Gael García Bernal on Playing Queer Icon in Sundance Film ‘Cassandro’  

An emotional scene unfolded inside Park City’s Ray Theatre on Friday evening ahead of the world premiere of Cassandro.

The Sundance Film Festival selection from Prime Video marks the narrative feature debut of acclaimed documentarian Roger Ross Williams and casts Gael García Bernal in the title role as Saúl Armendáriz, a gay amateur wrestler from El Paso who rises to international stardom after he creates the character Cassandro, aka the “Liberace of Lucha Libre.”

Armendáriz turned up to the premiere in a flashy ensemble fit for both the ring and the red carpet — a multi-colored leotard, bedazzled tights and a blue satin jacket with dramatic train. Armendáriz, who suffered a stroke that has left him with limited movement on one side of his body and the ability to only string together short sentences, was overjoyed and clearly emotional upon seeing Bernal and the filmmaker.

Williams, who profiled Armendáriz in 2016 for the Amazon series The New Yorker Presents, told   moments after their warm embrace that the first day he met him, his life changed. “The first day I was like, you’re going to be my first scripted feature film. First day,” Williams said. “It’s because his story and his spirit are so uplifting. It’s a positive story about a queer person, where a lot of stories we see about queer people are depressing and sad. This is about triumph and overcoming adversity and just believing in who you are finding acceptance. It’s a beautiful thing.”

He also didn’t hesitate with casting.

“Gael was the only actor I ever thought could play this role,” he said, listing off his acclaimed turns in such films as Bad Education, Y tu mamá también and more. “He understands the culture and is an amazing actor. It was a no-brainer.”

Friday night after the film’s debut, THR chief film critic David Rooney praised Bernal’s work in the film by writing that he “nails his best role in years, giving a performance steeped in cheeky humor, resilience and radical self-belief — not to mention some amazingly nimble moves.” He added that the feature offers an “exhilarating exploration of fearless queer identity in a macho environment.”

As the diversity conversation in Hollywood has grown louder in recent years, so have questions about who can play which roles. But both Williams and Bernal arrived prepared with answers.

“He’s an actor. He’s not playing himself. As Gael has said, he’s never played himself, he’s always played someone else,” offered Williams, who penned the script with David Teague. “As an actor, that’s what they do. That’s the beauty of it and the beauty of the craft. I understand representation, of course, as a Black gay man, but I wanted the best possible actor who could bring this amazing character to life.”

Bernal, also an executive producer, explained that the part allowed him to tap into parts of himself while also focusing on the joy that Armendáriz brought to the ring. “There are many aspects that encompass an actor. One of the things I really look forward to and thrive on is the chance to have fun,” said Bernal, who stars opposite Roberta Colindrez, Perla de la Rosa, Joaquín Cosío and Raúl Castillo. “With the character of Cassandro, the joy that he brought to lucha libre naturally forces you to be joyful and forces you to play with it. When I’m doing it, I really, really enjoy it and I can really feel it. I like how it expands and helps me play so many different characters. It’s like my inner transgender character coming out to have fun. I wanted to tap into that.”

Asked specifically to respond to the question of what type of actors should play what roles — whether gay, straight, religious or racially diverse, marginalized, etc. — Bernal said his response “demands a very long answer.”

“You know, it’s almost like what we have to do now is sort of apologize for acting. But, in a way, acting serves many functions and if we don’t play the other, if we don’t interpret the other with a capital O, if we don’t play someone we’re not, we’re never going to reach that catharsis. We’re never going to reach that healing. There’s something so fascinating when you see someone that is not you or you see someone who lives a life similar to what you’ve lived on screen, it leads someone on a healing process. We should play anyone and we should also just play and have fun. Really, everyone can play anything. It’s fascinating to see King Lear played by a woman. It’s fascinating to see someone from the gay community play a very, very straight character. It gives it so much flavor.”

Bernal has shown that versatility through many characters that have graced the screens at Sundance, where his films like The Motorcycle Diaries and Y tu mamá también have played. “It’s a place I hold very dear,” he said, minutes before heading inside for his screening. “It’s so nice to see films where outside everything is very cold, but inside everything is so warm.”

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