Mario is a film that is making waves for its incredibly realistic portrayal of the relationship between two gay professional football players, Mario and Leon, whose fates and careers end up being entirely different. Leon, who just joined the team, first appears to be the dark horse of the group but slowly ends up winning our hearts with his undeniable charm. We talk to the actor who plays this role, German up-and-comer Aaron Altaras, about this career-defining move, as well as the aftermath this movie will create and the controversies that have already emerged from Cannes Youth’s sudden cancellation of the movie’s screening.
Could you present yourself to our readers? How did you get into acting?
I’m from an artists’ family: my mum is a film director and she studied acting as well. At first, my parents didn’t want me to have anything to do with that world, which is understandable, as you don’t want your children to be exposed to such an industry at that age. But there was a casting call in my school for a supporting role in a film, and I accidentally got it. Then I got another one, and another one. I did a relatively big film called Not All Were Murderers, which is about the Holocaust, and then it went on. Afterwards, I went out of acting because I wanted to study philosophy in Amsterdam but then realised that this is still my favourite thing to do, so I’m back to it.
How did you approach this role? What attracted you to it?
I got the screenplay and on the cover, there was a photo of some footballers holding a banner that read “How can you hate people that love each other?”, so I was already sold. Also, I’m a big football fan and the first few words of the email were “two homosexual football players”, so I thought to myself that I didn’t even have to read the screenplay – it had so much potential for friction. I’d never had such an interest in a film before. I thought that I needed to get that part whatever it took, and luckily, I did.
How could you relate to the character?
Very often I get asked what was it like to play the role of a homosexual, and all of us who worked on the movie want to show it as a coming of age tale – in the end, it’s a love story that could have been heterosexual. However, the big difference is that they’re in an environment where their relationship is completely forbidden, and so what I found hard at the beginning was that I couldn’t relate to someone who has to fight so hard to just be himself. What I really like about Leon is his pride: he’s very proud and sure of who he is, and is willing to stand up for himself, which he does in the film. I love the fact that he’s willing to sacrifice his biggest dream in order to be true to himself.
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Having had practised football before, were you aware of the troubles queer people have in sports, prior to the film?
Honestly, no. I mean, yes and no. I knew – we all do – that there’s a huge problem in general and that football is still one of the most conservative parts of our society. Even if we have openly homosexual and queer politicians and businessmen, we don’t have them in football. It’s the most backward-thinking place in the world, but I didn’t know the specifics of it. We were lucky enough to be very close to the football team Young Boys of Bern, they gave us a lot of information about how it works.
There is a scene in the film where they sit Leon and Mario down and tell them that they should be seen in public with girls. That’s what happens in real life. I thought that was just a stereotype but it’s actually literally what happens. They don’t tell young players anymore that they can’t be gay, they tell them “you can be as gay as you want, but nobody can know about this, and we’ll invest anything in order to protect our team, its reputation and investors”. This is even more absurd. It goes to show that there’s a whole system in place that facilitates that sort of oppression; it’s crazy!
For sportsmen in every discipline, coming out is really hard. But in football, it gets even harder. Why would you say it’s especially that bad in this specific sport?
I would say it has to do with the financial side of it. There is no other comparable sport – maybe some of the American ones – with that sort of investment and financial value. While this is not the only reason, I think it’s one of the most important ones; it makes it harder for people because there’s so much at stake. They’re afraid to lose their sponsors and to not be able to participate in the World Cup in Qatar or Russia (which are homophobic countries). Although I don’t think this is the sole reason, it’s definitely the catalyst.
However, we still see it in other sports. It’s a field that has so much to do with machismo and masculinity – even though, for example, I find football super homoerotic, ironically. I found it amazing that there’s this rugby player, the ex-captain of Wales, Gareth Thomas, who came out even though rugby is seen as the ultimate man’s sport. That was so beautiful. But that’s never happened in football. Now, in rugby, it happens more and more. This goes to show that if one big guy does it, others can as well.
For example, when it comes to football, our German national coach, Joachim Löw, said – on whether we should encourage people to come out or not – he would not encourage anyone to come out, not because he doesn’t want them to but because the media would rip them apart. Imagine that a big player comes out… he’s not going to live in peace for the next fifteen years! So he would encourage a group of players to come out together, otherwise, there’s no way out.
Also, what I don’t understand is that there’s an anti-racism initiative from UEFA, which is at least a sign of good will – although it doesn’t really do much in the end –, but there’s not one for homophobia. For instance, big German players, who have the reputation of not being hurt by anything, could stand together against it because you don’t have to be gay to be an ally to the cause. That would be a huge sign, but they’re all so afraid to do so.
In the film, the main characters, Leon and Mario, view their relationship quite differently. Leon embraces it while Mario is somewhat ashamed of it – although he eventually comes out to his parents; he continues to play professional football, which forces him to break up with Leon. What do you think is the difference between them, is it their background or their upbringing?
It involves a lot of things. As you see in the movie, Mario comes from a family from the province, and although they are not necessarily conservative, his father is not amused by it. We also always knew that Mario is sort of closed off, more of a composed, introverted guy, and I think he just doesn’t have – this is a bad expression – the balls, he’s scared.
