The Hollywood Reporter critic David Rooney couldn’t have summed up it better. It’s “an exhilarating exploration of fearless queer identity in a macho environment,” he wrote in his review of Cassandro, Roger Ross Williams’s new biopic about gay lucha libre wrestler Saúl Armendáriz.
“Cassandro is totally fearless, and embraces who he is, and I saw [how much] the real Cassandro is embraced [by] these [macho] guys who hug him and kiss him and embrace him because he's such a good wrestler,” Williams tells us in a new interview (watch below). “They respect him. He earned the respect of this macho community.
“And therefore he broke down stereotypes and broke down walls.”
The unlikely, triumphant tale of Armendáriz, the El Paso-raised luchador who rose from “exótico” (typically male wrestlers in drag who serve as easy foils for the musclemen winners) to NWA World Welterweight champion is what inspired Williams — the Oscar-winning documentarian behind films like God Loves Uganda and Life, Animated — to make his first narrative film. Williams previously documented the real Cassandro in a 2016 short documentary for the Amazon series The New Yorker Presents.
For his fictionalized spin on Cassandro, Williams (who also co-wrote the screenplay with David Teague) cast the continually impressive Gael García Bernal (Y tu mama también, Bad Education), who delivers one of the crowning performances of his career.
“No one else could play the role in my eyes because Gael is one of the great Mexican actors,” Williams says. “He throws everything into his characters and I knew he would just dive into this full on.”
It wasn’t always easy for García Bernal, 44.
“It was brutally punishing for Gael. He learned to wrestle, and you have to learn the physicality of it and the choreography of it, but you have to be acting on top of that and you have to learn the emotional [aspects] because each wrestling match has an emotional arc to it. And so Gael threw himself into it completely, and it was very physically demanding on him, and he did most of his own stunts.”
Williams also landed one of the biggest pop stars in the world in a supporting role: Puerto Rican reggaeton sensation and occasional professional wrestler Bad Bunny. He plays a drug dealer working for Cassandro’s promoter who at one point shares a kiss with the rising luchador.
“Bad Bunny contacted us and said he loves wrestling, he loves lucha libre,” reveals Williams. “He wanted to be in the film, and I was like, ‘Wow, imagine that. You get a call from the biggest pop star in the world who wants to be in your movie.’ You jump at the chance, and it was a dream to direct Bad Bunny.
"He was so great. He's such a good actor, and he was so humble and nice and not at all what I was [expecting]. You could be intimidated that it's Bad Bunny, but he's just the most down-to-earth great guy, and he really takes acting very seriously. And I think he has a great future as an actor.”
Cassandro is now streaming on Prime Video.