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Article Last Updated: 06/12/2006 02:31:50 AM PDT
Transgender teen's tragedy to air on Lifetime
Portrayal of Gwen Araujo 'very emotional' for actor
By Eleni Economides, STAFF WRITER
NEWARK — When J.D. Pardo auditioned for the role of slain transgender teen Gwen Araujo, he first embarked on a physical transformation. Pardo went to Victoria's Secret and bought a bra, went to Lane Bryant and bought clothing, and had his sister do his makeup.
"I wanted to dress up and walk around to see people's reactions," Pardo said.
When he found out that he had received the part, Pardo began to research the life of the real Gwen Araujo and the lives of transgender people.
It suddenly became more than a physical transformation for Pardo — it was a moving experience.
"It was very emotional to know I had the part," he said. "As an actor, I can take it off. Transgenders deal with this every day."
Shot over a month in Vancouver, B.C., "A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story" will air at 9 p.m. June 19 on the Lifetime Channel. The film chronicles the life of the Newark transgender teen who was killed in the early hours of Oct. 4, 2002, when it was learned she was biologically male.
While Pardo plays Araujo, Mercedes Ruehl plays Sylvia Guerrero, Araujo's mother. Not much focus is placed on the men convicted in Araujo's slaying; instead, the film tells the story of Gwen's decision to live as a female and the struggles that led to her family's acceptance of her.
Weeks before its premiere, anxious viewers have peppered the Lifetime Web site message boards with more than 500 messages, and Lifetime.com Webmaster Rachel Cohen isn't really surprised.
"We've gotten a few hundred posts, which is high given the movie hasn't aired yet, but not very surprising given the emotional subject matter and the high-profile nature of the case," she said.
Pardo met with Araujo's mother during production, after most of the film had been shot.
"So many things were going through my mind when I met her. ... I can't imagine what this must have been like for Sylvia, for Gwen, the kids. I almost felt like I was insulting her in a way,"
"But Sylvia kept telling me, 'You're doing great' and 'Just hang in there.'"
Heavily engrossed with his role as Araujo, Pardo felt that he had a message to convey through his acting. In the final scene, as he re-enacted the moments leading up to Araujo's homicide, it all came together.
"I really realized the significance of this movie as we were doing the final scene (in the bathroom, when Araujo's male genitalia are discovered). When we rehearsed it, I realized how significant it was," he said.
"I'm an actor, but the story touched me, and I wanted to portray Gwen accurately. Transgenderism is a hard subject for people to digest. You can't make people believe what you believe, and whether they believe the whole theory behind transgenderism or not, it's important for them to understand that what happened that night was wrong."
"When I came to the movie set and I was in (Pardo's) trailer, I gave him a Gwen Stefani CD to (play)," Guerrero said.
"I told him not to worry — this is what God wants and this story will touch hearts," she said.
The film begins with a young Eddie Araujo as he struggles with his gender identity as a child, and follows him to his decision to live as a girl.
The tone of the movie is exemplified by a poignant scene in which Eddie wears makeup and earrings to high school for the first time.
Walking through the hallway to the tune of Gwen Stefani's "Hey Baby," Eddie is harassed and heckled by other students.
When Guerrero comes to pick up Eddie and discovers he is wearing makeup, she scolds him firmly to "Go wash that makeup off your face!"
Eddie shouts back: "I hate my life! There's something wrong with me!"
Guerrero replies: "God made you this way."
With mascara-streaked tears streaming down his face, Eddie wails, "If God made me this way, then he's a sadist!"
The real-life Guerrero said the period between Eddie's transformation to Gwen and the killing was not easy. Guerrero had trouble accepting that Gwen was living as a girl, and when she did accept it, she faced criticism from her traditional Latino family and community members.
"We didn't go to the mall the next day and buy girl clothes," she said.
"It was a slow transition, and that was because I feared society. What I understood later was that Gwen was born this way — her brain was the opposite of her anatomy. It took courage for Gwen to be herself, and that's part of the reason why she resorted to drugs and alcohol toward the end of her life. She was depressed, but I loved her as Eddie and I loved her as Gwen."
The film also reveals a little-known truth about Gwen — she had been dating a man in the years leading up to her death.
Gloria Allred, executive co-producer of the movie, has screened most of the film and is content with the message the movie conveys.
"The film is authentic in terms of a mother dealing with this course of events and a transgender child's acceptance of her own identity," she said. "I always tell people, it's not about what (Gwen) did about who she was, but how others dealt with it. She didn't want to live a lie.
"I'm excited that so many will be able to watch this movie and see what a mother's unconditional love for her child is all about. Gwen was a beloved member of her family. Her last words were, 'Don't do this, I have a family.'"
Shelley Evans, who has written many other screenplays for Lifetime, said she felt a special attachment while working on "A Girl Like Me."
"I felt a greater responsibility to this film than anything else I've ever worked on," said Evans, who spent more than a year researching and writing the screenplay, and four days with Sylvia Guerrero talking about Gwen.
But this was not about writing a courtroom drama screenplay for Evans.
"After reading pages and pages of court transcripts, it blew my mind. It's easy to be drawn into the ludicrous arguments (in court), but the reality is that there is no excuse. There was no debate in my mind whether or not these men had a right to kill her," she said.
"This story is about greater understanding, not revenge. It's a chance to improve ourselves."
The theme of angels arises frequently throughout the film.
"Well, I've always loved angels because my life was never easy," explains Guerrero. "Angels always watch over you, they keep you safe. At her funeral, I compared her to an angel. ... Now Gwen is my angel."
Staff writer Eleni Economides can be reached at (510) 353-7006 or email@example.com.