is a vibrant, eclectic cinematic experience—it’s no wonder that the cast and director of the queer coming-of-age musical would be equally energetic. At the Tribeca Film Festival, writer/director Damon Cardasis, and cast members Luka Kain (who plays main character Ulysses), Margot Bingham (Ulysses’ mother), Marquis Rodriguez (Ulysses’ love interest, Raymond), and Indya Moore and Alexia Garcia (who play Ulysses’ mentors) sat down with Paste to talk music, acting, religion, and the complex process of bringing gender dysphoric, trans, and other LGBTQ issues to the screen.
Paste Magazine: What were all your musical backgrounds?
Marquis Rodriguez I was in musical theatre as a kid, in the national tour of The Lion King on Broadway. That was my first big experience and where I met Luca [Kain] years ago, auditioning for South Pacific.
Luca Kain Um, please don’t forget that we were in the same episode of [Law and Order:] SVU. I was in South Pacific when I was little and my mom has her Bachelor’s in music, so it’s always been in my life. When I was making this movie, my voice was still in the process of changing so [composer] Nathan Larson had to bring it down a little bit, but it worked out. That was what I was most nervous about.
Paste: Were people giving you any insider tips on how to sing through puberty?
Kain: No, but during the duet with Marquis, because it was all done in one take, we had to do the beginning kiss every time. We kept getting water and mints between takes and after the first take, I took a mint and it went down the wrong way so I almost vomited because I started choking. I almost passed out and died—
Rodriguez: Right as I’m saying, “You know you’re beautiful, right?”
Kain: That was actually, in real life, my first kiss too.
Paste: I’ve heard worse reactions to first kisses, don’t worry. Was it weird having that moment come and go with all these professionals around you?
Kain: Not really, there were a few scenes that were a little strange. But those days it was a closed set and everything was very locked up.
Alexia Garcia: I don’t have any musical training, that’s why they didn’t let me sing in the movie. I got to lip-sync, though! No musical training yet, that’s what I meant.
Indya Moore: Same. Exactly the same response, no musical theater experience or any singing experience at all. Only shower singing.
Margot Bingham: I went to a performing arts high school and college, then moved here and did Rent while also having a music career. So I was touring as an artist before anything dramatic started for me.
Paste: What’s it like going between the two sides of the industry?
Bingham: It’s cool. With my work on Vinyl, I actually got my best friend the job but she’s lip-syncing to my vocals. So it’s like, “Don’t screw it up, because that’s my voice.” But then there’s the musical number, which [brings up] the trifecta: There’s performing it, there’s the behind the scenes singing and then there’s doing both.
Paste: Luka, could you talk about preparing for this complex protagonist?
Kain: I found out about the movie through my mom, who’s a talent manager, which is how I got started in the business. And she’d gotten the script for another client of hers, but then asked if I wanted to tell this story. I finished reading the script on the bus and I was almost crying on the bus. I also saw MJ [Rodriguez, who played Ebony in the film] in the production of Runaways and I was going to talk to her about it as a very prominent trans woman in the theater industry, but then she ended up working on the film anyways.
By the time we started filming, I was definitely very nervous portraying someone with gender dysphoria and not playing a stereotype. I wanted to be a human being. A lot of the times, in certain TV or movies, members of the LGBTQ community or people of color are these two-dimensional things. But in terms of preparing, we actually started practicing choreography a month before we started shooting. I also had to learn voguing. I only knew like three moves!
It wasn’t shot in chronological order of course, but the process was so moving that in the scenes we shot later, I can really see the difference.
Paste: I think it’s really lovely that nobody in the film is defined by their gender or sexuality, but is just fluidly figuring it out. Did you have anyone you went to for advice beforehand if not MJ?
Kain: Not in the beginning, but as soon as the film ended—and one of the reasons I went into the film—my sister came out as trans as soon as we wrapped shooting. That was a very emotional point for me because I was hoping this would really resonate with her and that would be a connection we could share. She actually also auditioned for the role initially and it was fun working together with her on that. I hope she’s proud of me. She hasn’t seen the movie yet, so fingers crossed.
Paste: Did the rest of you pull more from personal experience when defining your characters, or were there other areas of research or mentors that helped shape them?
Rodriguez: The movie is about Luca’s character Ulysses finding these myriad connections of love and sex and religion, so it was important for me to develop a character who’s at least figured those things out for himself. To see Ulysses as someone that he could…not “guide,” that’s the wrong word…but support with such gentleness. To love someone without imposing your own will on them.
Paste: Sort of like a sexuality spotter that just makes sure he’s not going to fall.
Rodriguez: Yeah! And that’s something I went in knowing was important to me that I took out of myself.
Garcia: For me it was definitely personal. My character Heaven, she comes off as very bitter, and I feel like I can relate to those feelings, especially at the beginning of my transition. It was very difficult and lonely and I was just a kid, so it’s easy to be resentful.
