes on the title role in Williams’ Cassandro, giving “a fearless, career-defining performance”, alongside Raúl Castillo as Cassandro’s closeted married lover Gerardo, Roberta Colindrez as his dedicated trainer Sabrina, Perla De La Rosa as his accepting mother Yocasta, and Benito Antonio Martínez (aka Bad Bunny) who as Felipe, assigned as Cassandro’s fixer once pro-wrestling success hits. Following its world premiere at Sundance, Cassandro opens in select theaters on Friday, September 15th and streams globally on Prime Video from Friday, September 22nd.
Williams is an Emmy, Peabody, and NAACP Image award-winning filmmaker, who became the first African American director to win an Academy Award in 2010 with Music By Prudence. His feature documentaries as director include God Loves Uganda, Life, Animated, The Apollo, Love to Love You, Donna Summer, and most recently Stamped From the Beginning based on Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s New York Times bestseller chronicling anti-Black racist ideas and their power over the course of American history, which received world premiered at TIFF 2023 and debuts on Netflix on November 15th.
Ahead of the global release of Casandro on Prime Video, Roger Ross Williams spoke exclsuively with The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann about his first encounter with Cassandro, wanting to focus on the emotional moments of his story, and the queer culture that’s had the biggest impact on him.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: how vital was it to you that Saúl queerness and his journey of self-acceptance be front and centre in the film?
Roger Ross Williams: “It was really important because the real Cassandro is such a proud, out, gay man who embraces everything about who he is and leans into that. It’s an inspirational story. It was also important that he was accepted—it wasn’t a coming out story—his mother always accepted who he is. When he was 15, he came out to her and she was like, ‘Great, let’s go look for a boyfriend for you!’ That was a really important element.”
“For many of us gay people, there’s always someone in the family who doesn’t accept us. And the father story was really personal to me because my father was someone who was religious and didn’t accept me. I was always trying to earn that acceptance and then I learned to love and accept myself. So that’s the theme of Cassandro.”
When you first met him in real life, as you were embarking on making the documentary short, what was it that made you want to translate his story it into a narrative feature and excited you about that prospect?
“First of all, I had read the article in The New Yorker and it’s a powerful article, but when he walked in the room and I saw his charisma and his energy and his confidence, his inner beauty and outer beauty, I was like, ‘Wow!’ Then when we did the interview, I was so moved by his story and he told it so beautifully. I said that day, ‘This is it! This is my first narrative scripted feature film’, and I never looked back.”
Was there anything that stood out as particularly significant during the time that you spent with him that helped you to unlock the story or to guide the way that you wanted to tell it?
“It was his relationship with his father. He had a very complicated, complex relationship with his father, who didn’t accept him. There was a moment when he said to me, ‘I’ve learned to accept the limitations of my father and not base my existence on that’. That clicked to me as the point in the movie when he comes to that realization; that it’s about self-love, it’s about self-acceptance, and not wanting to be fighting your whole life for the love of someone who isn’t going to get you and who may never get you.”
As well as being a character focused movie that’s emotional and moving, it’s also a lot of fun. I feel like you could have really gone quite outrageous and very camp with the film, but you didn’t. What were your guiding principles for the tone and its visual style?
“There was a period where the script was very camp and over-the-top, and then I realized that, ‘Wait, this world is already like that! They’re wearing colourful masks and costumes, you don’t need to be’. What is important is the is quiet, emotional moments in the story. I learned that at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab and the Directors Lab. I learned that it was those moments, to contrast the big spectacle of it all, that were going to be the powerful moments; the relationship with his mother, those beautiful scenes with Yocasta; and the relationship with his lover Gerardo, that even though it was a forbidden relationship and it was a complex relationship, the tender, loving moments between them were important.”
One last question for you, 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 over the years?
“It’s hard to choose because normally I would say James Baldwin and Giovanni’s Room, which was a book that changed my life as a kid. Also, I saw a documentary on PBS by Marlon Riggs called Tongues Untied and I couldn’t believe that there were gay men on public television. It was the first time I saw myself reflected in the media.”
By James Kleinmann
Cassandro opens in select theaters on Friday, September 15th and streaming globally on Prime Video from Friday, September 22nd, 2023.