Lío Mehiel | To Bring Into Love

The Sundance award-winning actor on 'Mutt,' receiving love, and the inner critic

Written by

Brendan Le

Photographed by

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Photographed by P Mastro

At around 7 a.m. Lío Mehiel begins a day in their Los Angeles apartment with a regimented three-hour routine that goes as follows: Drink a glass of lemon water with a supplement; read five pages of a book in the sun; jot down a gratitude list in their journal; meditate for 30 minutes; down a cup of the superfood blend Athletic Greens; and—potentially—exercise. Mehiel ensures ample time to go through the morning motions before the workday commences by 11.

The steady will to habitualize an extensive morning routine requires a discipline that Lío Mehiel transfers into their art. A creator in every form of the word, Mehiel is a multidisciplinary artist who has performed on the stage and screen, presented their collections in galleries, and written screenplays and poetry. Yet, all these descriptors manage to only scratch the surface of how deep their passion and talent runs. Mehiel, a Northwestern University graduate with a degree in theatre and performance studies, took their training to Los Angeles, where they have taken on artistic endeavors from making short films to curating their own photo series. In their feature film debut Mutt, they became the first trans actor to win the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival for their portrayal of Feña, a trans man who recently began hormone therapy.

Mutt, directed by trans filmmaker Vuk Lungulov-Klotz, follows Feña over the course of a hectic 24 hours as he scrambles to find a vehicle to pick his father up from the airport. Meanwhile, he also has an unexpected visit from his teenage half-sister and must emotionally navigate a drunken tryst with an ex-lover. More than the archetypal coming-out narrative or the aftermath, Mutt at its heart tells stories of reconnection—stories that twine into an overarching journey of settling into yourself, allowing love in. Mehiel delivers an achingly intimate performance that becomes an increasingly complex case study on the vulnerable human need to love. The actor offered FLAUNT an insight into their experience on set for Mutt, future prospects, and the voice of the inner critic.

Congratulations on the Sundance award. Can you describe what it felt like in the moment that you found out that you won?

Oh, wow. You know, I found out I won it through Instagram. How insane is that? Because I had been at the festival, and the moment that we finished our premiere and our last press appointment, I then went back to the Airbnb, took a nap, and when I woke up, I was like, “Oh my goodness, I have COVID.” So I put on two masks and flew back to LA. When I got back to LA, I was just kind of pitter-pattering around, wishing I was still at Sundance. Then, I think it was Friday that week, I was like, “Okay, Lío, you've been on your phone too much this week. Put it away.” So I put it in a drawer and closed the drawer. Immediately, my phone starts buzzing in this really erratic way, and it's because I'm getting multiple phone calls and text messages at the same time, and ever. And the texts are like, “Congrats! This is huge.” And I'm like, what are people talking about? Then I get a notification from Instagram, and it's Sundance tagging me in this thing that's like Lío Mehiel, Jury Prize for Best Acting.

It was crazy. I mean, I sort of couldn't believe it, I didn't know that you could win that award at Sundance as an actor. And I've never—up until this film—been given the opportunity to play a lead character in a feature film and show my work and my capacity as an actor beyond just my gender identity. Oftentimes, trans actors are cast as the token queer best friend, or the intern who's kind of nerdy and really good at tech, right? That's the vibe for transmasculine actors often, or that's how we're represented. To be able to play this human character who's imperfect, who goes through so much, and shows so much of who they are over the course of the film, was such a gift. And then to be recognized for my work and know that that recognition was going to help me be able to get more work and keep building my career, I feel so grateful and so excited about it.

So you kind of fell into this role in a very interesting way: You emailed the director and asked for the script. How were the early stages of working with Vuk?

I'm based in LA, and he's based in New York. Once he got my audition tape, he called me, and we had a Zoom. He said, “I've been trying to cast this part for over two years. But I think I want to stop looking and just work with you for a little while, if you're open to that.” And I felt like I was being asked to the prom. Over Zoom, we would just get together and talk about the scripts. He got a sense of how I was reading the character, and I got a sense of what story he was really wanting to tell emotionally. He invited me to come to New York for a screen test, which would be a full day of shooting two different scenes in the film as a way to see how I look on camera, how we work together on set, and if we could make this movie together. At the end of the day, he pretty much offered me the part, and again, I was like, totally blissed and blessed.

You’re also a filmmaker. What did you learn on set for Mutt that you’ll take with you to your next projects?

