‘Cassandro’ is the triumphant story of El Paso’s legendary luchador

Oscar winning director Roger Ross Williams brings the larger-than-life story to the screen: “I’ve got to tell this story.”

By Kristen CabreraSeptember 18, 2023 2:47 pm, , ,

In an old warehouse on the border in El Paso, you can hear the sound of heavy thuds on a mat, a bell ringing, and crowds cheering “Ca-ssan-dro!, Ca-ssan-dro!” Its a lucha libre night and a legendary fighter – known as Cassandro – is in the ring.

The life and story of Cassandro is the focus of a new film in theaters now and premiering on Amazon Prime Sept. 22 starring Gael García Bernal and directed by Oscar winning director Roger Ross Williams.

Williams spoke with the Texas Standard on why Gael just had to be the one to play Cassandro. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: I understand that you originally directed a short documentary on Cassandro earlier. What was it about the story of this fighter that had you gripped so much you felt it needed to be told through Hollywood?

Roger Ross Williams: Yeah, well, you know, I met Cassandro because I was doing a short documentary about him for the New Yorker series on Amazon Prime.

I went down to El Paso, and I walked into the room, and Cassandro walked into the room, and, boom, it hit me. This charisma, this energy, this inner beauty. There’s something really special about Cassandro. And when Cassandro sat in the chair to do the interview, immediately, I was just blown away by the story, the power of the story.

I didn’t know much about the world of lucha libre, but that Cassandro, on his own terms, had broken down these barriers as a gay man, as an out man – a flamboyantly out man – that he broke down these barriers and was able to rise to the top of this very macho sport. So I was blown away.

And when I saw Cassandro fight for the first time in Juárez, Mexico – you know, one of the most dangerous cities in the world – full a stadium, thousands of people cheering for him and singing “I Will Survive.” As he took the stage, I burst into tears. I was like, “I’ve got to tell this story.”

Alejandro Lopez Pineda

Director Roger Ross Williams speaks with Gael García Bernal on set.

Lucha libre in Mexico and in Texas, especially around the border towns, is a big tradition that’s gone on for generations, as you well know. But there’s a lesser known subset of luchadores that Cassandro has tapped into, and that’s the exótico. Could you give us a little primer on what an exótico is and and the journey that this ends up taking Cassandro on?

Well, an exótico is a luchador that does not wear a mask, that pretends to be a weak gay man. So they’re often dressed, you know, sort of like tacky, flamboyantly gay… not flamboyant, but like, tacky. And they’re just there to get beat up in the ring.

An exótico traditionally would never win a match, an exótico is there for the strong, masked luchador to beat up on him. So what Cassandro did was Cassandro, who is an amazing wrestler, turned it on its head and said, “I’m going to be an empowered, openly gay, flamboyant, exótico who wins.

Gael García Bernal as Cassandro.
Photo: Courtesy of Prime Video; © AMAZON CONTENT SERVICES LLC

I heard for you there was no one else who could have played this role but Gael García Bernal. Could you talk to me about why it had to be him?

Yeah, because Gael is one of the greatest Mexican actors of our time. And, you know, he has done this before. You know, in “Bad Education” I saw Gael perform that role just so beautifully. You know, I was a huge fan since “Y tu mamá también.”

Gael’s played many roles, so I needed an actor with incredible chops. You know, an actor who really could pull this off because this is a bigger than life character. This is a complex character. And Gael has the complexity, the emotional complexity, to play Cassandro.

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We should point out that we couldn’t speak with Gael about this. The SAG-AFTRA strike is going on here. But maybe you can give us some insight into the preparation for a role like this, which must have been really challenging given Cassandro is sort of a larger-than-life character and sort of barrier-shattering persona.

Oh, yeah. You know, Gael took this on in a very serious way.

Firstly, physically – bulking up, really taking movement and dance classes, and then he really dove into the wrestling part of it where he learned to wrestle, he learned from real luchadores, who really worked with him for months and months and months. And he did mostly all of his own stunts in the movie.

He became a really, really good luchador wrestler, and I think that was because of his dedication, because it’s also physically challenging to be in that ring. Look, I got in that ring just to play around and try to do some moves and I almost killed myself in there. So it is actually a dangerous and hard sport. And it may look easy, but it is very hard to pull off, you know, walking on the ropes and doing those flips and doing those moves. It’s very, very, very grueling.

So he got deep into that and really, really pulled it off.

Alejandro Lopez Pineda

Bad Bunny stars alongside Gael García Bernal in "Cassandro."

Well, credit to the director, of course, because in a sense, it would strike me that one of the big challenges is dealing with this larger-than-life character in the ring, but also the earnest nuances that come outside of the ring. As a director, was there a way you wanted to connect those two worlds in a way?

