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Interview: Liz in September Star Patricia Velásquez on Her New Film, Memoir, and Publicly Coming Out

Patricia con sombrero

In the late 1990s, Patricia Velásquez became a top supermodel, but that was only her first step, because Velásquez really wanted to act, and it led to a career move that included work on the Mummy franchise and the comedy Committed. This year, she gives her best performance as the title character in Liz in September, the new film by Fina Torres, based on Jane Chamber’s landmark play, Last Summer at Bluefish Cove (first written in 1980).

The story focuses on a dying woman spending her last birthday with her closest friends, many of whom she’s had romantic and/or sexual relationships with, and starting a relationship with a young woman still grieving the death of her child. Velásquez has been having a great year in promoting the film, having just released her well-received memoir, Straight Walk: A Supermodel’s Journey to Finding her Truth, and publicly coming out. We spoke about her new movie, released on DVD and digital format this Tuesday, her personal connection to the character of Liz, and why coming out during the release is a happy accident.

Lesley Coffin (TMS): Had you performed in any productions of the play before you were cast in the film?

Patricia Velásquez: No, but I knew the play very well. And how the project was born was, Fina and I were working on another project together, and I invited her to a Masterclass I attend here in Los Angeles. And I did a scene we tend to perform in class, Fina said, “I was been offered this play years ago, but couldn’t get it off the ground.” And when I came out and did the scene, and people loved it, Fina said “I think we need to forget about the project we are considering and do this instead.” And she went about getting the rights back. And kudos to her, because she’s a very well-known director, and could have just done the play in English, but she chose to do it in Spanish and made some updates to the script, because it was written in the 80s. And she added the subject of euthanasia, and I think the results are just beautiful. The way she links that element to the original story, making it feel more like a tragedy that can really speak to the viewer.

TMS: There is a lot of talk in the film that these women wouldn’t be allowed to be publicly out of the closet, which I understand is still very true in Venezuela, where it was made.

Velásquez: It is, and that is of course the case in many other countries as well. When you consider how different audiences will see the film, American audiences may see it differently, because while there is still a lot of work to be done within the LGBT community, we are way ahead compared to many other countries. Specifically in Venezuela, where we don’t have any kind of legislation yet.

TMS: The film is being marketed as the first Spanish language lesbian film. Were you aware of that aspect when making the film?

Velásquez: I was. People have never seen a film like this in any Spanish speaking countries before. We were aware of that fact while making it, but we also weren’t thinking about it. We are just so in love with the story and felt the needed to tell the story. So we were always primarily focused on the creativity of it, but as we were filming, we saw the interest and devotion people had for the story and the film. And that was when we realize that what we were doing was very important to all these people, and that was when it reached a new level. A social level of importance for all of us.

TMS: It’s hard to imagine this film being a play because of the importance of the locations, the running sequences and the diving sequences, which have very little dialogue. Being familiar with the play, what was it like to stage those new scenes and use the locations to tell the story?

Velásquez: The movie is so beautiful. And personally, a movie like this is kind of dream, when you can connect a character and story to a physical place. It really touched me in a way which connects audiences with the characters much more. If makes the entire film feel like a complete journey. It was amazing, and seeing the film now, it was also important to show the beauty of Venezuela. We hear so many bad things about my country, kidnapping and political issues, but to be able to show another side, feels very hopeful. I feel hopeful and proud to be Venezuelan, even though there are so many problems in the country we still have to overcome.

TMS: The film is about one annual gathering these women have every year, and we are told that they have a lot of history and complicated relationships, most of which is left open to some interpretation. Did you think about what their history must be? How these gatherings started and what has gone on in years past?

Velásquez: I am gay, and for many years, I couldn’t openly talk about my sexuality. So I can definitely relate to these characters. I have a beautiful house on an island, and we based a lot of the location in the movie on my actual house. The color of the bedroom is exactly how my bedroom looks. I had a dog at the time, and Fina saw me running every day with the dog and said, “You should have a dog in the film.” There were little things she did which made it feel more realistic and lived in. I go to that home with my friends and it is a place where we all feel free to be gay. As is the case in this movie, it is was like a hiding place, but an open hiding place for us. So I know that places like this, hideaways, aren’t just possible, but it is something which is happening in our country, even if people don’t realize.

