The life story of the legendary Walter Mercado is finally being told in the wonderful new Netflix documentary, Mucho Mucho Amor. The film follows the asexual, nonbinary astrologer from his humble San Juan beginnings to his rise as one of the most popular astrologers on the planet.
Mucho Mucho Amor’s directors, Cristina Constantini and Kareem Tabsch, along with producer Alex Fumero, spoke with NewNowNext about all things Walter—including filming the documentary, Alexis Mateo’s impression of him on RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, and how Walter saw himself as a “20-year-old twink.”
First off, I want to talk about Alexis Mateo’s impression of Walter on RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars Snatch Game. What were your thoughts on that?
Kareem Tabsch: It was really fun! I can’t believe nobody’s ever done it before. We’ve had so many Latina queens and so many Puerto Rican queens on the show and I’m surprised nobody’s been Walter. I think Alexis did a fine job. It was not a 100% imitation of Walter, but I think it got some of the vibe right. The great thing about it was it wasn’t a ridiculing Walter. So many imitators poke fun of him. It felt really celebratory of him. I should add that Walter Mercado 100% owned that outfit. He had that suit in his closet. There are pictures of him wearing it, so extra points for accuracy.
Alex Fumero: I’ve seen several comments already of people saying, “I learned about Walter through Alexis Mateo, and I’ve loved the movie.” I think it’s creating this awesome intersection and entry point for folks who would have no reason to know Walter, which is for us, half the reason we made the movie.
I thought was a great coincidence that Alexis’ impression happened the same week that the documentary came out.
Cristina Constantini: I know. We are floored by that. We think of all the seasons of all the episodes of Drag Race, there’s never been a Walter. Then four days before our movie comes out, there’s a Walter. It might be cosmic. We were believers. We would say it was definitely Walter moving constellations around to make things happen.
I know, I had the same thought. You talked about people discovering Walter through Drag Race. Have you heard from younger viewers, maybe young people of the LGBTQ community who are learning about Walter for the first time?
Kareem: Yeah. Even Twitter and social media, there are tons of people who are like, “I’d never heard of Walter Mercado before, and then Alexis Mateo and then the documentary.” We talked about this amongst ourselves. I’m not as smartest to work on social media like Christina and Alex, but even I ended up me come across a lot of them, right guys?
Alex: Also, it’s always like hard. You can’t always ascertain someone’s sexual orientation via a comment. But there are, I would say, a fair amount of people who will present similarly to Walter and present in ways that are not necessarily on the binary. I’m seeing a lot of those folks celebrate Walter, which makes me happy. We’ve posted a bunch of stuff about International Nonbinary Day yesterday, and I got a bunch of replies from non-binary folks going, “Thank you. I love this so much,” in the messages. I think there are definitely folks, at least these folks appear to be Latino, so maybe they did know Walter somehow, but it’s unlikely.
Cristina: It’s really exciting to see people come out of the woodwork and be like, “I can’t believe I missed this. I can’t believe this person, and somehow I didn’t know about this.” There’s a comedian who did a really amazing bit about it. It was like Puerto Ricans have been hording Walter to yourself this whole time. Why didn’t you share the fabulousness of Walter with the rest of us? We needed Walter. It’s really just striking. It’s been so fun to be on social media for the last two weeks.
Before making the documentary, were you aware of Walter’s impact on the queer community?
Kareem: Yeah. I’m a queer person myself, so it really was a driving factor to my personal desire to make the film as a young queer boy growing up in Miami and seeing Walter. It was the first time I felt like I saw somebody who looked the way I felt. And he was beloved. He was so different and I recognize the sense of otherness with him that I recognized in myself. He was loved and seemingly successful and fancy and so different. If my family loved him so deeply and so much, maybe they could love me. That was super, super impactful as a young person, seeing that in our culture. Oftentimes now it’s contending with homophobia and conservative values and Catholicism, so when you see that as a kid, it makes you feel seen and it makes you if you feel like you’re going to be all right. In making the film, I think one of the beautiful things that we all discovered is that wasn’t my experience. Thousands and thousands of people who often, it has the same thing, his presence has such an impact. Karlo Karlo talks a little bit about that. We’re several years apart in age and there’s a lot of younger folk who think the same thing. It’s so interesting how somebody could have such a large impact over so many years on so many people.
In the documentary, when Karlo Karlo said Walter gave him hope, I thought that was really powerful.
Kareem: Yeah, 100% true.
Can you talk about how Lin-Manuel Miranda became part of the project?
Alex: We knew Lin had tweeted about Walter numerous times. We knew that he was of a like mind when it came to Walter. Then we heard that he was going to Puerto Rico to perform Hamilton. Walter was a huge Lin fan, but I think at that point he was already kind of physically hurt, so the idea of being able to go to the actual show, it was not practical. I have a friend who’s a mutual friend of Lin’s and I just said, “Hey, just let him know that Walter Mercado would love to meet Lin while he’s in Puerto Rico if he happens to have the time.” Lin’s father Luis, who you see in the movie also, knew Walter from before. They got in touch with Walter and Lin turned down all kinds of press, except for going to meet Walter for that one meeting. That’s how it came to be. Walter described it as a meeting of two Titans of Puerto Rico.
