Miguel Ángel Silvestre and his Sense8 co-stars travel the world to create a fantasy about shared consciousness. But, he says, the real journey lies within.
On his first day shooting the Netflix series Sense8, Miguel Ángel Silvestre found himself naked — except for a little modesty pouch — in the arms of two similarly clad co-stars. “One of things they wanted to make sure of when they cast us was that we were willing to jump without question,” Silvestre says. “They asked, ‘Do you have any problem kissing a man?’ I said no. I wanted to respect the message of this story, and I knew they were going to do it in an honorable way. So I jumped.”
As filmmakers, Sense8 creators Lana and Lilly Wachowski are renowned for pushing boundaries. Their Matrix series introduced audiences to a complex alternate world and visuals that set new standards in movie making. Their Cloud Atlas deconstructed the concept of screen narrative, telling many tenuously-related stories concurrently. Sense8 pushes these ideas even further. The show is shot around the world — including in India, Africa, Mexico, Iceland, England, Korea, Germany and the U.S. — with many scenes bending time and space to take place on multiple continents. The series revolves around the lives of eight men and women (scattered across the globe) who are psychically and physically intertwined in a way that allows them to experience each other’s emotions, tap into one another’s talents, and team up to elude a mysterious agency obsessed with exterminating them. Through the magic of editing, a conversation can switch from one locale to another in a heartbeat.
It’s easy to assume that such complexity would require that every scene, every shot, and every line of dialogue be meticulously preordained. Not so, Silvestre says: “One of the first things that surprised me is that they are not into perfection. And there are no storyboards for the show because they carry the entire thing in their heads.” Over time, Silvestre learned to expect the unexpected. “Things would change in the moment,” he laughs, “because they were always trying something new.”
That a show touting cooperation among disparate individuals from far-flung cultures — straight and gay, transgender and pansexual — debuted just as Donald Trump began his rise to power is an irony lost on no one. The ideology behind Sense8 openly defies the Trump doctrine: as one seeks to build walls, the other argues that borders are constructs that can be fortified or dismantled through force of will.
Silvestre has had to grapple with these apparent contradictions more than most. He is a straight Spaniard who playing a Mexican movie star whose onscreen machismo is his meal ticket, but who is also a closeted gay man in love with a college professor named Hernando, played by Alfonso Herrera. As Lito, he faces losing both fame and fortune after being outed, but he never disavows his orientation.
“They made it clear that we didn’t want to show a character tormented by his sexuality,” Silvestre says. “In his movies, he celebrates his masculinity with every gesture, down to each drag of a cigarette. But Lana was always making sure you also get to see comedy in the characters too.” It’s a concept akin to Kerry James Marshall’s ennobling portraits of black subjects or Peter Paul Rubens’ celebration of women’s curves: contradictions are part of what make the characters feel real. “One day we were shooting, and I felt like Lito wouldn’t do what the script was calling for; so I asked her about it,” remembers Silvestre. “And she said: ‘Trust Mama.’”
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What Matters Is Love
Before he settled on an acting career, Silvestre was named “Mr. Castellon” in a 2002 modeling competion. A few years later, he abandoned playing professional tennis after realizing “I just wasn’t good enough.” His family enouraged him to act, and by 2013, he was cast in Pedro Almodóvar’s I’m So Excited, where he first learned to combine his tough and tender traits.“The actors I admire the most accept both their masculine and feminine sides,” he says. “Pedro told me I should spend some time watching Cary Grant films, because he carries that in such a relaxed way. You get to see both sides in his performances; there’s a masculinity, but also some sweetness and softness.”
As his onscreen boyfriend, Herrera describes Silvestre as “a generous actor who is also this volcano of energy, and that is very contagious.” As straight actors, both were concerned with creating a believable romantic bond between Lito and Hernando. “We both understand we’re representing LGBT people,” says Herrera. “It was very important to us to spend time together in creating a foundation for our relationship. When we met at the first table reading in San Francisco, that was where we began. But while he was traveling the world, we had to settle for chatting and Skype.”
“What matters here is love,” Silvestre says. “One of my favorite Spanish writers — who was gay and died during the Spanish dictatorship — wrote a play called Bodas de Sangre. In it, there is a line that says, ‘Cuando el amor llega a los centros, no hay quien lo arranque.’ That means, ‘When desire gets into your guts, nobody can take it away.’ I love that. He is saying that desire is a force of nature stronger than our own will. As you can’t change the rain, and you don’t argue with the sun, you cannot change or fight against love, desire, or your own nature.”
It is a sentiment that Silvestre has understood from an early age. “One auntie from my family is gay,” he says. “My parents used to talk about her to me and my sister, and we believed she was a hero because that’s the way my parents saw her. ‘She’s only loving and being true to herself’ is what they would say.”
Riding the Wave
Last year, while shooting the second season (which began streaming in May 2017 on Netflix), the Sense8 cast put in an unexpectedly high profile appearance at Pride in Sao Paulo, Brazil — atop a parade float. Amateur video of the event went instantly viral as the actors gleefully exchanged passionate kisses, waved to the crowd, and stripped Silvestre to his Speedos. But this was no mere publicity stunt; it’s also part of the show.