TMS: I know that you publicly came out earlier this year, when your memoir was released, but you filmed the movie beforehand. Did you know while filming that you would be out when it was released?

Velásquez: Actually I didn’t. Coming out happened very naturally for me. I’ve been out to my family for years. But I have a beauty brand which has me traveling all over the world twice a month at least. So I spend a lot of time up in the air. And being an actress, unless I have a good screen at my seat, I refuse to watch movies on planes. So much work is put into movies, it feels like a disservice to the industry to watch them like that. So sometimes I have a lot of free time, found myself just writing. And people have told me for some time to write my memoir, and I always thought they it wouldn’t be that interesting. But I realized, while shooting the movie and after, that I could use my own story to inspire other people. It felt it was time. So the minute I finished working on this film, I poured all my creativity into the book and writing it came very naturally to me. And it just so happened that the book came out first. I didn’t time anything, but it feels a bit like the universe knew how things should go. And I’m so grateful, because it seems like one feeds the other.

TMS: The film gives your character a history as a model, and includes some footage of you modeling. What were your feelings about borrowing that part of your own life for the film?

Velásquez: I would say it was probably the same thing that happened with the book. There are some very personal things which are hard for me or make me a bit uncomfortable. But the thing is, when you are trying to make something which is putting out a message, you have to be as open and honest as possible. And the more of yourself you can put into your character, the more the viewer will take from it. So when Fina asked me if she could use clips from those modeling shows, I originally was a little apprehensive. But, knowing she is one of the best directors in the world, I felt I had to trust her. And I’m happy with the results. My acting coach always says, “Actors must take risks. And it isn’t about the results, it’s about the work and enthusiasm you bring to the project.”

TMS: Towards the end of the film, there is the discussion of euthanasia, and while the conversation is rooted in the character’s emotional reactions, it is a very clear message Fina puts out that she is a supporter of that as a right. I know it was added when adapting the play to the screen, but did you feel strongly about including that message?

Velásquez: Absolutely.  I was very thankful that Fina had that great idea, to incorporate that idea when she wrote the screenplay. It is so timely, and a topic which is coming up everywhere. It was definitely a message I could relate to. I thought it worked for the character and for the movie. And while it would have been interesting to play something that goes against my beliefs, that also would have been hard. And while you should never, ever judge your characters as an actress, I was totally in agreement with my character’s decision. I’m very close to the message Fina wanted to put out, and I completely agree with her decision to add that.

TMS: Have you gotten to see the film in Venezuela?

Velásquez: Oh yes. It was in all the theaters and did extremely well. Keep in mind of course that a lot of the actors in the film are well known there, especially Mimi Lazo and Elba Escobar. They are like Meryl Streep in Venezuela. So when you have them in the cast, and 7 or 8 beautiful women in the leads, everyone is going to want to see it.

TMS: The play was first written in 1980, and it’s strange that it took this long to be adapted to the screen, but also this long to have a Spanish language film focused on lesbians. Considering that within that time period there have been so many more films about gay men than there have been about gay women, throughout international cinema, do you have any idea why there still seems to be such a large gap?

Velásquez: It’s such a good question. Many years ago, I think the gay community was very united, when the AIDS epidemic started. It started with the guys and then the girls. But things change with the needs. And what I see is, the guys have worked together a little bit more than the girls. And understanding that we will only achieve this by becoming a unified community has been a big step. Before we perhaps weren’t as much as a community, but I think we are becoming one now.

TMS: Do you consider the movie to be a feminist drama?

Velásquez: For sure. I think the film has been such a great success because it is about women, who love, and how love can take so many shapes and forms. It is a story about women, and has a very feminist message about the bonds women have, and Fina felt very strongly about that message while making the film?

Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book, Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.

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