Out gay actor Enrique Salanic makes an indelible film debut as the title character in director Li Cheng’s excellent romantic drama, “José.” As a gay teenager eking out a life with his religious single mother (Ana Cecilia Mota), José works at a restaurant and spends what little free time he has hooking up with guys he meets via an app — when his phone can get a signal. When José has a tryst with Luis (Manolo Herrera), he falls in love. However, while Luis wants José to run away with him, José is conflicted about leaving his mother alone.
“José” is a sparse drama extremely well told by director Cheng (who co-wrote and produced the film with George F. Roberson). Much of the action consists of following José at home or around town, at work or having sex, often in a rent-by-the-hour establishment. Salanic gives a remarkable performance, expressing José’s tenderness with Luis — kissing him in bed or being affectionate during a motorcycle ride — as well as his emotions and longing in reflective scenes of him alone.
The actor recently chatted via WhatsApp with Gay City News about “José,” and being gay in Guatemala. In a follow-up chat, Salanic also addressed a controversy that arose as he prepared to visit the US for the film’s premiere this coming weekend. US Embassy officials in Guatemala told him that because he does not own land or have a residence of his own — he lives with his parents — he could not enter the US because there was no assurance he would not abandon his homeland. Salanic’s thoughts about this Orwellian demand that he prove a negative follow at the end of the piece.
GARY M. KRAMER: “José” is your film debut. What interested you in this role, and how did you identify with the character?
ENRIQUE SALANIC: One of the things that got my attention was that this film needed to be made. I thought, we can’t hide anymore — sexual diversity and these things exist in the world and it was important to make a film about them. I was hesitant when Li came to me with the proposal. I wasn’t sure he knew what he was doing because he was not from Guatemala. But his enthusiasm convinced me. Coming from an indigenous background gave me more courage to do it, because the thought about indigenous people is that they are just part of their culture and that they can’t be intellectual. This film shows you can do whatever you want and achieve your dreams. Indigenous people aren’t seen much on the big screen. When I read the script, it was a very strong statement Li wanted to make. We can’t wait for Guatemala to be ready. Now is the time for “José.”
KRAMER: The film does not provide much about José’s backstory. Can you talk about finding his character?
SALANIC: I had to synthesize José from people I talked to from different ages and socioeconomic backgrounds. I made them into José. What people don’t realize is that José’s mom came to the city from a rural area to look for a better life. José is the first generation who grew up in the city. He is not aware of his rural background. He realizes he can’t go to university because he doesn’t have the economic resources. He may think he’s experienced sexually, because he’s only had spontaneous sex. Luis shows José that he can find true love. Luis is something different, changing José’s heart and mind and how he sees his life. That changes his perspective not only in how he works, but how he behaves from that point on.
KRAMER: What observations do you have about queer life in Guatemala?
SALANIC: It is definitely not accepted. It’s a conservative, homophobic place. The Church and the government are against this idea. I got a lot of strength and inspiration from the interviews I did. The people I met knew how to behave and move in a homophobic and conservative society. They knew what to say, do, and be. It was impressive that all those strategies allowed them to survive. Some have become activists, and they have come out to speak up for others who cannot do the same.
KRAMER: You are openly gay. Can you talk about that?
SALANIC: Li was concerned about bringing the film to Guatemala, and he asked if I wanted to become a martyr. I appreciated his concern, but I have loving parents that have accepted me and I feel very fortunate. I know many friends who have come out and most are kicked out of their houses or face a tough economic situation. There are many people who want to come out but are afraid to because of society. That’s why I feel it is important to be openly gay. Life has been kind to me, which is the complete opposite for José.
KRAMER: The strength of your performance is that it is very internal. Can you talk about how you approached playing José?
SALANIC: I was constantly thinking of all the stories I heard and putting my own story in it. It was a very huge responsibility to convey — especially the emotions. Most of the time you don’t see José happy or smiling, but you don’t see him crying either. He goes through life knowing not that he has to be tough but that he has to endure and accept whatever life throws at him. He can’t complain in this society. You don’t talk about that stuff here. Some people might listen, but some might kill you. People are killed here for being LGBTQ.
KRAMER: How did you create the intimacy between José and Luis?
SALANIC: In real life, Manolo Herrera, who plays Luis, is heterosexual. Usually it is thought that if you touch a gay person you will become gay as well. I’m like, “That’s nuts and not true!” For him to play this character professionally, he is breaking all these stereotypes. Li was very subtle in letting us get to know each other. We went for walks, had meals, and we were so comfortable that during the nude scenes, we didn’t have concerns about touching. It happened naturally. When I read the script, I was concerned about all of the nude scenes, and thought they would be the hardest. They had a nice flow. The scenes of José showing loss and pain were harder.
KRAMER: You are Mayan. Can you talk about the references to Mayan culture in “José?”
SALANIC: We have to go a little bit back in history first. In the Mesoamerican lands, homosexuality was okay because they could handle the feminine/ masculine duality. But there are other parts of Mesoamerica where homosexuality was not accepted at all, and you were punished. There were cultures that accepted it versus Europeans who didn’t. There is the scene of José and Luis in bed, looking at each other, and they resemble Mayan kings. This reference came from Piedras Negras in Petén [a once-major urban center in Mayan civilization, with a throne or stone bench with two kings heads on its back], which is now in the National Museum of Anthropology and History in Guatemala City. This rock could have many interpretations, and one is that they are two Mayan kings who just or are about to kiss each other. I told Li about that, and he put it in the scene.
KRAMER: [In a follow-up chat.] What is your reaction to the US Embassy’s toward you coming here?
SALANIC: I am Guatemalan and my papers are Guatemalan. But they say there is no strong reason — land or house — keeping me here. I was in the US [as a student] and I could have stayed in the US then, even illegally. But if I stayed and I got caught, it would stay on my record and I would never be allowed back to the US. I didn’t want to get in trouble, and I felt I needed to go back to Guatemala because my roots are here. I grew up here, and I feel a strong connection to the land.
I was hoping to go to the US for the premiere of “José,” and it was never my intention to stay in the US. It is disappointing because I wanted to promote the movie and create awareness of the situations in the film. I’m happy with the film’s success. I do live with my parents, but it is very common for people my age to live with their parents and families are important for Guatemalans. In the US, you have to be independent as soon as possible. That is not common in Guatemala. Family is your primary support here. They are there for you whenever you have something great or tragic happen.
I think in the end, I would be happy to be anywhere as long as I am happy, and I am happy in Guatemala. I have friends and family here, and I have projects going on. It feels like there is a boom in the cinematographic world here. “José” is opening doors for me, with short films and other projects. The US has great opportunities, but my heart belongs to Guatemala.
JOSÉ | Directed by Li Cheng | In Spanish with English subtitles | Outsider Pictures | Opens Jan. 31 | Quad Cinema, 34 W. 13th St.; quadcinema.com