Spoiler Alert: This article includes an interview with actor Sam Zelaya and will discuss the plot of the film Wendell & Wild.

Wendell & Wild (2022) is a stop-motion horror comedy film directed by Henry Selik and produced by Jordan Peele. It was released on Netflix in October 2022. It features disabled trans actor Sam Zelaya in one of the leading roles. We spoke to Zelaya about his experiences as an actor.

Stream Wendell & Wild on Netflix

For 2022’s Halloween season, Netflix released the spooky film Wendell & Wild. It follows the story of Kat who after losing both her parents, lands in a juvenile prison. Thereafter, she is forced to attend a Catholic school to better herself. She faces death, demons, and resurrection creams, before owning her trauma, becoming a powerful survivor and saving her town.

Both Selik and Peele are successful directors. Selik is known for The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). Peele has directed Get Out (2017), Us (2019), and Nope (2022). While the majority of stop-motion animation is predominantly white, these acclaimed directors made sure to feature a diverse cast of characters without tokenizing them. Sam Zelaya also stated that ‘a lot of the diversity you see in Wendell & Wild is a reflection of all of the people that worked on the film behind the screen’.

Wendell & Wild’s Raúl

Sam Zelaya plays Raúl, a trans teenager of colour who over the course of Wendell & Wild builds a friendship with Kat. Zelaya described his character as someone who ‘doesn’t give up’ on his friends. Raúl is also a reflection of many trans adolescents who are trying to figure out who they are in a society that forced them to conform to a cis-heteronormative binary.

Raúl is the first trans character to appear in a stop-motion animated film. This served as a motivation for Zelaya who told us that he wants audiences to ‘take some inspiration from the way Raúl stands up for his community through his art and his activism’. Sam Zelaya also hopes trans people ‘enjoy having the chance to see this trans character on screen who is allowed to be himself and who isn’t completely defined by his trans identity’.

Tackling Trans Issues Through Film

When we are introduced to Raúl, he is observing Kat who is forced to attend Rust Bank’s all-girls Catholic school. However, we soon find out that Raúl, a trans guy, is also a student. There are only two instances where Raúl’s trans identity is revealed in Wendell & Wild. The first mention occurs when he is deadnamed by one of the other classmates, who then immediately apologises to him, stating that she keeps ‘forgetting’ his chosen name.

Deadnaming is the process of referring to a trans person by the name they were assigned at birth. Almost every trans person has experienced being deadnamed, whether by family, friends or strangers. When the incident occurs, the audience is supposed to root for Raúl who is juxtaposed to the initially less trustworthy Siobhan. Therefore, highlighting deadnaming as wrong. Nevertheless, Wendell & Wild does not dwell too long on it. Once Siobhan apologises, the plot moves forward.

Zelaya shared his thoughts on the matter with GenderGP. ‘I think it can be hard for people seeing a trans character who gets misgendered and deadnamed and does have to correct people on it. However, I think it is a very realistic and difficult aspect of coming out as trans. It’s a storyline trans people will relate to’.

The other instance takes place during a conversation between Raúl and Kat. Raúl shows a picture of himself before transitioning to which Kat responds ‘you were a poodle too’ – poodle seems to refer to the protagonist’s view of people socialised as women conforming to said womanhood in an obnoxiously gendered manner. Raúl simply states that he ‘tried to be’ like the other girls before coming out as trans. This is to demonstrate just how much he tried to conform before ultimately being himself, a boy.

Trans Awareness in Wendell & Wild

While Wendell & Wild purposely mentions his trans identity, it does so more to portray a trans guy in a spooky, supernatural film, where trans people are often excluded from. Knowing that a character is trans can be seen as redundant but leaving this information out could likely lead to the viewer assuming Raúl to be cis. This false assumption would strip a young trans guy of seeing himself represented on screen.

A character should not be reduced to their trans identity. Nevertheless, as the film industry still has a long way to go regarding the representation of trans people, it is still necessary to highlight their transness for representation purposes. This is especially important if the trans representation is done well.

Throughout Wendell & Wild, Raúl’s gender identity is never questioned or invalidated. His gender is only one facet of his identity and does not limit his character development. The plot of the children’s movie is far less interested in Raúl’s trans identity and more in the horror elements of death and the underworld.

Wendell & Wild focuses on Raúl’s generosity, helping his friend Kat without hesitation. He is the most trustworthy character and proves himself to be a true, loyal friend who expresses himself through art and stands up for what is right!

Interview with Sam Zelaya

We interviewed the fantastic actor Sam Zelaya who spoke to us about his experiences as an actor and his thoughts on Wendell & Wild.

What inspired you to become an actor?

Sam: I always really enjoyed doing plays in school. I wanted to become an actor for a long time. It took me a while to get that confidence and believe that it was something I was good enough at.

I think it is hard for trans actors. Even before I identified as trans, the dysphoria I experienced held me back in a lot of ways. It affected my acting and my confidence. Once I came out as trans and was able to play male roles, I stopped holding myself back.

What do you enjoy most about acting?

Sam: What I enjoy most is the opportunity to get in a lot of different people’s heads and try to understand things from different points of view. I enjoy exploring characters that may not have had the same experience as me, looking at how it affects the way they move through the world.

I think it can help you understand yourself a lot better and how your own experiences shape you. It is also really good for building empathy and connecting with the people around you.

What convinced you to be in Wendell & Wild?

Sam: I remember seeing that they were looking for a trans guy who was also Latin American. I remember thinking that that was really cool. It was the first casting call looking for a trans Latin American guy that I had seen. I am used to both of those identities holding me back in the film industry. But that’s what they were looking for in the film. It was a story they wanted to tell. I couldn’t not put myself forward to be a part of that.

What did you like most about Raúl? Did you relate to his character?

Sam: Yes. I love what a good friend he is to Kat. He doesn’t give up on her even though in the beginning she tries to push him away. He can see that this is someone who can benefit from having a sense of community and friendship.

Hopefully audiences can take some inspiration from the way Raúl stands up for his community through his art and his activism. I hope that people enjoy having the chance to see this trans character on screen who is allowed to be himself and who isn’t completely defined by his trans identity.

I received many wonderful messages when Wendell & Wild came out. People were saying that it meant a lot to them to see a young trans character on screen. It meant a lot to me too. It is crazy that I got to be that representation for people that I wish I had.

I know you write your own music. How does music influence your work as an actor and vice versa?

Sam: I started writing music because like a lot of creative people you have all these feelings and you don’t know what to do with them. At the moment, I am trying to get back into writing. I want to make work that gives opportunity to people, like I have had with Wendell & Wild. I want to create that opportunity for other queer and trans people, as well as people of colour.

Given everything that’s going on, it feels that people want us trans people to sit down and go away. It is in times like these that we need to do the opposite.

Do you have any advice for trans people who would like to pursue acting or music?

Sam: There are a lot of people out there that will tell you to tone down parts of yourself if you want to be given the same opportunities. As hard as it is not to do that, by being your most proud, loud and aggressive yourself, you attract the kind of people that are the most rewarding to work with.

Make sure to watch Wendell & Wild, a mysterious and beautifully directed stop-motion film, on Netflix NOW!