I can hear the line, “Is this anyone’s first time?” uttered for what feels like the umpteenth time, from the other room. It is my first time. On a film set, that is, though that’s obviously not what actor Lucas Papaelias (who plays yoga instructor Sven) is asking. He’s addressing his class which does includes first-timer Santos (played by writer/director Dominic Colón.) Holding on to his towel, Santos is not too comfortable in this balls-out environment. The scene is a comedic set-piece in Colón’s upcoming short Skin, one which I slowly saw come together in the past hour when they blocked and rehearsed it. Don’t worry, thanks to the magic of moviemaking (and a tightly run ship by the film’s producers Gloria and Joseph La Morte) my visit was entirely SFW.
Earlier that morning Gloria had welcomed me into the house that was doubling as their set for the day. Maybe it was the tight quarters — the Bronx brownstone followed New York City real-estate logic in its oppressively narrow hallways which made you feel in the way regardless of where you were standing — but the shoot underscored the tight-knit feel of the crew, all of whom shared inside jokes and memories from past moments on other sets. And at the helm was Gloria who seemed to be wearing as many hats as was possible for a producer. A background actor needed pasties for her breasts? She had them on hand. A receipt needed tending to? She was on it. A Remezcla writer seemed shy but curious? She was eager to share her enthusiasm for Skin and the crew they’d assembled.
It was only when Sebastian Rea, the short’s co-director, jokingly suggested Gloria fill in for a no-show female background player who had left them with a smaller naked yoga classroom than they’d have liked, that she playfully declined. Even hands-on producers, as it turns out, put boundaries on what’s required of them on set. That such a lighthearted exchange could even take place is a testament to the inviting atmosphere Dominic, Sebastián, and Gloria had nurtured. It may have been cold and rainy outside but there was no shortage of warmth and humor inside.
Colón is a perfect example that sometimes what you need to do is buckle down and turn inward to find the roles and stories you want to tell.
It was the type of congenial atmosphere I always envisioned marks independently-funded short films, especially those that, like Skin, feel so intimate. Further proof: a conversation about cocksocks — “Actors suffer for their craft!” Colón quipped at his co-star who was having trouble navigating that very important costuming piece needed for nude scenes — hilariously devolved into talk about how much give condoms have. Colón insisted he could wrap one around his entire head, a claim many would have challenged had it not been delivered with such assurance. Everyone around him couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of this safe sex-approved tip. It’s that sort of uninhibited and jokey tone that finds its way into Colón’s work.
The Bronx-born actor, whose screenplay for Crush won him the 2011 HBO/New York International Latino Film Festival Short Film Script Competition, is going to an even more personal place in his first outing as director. Having made recent appearances in Chris Rock’s Top Five and the Jake Gyllenhaal boxing film Southpaw, Colón has slowly been adjusting to quite a drastic change in his appearance. In 2014, after weighing over 380 pounds, the actor underwent gastric bypass surgery, and found himself losing over 200 lbs soon thereafter. Seeing as an actor’s bread and butter is, to some extent, their body, Colón was eager to see what no longer being the heavyset Latino guy would yield career-wise.
Needless to say, the results weren’t as immediate as he’d have liked. He grew increasingly frustrated at what he saw was a lack of opportunities given his new physique. After all, his current weight surely made him more likely to land more and better roles, no? During an exasperated call with his manager, Colón was given the kind of lecture that would lead to a montage in an uplifting film: “Dominic, I don’t feel sorry for you… you are one of the most amazing writers that I know, write the part you want to play, tell the story that you want to tell.” When he relays this story to me I can feel the indignation of such a retort even as he admits it was probably the best advice he could have hoped to receive at that point. Not wasting any time, he sat down and wrote the first draft of Skin that afternoon.
The short, which is now that much closer to becoming a reality focuses on Santos, a gay guy battling body image issues once he sheds 200 pounds and finds himself dealing with a lot of excess skin. It’s skin he’d rather not have to acknowledge, even in front of his boyfriend, Xavier (played by Fun Home’s Joel Perez). The film’s tone is best summed up by its cheeky tagline: “A comedy about love, letting go, and letting it all hang!”
With his outgoing demeanor, it’s no surprise Colón would tackle these issues in the guise of a comedy. Even as he walked me through the naked yoga scene (and assuring me he’d done his research visiting a Chelsea studio where he experienced Santos’s nerve-wracking anxiety firsthand), you could feel his excitement at putting this story out into the world. How refreshing to see a gay short film tackling body image and self-esteem not with the self-seriousness of a “very special episode” but with the winking humor of a Judd Apatow comedy. In many ways, Skin will prove to be a fitting companion piece to tender prom comedy Crush, which already showed Colón’s gift for mining South Bronx sensibilities to tackle contemporary issues that afflict gay men with boisterous humor.
As we clamor for more representation, for more visibility, and for more diverse stories that feel both incredibly particular but ultimately universal, Colón is a perfect example that sometimes what you need to do is buckle down and turn inward to find the roles and stories you want to tell. Even if it means baring it all, extra skin and all.