February 23, 2021 at 7:55 pm PST | by Rob Watson
HBO Max’s Lupe Blazes a Trail Into the Search for Authenticity
Photo Credit: HBO Max and HBO Latino

On Friday February 26th at 8pm, HBO Max and HBO Latino will premiere the darling of the film festival set, Lupe.

The film opens with a beautiful panorama of farmland in Cuba and a young boy calling out for his caretaker and older sister.  He is looking for her.

“Looking for her” becomes the theme of the film, and it also became the theme in the lives of many associated with this cinematic gem.

Rafael, the lead character, absorbs the toxic masculinity of his Cuban village, comfortable under the care of his sister Isabel (portrayed by Lucerys Medina).  Then one day, she is missing.

He believes that she and her friend Elsa have been taken to New York City and fallen victim to a ring of prostitution.  Rafael (portrayed by Rafael Albarrán) has embraced his machismo as a trained boxer and sets out to New York — “looking for her.”

His search for Isabel is merely the journey for him on a wholly other adventure in which he discovers that the “her” he is looking for, is the woman within himself.  Along the way, (adjusting pronouns) they find their sister’s companion Elsa (portrayed by Christine Rosario Lawrence) who helps them think back on their Cuban roots, a boxing student, Arun (portrayed by Kadeem Henry, who shows them that life in authenticity can come with bitter rejection and a transgender woman Lana (portrayed by Celia Harrison), who helps them envision and embrace the future.

The film is tender, poignant and ultimately affirming.  The scenes are simple, sometimes austere and often deeply beautiful.  Albarrán displays magnetism throughout, drawing us into the emergence of the inner life of Rafael to an external expression – often quietly with just the look in their eyes.

To quote the RuPaul franchise, “If you are only watching the surface production, you are only seeing half of the story” rings true to the full story behind the realization of the movie Lupe. While a transgender journey is portrayed on screen, another has played out behind the scenes.

The film was written, and directed by two while New Yorker cisgender men, André Phillips & Charles Vuolo.  Telling the story of a transgender woman.  What could go wrong?

As it turns out—nothing.  Even though the production work started six years ago, well before transgender artist voices were raised asking that their stories actually include them in the making, Phillips and Vuolo already knew what they did not know.  They did not know the transgender experience.

They were looking for “her”:  she who would take ownership of the transgender experience.

They found her in Celia Harrison.  They wrote a framework of the story, and turned to Celia to guide them on the real life experience that she knew to be trans.  Many of the scenes were left unscripted, with the intentions to have performers improvise from their own sensibilities.

They cast Rafael Albarrán, a gay Latino man, after his second audition.  Rafael was sensitive, vulnerable, and yet also brought a strong “street fight” charisma to the part.  They also turned to Celia to play his best friend, even though she was not a trained actor.  She was the transgender life blood muse of the script, and so was a natural to be the on screen conscience of the film itself.

Photo Credit: HBO Max and HBO Latino

Unbeknownst to anyone, Rafael the actor and Rafael the character were beating with the same heart, and a deeply similar journey.  He told me recently,

“I started my career as an actor in Puerto Rico when I was 12 years old, I started writing when I was 15. I went to school or journalism and literature, then went on to do my playwriting and acting. And I, I feel like my journey of my life kind of prepared for this project. But when I was not prepared for was to what I was about to discover of myself. And, again, when I did this six years ago I never thought that this was going to be the end goal of this journey, which just makes everything so beautiful. At the minute when we were on set, and I got the part and I got cast in it, I immediately understood the weight and responsibility that I had.  Six years ago I identified myself as a gay man. 

“Back then, transgender and trans theme movies were not at the level we have right now.  Since then we have shows like Pose, and shows like Orange is the New Black,  shows that came after we shot Lupe, after we did production shots of Lupe.  So back then, I was like, ‘This is huge.’  You know, like I was like this is huge responsibility. And I, honestly, as soon as I start doing research for the role. I start to realize how ignorant I was in the themes of trans and, and all the topics that embark the trans umbrella. You know we all get trapped in toxic masculinity.  The expectations of what being a man is.  And all of a sudden here I am going on a journey in a movie with the characters covered in their femininity and her femininity, and how it looks like, and how it feels like.”