Moore: Earlier in my life, earlier in my transition…I had a lot of Dijons [Moore’s character] in my life who were really supportive but it was also like I was on another journey. Being in the community and being close to that community during that stage allowed me a lot of reflection. Everybody needs a friend, especially when going through something so unique.
Paste: Did you both transition in New York City [where Saturday Church is set]?
Moore: Yes. You know it’s kind of funny, but I have mixed feelings about the word “transition.” I usually just refer to myself as “early pubescent” because “transition” implies change, right? And it’s counterintuitive to the definition of being a transwoman.
Paste: Do you have vocabulary you prefer when talking about that stage of your life?
Moore: Just talking about it…it just needs to be changed. Because “trans” means “change” and the entire word “transgender” means they were already that gender their entire lives. [Addressing Garcia] How would you talk about it?
Garcia: I don’t know, I always say “transition.” I’ve just gotten so used to it. But talking with someone else, it does feel more like a second puberty. Talking with someone else about it, I’ve never really gotten this in-depth before. Because yes, New York is a rough city, granted. But, it’s really not that bad because it’s a melting pot. We can get away with a lot more stuff where if an LGBTQ youth tries it in another city, they’ll get murdered.
Moore: There’s a lot of people here comfortable enough with their identities to be comfortable with other people’s. Which is extremely important when dealing with trans women and feminine gay men.
And that’s a line that becomes blurred in the movie. Do you have any advice you’d like to give to any LGBTQ kids who are maybe going through things you’ve gone through?
Garcia: Don’t give up on yourself. Don’t look for validation from others. Stick to your path and things will work out for you. It’s so cliché, but be yourself and you’ll see a difference.
Moore: Just because someone’s older than you or even your parent, doesn’t mean they know better or know who you are more than you do. I think it’s important for younger people to not allow people to question their sense[s] of self.
[At this point writer/director Damon Cardasis comes into the room.]
Bingham: We were all talking about you. So much shade. All negative.
Paste: Now that you’re here, you get the big question: How did this movie happen?
Cardasis: Oh boy. My mother’s a priest in the Bronx and I’m gay. So that combination’s always been in my life, but in a very different way than for most people. My mom was my priest and she’s super liberal, but I know that’s not everyone’s experience. Religion’s usually causing turmoil in lives because of people’s interpretations. Then I started volunteering when marriage equality was a big thing and after it passed, we started trying to pass another bill for anti-discrimination against trans people in the workplace. And it seemed like everyone in the gay community lost interest. “We got marriage, bye.”
Then I found out about the Saturday Church program that was a safe space that gave food and adjacent to the cafeteria was a gym where people would dance and vogue. I went once when they were having a mini-competition with three judges and no microphones and it was amazing. The freedom and confidence and power that the kids had. That’s where the musical and fantasy elements came from.
Paste: How was the process of making a low-budget musical?
Cardasis: You tell people you’re making a musical and some are like, “Wow that’s amazing,” and you get all excited and then others say, “Wow that’s a lot for a first-time director.” So I figured OK, whatever. Go big or go home. What, am I gonna make a two person break-up story in an apartment? This is the story that needs to be told and I’m not going to worry about doing musical numbers because I’m worried that they’ll be complicated.
Whenever I had a thought that this was too much, another voice would say, “No, fuck it. Figure it out.”
Paste: Cue buying a hundred pounds of flower petals.
Cardasis: It was about that much. But I also wanted it to have a realism and use all practical effects. All in-camera. I like getting creative with no budget.
How long was the shoot?
Cardasis: Twenty days. And a lot of the days, no offense to Luca, had to be nine hours because of NY state child labor laws. It wasn’t even a SAG thing, you just couldn’t work him over nine hours or you’d be arrested. So we had to shoot almost all the musical numbers in eight or nine hours with one camera, which is nuts. Usually you have cameras and cranes and days. But this was more like, “Here’s a basement, shoot a musical.” There was also a heat wave in the Bronx.
Paste: Could you talk about the importance of getting a diverse cast? I mean, obviously it’s New York and obviously it’s the LGBTQ community in New York but hey, look at history.
Cardasis: Which, that’s just so crazy to me. One of the things that was an advantage in that regard here was that in a big budget movie, you have to have such-and-such actor. But the last thing I wanted here was for the movie to feel inauthentic or voyeuristic or exploitative. There are so many talent actors out there, why would I whitewash things? That was never even a question. We would’ve been a joke, going down that road. You could’ve called the police and I should’ve been arrested if I did that.
And I worked really hard to show the script around the community. Social workers read the script, GLAAD read the script, people in the ball scene read the script. I said, “Anything that reads like bullshit, tell me now.” I wanted the most truthful way of telling this story.