The line in the movie where Curly Velasquez says that Walter, a nonbinary asexual astrologer, would have been so big on Instagram. Do you agree that he would have been a hit on social media?
Cristina: Oh my God, absolutely. I feel like he was made for Instagram with his constant changing of looks. He looks like an Instagram influencer. He is an incredibly imageable person. I think he would have thrived on it. Also, he spoke in small bites. He learned never to waste tape. Everything he did was interesting, which gave us a lot of problems during filming. He came up during a time when you could ever afford to do anything boring on tape. Whenever we started filming, he would be vogue-ing and trying to make it as interesting as possible. We were like, “No, Walter. We’re trying to capture your actual life and how would a person lives their life.” He would say, “Oh, no, but this is going to be so boring for people.” He was really scared that we were making a horrendously dry film about him. But yeah, I think he would have been great on Instagram.
Alex: I would just add that there’s a nonbinary astrologer who’s clearly inspired by Walter named Astro Sagas. I feel like those people [influencers] do exist, but we also have to give credit to Walter’s artistry. On top of just his identity, he was also just such a masterful communicator, dancer, or performer, set designer, all of it. He was the whole package.
Cristina: He has like real TikTok or YouTuber energy. He and Willie were out there for so long, just putting on their own shows. They used to have an hour-long show in Puerto Rico. That’s how he got started. They would produce the whole thing from the set to the makeup to the jewelry and the capes. They did every single part of it, which is like a startup persona that so many of these TikTokers, Instagram influencers have themselves.
— Con Todo (@contodonetflix) July 11, 2020
How long did you film for?
Kareem: The project from conception to release was three years. The filming process was two years.
The scene where Walter talks about his sexuality with the wind, was that the only time during filming that he talked about his sexuality?
Kareem: No, we asked him about it. He told us we were obsessed! He said, “You’re obsessed with sex,” which we thought was very, very funny. No, we asked him about it all the time. The challenges that Walter had as a career and just as an astrologer on television for 50 years, he had 50 years of rehearsed answers, particularly for the more probing questions, if you will. It was difficult to get him to open up about that stuff. We talked about it with him multitudes of time, but he articulated he did not like labels. I think it’s important to think of the era he came up in too. Walter died at 88. That generation was not used to talking about their sexuality in an explicit way. I think it’s important to underscore that Walter, even though Walter didn’t come out completely or completely defined himself as gay in a public way, he certainly embraced the queer energy and his own queerness. Every day that he was on TV for those 50 years, he showed us who he was, in a time where it could have cost him not only his career but his life really. That was incredibly inspiring for a lot of people and groundbreaking and subversive. I think the fact that he didn’t talk about it is kind of brilliant, but showed it in a brilliant subversive way and pushed the envelope. I think he did that in a major way.
Cristina: I would also think that Walter hated labels in general. He hated the idea of being gay, straight, or bisexual or male or female or Christian or Hindu or Buddhist. He hated it, which was actually a very progressive woke idea. I think it’s very complicated of course because he also didn’t want to talk about sexuality for other reasons, but he also hated labels in general and didn’t like assigning them to himself or to others.
— Con Todo (@contodonetflix) July 11, 2020
Was there anything that you filmed that you were heartbroken that you had to leave out of the final cut? Will we ever see any additional footage or scenes from the doc?
Alex: There’s so much.
Cristina: So much. We have a bunch of these social media extras that are coming out now because we were also heartbroken about stuff that didn’t fit its way into the film. There’s a story about when Walter got a, what he calls a “dirty talking bird,” but a parrot that swore. He had no idea how to control it. There’s a whole bunch of stuff that’s going to come out that we wished we could have included. To talk about parrots doesn’t fit squarely into a narrative structure. There’s a lot of adorable stuff and fabulous stuff and things that we just weren’t able to find a place for.
Have you been in contact with [Walter’s partner] Willie? How’s he doing? What was his reaction to the film?
Kareem: He loved the movie. He was very supportive of it. Willie came to the premiere at Sundance, as well as Wilma, and Walter’s nieces. That was really emotional because it was just two and a half months after Walter died. I think the film was a little bit of a good part of their mourning process and was hopefully cathartic part of it for them.
Cristina: Yeah, I’ve been messaging with him a little bit. He’s just overwhelmed by the response to the film. I think he’s still very much in the mourning. I think for him, the film is a meaningful way of preserving the legacy of his life partner and best friend. I think he loved it, yeah.
For people who are just discovering Walter through the documentary and through Drag Race, do you know of any other Walter projects coming up that they can look forward to?
Alex: We’re definitely working on some sort of a movie or a scripted movie or perspective series. We can’t say anything about it yet, but we are pursuing that.
I saw that Walter said he wanted Timothée Chalamet to play him in a biopic. Do you three agree with that casting choice?
Cristina: [laughs] Oh, that’s so good.
Or do you have other names in mind?
Kareem: Yeah, we think someone Latino would be a good choice. [laughs]
Cristina: In Walter’s eyes, he is 20 years old and beautiful and that’s what matters the most. I think that’s where the Timothée Chalamet bit comes from.
Kareem: Yeah. There’s something about how Walter sees himself. 88-year-old Walter saw himself as a 20-year-old twink. That’s everything you need to know about Walter.