For director Roger Ross Williams, the decision to make the transition to fictional feature with Cassandro was immediate. His documentary, Music by Prudence (2010), had won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject; making him the first African American director to win an Academy Award. Cassandro, which is based on the true story of Luchador Saúl Armendáriz, sees Gael García Bernal in a career-best performance as the cross-dressing El Exotico on the Mexico wrestling circle. It marks Roger’s first scripted film.
Ahead of the global release of Cassandro on Prime Video, the director sat down for an exclusive chat with Hindustan Times to talk about his film, which first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year to rousing acclaim. (Also read: Cassandro review: Gael García Bernal triumphs as a gay wrestler)
I watched Cassandro earlier this year while covering Sundance Film Festival and loved it. Tell me a little about how the premiere went and what was the festival experience like for you?
Wow, Oh my god! It was amazing. It was the most incredible experience because the real Cassandro was also present at Sundance! He got to experience the film with an audience for the first time, only if you can imagine! To have him there it was so emotional… so powerful! He was like a rockstar. Cassandro actually had a stroke two weeks before we started shooting… so it was even more emotional because he lost the ability to move one side of his body. He could not speak and he got to see a celebration of his life with everyone with all the love! It was pretty amazing!
That’s beautiful. Tell me a little about how you first learnt about Cassandro and your decision to take up the subject matter into a feature film.
I learnt about Cassandro because I did a short documentary for The New Yorker series on Amazon. When I met Cassandro I was totally blown away by his charisma, by his energy, his beauty… everything about him. I was like this is my first scripted film. I just knew it immediately. That was eight years ago.
Tell me also about how Gael García Bernal came onboard for the film. He is unbelievable in it.
When I decided I wanted to make this movie, I was like no other person could do this role except Gael García Bernal. I just knew it because I had seen him in Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education (2004), and I had seen him in so many more movies… and I just knew that he would really dedicate himself to the role. Gael did all the wrestling moves himself in the film. He learnt to wrestle, he spent months training and working and learning to really be a Luchador. I knew he was that type of actor who would really buckle down and do the work.
Did you have any specific reference points while you were making Cassandro?
Yes, I had a film reference. All That Jazz (1979). I loved that sort of process of you know, creating a character and building a character. It was really important to capture the process of him being able to building it, searching through his mother’s clothes… figuring out his persona.. and slowly winning over the audience on his own terms. That was really important. All That Jazz was a big reference for me.
Cassandro will be available to stream on Amazon Prime Video from September 22.