Regarding their different opinions and the eventual ending, someone in our London screening asked why didn’t they end up together, as they thought it would have been beautiful for Mario, for example, to have done a press conference about it and just moved on with Leon. Marcel, the director, said that that would have been great, but it’s just not what happens. He wanted to show something close to the actual scenario. I would’ve personally really liked a different ending where Mario does the press conference, comes to Leon’s house, asks him back and he still says no. Maybe there could have been a second part that focuses on my character, and we could call it Leon (laughs).
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Related to this, there is a line in the film where Leon says that leaving the team “doesn’t have to do with bravery”, what do you think it has to do with?
I actually think he’s very brave so I would disagree with Leon. What he means by saying that is that it doesn’t take only one act of bravery. Being yourself is already brave enough. By being true to yourself you don’t have to be brave anymore; it is about being genuine and he thinks Mario is never genuine to himself. However, I personally think Leon is quite brave because what he does in the locker room (confronting his teammates about a prank pulled on him for being gay) takes a lot of courage. Anyone who has played sports knows about the macho, locker room talk, and how extreme it is. I’ve personally played football for twelve years and know that that kind of situation is hard at times.
I’ve never been in a situation quite like that, so I can’t relate to it, but wouldn’t you say toxic masculinity has a lot to do with it?
That’s something I just realised, that I’m also a part of that toxic masculinity. In football, we all say “what a gay pass” and other sayings where we use that word negatively. I realised that even though it may not seem as active homophobia, it’s actually bad. Through this film, I’ve become more sensitive to this. It was beautiful because we shot with real football players, and in the beginning, they didn’t really know what was going to happen to them. They thought they would just do scenes where they played around but they ended up having to witness critical scenes where Mario and Leon are screaming at them in the locker room, which was quite shocking for them – their jaws dropped. Now, as we’re all friends on Facebook, I see these football lads posting things about homophobia in sports. That’s so fucking cool, they really have become allies to the cause.
Do you think that if the football players who participated in the film were to find someone in that kind of situation, would they try to help him in some way?
I think they would! We shot almost chronologically, so it became a transformative process for them. They started out as just football lads who were joking around in the locker room, and then it became more and more extreme. They could also see how Max (the actor who plays Mario) and I got more and more into a darker place because, at first, it was all fun and games, but then the mood would change on set and they felt that.
What do you want people to take from the film?
That’s a good question. I have a romantic vision where I want the film to be shown in youth academies of football clubs. Related to this, in the near future, it’s going to be shown in stadiums! Can you imagine? That’s a childhood dream of mine, being like Mick Jagger or Bono! (Laughs). Also, I don’t know if many people have heard about the Cannes thing, but I want to talk about it. We got invited as we were nominated for the youth selection, which is amazing!
I had never been there and it was a huge honour, as it’s a selection of films catered to teenagers. This really gets me angry, but two days before, we got a call saying that one of the board members, a teacher, didn’t want the film to be shown in front of teenagers because he didn’t think it was suitable for them. This film is rated for ages eight or ten-and-up in Switzerland! It is very tame, sexually-speaking. You don’t even see anything.
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The fact that Mario wasn’t shown in the Cannes Youth selection because it’s supposedly not appropriate for teenagers is crazy! Nowadays, there are even mainstream movies out there about gay teen couples, like Love, Simon, but granted, these are not shown in Cannes. So, why do you think they rejected yours?
That one is even more graphic than our film! It clearly has to do with homophobia. It’s ridiculous, we expect more from a festival like Cannes, which brands itself as a tolerant festival that promotes queer films – and it usually does. But when it comes to teenagers, they are extremely protective because they don’t want them to catch ‘the gay disease’ – even though they should be our target audience. As the movie has an arthouse scene feeling to it, our audience is already big on LGBTQ, so beyond that, we especially want to reach young people who play football. For that reason, it’s really upsetting that they wouldn’t show Mario to teens.
You’ve mentioned this briefly, but why would you say Mario is an important movie?
What it does differently than other films, in the way it’s been made, is that it doesn’t go for only big and dramatic moments. What it does very well is a character study, which is super authentic, and at times, it feels like a documentary. There are films, which I’m not comparing to in terms of quality, like Moonlight and Call Me by Your Name, that are grand and cinematic, filled with drama, which have their own validity as well. But Marcel, as a filmmaker, thinks that sometimes these dramatic moments distract from the actual development of the story, which is a fair point.
So, in our film, the drama lies in its realism and not in the artificial, grand elements. That gives you the tragedy, the fact that it’s so real. For actors, this is a difficult thing to deal with, as you want the big scenes. But as soon as there were two tears streaming down our face, he’d go like “Ok, cut!” Even the ending is exemplary of this. There were so many ways to end it dramatically, but in the movie’s last scene you see someone who is lonely in a football field, and that shows that we’re just all very alone.
Finally, to end on a lighter note, do you have a funny story from the filming?
Probably it would be the love scenes of Max and I. We’re good mates, which made them easier, but we didn’t know each other that well before – after, we definitely did, though (laughs). We didn’t rehearse them beforehand, so in the love and kissing scenes, we just agreed to go all in. So, preceding one of them, Marcel was really worried about us but we assured him that we would be fine. It turns out he was more worried than us! When filming, he was in a different room and then he said “Action” and we started making out. After a while, he yelled “Cut” but we were still kissing and he was like “Cut! Cut!” and we didn’t hear it. He had to be like “Guys, it’s ok, it’s fine, stop already!”
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