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'Mutt' is a journey into what happens when your past and present collide

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

What happens when your past and present collide? In the new film "Mutt," Fena, a young trans man, finds out. Over a single 24-hour period in New York, Fena grapples with family, lost love and staying true to himself. To tell us more about the film, we are joined by the film's writer and director, Vuk Lungulov-Klotz, and by actor Lio Mehiel, who plays Fena. Welcome to the show.

LIO MEHIEL: Hey, thank you.

VUK LUNGULOV-KLOTZ: Hey, it's so exciting to be here.

(LAUGHTER)

RASCOE: To start off with you, Vuk, when did you know you wanted to tell this story and to tell it in this way?

LUNGULOV-KLOTZ: Before I answer that question, I just want to say what an honor it is to be here. What got me to telling this story? Well, I'm a transgender man myself, but I think - I was - I had a weird upbringing. I was kind of - I traveled a lot. And I had two parents from different countries that met in New York. I grew up in Chile. I left my country, and I left a little sister behind there.

And I feel like I - this movie started as a love letter to her and kind of robbing her of a role model, especially a trans role model. I feel like sometimes as queer people, we feel like we don't have much to give if it's not to other queer people. And I think that's not true. So I started writing her a love letter, kind of wondering what it would be like if we actually did meet - like, would she take me for who I am, et cetera. And it just kind of grew.

I really wanted to show a trans man being an antihero and just being a person, I feel like, to just see a guy who's confused sometimes and really just trying to get back with his ex that is a trans person and especially a mixed trans person. I wanted to talk about the diaspora of having an international family. All these themes are in the movie.

RASCOE: So many films about queer people, like, often depict really traumatic experiences and Fena faces many challenges, but they're not super violent or anything like that. Like, there are things that trans people can face every day, like misgendering - we have a clip of when Fena goes to the bank to cash a check, but the teller tells him it's got the wrong name on it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MUTT")

MEHIEL: (As Fena) I'm a transgender person. I'm a trans guy. And my boss just forgets to put my legal name on my check. It's so similar. Can you please just help me out?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Like I said, ma'am, you have to get a new check.

MEHIEL: (As Fena) Ma'am?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) There's nothing I can do.

MEHIEL: (As Fena) Do I look like a ma'am to you? I just explained that I'm trans.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Please, can you step to the side? I have to help the other guest.

RASCOE: So, Lio, being a trans person yourself, like, what was it like acting out those scenes and living out those moments?

MEHIEL: I mean, I think that there are a lot of similarities between Fena and I - you know, my experience, just because we both share an identity of being a masculine of center trans person. But ultimately, Fena is a character. It's not me. It's not Vuk. It's this person that Vuk created and wrote on the page for us to bring to life together.

And, you know, acting those scenes was such a privilege because oftentimes as a trans actor, you are delegated to playing the character who is the queer best friend who's just meant to be the butt of the joke, or you're just really good at technology. And you don't necessarily get the opportunity to express the full scope of the human experience and that kind of public experience of not being received for who you are, unfortunately, is often an everyday occurrence for trans people. And so that's, like, a mundane, kind of really grounded in reality moment. And so, yeah, I mean, it was just - it was such a privilege, and it was so fun. And in a way it was so easy because of that.

RASCOE: A lot of people that Fena runs into during this day are people he hasn't seen since before he transitioned. And it seems like part of the dynamic of the movie is, like, he's trying to tell the people that he's run into - it's like, I have changed, but I'm still the same. Is that what you felt from that character?

MEHIEL: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I think that, you know, obviously "Mutt" is a portrayal of one trans person's experience, and transness is not a monolith. So, you know, Vuk and I were able to collaborate really closely and share our personal perspectives on things to kind of put those two things together into this one person's story. Because Fena is not just a trans person - like, he's a person. And I think in each of the three main relationships of the film, Vuk, as both a storyteller on screen and then on the page, was able to capture the way that Fena was trying to stumble into becoming the fullness of a brother and the fullness of a child/son, you know, and, like, not just, I'm a trans person who has a parent, and, like, do they get me because I'm trans? It's like, no, Dad, you were gone when I was growing up, and I miss you. Like, do you see that? So, yes, he - Fena is trying to be seen for so much more than just his gender identity.

LUNGULOV-KLOTZ: Yeah. If I can add a little bit to that. I think...

RASCOE: Oh, yes, absolutely.

LUNGULOV-KLOTZ: I think the idea of loss in translation and unrequited love - those two concepts, I think, appear and reappear in transness a lot. And almost unrequited love from yourself to others too, because when you feel invisible, you almost cannot engage in conversations fully. You cannot see other people fully. And I think something I really realized when I came out over - like, 10 years ago, was how mean and aggressive I was because I was walking around Earth feeling invisible and feeling like already when I would walk into a conversation, I was misrepresented by myself. So why even try?

RASCOE: What do you feel like - thinking about the character, what would the character want the world to know about him?

MEHIEL: That's a great question. I feel like Fena wants people to wake up. He's just like, can you just deal with it yesterday so that we can keep it moving? You know what I mean? Like, he's like, let's go. Just - look, Fena, Fernanda, the names are not that much different. Can you please just cash the check? Like, it's not your money. There's an intensity and an aggression that comes from his life experience that I think would maybe make him want to say to the world, like, wake up. Like, it's time. It was time yesterday, and I don't give a [expletive] anymore.

RASCOE: What are your thoughts on this film coming out at a time when trans rights are under attack in the U.S. and what it means for trans representation at this point? And we can start with you, Lio.

MEHIEL: I think that "Mutt" is a really important film to be coming out right now, and it doesn't feel like a coincidence. And so I think that having one of the first films in which a trans character, written and directed by a fellow trans person, is depicted on screen, where the primary motivation of that character is not to come out, and instead they're depicted as someone who is an imperfect human being who's trying to get through a quintessential terrible day in New York City, which always involves getting locked out of your apartment, always involves going to the airport, always involves it being way too hot. And what's so amazing is the fact that I have had friends from college whose parents and grandparents live in the Midwest, in the middle of the country, who have never met a trans person before, who got to see it through a streaming service platform during a festival run. And they finished the movie saying, oh, my gosh, I love that Fena. I feel like I have a trans friend. And then all of a sudden the issues that have felt so distant suddenly become humanized and suddenly become relevant.

RASCOE: And Vuk, what about you?

LUNGULOV-KLOTZ: I've been out for about 10 years of my life, and I think I'm most nervous and afraid now. So I think I'm adding to the fight the way that I can, which is through empathy. I know it's not the strongest sword, but it is the sword that has chosen me for this fight. And like Lio said, when you watch this movie, you feel like you have a trans friend at the end. And I've had so many people come and say that to me. I hope to change some hearts. And also just, like, make kids and people like myself feel less alone.

RASCOE: Vuk Lungulov-Klotz and Lio Mehiel are the director and lead actor in the new film "Mutt," in select theaters now. Thank you both so much for joining us.

LUNGULOV-KLOTZ: Yeah, thank you.

MEHIEL: Thank you so much for having us. This was great. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Lennon Sherburne

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