Mutt’s Lío Mehiel on making cinema history and trans representation behind the camera

woo gets to know the trailblazer who has become the first trans winner of the Sundance Special Jury Prize for Best Acting

Hero image in post
Hero image in post

woo gets to know the trailblazer who has become the first trans winner of the Sundance Special Jury Prize for Best Acting

By Kitty Robson10 Jul 2023
10 mins read time
10 mins read time

“It’s London Trans+ Pride on Saturday, I had no idea until I got here,” says actor Lío Mehiel, smiling at how the stars aligned to celebrate the Sundance London screening of their new movie, Mutt. In what is still one of a handful of films exploring transmasculine life, Mehiel plays Feña; a queer, trans guy in his mid-twenties who lives in New York City.

When we first meet Feña, he’s got a lot to prove: with his father visiting from Chile, he’s eager to impress and to appear like his life is finally together. The reality, however, is that he is far from settled: like any twenty-something, he’s got his fair share of messy breakups and bullshit jobs to contend with. On top of your average quarter-life crisis, Feña is struggling to reconcile his family and the life he led before transition with his current reality: an issue which comes sharply into focus throughout the course of the movie. Across a chaotic 24 hours, he’s forced to confront long-buried trauma as he reconnects with his dad, his straight ex-boyfriend, and his 14-year-old, estranged half-sister.

As much as this story will resonate with the queer community, there’s also a universality to Mutt. It grapples with themes of belonging, identity and self worth, exploring the complex dynamics within families - both chosen and those you are born into - as well as broader narratives of self-acceptance and emotional growth. Stepping beyond common coming out tropes within media, which often repackage and explain the trans experience for the cis gaze, the film introduces us to Feña at a later date in his journey instead of guiding us through the character’s transition.

And with Mutt due for a limited release in the US this August, Mehiel's acting talents are soon going to come to the attention of a much wider audience - particularly after their performance won the Sundance Special Jury Award for Acting, making them the first trans person to receive the honour. But let’s get one thing straight, they’re not just an actor: as well as their work in front of the camera, Mehiel has a diverse creative practice spanning filmmaking and creative direction. This is perhaps why they are so passionate about trans and queer representation behind the scenes, too, recalling that it was a “dream” to work with trans writer-director Vuk Lungulov-Klotz on the Mutt set.

Over breakfast in a backroom at Sundance London, we caught up with Mehiel to discuss navigating gendered awards categories as a non-binary creative, making queer art amid a volatile political landscape and what their acting career has in store for them next.

"The fact that the Mutt team included trans and queer people meant that we could all focus on the humanity of the story"
Lío Mehiel

Great to meet you Lío! When did you know that you had to play Feña?

Lío Mehiel: When I saw the character breakdown for the audition, it was the first time that I had ever read anything that allowed me to bring the fullness of my identity to the character and play the lead role in a feature film. I’ve been acting since I was 10 years old and never have I seen something like that. In addition to the character being transmasculine and having had top surgery like me, he’s also a mixed ethnicity character [Feña is half Chilean, half Serbian]. I’m half Puerto Rican, half Greek, so the fact that I had the opportunity to speak Spanish as a part of the role was just overwhelming, to be honest. When I first saw it, I emailed [writer-director Vuk Lungulov-Klotz] saying; “Please just give me this part, I am this role, I’ll do anything.” He was like; “Hey man, why don’t you just chill out and audition and we’ll see how it goes!” So I did…

The queer and trans experience and community are so diverse, how did you relate to your character Feña and put yourself in his shoes?

Lío Mehiel: Feña is definitely a more prickly and defensive person than I am, he is a child of abuse and so he has had to build up walls that I have had the privilege of not necessarily having to build up. It was a little bit of a challenge for me, because I’m a very soft, sensitive person, to get into those more aggressive moments. But, at the same time, Vuk was really open to allowing Feña to meet Lío, and allow Feña to be a little bit softer and more sensitive than he was written on the page.

In terms of identity, I’m a queer, transmasculine, non-binary person who is very fluid across gender and sexuality. Feña is a trans man and he’s gay. I thought that was fucking iconic, because most of the time when mainstream cis culture thinks of transmasculine people, they’re like; “Oh those are women wanting to be men who probably are just interested sexually in women”. People group together sexuality and gender in a way that’s not true to our community. [The film shows] a trans man have a love interest who’s a cis guy and they have a gay love affair. It shows a cis guy who thinks he’s straight but realises he has feelings for this [transmasculine] person and so has to address his masculinity and identity. It just makes the portrayal so much more interesting.

