Lío Mehiel is Just Getting Started

Lío Mehiel in "Mutt"

Lío Mehiel made history as the first trans person to earn the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award in Acting at Sundance in 2023 for their portrayal of a trans man navigating family estrangement, encounters with an ex, and a series of unfortunate events over the course of one day.

A year later, the movie Mehiel co-stars in along with Calle 13’s Residente, In the Summers, won the festival’s top honor, the Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. If you are not yet familiar with Lío Mehiel, it’s time to take notice as this multi-hyphenated artist, director, actor, is just getting started.

Mehiel’s road to stardom started early. Mehiel was a professional salsa dancer as a kid and later performed on Broadway. “My sister and I were in these professional salsa troops… we went to Toronto and these different places to perform with heavy hitters in the salsa scene,” Mehiel joyfully recounts when I asked them about this tidbit from their IMDB bio.

Through salsa dancing, Mehiel earned the performance chops to audition for a Broadway production of The Miracle Worker, kicking off a brief stint as a child actor before hitting pause to finish college. “When I graduated, it only took me about a year or two to feel called back to wanting to be performing, to be creating things.”

Following a friend’s advice to produce examples of their acting on camera, Mehiel wrote, directed, produced, and starred in their first short film, Distoria. It premiered at the 2018 Outfest Film Festival, a year when the festival made strides in featuring more projects by women, Trans directors, and directors of color.

“I was working at Buffalo Wild Wings in Times Square, which is one of the most hectic jobs I’ve ever had in my life, and saved up money to make this short film. And it got into a lot of festivals, and I was able to use that to get agents for the first time as an adult.”

From there, Mehiel made it a point to collaborate with like-minded creatives, eventually starring in Mutt, the feature film where their standout performance earned them the prestigious dramatic special jury award at Sundance. Mutt, which is now streaming on Netflix, is a captivating glimpse into the life of a trans-man named Feña, as he journeys through a tough day of unsettling reunions.

Everyone has to do code-switching in their life, but I think that for a Trans person… I’ve been taught to be so adaptable, depending on what space I’m in, I’m able to shapeshift to meet that moment. And as long as I can hold on to what is authentically me, I think of [this ability] as a superpower.

Lío Mehiel

Like Mehiel who is half Puerto Rican, Feña is half Chilean, and we see the character having to code-switch and adapt to the various people he interacts with, including his Spanish-speaking dad who has not seen him since his transition. Like many Latine people, Feña’s ability to adapt is one of many attributes Mehiel shares with the character. In Mutt, we get a sense of how critical flexibility can be for a trans person.

“Everyone has to do code-switching in their life, but I think that for a Trans person, to speak from my own experience, there is this additional layer… I’ve been taught to be so adaptable, depending on what space I’m in, I’m able to shapeshift to meet that moment. And as long as I can hold on to what is authentically me, I think of [this ability] as a superpower.”

The film almost feels like a documentary, the way viewers closely follow Feña. He’s in just about every scene, played tenderly and vulnerably by Mehiel who takes great care in bringing authenticity into this imperfect, yet completely lovable main character. Working closely with the film’s writer and director, the two decided to bring Feña’s character a bit closer to Mehiel, resulting in a character that is complicated, sensitive, and ultimately someone viewers root for, as if he were an old friend.

“As a first-time feature film actor, [playing Feña] was both an exciting challenge and also a huge responsibility, because I felt like if I didn’t really show up and share myself and allow myself to be vulnerable and and strip away the parts of my performance that were performative, and just kind of get to the raw base layer, that the movie wouldn’t work.”

But the movie did work, thanks to Mehiel, and they now have the accolades to prove it.

Sasha Calle and Lío Mehiel in In the Summers

This year, Mehiel’s success at Sundance continued with In the Summers. Written and directed by Colombian-American Alessandra Lacorazza Samudio, the film tells the story of two sisters and their challenging relationship with their troubled father, played by the Grammy-award winning artist, Residente.

Creating the film felt like a celebration to Mehiel. Nearly all the people who worked on it, both in front and behind the scenes, including the financiers, were Latine. On set in Las Cruces, New Mexico, it was common to hear Spanglish between and during takes.

“We were taking the art form of cinema into our hands and saying ‘we’re gonna tell our own story, and we’re going to be in charge of it from start to finish, from conception to having it in front of audiences,’ and that [resulted in the] historical moment [of winning the U.S. Grand Jury Prize] in conjunction with Residente’s feature debut as an actor.’”

[With In the Summers], we were taking the art form of cinema into our hands and saying “we’re gonna tell our own story, and we’re going to be in charge of it from start to finish, from conception to having it in front of audiences.”

Lío Mehiel

Mehiel plays Violeta, one of the two sisters, whose character is based on Lacorazza Samudio’s lived experience. Lena Waithe was part of the jury that awarded Lacorazza Samudio the directing prize at Sundance. Waithe expressed to Mehiel how revolutionary it was to see a queer character portrayed in a story where their queerness is not a central plot of the story, it just is.

The way that Mehiel’s performances normalize and humanize people who are too often villainized or erased is what makes them an artist to watch.

So what’s next for Lío Mehiel? They are adapting their short Distoria into a feature film about their relationship with medical transition, body augmentation, body autonomy, and who gets to have it. Keep this project and the artist behind it on your radar – you don’t want to miss any of their work.

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