Breakout star Luka Kain had never vogued before filming Saturday Church, an indie film about Ulysses, a genderqueer teen finding community in the New York City ballroom scene. "I had a one hour crash course, [...] I learned three moves, [...] and I worked those three moves to high heaven." What's the secret to this dance style that originated out of 1980s queer culture? "You gotta have good knees!" the 17-year-old told host Ophira Eisenberg. "And this sounds cheesy, but be yourself, cause voguing is a form of self-celebration."
In fact, places like Saturday Church— which is a real program that provides services to LGBTQ youth in New York City's West Village— put this kind of self-expression on the map. As a program volunteer, the film's director noticed that despite the terrible circumstances many of these kids found themselves in, "there was a through-line in all of them, in that they were beautifully creative." In a nearby gymnasium, they'd hold elaborate balls, which inspired him. This artistic escapism manifests itself in the film's musical numbers.
Starring in a feature film at such a young age was "a totally new experience," but one that Kain didn't shy away from. "The kind of arc and beauty of the character overshadowed every kind of nerve and doubt I had," he told Eisenberg. "I felt proud and attached to Ulysses [...] just for becoming their own person." Kain and his "momager" were personally touched by the story, as Kain's sister is a trans woman. "I thought it would be nice to, I guess, support her in that way by doing a film about it."
Kain hopes the movie's core message of the importance of found family will resonate with all kind of audiences, including young people everywhere that identify with his character. "I want kids who see the film [...] to know that there are people out there who will love, you know, every part of them, no matter who they are."
Other than being an actor, singer, and dancer, Kain is a self-proclaimed "big science nerd, and nerd in general!" His love for Pokémon started when his mom gave him a GameBoy— "which she still regrets today"— and is team "Charizard all the way!" We quizzed this Pokémaster on the game— he's gotta guess 'em all!
On taking on his first starring role
I didn't have time to be nervous, I just had to be my best self. [...] So I felt the need to kind of rise to the occasion.
On often being the film's only ambassador at film festivals around the country
It was a really great experience. And also it was a, uh, a really great application to my resume for college.
JONATHAN COULTON: This is ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of puzzles, word games and trivia. I'm Jonathan Coulton, here with puzzle guru Art Chung. Now here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
Thank you, Jonathan. It's time to welcome our special guest. He's the breakout star of the new movie musical "Saturday Church." Please welcome Luka Kain.
EISENBERG: Hi, Luka.
LUKA KAIN: Hello.
EISENBERG: How's it going?
KAIN: It's going very good.
EISENBERG: You're 17.
KAIN: Yes, I'm 17. I'm a senior in high school. So, you know, that's going horribly.
KAIN: But it's exciting. I finished all my applications at the very last minute...
KAIN: ...As close as possible as I could...
KAIN: ...Just because that's how I do things, I guess.
EISENBERG: Well, that's pretty much how everyone does things.
EISENBERG: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But that's great. And then you are in this movie "Saturday Church..."
KAIN: Yes, "Saturday Church," the whole reason (laughter).
EISENBERG: This is your first starring role.
KAIN: Yes. When I was in first grade, I think, I was in a movie called "Adam." And I had a two-minute cameo where we talked about the emperor's new clothes. But now, this has been a totally new experience. Carrying a film was amazing. It was an intense shoot. It was 20 days and nine-hour days because I was only 16 at the time. So, you know, the union has rules.
EISENBERG: Yeah, it's barely legal.
KAIN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. We really made sure to make it barely legal.
EISENBERG: So just to explain, what is Saturday church?
KAIN: Yes, yeah.
EISENBERG: Saturday church is a real thing.
EISENBERG: And just let us know what that is.
KAIN: "Saturday Church" is the name of the movie, but it's also a program in the West Village at a church called St. Luke In The Fields. And it houses or takes care of, feeds LGBTQ youth who are on the streets. They give them counseling - help finding jobs and health care. And the director - Damon Cardasis is the director and writer, and he's amazing. And he interned there or volunteered there for a couple of months. And he met these kids who had these terrifying stories about being beaten half to death or kicked out by their loved ones just because of who they were.
But there was a throughline in all of them in that they were beautifully creative. And in the church, there was a gymnasium right across the street or right next to it where they would hold balls. And they would vogue and have these amazing costumes and these competitions. And it was amazing to see for him. And so he wanted to make that a big part of the film, which is why "Saturday Church," the film, is about a young child who finds themselves on the streets, eventually, throughout the film. But it's mainly and largely a musical because of how important Damon thought music was to the community.
EISENBERG: M-hm (ph).
KAIN: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
EISENBERG: How did you get involved in this film?
KAIN: My momager (ph) - my mom and my manager.
