Actor Cole Doman on the nuance of transition in “Mutt”

Lîo Mehiel and Cole Doman in "Mutt".

It is always a pleasure to catch up with the out gay Philly native Cole Doman, who gives a carefully calibrated performance in trans writer/director Vuk Lungulov-Klotz’s “Mutt,” premiering at the Sundance Film Festival on January 23. (The film will be available for online viewing January 24 to 30.) 

This sensitive, moody drama depicts an emotional 24 hours in the life of Feña (an impressive Lîo Mehiel), a Latinx transman in New York City. (Feña is a gender-neutral name in Chile.) While in a bar with friends, Feña spots his ex, John (Doman). Their meeting is awkward at first, however, as they spend more time together, things get more complicated, not less, as they consider recoupling. 

While the film also features Feña reconnecting with his estranged sister, Zoe (MiMi Ryder) as well as his father, Pablo (Alejandro Goic), who is arriving from Chile, much of the dramatic tension comes from Feña and John determining the future of their relationship.

Doman spoke with PGN about his new film in advance of its premiere.

This is the first time I think I’ve seen you play a straight character. But it is queer in that John is involved with a transman. How did you approach the character? 

When Vuk reached out to me about the role, I read it, I loved it, but I asked him, “Why do you think I could do this?” It’s not that I didn’t think I could do it, it was why he thought I could, based on my work that he had seen. There is something intrinsically queer about John because of this relationship. It’s not that he’s all of a sudden in a gay relationship. Feña was always trans, and we talk about that; the dynamic of the relationship was always queer. I read the text to get information about how they talk, and how the characters deal with conflict, and finding his dynamic with Feña specifically. How do they operate? What is their history? Who is the dominant, and who is the submissive? And all that goes into capturing a character. John is so unlike me. I read him as someone quite serious, a man of fewer words. He is more contemplative and less expressive than I am. 

John has a kind of confidence and vulnerability about him that I found interesting. What decisions did you make regarding his character and his relationship with Feña?

The whole film leads up to the will they or won’t they moment? Most of it was building out the history of the relationship with Lío and Vuk. It was more table work, not acting rehearsals. How did they meet? How long were they together. What was the trip on New Year’s to Canada? What was the lesbian phase? We made the script as three dimensional and as visceral as possible. The audience doesn’t know the history, but they know something went badly, immediately, and there is a lot of pain. Even in the first scene, Feña is trying to be laugh it off and be casual, and John still has a lot of anger towards him. 

There is also suggestion in the film, made by Feña, that John is afraid of loving a trans guy. Can you talk about that aspect of the film and their relationship?
John is afraid of his desire — what has already been unlocked by dating Feña, and what his attractions are. It comes from a place of insecurity. The film is about how we experience transition — not just in the gender sense, but also in the lives of someone who is transitioning. What we discovered in early conversations was that towards the end of the relationship nothing [John] did physically or emotionally was right anymore. If John touched Feña, it was wrong. Feña needed to go through a sort of shedding of his past life, and John was a casualty of that. Now that they are on the other side of it, new fears arise. Not only how he may be perceived exteriorly, but also the interior thing of, ‘Will John say the right thing, and be the right partner?’ He is opening himself up to that type of rejection again — that’s what’s painful.

What observations do you have about the film’s treatment of trans bodies, which is addressed in the film?

That’s the point Vuk is trying to make — there is no clear what is appropriate or not appropriate? What is good or bad? How do you talk to people about trans bodies? How do you talk to trans people about their own bodies? It’s this very delicate thing, and that’s what Vuk wanted to show. Here is someone, like John, in the laundromat scene. He may be the person Feña has been closest to physically and intimately in his life. Feña has gone through top surgery, and there is a curiosity about what that looks like. This is a body John loved. I spoke with Vuk about this. What feels honest is that John is also grieving this body. He is now able to touch Feña’s body in a new way, He loved this person, who did this thing that is clearly making them happy, but it doesn’t change the fact that John misses the body that he once loved. That’s in line with the theme of a physical and emotional level of transition, who it affects, and how it affects them. It’s a delicate subject. 

Last year you were at Sundance with the short you cowrote and costarred in, “Starf***ers” (now available on MUBI). You are returning to the festival this year with “Mutt”. Are you focusing your career on indie film projects? You have been making shorts and episodic television in between features. Can you talk about your career plans?

My heart is in independent cinema. That is where I feel I am the most fulfilled creatively and artistically. That’s why I like to take these projects. As an actor, you don’t have a lot of agency to choose what you do or don’t do. As I’ve gotten older, I’m more discerning as far as TV is concerned or gay guy parts in movies. I’m not as willing to be in TV industrial complex for the sake of working, or star credibility. I want to do things that have meaning and inspire me and have meaning to other people in the world.