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Before Raúl Cocolotl was a teenage trans boy helping Wendell & Wild‘s heroine Katherine “Kat” Koniqua Elliot save her town from demons, economic downturn and the prison industrial complex, he was simply what the stop-motion feature’s director Henry Selick calls a classic “goth loser kid.”
The narratively complex, visually striking and representationally groundbreaking animated movie, which was released late last month on Netflix, is based on a short story Selick wrote with Clay McLeod Chapman around 20 years ago. For the stop-motion legend’s 2022 take, which he wrote with Oscar-winner Jordan Peele, they modernized the story, setting it at an all-girls school in a town facing down a rusted-out economy and the threat of private prison developers.
Despite those changes, Selick was committed to keeping Raúl in the story, even if he existed differently. “I still needed Raúl to be a part of it, and what’s the reason for there to be a boy at an all-girls school? He’s a trans kid,” Selick tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It took a while for us to realize, and that’s not what the whole movie is about, but the answer was right there.”
The director says the decision was made to have Raúl be trans “at least four years ago” as he and Peele were conceiving the film. It was a choice heavily inspired by his co-writer’s own “touching” admittance that, as a young Black kid, he wanted to see himself in animated films like Selick’s. Hearing that gave the director the freedom, he says, to go farther with characters like Raúl, creating a “ripple effect” not just with individual characters but the entire narrative.
“Once we agreed that’s what we were going to do, it just fed into our story so much with his friends and his having an interest in Kat, the new outsider — him being intrigued by her and having this sense of faith in her,” Selick says of the impact of how Raúl being trans influenced more than just his arc.
After the duo had settled on that aspect of Raúl’s identity, Selick says he began his typical deep dive process, building the character’s backstory to flesh out the young teen boy’s characterization. When it came to Raúl’s look, Selick turned to Pablo Lovato, who referenced Mayan, Aztec, Toltec and “maybe even further south, Inca” artwork and stone sculptures, the director says, to reflect the teen’s ethnic background.
It’s just one shade within a larger, more inclusive community of characters rarely seen in stop-motion. “He’s part of the community that’s a bit of a turning point and that could go one way or another with the political situation in the town,” says Raúl’s voice actor Sam Zelaya.
“Rust Bank is inspired by a town called Red Bank, and the history of this town, Rust Bank, is that it was a factory thriving community of working-class people,” Selick adds. “Yeah, there’s the rich school on the hill, but it’s a place of a lot of Black and brown people.”
Then, there were the elements of his personality and his interests — things like his closeness with his mother, his “sweetness” and love for visuals arts (the latter of which results in a massive mural with a big political statement being painted atop the town’s homes) — that also became key to understanding the full picture of Raúl.
“His main thing is his journey as an artist and the celebration of his mother as this protector of him and the town against these monsters who want to devour the place, who are ultimately the Klaxons,” Selick says. “Just at some point, he realized he was meant to be someone else and made the choice with his mother’s help.”
The Wendell & Wild director said that when it came to Raúl’s transition, viewers were never going to see him get kicked out of school, but the character was going to face different responses from those around him. “I couldn’t tell you that Father Best was completely understanding, but he needed the money. That’s probably Father Best’s truth,” Selick says. “And the other kids — his best friends — went through a phase questioning, ‘Why weren’t happy being one of us,’ before coming to a place of understanding.”
“I know for a lot of people who transition and change their name — going from their dead name — they handle it differently. Raúl’s showing great patience,” Selick adds, pointing to how the teen responds to his former friend Siobhan Klaxon deadnaming him during a moment of anger (that is quickly followed by an apology).
While other projects have opted to forgo the inclusion of trans character’s deadnames and other elements of a trans person’s life pretransition, Raúl facing this was part of a larger conversation Selick wanted to have about respecting who other people are.
“Those three girls, I call them The Rich Girls, they’re not bad, but they come up with a nickname for Kat. They call her KK, the initials of her first two names. Well, who are they to give her new name?” Selick asks. “It’s sort of a larger problem I think. We have to respect who people are instead of coming up with a silly nickname or dragging our feet or not calling someone by who they are.”
For help figuring out elements of Raúl’s story — and how it would represent and weave into the larger narrative — Selick says he turned to the film’s crew and others in his life. “A part of it is, simply, I’m working with a large crew of very talented people and among those are several people who have transitioned and people who are about to,” Selick explains. “I also care deeply about representation, and I know firsthand a parent whose child is transitioning. It’s a fact of life of people I respect and care a lot about.”
“I saw the script and a lot was there and spoke to me in ways that you always hope that a story will, but never actually expected to,” Zelaya says about how much Raúl’s identity narrative already spoke to him. “It felt like like they could see into my head when they were writing it.”
Selick gives big credit to voice star Zelaya, who he says “took a good long while to find” but “contributed so much to bringing that character to life.” The search for the breakout was driven in part by a desire for authenticity. “Wherever we can cast people who in real life mirror their characters, why wouldn’t we do that?” the director says.
For Zelaya, who had worked primarily in U.K. theater before making his feature debut with Wendell & Wild his feature debut, the complexity and fullness of Raúl’s characterization means that his representation can span beyond just young trans viewers.
“Young trans people being able to see themselves is really cool, but I also think that — or I hope that — any kid will be able to take something from this character who is trying to find his feet and courage and learns to stand up for himself and his friends and his community through his friendships,” the actor says.
It’s the kind of comment that makes clearer what Selick means when he says Zelaya was his Raúl because of the qualities the actor and his character share.
“Of the very talented people we found, and it was kind of down to a couple, Sam had a really appealing quality. I wanted to know more about him, and I wanted that for our movie audience — to be intrigued,” Selick recalls. “He had a mix of a little bit of sadness and a lot of hope, and in the end, he’s also just confident about who he is in his skin, and that’s what Raúl needed the most.”
Though Selick recognized Zelaya’s confidence, the voice actor shared that, particularly with it being his first major voice role — and one recorded over 20 days while he was still pre-testosterone — he had to “get a bit out of my own head.”
“I had to convince myself that I did deserve to be here and that, as a voice actor and just as a person, my voice was something that was worth hearing,” Zelaya reflected. “A lot of trans people grow up being told the opposite, and it’s hard to not internalize that.”
The combination of having offscreen voices to help inform the character’s experiences, a push for visibility from Peele and the film’s existing broader themes about familial relationships, coming of age and figuring out who you are, helped shape a narrative for Raúl that felt authentic but never shoehorned in a story featuring so many characters long left out of stop-motion.
“With this movie, I wanted to be a little more serious about things that mattered to me,” Selick says. “I’m not a young guy. I’m not getting that many chances to put in the world things I really care about and love. So this was the film to bring in a lot of that.”
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