Aaron Altaras

As I write this interview, Harry Kane has just scored a beautiful header in the ninetieth minute of England’s first World Cup game to clinch a 2-1 victory against Tunisia, and I can distinctly hear shouts of “It’s coming home!” from my flat window. It’s undoubtedly the most popular sport in the world and as England flags are waved and plenty of pints inevitably sunk, it’s easy to forget about the dark history that’s often associated with the sport.

For years there have been constant instances of racism and homophobia on the pitch, and it’s the latter that is explored in upcoming film Mario. Starring Max Hubacher in the titular role, the film explores the relationship between Mario and new teammate Leon, who go from competitors to lovers, and the difficulty they face in whether to choose each other or to choose their blossoming careers.

A beautiful and touching love story, the film also stars German actor Aaron Altaras who plays the character of Leon. First scoring a film role when he was barely 10 years old, Aaron’s 14-year-long film career has seen him take on many thought- provoking roles. However, it’s his role in Mario that he believes will usher in the most change. I managed to grab Altaras on the phone between film festivals to chat about the importance of making this movie, and why he believes that it’s going to bring about a new era of acceptance.

Did you have any idea that this was the response you would be getting when you first accepted the role?

The thing was, when I got the screenplay over two years ago and went to the casting, there was a photo on the screenplay’s cover of football players holding a banner up saying ‘How can you hate people for loving each other?’ I knew the film was about homosexuality in the context of football, and I was sold – I thought it was so powerful. That banner really reflects the storyline and the themes of the film. I always thought that the film was super interesting and super personal. I’ve played football my whole life and I’m a huge football fan. Obviously, you never know how a film is going to be. Queer films and LGBTQ films are slowly getting into the mainstream and being represented better, but it’s still far from where straight films are.

Looking at the popularity of Call Me By Your Name, it’s hopefully a new wave of queer films being given the same spotlight as films with heterosexual main characters...

And I think what’s so special about our film is that it’s a novelty. I don’t think there’s another film that depicts homosexual football players like this. I think that’s why there’s quite a lot of buzz around the film, because everybody knows about this issue. This is real and still nobody talks about it... but now we do.

It’s 2018 and players are still heckled...

It’s the most conservative part of our society after the church, probably.

And I guess there’s also that ‘lad’ reputation.

Absolutely! It’s such a macho sport, but then again you have the ex-captain of rugby for Wales [Gareth Thomas], which is the stereotypically male sport, and he came out and that was huge. We have an ex-German national football team player [Thomas Hitzlsperger] who came out, but only after he retired. To have active players come out, that would be amazing. I think what should be even more criticised is that there’s no allies. You should have straight players speaking out against homophobia – we’re speaking out against racism. I don’t see anybody speaking out about it and I think that’s such a huge, huge problem. When racial slurs are yelled at players in football games, you have people standing up against it in solidarity. And the same thing should be done with homophobia.

What’s it been like to portray a character that’s forcing us to have these important conversations about how gay people are treated in sport?

I was part of a football team and I know how people talk in them. Through the film, I became more sensitive to it myself, and this is the first thing that has to be changed. We have to build an awareness and a sensitivity to the problem, and that goes for everyone. The funny thing that happened was we did the film with real football players – the rest of the team were real football players – and we realised throughout the shooting how they made a sort of journey in terms of how they become sensitive to the topic. At the beginning, they didn’t know what the film was about and then throughout the film they saw how Max and me were engaging and doing really emotional things. I’m Facebook friends with some of them and now I see them posting articles about the topic, and they’ve become super aware of it.

Do you understand or see what the film will do to the wider community as well?

I’m generally not an optimist when it comes to societal progress but with this topic I’m absolutely convinced that this will create a discussion that makes it easier for coming out in football. I don’t think there’s going to be huge coming out stories in football any time soon, because even in the positive media it’s like career suicide and it’s also a really big thing for someone – like they’re not going to have a life for the rest of their career. I understand why players would be scared of that. We all know that there are gay players in all of the major teams, but there’s a system to it, there’s internal dynamics. That’s what we found so scary is that there’s a whole system about it and it’s an oppressive structure that so many people are complicit in. Everybody knows. They all know, but it’s this culture of secrecy.

It’s kind of like the whole don’t ask, don’t tell culture really.

Completely. It’s like Hollywood in the 40s. Everybody knows but nobody does anything about it. I think what would be amazing is for this romance to reach an audience outside the LGBTQ and arthouse communities, and actually be seen. It’s really important that this film is seen by football teams and teenagers and young people, because that’s the audience it needs to affect. I have dreams of them showing this in stadiums and youth football academies and schools so kids see that it doesn’t have to be like that. The film is a tragedy, but it doesn’t have to be like that in reality. If they showed this to young people and football players, you can show that you can be both tender and aggressive. You can be a good football player and be gay. Maybe we’ll see the first gay football club one day...

Mario and Leon’s relationship is both beautiful but also features difficult scenes where they’re battling with whether to choose love or to choose their careers. What was it like channelling all these different emotions?

There’s something universal about it and it’s also a coming-of-age story, especially with Mario exploring his sexuality, and they’re also growing up. What we found really interesting is that because we didn’t want adult football players, there’s an illusion and maybe even a reality of a decision. It’s an oppressive situation that forces them into where they are, but you can still stand up and make a decision. I mean, Leon does lose his career and loses his dream, but he’s honest to himself.

This is a gay love story, but obviously there’s universality to love. Falling in love is always the same and the big difference is that they’re not allowed to stay together. There’s one line in the film which I think describes it really well which is when Mario at the end comes to visit Leon, and says: “You’re so brave, I’d never have that bravery and courage.” Leon says, “Well, I don’t think it’s about courage. I’m not courageous.” I think he is courageous, but what he means is that actually you just need to be honest. That does need courage, but it’s really simple. If you’re honest to yourself then everything else will sort itself out.

What’s your experience been like playing Leon?

I think he’s so brave and that’s so cool. He’s super passionate and he’s not afraid of anything, but at the same time he’s tender. He’s a great football player – muscular and athletic – but then he can be very tender and I love that. We wanted to show that you can be both. You can be hard on the pitch and tender at home, it doesn’t have to be either/or. I think all boys should know that – that you can be strong and still tender; it’s not mutually exclusive.

Would you say this has been your favourite role so far in your 14 years of being in the industry?

Yeah! What I love so much about this is that Leon is so mature for his age. He’s got traits that we wish to see in people. He has traits that I would love to see in myself. You aspire to be like him. He pays for someone else’s sins; he’s a martyr. But on the other hand, Mario is a fascinating person as well. I think what’s so difficult in these professions is the limelight and with these characters especially they’re so mature and so strong for their age. These guys are 20, and who can say they had a public coming out and had to move to another city and start a new life at that age? It’s fascinating.

And finally, what do you hope people take from the film?

First of all, I want people to take away that there’s really good footballers who can be gay. They’ll be mates with their teammates, they won’t touch you in the shower, and they’ll be the best fucking players in the world. Those aren’t in opposition to each other. The second thing would be, “How can you hate that?” How can you hate people who just want to be loved. The third thing is what I said before, that we need to allow masculinity to include tenderness, not only towards men but towards women and all people. It’s very important that men learn that tenderness is a strength.

Photography - Benjamin Whitely

Fashion - Kamran Rajput

Grooming - Kristina Vidic

Gay Times July 2018 Issue