The new film Lupe has had a long journey to getting seen. It originally premiered at Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose back in 2019 and now will be available to stream this Friday on HBO.
The directorial debut of André Phillips and Charles Vuolo, the film tells the story of Rafael (Rafael Albarrán), a Cuban immigrant and boxer who must search for a missing family member in New York City all while coming to terms with their transgender identity. It also features Celia Harrison as Lana, a transgender artist and performer. In addition to playing a role, Harrison serves as a thematic advisor to the film.
Ahead of Lupe's Friday premiere, I spoke with directors André Phillips and Charles Vuolo, actor Rafael Albarrán, and executive producer Kerry Michelle O'Brien.
We lightly edited this interview for clarity.
HUTCHINSON: This was a story you've been working on for a while. How long of a journey has this been from writing it to getting on HBO?
VUOLO: I think about six years total from start to now. Early 2015 was when we really got rolling.
PHILLIPS: There were largeish gaps in between our rounds of filming as we strategized and planned stuff like that. When you don't have a ton of cash, that's kind of how it goes.
HUTCHINSON: Rafael, what first brought you to the project?
ALBARRÁN: It was an open call audition, it was labeled as ethnically ambiguous. [Laughs] At the time, I was just getting out of grad school and starting to go around to the casting agencies in New York. And I'm Latino, right? I'm Puerto Rican. My agents would send me to all the other Latino castings for Latino roles and I would never get any role because I didn't look "Puerto Rican" enough. Or my skin wasn't dark enough. It was very frustrating; it was the reason why I stopped auditioning six years ago. This was actually my last movie, the last project I ever did. And here we are, now we're going to HBO.
HUTCHINSON: Regarding that journey, I first heard of your film at Cinequest in 2019. It was a couple of years ago, but it feels like a lifetime ago now.
HUTCHINSON: From that festival, there was a review I read that raised some concerns that the casting of this film could fall into the cinematic tradition of choosing to have cisgender actors play transgender women. Rafael, from listening to your other interviews, I understand the process of this film was an impactful one for you and that you've now come out as nonbinary. I want to recognize and respect that while also asking how you feel about those concerns?
ALBARRÁN: It just validates the film itself, and it validates the importance of the film. We assume so much about the other. There's so much assumption and so much fear and so much prejudice. This just shows you that it comes from every way. I've read this before, it's not the first one, you know, 'Oh, another cis white actor playing a trans role.' First of all, I'm not cis. Second of all, not white. And third of all, if a white cis male actor does it, he gets an Oscar nomination. [Laughs] So can we talk about all that? You know, at the end of the day, this is a story that was created for the trans community with a member of the trans community in the development of the script with this same member of the trans community in the cast.
I feel like there are very specific reasons why my character was cast as a not transitioned fully trans member because that in itself is one of the conflicts of the role. She never has the resources to transition to be a "woman" for society. So how do you find that woman when you don't have the resources to fully go on that journey? Which is the reality for a lot of people in the trans community. So again, anything that brings the dialogue and comes from a place of genuine love and truth should be celebrated, regardless of your opinions about who was cast and who wasn't. At the end of the day, what's important is the authenticity and the truth of the film. I feel like that's something that we all accomplished with it, and I'm very proud of being part of it.
VUOLO: That's so well said and nothing I can say will touch the beauty of Rafael just said.
ALBARRÁN: Oh, she's ready for these questions. [Laughs]
VUOLO: No, but you raise a fantastic point about this too. My biggest regret with the review in question, if I'm thinking of the right one, was just that whoever wrote that review didn't just come up and speak with us and ask us. We were all at the same festival together, this was pre-COVID, and that's of course their choice, and that's totally fine. I do wish that we had been able to have a dialogue. This is not to stand on a hill, to virtue signal, to say we did everything right because I'm sure we made many mistakes in the process. We walked into this film trying to be as honest as we could, knowing we would make some mistakes. One of the things we told our casting director is we want to cast a person who is an immigrant to the United States, and we want members of the LBGT community to be represented on screen. We requested and we tried our best to bring in those voices. Again, no doubt myself and André maybe made some mistakes here or there though we definitely had the best of intentions.
