[ 0 ] January 9, 2018 |


Discovering Your Place

by joel martens


Take the story of a shy 14-year-old boy named Ulysses, who is struggling with the death of his father, gender identity and relentless bullying because he’s “different.” Then throw in a strict, religious and judgmental aunt, homelessness and a spat of painful lessons learned on the mean streets of New York and you’re probably thinking you’ll end up with a painfully dark and depressingly sad tale.

You’d be proven completely wrong, and as surprised as I was, if you take a moment like I did to watch Damon Cardasis’s film Saturday Church, releasing this month. Those difficult circumstances would all be painfully there, but I can almost guarantee you’ll walk out of the theater having shed a tear or two perhaps, but absolutely ending your evening with a smile on your face, more hopeful than you did when you walked in for certain…and probably even humming a sweet tune.

Unconventionally told in a musical format, the film tells the more conventional story lived by many a LGBTQ teen. The act of trying to figure out who you are, the struggle for acceptance and the search for peace in a world not often kind to “otherness.” Ulysses takes us into his often-difficult world and through his rich fantasy life, takes us for a joyful ride as he escapes into a world filled with beautiful music and dance as he discovers a family of lively transgender youth and new ways to love and be loved. It’s all about losing something you thought you knew and finding something you didn’t know you had, losing one family, but gaining another…and finding the strength to love exactly who you are.

Perfect format for a musical wouldn’t you say?

Director Damon Cardasis and lead actor Luka Kain both sat down with The Rage Monthly to discuss Saturday Church and the experience of taking a story fraught with loss and finding the beauty of truly knowing oneself within that pain.


Director, Writer, Producer Damon Cardasis

Where did the idea for Saturday Church come from? Was it something that you’d been planning for a long while? I ask that because of how personal the characters seemed to be, you really get a sense of who they are, like you knew them rather than them being a pastiche.

It’s based on a program at a church in the West Village here in New York called St. Luke in the Fields that I had volunteered at for a while. My mother is actually an episcopal priest in the Bronx and she has a church that is very liberal and though I know it’s not many people’s relationship in the LGBTQ community, my experience was a good one. She told me about her friend’s church that had a Saturday program for LGBTQ youth from the Christopher Pier (the famed West Village cruising area) and the surrounding areas that I really should check out. I did and was so blown away by the program that I volunteered there for a while.

I got to know their social worker, who was amazing and essentially, the program was what you see in the movie. The kids would come in off the streets and they had a safe space to get food, to get social services and legal counseling, with a store where they could get free clothing. The cafeteria where this all took place was a big gymnasium and there the kids would have a place to sort of perform and vogue—they’d have little competitions and things like that—really it was a place to be free to just be themselves. I was so inspired by them and I was just blown away by hearing their stories.

As far as the performative element, I always knew I liked magical realism and this young boy sort of escaping his dark reality in search of beauty. When I saw the vogueing and all the performing they did, it sort of just clicked for me.

One of the things that came to me as I was watching and researching it, was that there are so many nods to other stories. It’s in some ways a modern take on the Cinderella tale.

I realized it when we were about to enter preproduction when we were reading it again and one of the producers said, “You realize you’ve written a fairy tale, right?” Then my boyfriend also said, “You realize you just wrote Cinderella, right?” It was not intentional, but I think because all those fairy tales are so deeply ingrained, it ended up becoming that.

I think in the end it was better not to know that going in, because if you go in to something like this thinking you’re going to turn it into a modern Cinderella sort of Paris is Burning musical, I’m not sure it would have worked. I honestly went into it blindly and came out realizing it was a Cinderella story: The evil stepmother comes in and he goes to a ball and falls in love with a prince…It has a similar structure, which I think is interesting.

As it progressed, I was hoping that for people who aren’t familiar with this world or community, there might be a grounding and that they would feel safe in this structure. Even though they’re being introduced to different characters and in a different world, there is a familiarity to the experience of it.

How you tell the story is significant, especially because of the way you portray trans characters. You don’t fall back on caricatures or resort to mocking parodies, as often is the case. There is humor in the film and yet these kids are all real, human characters.

