Captivating Kate

By Sunnivie Brydum

Originally published on Advocate.com April 23 2013 6:00 AM ET

When gay men and transgender women are incarcerated in the Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail, they’re placed in a distinct dormitory with each other, in an effort to protect them from harassment at the hands of the general prison population. This ward, once known as K-11, is the subject of a new, unflinching prison drama from director Jules Stewart, a seasoned script supervisor who has worked in Hollywood for 30 years. (She’s also mother of Twilight star Kristen Stewart, who has a voice cameo in the film, and Cameron Stewart, who makes his acting debut as a prisoner.)

After a successful run on the festival circuit, K-11 is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD. The fast-paced, gripping thriller features stellar performances from its lead actors, including ER’s Goran Visnjic as the literal and figurative “straight man,” Raymond Saxx, a record producer thrown in jail for drug use. D.B. Sweeney is a sniveling, detestable foil to Raymond, as the corrupt prison guard Sgt. Johnson. As Ben Shapiro, Clerks star Jason Mewes serves as Johnson’s “man on the inside,” helping the officer funnel drugs into the prison at an exorbitant markup.

But the true star of the movie is Mexican actress Kate del Castillo, who shines in her most captivating, nuanced performance in English-language film as the self-proclaimed queen of the dorm, a Latina transgender woman named Mousey. Mousey is by turns sweet and vicious, conniving and vulnerable, at some moments the villain, at others the victim.

"You feel sorry for her,” says Del Castillo. “And on the other hand, she’s a bitch."

Mousey rules the dorm with an iron, manicured fist, physically striking down anyone who challenges her authority. She and Raymond forge an unexpectedly tender, symbiotic relationship in the film, which was shot inside a jail destined for demolition — a location Del Castillo calls “scary as hell.”

The film is not for the faint of heart, nor those easily upset by portrayals of sexual violence. While the 88-minute film does provide some sense of closure and vengeance, it depicts several instances of rape, though the scenes are not physically graphic. While director Stewart contends that, ultimately, the film is a “feel-good movie,” Del Castillo admits that it can be tough to watch.

“It’s a harsh film,” says Del Castillo. “It’s not an easy movie.”

K-11 is the directorial debut for Stewart, who’s worked as a script supervisor on more than 80 films. After three separate attempts at financing the film failed, the director says she ultimately “didn’t pay any attention whatsoever to politics.”

Stewart acknowledges the conflict inherent in hiring nontrans actresses to play Mousey and the two other trans women in the ward. Ultimately, those roles went to nontrans actresses Portia Doubleday as Butterfly and Tara Buck as Crystal.

“I needed actresses,” says Stewart. “I needed the real deal. I couldn’t go, ‘Just because you’re transgender, [you get the role].’ That would be like doing a hospital film and hiring a real surgeon. I needed an actor. And there just aren’t very many [transgender performers] that I found that are actors of that caliber to play these roles.”

Del Castillo says she was nervous and excited about the role, calling it “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” Mousey is dramatic, but Del Castillo says she tried to avoid turning her into a caricature.

“There was this very fine line to not cross and [become] a cartoon,” says Del Castillo. “I don’t want to insult anybody. It’s very delicate.”

In researching the role, Del Castillo sought training from actress Calpernia Addams and her business partner, filmmaker Andrea James, two trans women who advise Hollywood on transgender portrayals through their production company, Deep Stealth. (Addams and James also counseled Felicity Huffman when she portrayed a transgender woman in Transamerica.)

And though Stewart didn’t cast any transgender actors in roles portraying trans characters, she says there are trans-identified people in her film.

“A lot of them, actually,” says Stewart. “And they did a great job, and they were wonderful.… I was going for depth of character, and realism, and believability.”

Read the Interview: The Advocate Talks to Kate Del Castillo.