KAIN: ...Lisa Calli. Calli Company - little plug there for her.
EISENBERG: Little plug for mom?
KAIN: Yeah (laughter).
EISENBERG: You're amazing.
KAIN: She got the breakdown for the movie - which is, like, the synopsis - for one of her other clients, actually. And when she read it, she asked me if I wanted to tell this story for a number of reasons but mainly because I have a sister who is a trans woman. And she came out after we shot the film. But we knew a little bit about her kind of struggle and relationship with our family. So I thought it would be nice to, I guess, support her in that way by doing a film about it.
EISENBERG: But were you also nervous about taking on this role?
KAIN: A little bit. When I first read the script, there were some intense parts. But I felt proud and attached to Ulysses, which is the name of my character...
KAIN: ...Just for becoming their own person. The kind of arc and beauty of the character overshadowed every kind of nerve and doubt I had.
EISENBERG: And this movie required - and it's a movie musical so it required of you, not just acting...
KAIN: Yep (laughter).
EISENBERG: ...But also dancing. You said voguing, right? There was this whole ballroom scene that involved voguing. It's a underground scene in New York. A lot of us know it from the 1991 documentary "Paris Is Burning." Did you know how to vogue before you...
KAIN: I did not, no, not at all.
KAIN: I had a one-hour crash course lesson with Keela Beja (ph). I learned three moves. And for the kind of montage I have to do in the film...
KAIN: ...I worked those three moves to high heaven.
KAIN: I did my best. And I think I, you know...
EISENBERG: There's a great scene where you - because your character is also an altar boy.
KAIN: Yes, yeah (laughter).
EISENBERG: So you are, as an altar boy, you had very subtly...
EISENBERG: ...Sort of practicing your voguing...
EISENBERG: ...For a different kind of church.
KAIN: Voguing while, you know, I was cleaning religious artifacts and bopping my head and...
KAIN: I got to say - a little cute moment, you know.
EISENBERG: Yeah, do you have - for any of us that would like to master voguing, do you have any tips?
KAIN: You got to have good knees.
EISENBERG: So not for the elderly. I get it.
EISENBERG: You got to have good knees, OK.
KAIN: Yeah, yep and just...
EISENBERG: Because you're down a lot.
EISENBERG: It's a lot of crouching.
KAIN: A lot of crouching. Don't skip leg day. You got to really...
KAIN: You got to...
EISENBERG: (Laughter) Got it.
KAIN: And this sounds cheesy but be yourself because voguing is a form of self-celebration. It's all about, like, kind of representing your beauty and expressing yourself as hardly as you can. And it's really an amazing art form. It's great.
EISENBERG: You know, are you thinking, you know, maybe the next time you go out dancing that you'd work in some moves? Is that like your style? Yeah?
KAIN: Oh, yeah. No I've definitely showed off the duck walk, which is like, you kind of crouch down as you're walking.
KAIN: And it's - it is intense. And that's where the knees come in, I think, the most.
EISENBERG: Love and acceptance are really the core of the theme of this movie and the message of it. What do you hope viewers take away from "Saturday Church?"
KAIN: There are lots of different people that I think should see this film. One, and most importantly, are children and young adults who identify with Ulysses in any way shape or form, whether it be about their sexuality or their gender identity. One of the core ideas behind the film is found family because Ulysses finds a family within the Saturday church program even though his blood - his related family isn't as supportive as they should be. He finds love and acceptance with them. And it's just as important to have - it's just as valid to have that found family as it is to have that kind of blood relation.
I want kids to - who see the film who are in that situation to know that there are people out there who will love, you know, every part of them no matter who they are. With my sister, she hasn't been able to see the film yet, unfortunately, but I'm very excited for her to. And I hope I at least helped a little bit in helping her come out.
EISENBERG: So you've acted right from the beginning.
EISENBERG: You've modeled. You sing.
KAIN: Yeah (laughter).
EISENBERG: But you were applying for college.
KAIN: Yeah, yeah.
KAIN: I'm a big science nerd and nerd in general.
KAIN: Yeah. It's good to be a nerd. Physics is a big kind of love of mine. I kind of want to do that in college. I also want to really continue acting.
KAIN: And I think actors should have more than one, you know, craft. I think it's important to be well-rounded. And I'm glad I'm on that path.
EISENBERG: Yeah. I would take the physics. But then you can fall back on the acting if you...
KAIN: Yeah, you know, always have a plan.
EISENBERG: All right, Luka. Are you ready to play an ASK ME ANOTHER game?
KAIN: Yes, I very much am.
EISENBERG: Fantastic. Luka Kain, everybody.
EISENBERG: So, Luka, we did some exhaustive research on you. One of our producers checked out your Instagram and noticed that you are a huge fan of "Pokemon."