It's funny. One of the major things I took away was more to do with the storytelling and less to do with the producing of the movie. Feña is an imperfect character, whose primary motivation or primary way of moving through the world is not to do with his gender identity. He's just a regular person. And other people sometimes talk to him about his gender, or he feels like he maybe has to share it with his sister. At the end of the day, he needs to just get a car to go pick up his dad at the airport.

What acting as that character allowed me to realize—and observing Vuk allowed me to realize—was that in the films that I make that center trans characters, I also want them to be beyond the coming out narrative and be existing in a place that is not just about the trans person's body, but is about how a person who loves themselves who is struggling to connect with the people in their life. And they happen to be trans. I've been working on a feature script, and I really had to rewrite it after doing Mutt because it allowed me to realize I'm not in the place anymore where I want this character to just be coming out over and over again. That's not who I am, and that's not the story I want to tell.

This is your first feature film role. How does that differ from acting in a short or starring on Broadway as a kid?

In a feature, you're given the opportunity to dig a lot deeper into a character than you're able to in a short, simply because it's a durational experience. We shot over a month, and so by the time we got to the fourth week of production and we were shooting all of the scenes with my dad, the actor Alejandro Goic, I was a completely different actor. So much more confident, so much more settled in my character. I was able to bring that to work with him.

Alejandro is such an amazing actor, he then brought me to an even deeper place and understanding who Feña is and how to express their emotions. So that ability to be in a durational experience with it and wake up day after day after day and still just learn more and more about the character, you don't get that in a short film. Oftentimes, you're shooting over two or three days. You don't have the budget to rehearse, so it's about showing up and going full force with it. But all of the choices you're making are the first choices that are available to you, whereas in a feature, you get to start to make a choice and then change it and shift it and deepen it and evolve it, which is really rewarding as an actor.

It's a little bit more similar to being in a play, where you get a four-week rehearsal process, and then you're on stage performing for audiences for however many weeks. That's also durational. But the big difference for me—I'm a trained theatre actor, that's my background—and so I know how to be in my body and do eight shows a week and show up and be in a cyclical, energetic relationship with the audience that feeds me. That's where my training and power is. Being in a feature, sometimes the scene is so mundane, it almost feels like you're not even acting, you're not doing anything. And that was weird for me. At the beginning, I was feeling insecure. I was like, “Is this interesting enough? I'm just like, walking. Should I walk weird?” Sometimes you're doing things when you're making a film that are so simple that it's almost like the less you do, the better. And the more relaxed you are, the better. There isn't that dynamic with any audience. You're just generating it with the director and the other actors on your own.

We get so much of Feña’s past through conversation and passing details within the film, but where do you imagine his future?

I think Feña is arriving at a place where he is realizing that he needs to let some of his walls down. And in fact, the people in his life do really love him and want to be close to him. And all of the old survival tactics of protecting himself that he needed to develop because of his upbringing, he can actually, in adulthood, start to release some of those and build stronger connections that way. And so I think that's what his future holds. And his maturing process is being able to let more love in, and trusting that people will understand and accept him.

What about your future? What’s next for you?

Spiritually, I also am trying to release all resistance to receiving love. That's my new mantra. And then creatively, I want to make movies. I'm like, let's go. I want the strike to be over so that we can make some movies. I'm just so frustrated. But also, I'm a huge supporter of the strike. I'm frustrated at the studios. I want to make movies, I want to direct immersive concerts. I want to finish the sculpture project I'm working on and exhibit it and share it with the world. I want to finish my feature script and make that movie. The list really goes on. So I'm grateful that we have a little bit of time during the strike to focus on this shit, actually.

One last question to wrap things up—very open-ended. What are you still searching for?

I have a pretty pronounced inner critic. The voice in my head that's always like, “You should have said this.” After this, who knows what my inner critic is gonna say—I have no idea. But I'm searching for the capacity to honor that part of me that wants to protect me and wants to be a perfectionist and do my best and survive and put out an image of myself that matches my values. That's sort of what is driving my inner critic, but I want to see him for who he is. And then bring him into love.

I'm searching for more self-love than I think I've given myself. As a Northwestern student, we're such hard workers. We're such perfectionists. We're like, fascists to ourselves, you know? I'm only just now starting to be like, “I'm gonna give myself more grace.” I don't need to write a million emails today. Let me just take a nap. And it's like at school, I would have never done that. We're all so Type A. So yeah, I'm searching for a little bit more self-love every day.

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Lío Mehiel, Mutt, Vuk Lungulov-Klotz, Sundance Film Festival, Brendan Le