HUTCHINSON: Kerry, you've had a vast career in the industry; what was your experience like working on this film? Was there anything different?
O'BRIEN: I used to be an internationally award-winning editor and post supervisor before I transitioned, and transitioning changed all that for me. I treat them exactly the same. We're all professionals here, and a small project or a major promo project or an international game show, whatever it is, I will treat them all with the level of respect and commitment that's required. Especially this film, because it talks so much to the community, but it also talks so much to every person's story of belonging and truth and your own sort of acceptance. Budgets were different, obviously. I think we did a Coldplay video for less than we did Lupe for. So, you know, budget doesn't matter. What matters is getting the message across and the beauty of the film.
HUTCHINSON: When it comes to that message, I wanted to ask André and Charles about when you were setting out to tell this story. Was there anything you were drawing inspiration from, specifically any trans cinema or reference points?
VUOLO: I think that's a great question. When we first rolled cameras, we were really reacting more about what we didn't want to do. We didn't want to recreate some of the depictions we had seen. As far as inspirations, we were really trying to do something that we hadn't seen. We had other inspirations for the technical side, in the nature of the filming. But as far as themes, I think we were really reacting against.
PHILLIPS: We were shaping things around conversations we were having. It feels and sounds ridiculous, in some ways, but even exploring and asking questions on social media. We jumped on Reddit even into a couple subreddits and reached out there. Just trying to talk to people directly. I'm such a Luddite when it comes to watching actual films because I'm like the least well-watched filmmaker on Earth. I think we let that guide our intention along.
VUOLO: To some degree, looking back, I feel like we were so young and naive. We talked with Celia, we described what could be a cool film, and were just like, 'Let's go make it, let's grab a camera and go!' With old age and getting a little bit more cautious, I wonder if we would have taken as many risks as we did. At the time, it was just exciting. That's the best I can do there. Sorry, no specific films.
PHILLIPS: I mean, honestly, Rafael did the looking.
HUTCHINSON: I was going to ask, Rafael, I heard in other interviews you talking about the reading and research you did for the film. What did you tap into for inspiration?
ALBARRÁN: So, first of all, more than inspiration. I just needed to know the mental state of the character, and for me to do that I had to read about the trans experience. At the time six years ago, I identified as a gay man and as a gay man, I thought I knew about the trans experience. I had no clue. As soon as I started reading and researching, I was like, 'Oh, my god!' This umbrella just kept expanding and expanding. Back then, six years ago, I didn't even know what nonbinary was. I didn't even know that that was an option. I knew as a gay men and gay kid, I always wanted to explore my femininity, but I was never allowed because of my culture. Because of the way I was raised, I was physically abused by my dad for being feminine, constantly when I was a kid. So in a way, the fact that I performed masculinity, it was imposed on me because my natural tendencies when I was a kid were very feminine. We can say that through abuse, I was "straightened up." I started reading and going through my own cathartic experiences. There was one book that truly changed my life. It was Janet Mock's autobiography Redefining Realness. She goes into detail about her experience growing up on an island with an abusive background. It was like looking in a mirror. I even myself had to go through those conversations with myself like, 'Am I trans, am I a woman?' So much about that womanhood and femininity that were natural to me was suppressed.
All of a sudden with this film, I got the chance to explore. I feel like that quest for authenticity and that womanhood that the character is going through in the film, I was going through in my personal life at the same time. So that's why there's so much truth in it. There are so many things that I couldn't recreate. It was real discovery happening just with a camera there.
Last year, I finished my first screenplay and all that writing came from that place like Lupe in the movie, finding her authentic self was me finding my authentic voice. Four years ago, I started exploring drag, as my self-exploration process of femininity. I started using he and she pronouns and started identifying as nonbinary. Even me identifying like this, I constantly til this day face questions about that, like, 'You don't look nonbinary?' What the fuck does nonbinary look like or has to look like? It's the same thing as 'you don't look feminine.' What does femininity look like? That's why I feel this film is so important because it brings those questions and conversations that are very much needed. I'm just excited to be part of this community and to continue writing and creating stories about us because we need so much more.
You can stream Lupe on HBO starting Feb. 26.