KAIN: Yes, I am.
EISENBERG: How did you get into it?
KAIN: My mom made a decision, which she still regrets today, and that's that she got me a Game Boy. And I have been obsessed with video games ever since but mostly "Pokemon" because that was the first and/or second game I got on there. It was "Fire Red" Charizard all the way.
EISENBERG: OK. That's your favorite?
EISENBERG: OK. So we wrote a "Pokemon" quiz for you called Gotta Guess 'Em All.
KAIN: (Laughter) There we go.
EISENBERG: If you do well enough, listener Cody Pinnack (ph) from Marion, Ohio, will win an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube. So here we go.
As of January 2018, how many Pokemon are there? - A, 151 - B, 496 - C, 807?
KAIN: C, 807?
EISENBERG: That is correct.
EISENBERG: There were 151 in the original Game Boy games, but there's new ones all the time.
KAIN: All the time - and they're not always great. They're not always, you know, grade-A "Pokemon" designs.
KAIN: I'm so sorry.
EISENBERG: It's sort of they ran out of ideas.
EISENBERG: They can't - right. How many fantastic ones can there be?
KAIN: (Laughter) Only a few.
EISENBERG: Only a few - "Pokemon" was invented by Satoshi Tajiri, who says he was inspired by what childhood memory? A, collecting insects - B, getting into fights with other children or C, eating the Hawaiian raw fish salad called poke?
KAIN: I'm going to say A, collecting insects.
EISENBERG: Correct again, yeah.
KAIN: Yeah. That makes sense. That makes sense.
EISENBERG: Yes. The word Pokemon comes from the words pocket and monsters, which we all know...
KAIN: Ye, of course.
EISENBERG: ...Is exactly how I see all insects - just a little monster I want to put in my pocket.
In 2011, Republican candidate for president Herman Cain made headlines with a strange "Pokemon"-related story. What was it? A, during a debate he called Mitt Romney a Squirtle.
EISENBERG: B, he criticized "Pokemon" cards as being gambling for kids. Or C, during a speech, he said he was quoting a poet and then recited a song lyric from "Pokemon: The Movie 2000."
KAIN: I feel like I recognize A from something. Is that correct, A?
EISENBERG: He called Mitt Romney a Squirtle?
KAIN: Yeah. I feel like I heard that somewhere.
EISENBERG: It's a delicious idea, but it's not correct.
EISENBERG: It was actually during a speech. He said he was quoting a poet and then recited a line from the song "Pokemon: The Movie 2000."
KAIN: Hey. That is a good movie, don't even.
EISENBERG: Well, the line was life can be a challenge. Life can seem impossible. But it's never easy when there's so much on the line.
KAIN: Wow - deep stuff, really deep.
EISENBERG: Yeah. He said it was a poet, but that's a lyric from a song called "The Power Of One" performed by Donna Summer.
EISENBERG: OK. We've got a couple of more. Which is a true story that happened in connection with the augmented reality game "Pokemon Go"? A, it was banned in Iran because of safety concerns. B, two people broke into the Toledo Zoo after hours to catch Pokemon. Or C, the National Park Service issued a statement encouraging visitors to look up from their "Pokemon" games and enjoy nature.
KAIN: I believe it's C, they were...
EISENBERG: Not only is that correct, but they're all true.
KAIN: Yep. Oh, wow.
EISENBERG: They're all true.
KAIN: Oh, my God.
KAIN: That's insane.
EISENBERG: I know, they should have made "Pokemon Go Home."
EISENBERG: What's the next one? OK. This is your last clue. Which honor was recently awarded to Pikachu? He was named cultural ambassador to Osaka, Japan. B, he was named a CoverGirl blush makeup model in honor of his bright red cheeks. Or C, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography.
KAIN: I got to say everyone is obsessed with Pikachu even though he's not even that good of a Pokemon, you know?
EISENBERG: Love it. Why is he not so good, Luka, why?
KAIN: He doesn't have a good, you know, base stat total.
EISENBERG: Yeah. I'm with you.
KAIN: I think it's A, though.
EISENBERG: That's right. He's named cultural ambassador to Osaka, Japan. That is correct. You know your Pokemon. Puzzle guru Art Chung, how did Luka do?
ART CHUNG: Congratulations, Luka. You and listener Cody Pinnack have both won ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cubes.
KAIN: Thank you very much.
EISENBERG: Such a pleasure - and thank you for giving us a real reason to write a "Pokemon" quiz. So...
KAIN: Thank you.
EISENBERG: Luka is the star of "Saturday Church." Give it up for Luka Kain, everybody.
(APPLAUSE) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.