The Madrid-born geniuses behind HBO Max’s groundbreaking drama open up to filmmaking veteran Daniels about trans visibility on-screen and their heady rise to the top.

Whether it’s film or television, true directorial masterpieces know no bounds, no language barriers—only raw emotions that evoke a sense of hope in others. That is exactly what Veneno, the mini-series based on Spanish trans icon Cristina Ortiz Rodríguez (aka “La Veneno”), did for American film director, producer, and screenwriter Lee Daniels. While oceans apart, the directors of the series Javier Ambrossi and Javier Calvo were able to touch not only Lee’s heart but those of many queer folks like them. As the Western world is catching up to the buzz surrounding the show, we brought the three directors together or a call to discuss the cultural importance of the series.

Lee Daniels: For those who read V out there and don’t know what this is, Veneno is an eight-part mini-series on HBO Max that is a tour de force.

Javier Calvo: It is a true story about a Spanish trans woman who was a sex worker in Madrid and suddenly one day, a television crew came to the place she worked at and gave her the opportunity to become a star and she suddenly became [a part of] one of the [biggest] shows in Spain. She was one of the first trans women to appear on TV, and she was a big hit for only two years. Then everything ended and everyone forgot about [her]. [For] the rest of her story, nobody knows what happened, so that’s what we wanted to tell.

Javier Ambrossi: In Spain, we [call them] “Juguete Rota”—the people that were once famous and [now] no one knows about them. [She] was a one-hit wonder, and everyone would laugh at her.

LD: That’s the brilliance of it. I think that’s what was so moving about it. For the first time, I was able to see my generation honored and it was like, “thank God these kids get it.”—that you’re here because of us.

JA: It was a love letter to the people that came and fought before us and to the people that are imperfect.

JC: We are not perfect. We are not correct. There [are] people who [paved] the road when there was only a jungle. There’s a line in Veneno that I love: ”She walked so we could run.”

LD: I just feel like your voices are so fresh and your perspectives are so clear that I just don’t see that in America, the way I felt it from you. Let me talk about the other [things] y’all did that was really smart. You brought in the younger trans [woman] who wrote the book.

JC: We’re friends with Valeria [Vegas], and one day she said, “I wrote a book about La Veneno.” And we read it and burst into tears. We said, “Why don’t we know this story? Why don’t we know the story of the people who came before us? Why don’t we know our LGBTQIA+ elders?”

JA: [The character of] Valeria is based on the real writer. She is the one that wrote the biography and she’s a trans woman and journalist. We were going to adapt the book only [focusing] on the life of La Veneno, but we had some issues. First of all, she [did] not tell the truth all the time and we needed to acknowledge and play with that. We needed someone who knew her and tried to see if it’s right or wrong. So when Valeria [the author] told us her story, we thought, “Oh my God, there’s another story here and we need to tell both!”

JC: We looked at each other and said “Valeria, would you be comfortable if you were a character in the show?” She was like “Umm, no I would not.” (laughs)

JA: So then after, I was like, “Okay but I insist, so go home. Think about it. And tomorrow you have to say yes!” (laughs)

JC: For the character of Valeria, we didn’t want to only show the sad, tragic story of a trans woman because we needed hope. We needed a trans woman who is passionate about being a journalist, who has a mother that loves her, and who has a brilliant future ahead of her. So that helped us to see the two sides of the story. Even though there’s a long road [ahead] still for the rights of the trans woman in Spain, at least, she had light in her life—that was important for us.

JA: So for Lola [Rodríguez], who is the actress that plays Valeria, we cut her hair and she was like, “Oh my God!”

JC: She transitioned at nine years old. And we were like, “Okay, we need you to go backwards—we need to cut your hair [and] draw on a beard.” We had a few issues because [even though] we loved her at the audition, she has a Canarian accent, which was kind of challenging and she had these huge breasts. We talked to the makeup department and the costume department and [told them] you have to make that disappear.

LD: Honestly, it’s so well done that you really believe that this person has done it in real life! What was the experience [of shooting Veneno] like?

JA: It was intense. We had the pandemic right in the middle of shooting, so instead of three or four months, we had a whole year of shooting.

JA: They were working their asses off to be the best. We made sure that every single department had at least one trans person—from the truck drivers, even the lighting [crew]. Department by department, we said, “You have to make sure you have at least one trans person or you’re out of the show.”

LD: I’m fascinated when people co-direct and co-write. How does that work? How do you stay alive as a couple?

JC: When Stephen [Gan] said, “Okay, I’m going to stop talking and I’m going to let the three of you talk,” I thought, “What three? We’re two.” I really feel that we’re one person. I feel what he feels. I feel the ideas he has. We just have that connection.

JA: I’ve only grown in life with him. I don’t have the experience of being alone because I’ve only ever been in love with him.

LD: What was the most difficult part of Veneno when you really think about it?

JA: I always try to forget the difficult parts, but for me, it was to be fair and kind to everyone all the time.

LD: I think that’s a really good point. It is when you want to get the job done—it’s really hard to be kind and fair to everybody.

JC: It was the first time for many people in that production, [but] we had to make this right. We couldn’t make one mistake.

JA: I [took] one hour of my time and [went] one by one to every single person and said, “Hi and thank you,” because I wanted to know them and know that we were together. I had to do it because if I want to do a story about a community, it needs to be done by a community. So to be respectful and to understand what it really means to be trans was difficult. It was also hard to accept that in our society, we don’t love [them] correctly, we don’t understand and are not fair with them. And that broke my heart.

LD: You guys show love in a great way, and I think that it’s really one of the best television shows I’ve ever seen. I just want everybody it. And tomorrow you have to say yes!” (laughs)

Discover More