It was really important that, you know, the flamboyance of the ring was balanced with those really sort of intimate moments and those personal relationships – that intimate moment between Cassandro and Yocosta, his mother. That was a really important relationship. And those moments were really important that they were quiet and powerful.

And so I learned that in the Sundance directing lab – I went to the Sundance directing lab. I had great, great advisers, including Robert Redford, who basically really hone that in and really work on that part of the script and work on that part of the movie that at the core of the story, it’s an emotional tale.

It’s an emotional tale between a relationship between, you know, Cassandro and his mother, but also Cassandro’s need for acceptance from his father and his pursuit of that. And then in the process of that, learning to accept and love himself for who he is.

In a way, it’s more than that in a sense, isn’t it? I mean, it’s also an important history that isn’t really talked about, but it can be very revealing, too, I think. When did Cassandro first enter the ring? Around the late eighties or so – something like that?

Yeah, in the late eighties. And really when Cassandro entered the ring, he became almost an instant legend.

You know, it was shocking for an exótico to win and to have such confidence in the ring. And he just upended the sport and won many titles and became a legend and became famous. So it’s really also telling this legendary story and it’s telling it in a sport that is one of the most popular sports in Mexico. But, you know, maybe not so well known in America and in the rest of the world.

So now the whole world gets to hear this real story and really learn about this this culture and this sport.

We have a lot of listeners in El Paso, and I think that it’s worth noting that the story takes place right there along the border and throughout the film you never lose that grounded setting. I wonder if you could talk about some of the key elements you turn to in order to get that across. 

Well, you know, David Teague, who’s the co-writer, and I went down there a lot and we were writing the screenplay and I just am so blown away by how visual El Paso is. I just love the whole culture, too, of the murals, and it’s just such a visual place. So we shot on location.

And also being on the border, the real Cassandro lives… His actual house faces the border wall. To me, that was a powerful metaphor for so much, you know, so much that the walls that divide us… And he was about breaking down those walls. And so we shot on the border. We found the location, the house. The backyard is the wall and the the highway there with the trucks going by. So they’re always living in the shadow of this wall, of this big wall that divides people. And Cassandro was about breaking down those walls himself in his own personal life. So it serves as a metaphor.

It’s not only a beautiful, fascinating location, it’s a really important place in our culture and our world. And there’s a big story being told there and developing there right now about, you know, differences. And it’s become a big political, obviously, hotspot. So it was really important to shoot there and to really captured El Paso and also Juárez.

Juárez is a fascinating city, a complex city. And I wanted to show that barriers were broken down there, because here you have a gay man wrestling in Juárez, a very dangerous city, and he’s wrestling and beloved and people love him and cheer him on and they sing “I Will Survive” in a stadium with thousands of people. And I’m like, “what? How can that be?” But it’s all about breaking down those barriers between us.

Roger, am I correct in saying that this is your first experience directing a scripted feature film? 

This is my first scripted feature film. Yes, you are correct.

What was it like to take this on? And in a general, you know, you said earlier that you weren’t really that familiar with the luchador scene.

Well, you know, I like a good challenge. This was a good challenge.

I love to challenge myself as a storyteller, as an artist. And I just fell in love with the story. I fell in love with El Paso. And I just was like, “okay, I’m going to figure this all out.” And it was not easy.

You know, it’s not easy when you push yourself to do something you haven’t done before, which is directing actors and directing a scripted film –hen you push yourself to understand a culture, a place that you weren’t familiar with. But I’m a documentarian at heart, so I’m used to going into worlds and cultures and learning them and understanding them and translating them to the world. That’s what I do.

Photo: Courtesy of Prime Video; © AMAZON CONTENT SERVICES LLC

What do you think it is about the appeal of the luchador? I mean, a lot of people are aware of luchadores, but, you know, the fans are really hardcore and people who are just exposed to the idea may still be scratching their heads, wondering “what is it that this is really about?” What does this satisfy? What sort of itch does the luchador world scratch for so many people? Do you get a good sense of that in the course of this production?

Oh, absolutely. It’s about fantasy.

It’s about forgetting about the worries or challenges in your everyday life and going into that arena and putting on that mask or watching others wearing these masks and colorful outfits and screaming and yelling and getting all your frustration out and forgetting about your worries for that moment of being in a luchador match. For that brief moment, you get to live in a fantasy world that is freeing, where you can scream and you can yell and you can forget about all your worries.

And I think that’s why it’s such a popular sport and that’s why, you know, Mexican culture and also other cultures all over the world now love lucha libre wrestling.

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