Héctor Medina as the lead character in Viva

Héctor Medina is mesmerizing as the lead character in Viva.

Viva, Viva!

An interview with director Paddy Breathnach about his stunning new film, baby drag queens and gay life in Cuba

It’s hard enough to imagine a young man in Canada growing up and realizing he wants to be a drag superstar. Telling his family and friends, dealing with judgement from society, discovering where the hell to buy the right wigs?! Now think about a going through this in a place like Havana, Cuba. This is the setting for director Paddy Breathnach’s film Viva — the coming-of-age movie from the perspective of a hopeful young man realizing he wants to be a drag queen. I spoke with the Irishman about casting drag queens and gay life in Cuban then and now.

Paddy: Hello Phil.

Phil: Hello Paddy! Where am I calling you?

I’m in Los Angeles on Sunset Boulevard in a big room in PR company. It’s probably lashing rain in Ireland so I’m happy to be here.

I loved the movie very much, how did you chose Héctor Medina as the lead character, he was amazing.

Basically I went off to do a couple weeks of casting and the night before the first auditions I went to see a screening of films and there a short documentary about people talking about their dreams and up on the screen came Héctor Medina, and he was impressive. So I made a note of his name and told the casting director, and she showed me the list and he was the first person on her list! She already knew of him.

I had no doubt he could play Jesus, but could he play Viva? I was very conscious that I wanted the drag performances to reach that emotional level.

Oh he reached it alright. I was mesmerized. You could feel him in drag at the beginning and how awkward it was, and then watch him evolve into that final, beautiful performance as Viva...

It’s a journey and he gets there, he becomes at the end of the film...

Is he gay in real life?

No he isn’t gay. He has gay friends and in a milieu of people as well, but he’s very straight in fact and fun loving. He likes to go out and party, but I think he shares a flat with a guy who has a drag persona and is exposed to that world through him.

Are you gay?

No I’m also not, but I don’t think that will be a disappointment to your readers! The writer of the screenplay, Mark O’Halloran is gay — my gay collaborator.

It felt real...

We were both sensitive to this. Not only are we making a film within a gay community and drag community, but we were also going to Cuba and making a film in another country. We had to have sensitivity, but not to bend over backwards so it wasn’t real. And also, we had to be sensitive but authentic. And between the two of us we accomplished that.

How were the drag queens in the film cast?

There was a specific drag queen I wanted, and she came in a couple times [to audition] because I wanted the performances to be real and make sure she perfected the craft and the art. But when it came to acting, I just couldn’t get the performance good enough, I knew I’d be sacrificing the performance of the character of Mama (Viva’s drag mother in the film), but at the same time I didn’t want to go the other way and get an actor who couldn’t do mama’s performances. I was caught between the two. Eventually my casting director brought in Luis Alberto Garcia and he auditioned as a drag performer and initially did a very good job and managed to reach that emotional place. So I cast him. Lydia Jorge who plays Lydia, I’d seen her perform for a few year — she performs “Ave Maria” — I used her quite a lot in terms of the life and background and what it was like to be gay in that era and her list of songs... So I got her in. Then there’s Renata (Maikel Machin Blanco) who plays a transsexual Pamela, and that was difficult because there wasn’t a list of Cuban transsexual actors, so that was street casting and going to places where people hang out and it was by the seat of our pants that we got her. And then there are a few smaller roles in the film, but the rest are actors.

What’s your sense of gay life in Cuba today?

I think it’s better than it was, in the sense that a lot of people we spoke to had been in prison, had very difficult with their families, the state was proactively making life difficult for them. That’s become better. The state has apologized and said we treated the gay community in a non-socialist way and a lot of that has to do with Mariela Castro who pushed that agenda successfully. I’m not an expert on this, so this is an impression... but my feeling is, culture doesn’t change over night, it isn’t all rosy in the garden. Obstacles from officials aren’t there, drag shows have gotten more mainstream in pubs and bars for tourists... even the state run shows in official state theatres. It isn’t as clandestine as it was.

When you were going to see performers in the ‘90s or even now, are they gay bars or just places?

When I was going there was one club called Bar de la Estrellas, and that was the club just for the shows, owned by a family who opened their back garden to put on these shows, it was amazing, and in a way the place I got the idea for the film: how a family relates to their sons performances. The crowd was a mixture of blue collard Havana gay world and tourists principally from Miami. Then there was another side of it where there were pop up shows in someone’s backyard. More recently there’s a lot more fashionable bars who will get a performer to come in for 20 minutes. Someone was telling me someone has taken over a number of the shows lately and put a polish on them to create better shows overall. It’s becoming a bit more structured.

Those are my questions!

Thanks a million. And thanks for your interest. When you make a small film like this it needs people to pay attention to it, so thank you.

I think it will do very well because it feels heartfelt and was effective. So thank you on behalf of all Canadian gays!

On my behalf, all Canadian gays are welcome.