IN CONVERSATION WITH LÍO MEHIEL
Lío Mehiel is the first trans actor even to win the Sundance Special Jury Award for their leading role in ‘Mutt’ at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. ‘Mutt’ will be released in theaters this August. Beyond filmmaking, Lío is currently the producer and creative director of ‘Angels’, a developing collection of stone sculptures of transgender humans
Lío, you are the first trans actor ever to win the Sundance Special Jury Award for your leading role in ‘Mutt’. How does such a special accomplishment feel and what does it mean to you?
It has been such a dream to have receive this award from the jury at Sundance. I didn’t even know they gave out awards to actors at the festival, so it was a complete surprise. I feel like the special recognition from the festival has also allowed the film to get more attention, which means that more people have been able to see it, which is why we made it.
Also, I think one of the sweetest parts of winning the award is the fact that young trans and non-binary actors are going to read about this and perhaps feel more confident coming into the industry as their authentic selves. I didn’t have many role models to look to as I was first starting out as an actor, so it means a lot to think that I can now be that for someone else.
‘Mutt’ tells the story of a transgender man who goes through an emotional roller coaster over a 24-hour period in New York City. Tell us more about this film and its story.
‘Mutt’ follows Feña over twenty-four very hectic hours in NYC as he is forced to confront three people from his past that unexpectedly come back into his life, his little sister, his ex-boyfriend and his Chilean father. Over the course of the film, we watch as Feña navigates these old relationships in this new moment in his life, post-transition. What is so special about ‘Mutt’ is that the primary motivation for Feña is not his gender identity or ‘coming out’, but instead the film offers an intimate lens on a day in the life of a young person who just happens to be trans. Feña is uncertain as to whether his ex still has feelings for him, if his sister can forgive him for being absent, if his father will think he is a ‘fuck up’, all of which are universal themes that people can connect to whether they are queer or not.
Why does this role have such a special meaning to you?
‘Mutt’ is a historic film in so many ways. It is one of the first mainstream narrative films to center on a trans guy’s story, while also being written and directed by a trans guy. I can list on one hand the amount of films I saw growing up that felt like they captured my experience. Had I seen ‘Mutt’ as a teenager or even when I was in college, my life would have been completely different. It also feels so special to have made my feature film debut on this film, alongside Vuk. I think I am a bit spoiled now, working on a set led by a trans writer and director, with so many queer and trans folks on the team. It was fun and silly and supportive. How can I top that?
What is your personal view on this kind of representation in film and TV?
We need more of it. The increase of trans and queer representation in front of the camera is amazing, but even more important right now is queer and trans representation at agencies, production companies and studios. We need our community to be represented amidst our industry’s decision makers, so that more trans and queer filmmakers and artists can be given opportunities to tell our stories with the support of real resources.
You explore concepts of transness as a philosophy, an orientation towards embodied creativity that extends beyond an individual’s gender expression. Why is this practice such an important one? And one more people should follow?
As I have moved through my transition in the past few years, and come to learn from other queer artists, I have realized that trans is so much more than just a label for someone’s gender identity. The concept of transness feels like an invitation to imagine beyond the story you have been given, to imagine beyond the perimeters of your flesh. It feels radical, fundamentally creative and like an ideology that can serve as a legitimate counter to the internalized fascism that our contemporary society suffers from.
I also think that by expanding transness from just a gender label into a way of being, it invites folks from all walks of life, even people who think of themselves as cis-gender, to embrace the integral fight we are in right now globally, which is to liberate people from a paradigm in which we are only deemed as valuable as our capacity to produce and/or consume. To listen more deeply to our bodies’ needs and to embrace our role as creators in our lives are both decidedly not ‘productive’ practices under capitalism, but they are necessary if we are going to save our earth and ourselves.
You are an artist, filmmaker and actor. Which of these excites you the most? How did you develop passion for acting and filmmaking?
I actually don’t really have a preference. I think artist is the best way to describe my orientation towards creativity, because it doesn’t imply a particular medium. I am driven more by ideas and images, and figuring out which medium will best suit a particular impulse, whether it’s a film, a poem, a live performance or an installation.
Beyond filmmaking, you are currently also the producer and creative director of ‘Angels’, a developing collection of stone sculptures of transgender humans. What made you decide to start working on sculptures?
I actually am not the sculptor for ‘Angels’, I am working with the immensely talented Holly Silius. I came up with the idea to build the collection of stone busts and serve as both the creative director and producer of the project. The inspiration for ‘Angels’ came in 2021 when I collaborated with Holly and photographer Kobe Wagstaff to create ‘Phantom Feel’, a mixed media piece centered around a stone sculpture of my chest made six months after I got top surgery. You can see my newly formed scars protruding from the stone.
This project allowed me to see myself clearly for the first time. There I was, suddenly rendered in stone, my body tangible and permanent, a feeling few trans people in today’s world get to have. The amount of self love I felt through that experience inspired me to create ‘Angels’, a sculpture collection of gender expansive people in collaboration with amazing artists like Emma D’Arcy, Jari Jones, Rain Valdez and others.
Tell us more about ‘Angels’ collection.
This project is a love letter to all our trans ancestors whose bodies and stories were not preserved in the archive of art history, as well as a letter of hope for the future. I sometimes dream that 200 years from now someone will find one of these stone pieces in the dirt and realize that it is an artifact of gender euphoria from a time when that wasn’t accessible for everyone and by then, things will be better.
What are your goals and dreams in life? What impact do you want to leave on this world?
I am a bit of a new age-y weirdo, but I love all sorts of spiritual tools for self-reflection, for examplw astrology, human design, etc. I encountered this tool called the ‘gene key’ earlier this year and after putting in all my birth data, I read that a part of my life’s purpose is to serve as a sort of ‘construction worker’ in ‘building the new human being’. I was gagged by this. First of all, I love this idea, creating a ‘new human being’, not in terms of integrating technology and creating some sort of AI-hybrid, but instead moving towards embracing a deeper relationship between our soul and our body, the unseen in our world and the material, the felt.
I feel like my goals and dreams in life all circle back to this, I want to contribute to the development of our collective souls. I want to explore myself so deeply and with such bravery that I can reveal myself completely through my work and through that inspire others to embrace themselves as well. I hope to have a platform in order to reach people from all over the world and I hope to be able to live a sustainable and abundant life as an artist.
You are of Puerto Rican and Greek heritage. What role does each of these two completely different heritages have in your life?
Being mixed ethnicity is interesting. I am the whitest person in my mom’s family and the brownest person in my dad’s family. I also have seven siblings, but all of them are half siblings. I am the only child of both my mother and father. I feel so deeply ‘in between’ and ‘outside’ that I have had to embrace the fact that I might never be a person that can be easily read or understood. Like Vuk and like Feña, I’m a mutt. In adulthood, I have come to love that about myself, but existing in between cultures and genders throughout my life has been challenging and also exactly the journey I needed to go on to arrive here. It’s sort of too much to describe how much of an impact my heritage and ancestors have had on my life, but I can say that I get my booty from my mama and my jawline from my dad.
interview by JANA LETONJA
photography JORDAN ROSSI
grooming SHAMIRAH SAIRALLY