Hector Medina Talks Embodying a Cuban Drag Queen for his Role in ‘Viva’

Set in Havana, Cuba, Viva is a love story. Not the kind you’re thinking of, though. Viva, after all, is set in the world of drag queens and late night cabarets. But at its core, Paddy Breathnach’s film, which came this close to landing an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film this year, is a tender portrait of a father and son overcoming their differences and learning to live with one another after years of estrangement.

What makes their reconciliation harder even than Angel’s (Jorge Perugorría) release from jail, is Jesus’ (Héctor Medina) newfound dream: to be a drag queen at a local bar where he’s found refuge ever since his mother died. Lovingly shot in the island capital the film gives us access to the fabulous world of Cuban drag. Think of it as RuPaul’s Drag Race: Havana Nights. Its fascinating mix of old pop songs score and its bravura performances keep the film’s beating heart afloat. Massiel’s “El Amor,” for example, gets a teary lip-sync rendition in the film’s most captivating scene that establishes Medina as a performer like no other. Move aside Gloria Trevi, Viva is coming for your crown.

Much of what makes Viva so vibrant is Medina’s performance. He’s a hopeful young man trying to get by selling his body whenever he can who finds in the spotlight the strength to stand up to his father, his friends, and anyone else who would doubt he has what it takes to be a fierce drag queen.

Remezcla sat down with Medina after a packed screening of the film in New York this past winter where he talked about the grueling audition process to get the part of Jesus and the very specific vision of Viva Breathnach had in mind. Read the highlights of our chat below.

On Landing The Role of Viva

“In that moment you have to be gay. You can’t be inhibited, you can’t fake it.”

The first audition was a scene with my father. It went over well. Paddy, the director, liked it. So the first part, I did well, and then for the second part, we had to perform a song. And for that I relied on my friend, who has experience with drag queens. And we spent an entire night practicing, drinking, and him teaching me how to perform that type of song. Those songs that are really passionate — you understand why drag queens like them so much. They’re very intense. Like someone else pointed out, they’re slit-your-wrists intense. And during that night is where I think, or I hope, that I understood really how to perform those songs. Or, that I learnt to do it well enough for it to have worked on the film.

At the time you get up on stage like that, you have to really let go. You have to let go of your fear of looking. It’s all in the look. It’s about putting all your feelings out there. You really have to be “un maricón.” In that moment you have to be gay. You can’t be inhibited, you can’t fake it. You have to do it like those queens in Havana. So, when I showed up to the second casting call, where I had to perform a song, most of the other guys up for the role were there all dolled up. With wigs and dresses, in full make-up. And I was you know, dressed as myself with my everyday clothes. The only thing was that one of the casting directors put lipstick on me. And well, the rest, worked out okay.

On Viva’s Hepburn Look

In a lot of questions when it had to do with Viva — not of Jesus — the director Paddy had a lot of ideas. We studied at a lot of pictures and images of trans women, drag queens, and actually the person we really focused on was Audrey Hepburn. On how she looked, how she dressed. Because she was very pretty. We weren’t really interested in showing Viva as an ostentatious drag queen, you know, with like, red or green wigs, sequins, the whole things.

For me what I loved the most about this film is that it’s not really about stereotypes or ideas like that. It’s a story of love. That’s what I loved most about it. The film touches on issues of poverty and hustling but, like someone said in the Q&A following the film, Viva could take place anywhere. It didn’t have to be Cuba. But in the end, the focus is the story of this father and son.

On Being A Film Fan

“We weren’t really interested in showing Viva as an ostentatious drag queen.”

One of my favorite films of all time is Cinema Paradiso. And that’s a film that is all about the love of cinema, the love of telling a story. What really drew to me to this film was the idea of making cinema as a way to tell stories. Not aiming really for, you know, film festivals or awards, but to craft a really beautiful story that moves people. And I don’t say that to sound modest, I just really believe it’s a story between a father and a son, and not necessarily about politics or anything.

On What Song He’d Sing As A Drag Queen

I don’t know. I actually really love the same type of songs that Viva likes. And I love those types of song because they touch you, regardless of whether you know who sings them. “El Amor” for example, when I first heard it, I was like, “What the hell is this? This is some cabaret/drag queen-type song,.” But the more I listened to it and studied it, that’s when I saw what it was about. It’s about love. It is love. So as to what song I’d choose? I’d choose whichever song is currently played at the most cútre bar in the middle of Old Havana. One you could perform while drunk, and where you could just let your emotions out.

Viva hits select theaters across the country on April 29, 2016.