It was so important to me that it wasn’t exploitive or felt voyeuristic in any way. For me, it’s a human story first and foremost—whatever their gender or sexuality might be—wherever that falls is really not important. It’s more about if you have ever felt alone, felt bullied or picked on, when you’ve fallen in love for the first time or you’ve ever felt loss, those are all human emotions that everyone can relate to. To that end, I became friends with many members of that community and they would advise and consult with me, the ball community and that world to make sure that everything was okay. I wanted to make that this was their voice, that this was their story and that they felt supported by it.

Was it always your intention to create Saturday Church as a musical?

I knew I wanted a part of that for sure, though I can’t exactly remember when that came in…It took shape over time. It started with the idea of personal struggle and using fantasy to escape your reality and how those fantasies would evolve and manifest themselves with music. Then when I saw the vogueing and all of that, I realized it had to take that shape. Figuring out how to do it was a whole other thing, especially as a first-time writer/director/publisher. (Laughs) My friends all told me that I was insane to try and do a musical the first time out, but I was like, “We’ll figure it out.” (Laughs) It was better to be blissfully naïve, because it was definitely a lot.

It’s like the first time you do anything that is new, if you knew going into it what it was going to take, most would run in the opposite direction. Tell me when did you connect with the amazing composer Nathan Larson?

Nathan came on board the summer before last, about four or five months before we started filming. I met him through a music supervisor that I knew. I had no idea what I was doing and he really made it work. The parts of the film where there was music usually contained just a descriptive paragraph from me, “They dance and this happens, or he sings about sadness.” He helped to walk me through how you create lyrics for something like this, the part I really didn’t want to do. I had this horrible image of me sitting in coffee shops and struggling. (Laughs) But he was like, “No man, you gotta help me write these lyrics too.”

There were so many moments that took my breath away, like the locker room scene and “You’re gonna see me/You’re gonna know me/You’re gonna love me…” it was beautifully done.

I wanted that scene to be a little bit of a surprise. The movie is so quiet when it first starts out and for better or worse you have a preconceived notion of what it’s going to be about. Then all of a sudden, he’s floating and they’re dancing around him…It was all choreographed by this amazing woman, Loni Landon. She had two days of rehearsal and she did it in a YMCA nursery, because we had no money and they were willing to help us out. They showed up day of and the set changed everything because there were lockers right in the middle of the space, so they had to rechoreograph it on the fly.

This could have been a very dark film because LGBT homelessness and how they’re taken advantage of is such an enormous problem. And yet, you managed to find the light and strike such a delicate balance between realism and fantasy.

Homelessness is such a huge problem. It’s an epidemic and I think trans people and trans people of color in particular are hidden in many ways…even within the gay community. It’s getting a little better, but we’re not there yet. We are the LGBTQ community, but it’s very divided and there is a hierarchy. My experience as a white gay man is very different than one who is a person of color, that’s just the way it is. For white gay men in particular, I think we need to realize that it’s not the same and that attention needs to be paid to what trans people and trans people of color are going through.

Absolutely. Though this film isn’t necessarily just about being gay, lesbian or trans, it’s really about being human first and each of those experiences are a part of being that.

Totally. The easiest tag was to call it a “trans musical.” But for me first and foremost, it’s a human story and if people can relate to that it’s a wonderful thing. I wanted to make sure that the trans community enjoyed and could appreciate it, but if it can also reach beyond that, I’m thrilled. We all need allies and partners, and if they can participate, enjoy and learn from something like Saturday Church, that’s a good think.

Scene Two:

Actor Luka Kain (Ulysses)

I read that you started fairly young in the modeling world, is that correct?

When I was nine months old I had my first job, a commercial for Disney. But mostly as a kid I did print ads for JC Penny, Target and a bunch for Brooks Brothers. I kind of got bored sitting in front of a camera and I asked my mom, because she’s my manager, what else we could do and that’s when I started going out for film and theatre.

How old were you when you got your first acting gig?

I think my first job was an episode for SVU or at least it was one of the first things I did. It’s funny, actually Marquis (Rodriguez) who is also in Saturday Church, was actually in that episode too. We didn’t film on the same day, but I thought that was kind of a weird coincident.

This film is such a wonderful experience to watch and sometimes painful. I wondered as I watched it, how much you actually knew about this world before you went into filming it?

