Before El Chapo, Kate del Castillo Stole Hearts Playing a Trans Prison Inmate

The soap opera star's life took a B-movie turn when she hooked Sean Penn up with a Mexican drug lord, but she already had camp credentials from her starring role in 2012 prison drama "K-11."

by Mitchell Sunderland
Jan 15 2016, 6:05pm

Screenshot via Youtube

Before she got down with El Chapo, Mexican soap opera star Kate del Castillo stole hearts as a trans jail inmate in the B-movie K-11. She played Mousey, the self-proclaimed "queen" of the Los Angeles LGBT wing. The trailer's tagline is "Some places should only exist in nightmares." Although the film is in English, it failed to transform Castillo into an American star. This week, though, the performer finally achieved infamy thanks to her appearance in Sean Penn's Rolling Stone interview with the alleged drug lord accused of being responsible for 70,000 deaths.

According to Penn, del Castillo brokered the interview between him and El Chapo. She came into the drug lord's circle around 2012, when she tweeted her support for him. The actress had previously starred as the traficante mas famosa, a.k.a. the "most famous drug trafficker," on the telenovela La Reina del Sur, and now she was friendly with the real world's most famous drug trafficker. Penn said he knew about the friendship through his and del Castillo's mutual friend, who introduced the performers, and alleges he asked the soap actress star to set up an interview with El Chapo. When Penn finally ate dinner with the drug lord, del Castillo joined them.

NBC reports del Castillo has worked in Mexican TV and film for over two decades. In the last 15 years, she has also worked steady in Hollywood, albeit without achieving American fame—she's played a regular on PBS's American Family, voiced a character in Cars, and guested on Weeds (as a drug dealer of course).

The TV star lacks the nuance of Meryl Streep, but she can dominate a screen as well as Faye Dunaway, the 1970s Academy Award-winning actress whose overacting transformed her into a camp icon in the 1980s. In K-11, Del Castillo terrorizes a male music executive named Raymond Saxx Jr. When the businessman wakes up in the LGBT ward of a jail, he must submit to del Castillo's character Mousey. Although Mousey is a prisoner, she runs the show.

She walks past bunk beds yelling, "Wake up, you motherfuckers!" and in one scene, she sits on a bed in her bra talking to male guards. "I'm the queen," she tells them. She flicks her hair. "And this is my kingdom." Despite the film's camp appeal, however, it lacks trans actresses playing the lead trans roles, while depicting living with trans women as a straight man's hell. The movie plays into stereotypes about trans people as criminals.

"Portraying trans women as potential predators is unfortunate, because most often trans people are the ones whose lives are in danger," trans actor Sawyer Devuyst tells Broadly. "I think a huge factor is the lack of diverse trans visibility in the media and the same old tired tropes being used in storylines: perps, victims, transition stories."

Yet, because of its camp factor, K-11 feels like an LGBT movie in ways. Thanks to her high-arched eyebrows, del Castillo looks equally like Divine and the Master from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As a telenovela star, del Castillo acts like camp icon more than a trained actress. The television genre belongs to a long camp tradition. Last year, art historian Camille Paglia told Salon that campy, "tear-jerker 'women's pictures' during the Lana Turner era" influenced 1950s soap operas. In turn, these early TV shows inspired both prime time soaps, like the 1980s show Dynasty, and the telenovelas of the 1990s.

Paglia sees "the soul of soap operas" as "a female genre—its tender emotions, ruthless rivalries and theatrical sexual exhibitionism." In a 1994 New York Times article, Kristin C. Moran, the then assistant professor of communications at the University of San Diego, viewed a key difference between American soap operas and telenovelas, which have since become del Castillo's mainstay: ''When I see English soap operas, they are totally false--they make life seem so easy,'' one Latino teenager told Moran in her study. "'They show that the best way to live life is to have money, and with the telenovelas, they show poverty and the poor who are fighting their way through to lead a successful life.''

Del Castillo is acting, but now she's become a real camp story. A soap opera star parading around with El Chapo is campy. Camp typically goes to dangerous places. The ridiculousness of camp films often stems from them going to far out places. John Waters's Pink Flamingos told the story of criminals competing to be the trashiest people in the world (one character eats dog shit); it's not surprising Waters has considered Manson girl Leslie Van Houten his muse. Between El Chapo, the soaps, and K-11, del Castillo is a perfect camp icon. 2016 has found its camp girl.

Sean Penn
El Chapo
Kate del Castillo