I imagine there’s that added perspective and connection with Mutt’s writer and director Vuk Lungulov-Klotz being trans too.

Lío Mehiel: A hundred percent. I mean what a dream to have my first feature be written and directed by a trans person who I don’t have to explain my identity to, so we can just talk about the humanity of the character. While this movie, at this moment in time, is a trans movie and politically it needs to be so, it’s also really just a story about a person who happens to be trans, who is feeling unsure of whether he is worthy of love. He’s not sure if his father or sister are going to accept him, he’s not sure if his ex could still have feelings for him, and all those feelings are really relatable. The fact that the team had trans and queer people meant that we could all focus on the humanity of the story, rather than me being tokenised as the only trans person on a set directed by a cis man who I have to do all this extra work for.

What has Mutt encouraged you to explore?

Lío Mehiel: It’s encouraged me to explore my own relationship to self-worth and confidence. That’s the real tea. Especially as a trans actor where there are very few opportunities for us to play parts that honour our gender identity and who we are and allow us to step up as artists and not just be the token trans character. It has been challenging for me to feel like I can have a real career in the industry. I've often thought of it as just something I do because I love it, and continue to make money in whatever other way. But this opportunity of playing a lead role and carrying it emotionally, makes me feel like it’s possible: there are thousands of actors who do this their whole lives; I can do it too, why not! It’s a radical thing for trans people and marginalised people to engage with their own self-worth, and move towards an empowered identity because it goes against what we’ve been taught. It’s life-affirming. Vuk is so powerful and confident and generous and to be doing this alongside him reminds me that we can have big dreams in the way that any other young actor, writer or director can.

Huge congratulations for winning the Sundance Special Jury Award for Acting. You are the first trans actor in history to win the honour, and for your first feature film too! What does the award mean to you and to the queer community?

**Lío Mehiel:**I feel so honoured and privileged and grateful and bashful and weird. It’s all kinds of things! The award has given the film more attention and allowed more audiences to be able to see it - that’s what’s most meaningful to me. We just did this so people would see it, and so that people could feel less alone in their own experiences. I think broadly, there’s a really important conversation around gendered awards in the entertainment industry, and I do not have the answer but I think having more trans and non-binary people people recognised in categories like this is so important. I mean I was up against huge celebrities and they decided to give the award to me. What that means to me as a person who is doing the craft, but maybe doesn’t have the fame yet, is that gender is irrelevant. I hope this can further the conversations around awards like the Oscars, Emmys or Tony Awards. More than anything I hope this encourages more trans and non-binary actors to enter the industry, because up until recently there hasn’t been room for us.

"There are more opportunities in the industry for marginalised people but we’re up against an extremist landscape that is really scary"
Lío Mehiel

How do you feel about the current state of Hollywood and the film industry? Does it feel like a positive time to be creating?

Lío Mehiel: On the one hand, there’s never been more trans representation than there is today in the entertainment industry. There are more opportunities in the industry for marginalised people in general, more chances for folks behind the camera to have their movies made and their stories told. But we’re up against an extremist landscape that is really scary. It feels like conservative, right-wing parties have made trans and queer people a red herring, as if we are this provocative thing, and whilst they do that they’re stripping our rights: taking away abortions, taking away affirmative action, taking away public services that ensure the freedom of all people. The visibility is good, but the visibility is also contributing to this provocative nature of politics, which is difficult to know how to feel about. All I know is that I feel a call to action as someone who has a growing platform, to be vocal about my existence and also be vocal about the importance of human rights across the board, but especially for transfeminine people and trans people of colour.

What message do you hope the audience will take away from the film?

Lío Mehiel: The understanding that this is a story about a person who really wants to be loved, and is scared that the people in his life maybe won’t accept him or receive him for who he is, and that this is a universal experience whether or not someone is trans. The best piece of feedback I have received is people who have walked away and said; “I feel like I know a trans person now. I didn’t know any trans people personally before and so didn’t feel connected to this movement, but now I know Feña and I love him, so I feel like I have a trans friend”. That’s what I hope people take away from it.

What’s next for you?

Lío Mehiel: I just wrapped a film, my second feature [as an actor] which I can’t talk about yet, but I’m hoping that I’ll be involved in more films and have more acting opportunities. I’m also a writer and director so I’m working on my first feature right now, hopefully within the next few months I’ll be moving into the development stages. I want to keep making art, with more queer people and more trans people, and if I can be working on a film that has this same connected, loving team, then I’m happy! I was spoiled with Mutt but that’s what I’m hoping for!

Mutt screened at Sundance London in July and will screen in US theatres from 18 August. For more information, click here.