“Lana wrote a beautiful speech that I got to give to everyone there,” the actor says. “It has that same quality as the human rights speech she delivered in her first appearance after coming out as trans. She wrote these incredible lines for Lito and then she told me, ‘They’re going to think that it’s you, and I really want to see it come off spontaneously. It was an incredible feeling to be in front of this huge crowd, who all remained completely silent while I was speaking. And then it ends with a big party.”
Few filmmakers would dare to shoot amid such chaos — particularly with a crowd at varying levels of sobriety unconcerned that they’re extras. But in one fan video after another, Lana can be spotted weaving in and out of her gathering of Sensates — spontaneously sculpting their interactions as if she’d invented some new form of jazz choreography.
“Lana is not at all precise,” Silvestre laughs. “She doesn’t like to do rehearsals. She likes to stand next to the camera and say, ‘Let’s try it this way; let’s try something else.’ She’s always looking to be surprised by something that happens spontaneously. Then she’ll do the opposite. “
Herrera had a similar experience while filming the Sense8 Christmas Special, which functioned as a two-hour bridge between the first and second seasons. In it, his character Hernando is lecturing in a darkened auditorium, guiding his class through art projected on a screen behind him. A series of snickers arises around the room, and when Hernando asks what’s so funny, one of the students uses his cell phone to replace the art onscreen with an image from a Mexican tabloid: Hernando and Lito in the throes of passion, which the student labels “s**tpacker porn.”
Hernando handles the moment with a deftness that is characteristic of Sense8: “The eyes of the beholder find not just beauty where they want, but also shallowness, ugliness, confusion, prejudice. Which is to say, the beholder will only see what he wants to see — suggesting that what you want to see is in fact s**tpacker porn,” the character says. “Whereas someone else, someone who has a set of eyes capable of seeing beyond societal conventions, beyond their defined biases, suddenly might see an image of two men caught in an act of pleasure. Erotic to be sure, but also vulnerable. Neither aware of the camera. Both of them connected to the moment; to each other, to love. And as I have suggested before in this class: Art is love made public.”
Herrera remembers the scene well. “I knew that speech from the Berlin table read,” he says. “When were shooting, Lana was constantly giving me the direction to let go and relax; don’t push. ‘Let the words be the way,’ she said, ‘and walk through that.’ I see now that it was very much like her saying not to push or pull — just to ride the wave of the speech. After the fifth or sixth take, I understood that. It all became very clear once I got out of the way and let the words do the work.”
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An Exchange of Energies
On paper, Sense8 is a thriller whose appeal should be based on action and mind-melting special effects. But both Silvestre and Herrera talk about the show in terms of its core values, and the one word that comes up repeatedly from both is empathy. “One of the opportunities you get as an actor is to try to understand people from other cultures through empathy,” Silvestre says.
“Lillian and Lana, as artists and as people who belong to the cinema community, want to share the message that diversity is a strength,” Herrera adds. “No matter the color of your skin, your nationality or your sexual orientation, we all need each other and deserve respect, each and every human being that lives. We hope that eyes and ears are opened by the message we’re trying to send. And I know — because my son is now five months old — that I want to share that with my kid. And I want him to live in a world where we respect and help one another. ”
Certainly among the best known moments on the show so far are those when the characters appear together to form a large, sensual tangle — where they revel not just in one another’s bodies but also in their shared humanity.
“Lana explained it like this: She said, ‘Miguel, we all we have a certain energy that we bring into intimacy. She really wanted to explore that in every way possible. That’s why you see those scenes the way you do. You see the group of us open and close like a flower. You see someone kiss someone in a dominant way, and you see someone surrender to that, and then pass it on. There are moments where you’re soft and delicate, and then others that are more about action — from the ability to be strong to the ability to accept a caress. When you’re watching it, you can see it moving like a wave, each person taking something and changing it and then passing it off to someone else in an exchange of energies that reminds us that we all carry a certain poetry that is uniquely our own.”
Herrera took part in a second cluster scene during the Christmas Special, when the eight main characters come together — along with their lovers this time — to celebrate their shared birthday. “Being part of that special moment, you realize that love and sex are such incredible forces that they generate life. Love and sex connect you with all your senses, and Lana wanted to show that and create subtle and not-so-subtle ways of showing how powerful human connection is.”
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The Bigger Message
Could it be that the supernatural conceit of Sense8 — that it’s about people with telepathic super powers — makes it the perfect Trojan Horse to smuggle a radical notion into the homes and minds of Trump’s America: that we have more in common than what divides us?
“Well, I’m not that skilled in the world of politics,” Silvestre admits. “But I do think what Lana is writing has a bigger message, and I am aware also of the politics, not just in America, but in the world right now.” He says that Brian J. Smith (who plays a Chicago cop and another member of the Sense8 cluster) thinks the show has an even deeper meaning in the United States. “He would know more about that because he’s American,” says Silvestre.
What seems clear is that no actor or audience who comes into contact with Sense8 walks away from its message unchanged. “We are all one at some level,” the actor affirms. “At the same time, there are those little differences that make each of us unique. And that’s what being a human being is all about: recognizing that universal unity while accepting the differences that make us all special.”
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Last modified: November 14, 2019