Saturday Church, a visually striking indie musical that has been making the rounds since its debut at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, is heading to theaters this weekend. It’s a coming of age story about a shy 14-year-old genderqueer person named Ulysses, played spectacularly by Luka Kain, struggling with his identity after the death of his father. Born into a military family and raised part time by his strict, religious aunt, there is little room for self-exploration. It isn’t until Ulysses meets Ebony, Dijon, and Heaven, who take him to a weekly program called the Saturday Church, that he’s able to step into his true identity.
Earlier this week, BUST spoke with Luka over the phone about the importance of Saturday Church, playing Ulysses, and what he hopes audiences will gain from the film.
How did Saturday Church come to you?
It came through my manager, who is also my mom. She originally got it for another client of hers but when she saw the breakdown of Ulysses, she asked me if I wanted to tell that story because of the kind of stuff that’s going on in the news, the political climate. I’m very passionate about this stuff. I also have a member of my family who came out as trans — after we finished shooting the movie actually — but we knew a little bit about her journey beforehand, so I wanted to tell this story for her. So yeah, that’s kind of how it came to me and why I decided that it was a story that I really thought needed to be told. I saw that it was a film that represented the LGBTQ community and also the people of color within that community, which is something that rarely gets represented in entertainment. It was really amazing opportunity.
With the current political and cultural climate, were you hesitant about the role?
All of my hesitations weren’t about the story, but mainly my ability to do the story justice. When I first read the script, I cried, I thought it was beautiful. I was on my way home from school on the bus. It was a little awkward. I was already attached to the character and really proud of Ulysses for their transformation into becoming an individual and accepting themselves. It was just a beautiful character arc. That’s what really sold me. It was also helpful to have people on the set, the cast, crew, and Damon, everybody was very professional and brought their A-Game. It was a 20 day shoot — which isn’t long — and nine hour days. The union has rules for minors and I was 16 at the time. It was really hard to have such a short schedule, such a short shoot time. It was stressful. Damon was our captain, a great leader in making sure that the shoot stayed on track while also giving us the creative freedom to fully dive into the characters. He also had consultants that would help him in creating the most authentic story possible — he wrote the script [and he brought in consultants] because even though he’s a man in the LGBTQ community, he’s still white and the majority of the cast is people of color. So there were a lot of times where he would stop and make sure that everything that was said, the events in the story were genuine and truthful. He made sure that he was making a story that wasn’t voyeuristic — this is something that he says all the time, I’m quoting him — but he wanted to make it wasn’t voyeuristic or exploitative in any way and just really wanted to shine a light on the story and the Saturday Church program.
The story emerged from [Damon Cardasis]’s experience, correct?
Yeah, there’s an actual program at the St. Luke in the Fields church in the West Village where LGBTQ youth on the streets can go and get counseling and job advice and be taken care of. He volunteered there for a couple of months. He found out about the program through his mom, who is actually a priest at another church in the Bronx, so he went there and volunteered. He was talking with these kids there and they all had these horror stories about being beaten half to death by their loved ones or being kicked out of there homes or just having family and friends who rejected who they were. It was awful, but they were all still hopeful because of this program and next to the church was a gymnasium where they hold balls and vogue. It was really that escape that inspired [Damon] to make the movie a musical. That’s why it’s such an important aspect of the film because it’s an inherent part of the community.
How were you able to connect with Ulysses?
For me, I feel like the story is universal in the sense that Ulysses goes through their first crush, they go through not fitting in, they go through family disconnect. There are a lot of experiences that I could connect with and that I think the audience can deeply connect with as well. It wasn’t that difficult because Damon wrote a story that was first and foremost a human story. It helped me as an actor to embody the character more, because even though there were some things that I couldn’t relate with, there were tons of places in the script that I could really dig my hooks into and become Ulysses. Mainly, the shy teenager aspect, that’s completely me! And though I haven’t experienced the kind of abuse that Ulysses has experienced in school, there were definitely times when I felt like an outcast. In high school, everyone feels like an outcast. It’s a universal experience.
People have been describing the film as Moonlight meets La La Land. Do you agree? How would you summarize the film?
Ya know, I’m very flattered by the comparisons, but it’s definitely a unique film. Moonlight was a beautiful film that did an amazing job of representing people of color and the LGBTQ community, like [Saturday Church] does, but they’re two completely different stories and completely different settings, even though they have similar premises. They’re both equally important. But sometimes I feel like that comparison is a little dangerous because they’re just shoving the two together in the “gay-movie” category. Moonlight was definitely an amazing foot in the door. There’s been a shift in Hollywood where “nontraditional” stories are becoming more profitable, which is a gross way to say it. But it’s exactly what we need because I think that that representation can help a lot of people in accepting themselves and moving forward. Another big part of Saturday Church that I haven’t really seen in a lot of other films is this sense of found family, the kind of family that Ulysses finds in the program with Ebony and Dijon and Heaven. It’s not only a beautiful relationship but it’s just as valid as any blood relation that he has with his mother and his aunt. You can see the relationship with his aunt isn’t even one that needs to be…just because they’re blood relatives doesn’t mean that it’s a relationship that’s healthy or one that should even exist. That core idea of found family is really important in the film.
photos via Saturday Church
More from BUST
Samantha Ladwig is a writer, book reviewer, and the owner of Imprint Bookstore in Port Townsend, Washington. Her work has been published by New York Magazine, Bustle, Real Simple, Vice, Bust Magazine, and others. Find her at www.samanthaladwig.com.