I was totally ignorant about it, really. I didn’t really know anything about the ball scene either, and was very lucky to have Damon guide me through. He’s the one who told me about the Saturday Church program, gave me movies to watch like Paris Is Burning and introduced me to people like Kate Bornstein, which was really cool…She’s a role model of mine now. After shooting, we went to see her show at the LaMama Theatre, called On Men, Women and The Rest of Us. It was really interesting because she really identifies with more of a non-binary identity, she still uses she pronouns, but it was a great show and she’s a wonderful person.

I also took some lessons and learned some vogueing; I learned three moves that I needed to do in that dancing montage. I got really close with Indya [Moore] and Alexia [Garcia] and MJ [Rodriguez] and like I said before, I knew Marquis [Rodriguez] from before. Actually, MJ too, from a production of Runaways from City Center like a month or two before filming. I was actually planning to talk with her about my role and get advice, because I really wanted to give an accurate representation. Anyway, then she ended up being there during a preproduction meeting! (Laughs)

I have been so impressed by this film and your work in it. After speaking with Damon about how he chose to address the topic of LGBTQ homelessness and how easily it could have gone dark. It was a wonderful way to address the topic and convey hope and the possibility of joy.

Had you done any musical theatre before working on Saturday Church?

Music has been a part of my life for a long time. My mom has a degree in music and I did South Pacific at Lincoln Center when I was really little. It was a three-year experience, because the director said that he never wanted to audition kids again. (Laughs) Usually kids have like a six-month lease in theatre because they grow out of the role pretty quickly. But he stuck with us and it became sort of a theatre family after three years. It’s one of the reasons that I learn to love acting.

When you read the part for Ulysses, was there any one particular thing that stood out for you and has stayed with you?

I really admired how Damon wrote the part, because though he is quiet, he is still a very strong person. Throughout the film he goes through all of these terrible things and you never really see him have a breakdown and I think that’s amazing. You get to see this quiet shy kid transform into a powerhouse.

One review I read said, “Ulysses is a quiet, shy kid with a fierce underlying goddess.” I think you can really see that transformation in the end during the ball scene and the outfit he is wearing…He sort of looks like an Egyptian goddess.

That’s one of the qualities of the film that also impressed me, it’s a quiet, subtle film. It’s not a hit you over the head with a message kind of story. How have audience responses been so far?
I actually have had the opportunity to go across the country and represent the film, which is kind of fun…We’ve been to Seattle, L.A., San Francisco, Little Rock, Atlanta and Boston—it’s been an amazing experience. And, relating to your question before about LGBT youth and homelessness, in Atlanta they really appreciated how the film showed that world, because there’s a huge community there. Not only kids on the street but in particular kids of color on the street, so having that representation in the film was important to them.

That’s cool to hear. It’s another aspect of why I think this film is significant, is the fact that it portrays the trans community in such a unique way.

What I think it does really well is that it doesn’t kind of exploit it, in the way it can sometimes be done in Hollywood. Damon really took on the challenge as producer, director and writer and I think he handled it so well. He did his research, worked with the community to make sure it came off well and didn’t exploit them in any way. I commend him so much for that.

Another of the moments in the film that stunned me was the “You’re gonna see me/You’re gonna know me/You’re gonna love me,” scene in the locker room.

Yes. We actually choreographed the scene in another place and it was a much larger space, so we had to improvise a bit on the day of, because it was smaller. We were also running out of time, it was very fluid motions and we only had one camera, so the fact that you thought it was beautiful means a lot to me, especially considering how difficult it was to capture. It definitely wasn’t a slow day that day. (Laughs)

One more question: Is there anything that really surprised you about playing Ulysses and around doing the film?

Yes, yes. There was definitely a sort of ignorance that I had to the ball scene, because I’m not part of that world. Going through the journey with Ulysses and meeting Indya [Moore] and Alexia [Garcia] and MJ [Rodriguez] was really amazing and the film humanizes him and their characters so well. I loved it and even though I’m a liberal person, it was good to lose the stereotypes that I had about all of it. It was a great life lesson in general about fighting your fears and to quote Ulysses, “Finding your goddess.” I feel like in some ways I’ve become a whole different person because of the experience and Ulysses helped me discover myself. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

Saturday Church opens on Friday, January 12 in theaters, on demand and digitally, check your local listings for details. For more information about the film itself, go to


Category: General

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