Photography by P. Mastro
“In my earlier years, I participated in projects in which I was either tokenised or dehumanised as a queer person,” Lío Mehiel tells Man About Town. “Once I had a taste of something more caring and authentic, it was hard to swallow projects like that any more, but that had been a lot of what was accessible.”
Thankfully, their recent turn in Muttlay in stark contrast to the myopic representations Mehiel, a transmasculine actor, found their characters centred in in previous projects.The film, a directorial debut from Vuk Lungulov-Klotz, documents an acutely challenging 24 hours in NYC for its lead, Feña, played by Mehiel, characterised by upheaval and the fluctuating emotional states of transition.
Over a month prior to its theatrical release in August, with Mehiel at its core, Muttlooks set only to infiltrate the emotions of audiences across the world, whilst also bringing nuanced narratives around transition to the big screen. Lauded for their dexterous handling of the lead role, the film saw Mehiel make history earlier this year as the first trans actor to win the Sundance Special Jury Award. It also boasts a coveted 91% rating on fan review site Rotten Tomatoes.
In the midst of LGBTQIA+ Pride Month, Mehiel goes deep on the intersections between their queerness and art, what Pride means to them in 2023, and the role 1999 movie Boys Don’t Cry played in their own identity exploration.
Hi Lío! Thanks for sitting down with us. What does Pride Month mean to you as a queer person in 2023?
Right now, Pride feels particularly charged. I don’t want to give airtime to the hypocrisy of rainbow capitalism and all the hateful legislation that is being proposed in the US, but I will just say – there is a lot at stake. I am grateful for the opportunity to honour our LGBTQIA+ elders who fought for the freedoms and protections we have today. I am grateful to celebrate queer artists and to gather with community. It feels as important as ever to affirm queer life and celebrate queer joy.
Do you think through your artistry, you’ve become more acquainted with your own queerness?
My artistry has always been a space to pilot out aspects of my identity. I create work to better understand what feels true and untrue. On the set of my first short film Disforia, I was using she/her pronouns and went by a different name. By the time the film was screening at festivals, I was Lío. Making that film allowed me to embrace the fact that I am trans. What was a question for so long suddenly became irrefutable through seeing the completed film on screen.
In 2021, I collaborated with sculptor Holly Silius and photographer Kobe Wagstaff to create Phantom Feel, a mixed media piece centred around a stone sculpture of my chest made six months after I got top surgery. You can see my newly formed scars protruding from the stone. This project allowed me to see myself clearly for the first time. There I was, suddenly rendered in stone; my body tangible and permanent, a feeling few trans people in today’s world get to have. The amount of self love I felt through that experience inspired me to create Angels– a sculpture collection of gender expansive people in collaboration with sculptor Holly Silius and amazing artists like Emma D’Arcy, Jari Jones, Rain Valdez and others.
What has your own journey with expressing your queerness in your work been like? Is it something you always felt comfortable doing?
I feel very lucky that expressing my queerness in my work has often been a euphoric and expansive experience. As I step more fully into an embodiment that feels like me, I find that sharing my work and gaining visibility is exciting and affirming.
Back in 2017, when I was first trying to be a professional actor, it became clear to me that I wouldn’t be successful until I was living authentically. Even though many people in the industry told me the exact opposite, it was almost as if the discomfort of auditioning as a “female person” was what drove me to confront my gender journey more quickly.
It wasn’t until five years later, when I first read Mutt, that I even had the opportunity to audition for a lead role in a feature film in which I could play a character who shares my gender identity. Writer/Director Vuk Lungulov-Klotz looked for the right actor for the role for almost two years, and it feels like fate that we found each other. Making my feature debut in Muttprovided me the rare opportunity as a transmasculine actor to play a complex character who is both relatable and imperfect, and who has more to do in the film than just talk about being trans. The film comes out in theaters on August 18th, and I can’t wait for the world to meet Feña and watch his story.
What do you think makes an environment conducive to queer expression without constraints?
I think to create an environment conducive to expressing queerness without constraints, the people in power need to understand how to engage in anti-fascist, anti-racist leadership. They need to be able to facilitate nonviolent conflict resolution, repair harm and create an environment where people can make mistakes without fear of being exiled or cancelled. In the public sphere, I don’t think we will be able to express true, radical queerness until we heal our society’s hatred of bodies – bodies that are different sizes, shapes, colours and of different abilities.
Was there a lightbulb cultural moment or product that you consumed as a child that was impactful for you as a queer person?
This might sound cliché, but I saw Boys Don’t Crystarring Hilary Swank as a young person, and it awoke something inside me – something I didn’t yet have words for. It was the first time I saw ‘a girl play a boy’, and despite the tragedy that befell the character, I felt deeply affirmed.
Nowadays, when you’re not making art yourself, where do you find yourself turning to consume queer culture?
I am a pretty avid reader and listener of audio books. I just spent last week listening to Elliot Page narrate his new memoir Pageboy on Audible, and man, oh man, do I feel seen by his story. I also check the Chani App pretty much every day, which in a certain subculture within the queer community feels like the centre of everything. It’s an astrology app, obviously.
Who are some fellow queer creatives who are inspiring you just now?
Elegance Bratton and Chester Algernal Gordon are changing Hollywood. They are bringing a queer philosophy and politic into the industry that is making it a more loving and generous space.
Ellie Pennick, founder of GUTS Gallery in London is changing the art world by employing an equitable business model and empowering the next generation of artists. I feel so grateful to be showing a piece with Wynne Neilly in her show “Saints & Sinners” which runs at Guts in London until July 7th.
What do you think the power of queer art is in the 2020s?
I think for the first time in history, we are able to present stories and works from a queer perspective that contain nuance, contradiction and complexity. I think this expansion beyond the coming out narratives we were previously confined to, will allow queer people to be seen more fully in their humanity, which can in turn change the world.