“That exploration that was part of examining the script, I feel like I took a little bit of ownership on that, and I started making it a part of my own personal exploration. To the point that six years after the process started, I no longer consider myself, or refer to myself as a gay man.  I am a non-binary human – I have changed my pronouns. I am using he, she and they.  That process started and the discovery of myself through this character.“  

Looking for her 

Rafael and Celia came together as a collaborative and creative team on the set.  Rafael shared, “You might not be an actress. But you’re a great woman, and we’re about to pair and we were about to tell stories about great women together. And that bonding that happened right before going on set , really relaxed us. It really felt like if we had been friends forever. You know it drew a line of trust between us, and because of that trust — the directors trusted in us, kind of like taking the movie wherever we wanted   to.  They were brave as creators to give out the power in a way.  The direction of the movie could have gone in many many ways.  They just trusted us. I feel like there was a lot of trust around the process. It came down to all of us, all of us around this set—how important this story was. That we were telling.  I cannot wait for people to watch this.“ 

In 2017, the production team recruited and brought on an executive producer, Kerry Michelle O’Brien.  Kerry was well established and famous for her production work, and had only recently identified herself as trans. 

She told me, “Sharan reaches out to me, shows me this piece. And she says you know I would appreciate your input. Well, she calls me up 3 days later and calls me out on it.  Kerry, Where are your notes?  I said, you can have your notes when I stopped crying.  And it’s just, even in its rough cut state, we could see what an amazing piece of work the boys have done, Raphaels acting is just unbelievable. It just spoke volumes off the screen, and also the fact that I say I was a late transition I’ve been living in the closet for way too many years. And then to see someone coming out and be so bold, seeing that reflected on the screen. How could I not be involved in bringing across the finish line.” 

She shared her thoughts on the film’s impact,” amazing and beautiful to actually see a film in which we’re represented not a sociopath, or serial killer, or on the game, you know, we’re actually reflected as human beings, sort of just fumbling and stumbling along and trying to find our way. And try to be genuine.  That’s what we want to do. We just want to be loved and be genuine and to see that evolve in Raphael to Lupe’s characters is just beautiful. It’s just like, it’s just so many things there that sort of made me have hope and tenderness and thinking well I hope this encourages dialogue between people as to the fact that, you know, we’re not, you shouldn’t make a snap judgment about others.

“We are human beings we just want to be loved and we just want to be genuine, but different experiences are very sort of fantastic fabulous way. But we are still individuals that needs to be loved, And that just comes across so strongly in the film.”

Photo Credit: HBO Max and HBO Latino

The impact did not stop with Kerry in the post production room.  She carried it on into her own life, in her own quest for her own authenticity. 

“You know, even though I’ve got a deep voice and you know look a bit peculiar I’m still a woman in myself and that is my truth.  I, when I took this film on I hadn’t seen my children in the UK for quite a while. And through the publicity of the last week of this movie. I actually took it upon myself to actually become genuine with my family in the UK so I reached out to my children.

“Last weekend, I came out as transgender to them. I was able to use the film as a vehicle to say ‘hey you know your dad’s been making another movie, because I had critical acclaim in the past, and this is one that involves the LGBT community. And then I went on, by the way, I’m transgender, and it was such a beautiful moment to share that with my three children. We did a video we did a video call for first time in four years. They hadn’t actually seen me in that time. We sort of chatted, and it was quite a surprise. I wasn’t dressed, but they were very very accepting and the real beautiful point of that was my eldest took it upon herself to come out to me as bisexual at the same time.”

“So, you know nothing but good things are coming from discussions around this movie. That was the level of impact it was me– to finally admit to myself,  ‘I’m okay being the Kerry Michelle that I am, and I’m now ready to tell my family about it.”

Looking for her

As Rafael Albarrán sums up, “In the end, it is not just a story about Trans, about being a woman or a man – it is a story about authenticity.  And I feel like that is something each one of us struggles with on our journey. Regardless of our gender or sexual orientation, its about being authentic with you and empower yourself however that might look like.”

Courtesy of HBO Max and HBO Latino

Lupe airs on HBO Max February 26th at 8pm.  Find her there.

Rob Watson covers LGBTQ lives, culture, and politics as a contributor to the Los Angeles Blade and is the host of the Hollywood-based weekly radio podcast RATED LGBT RADIO.

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