“They probably expected us to say someone like Julio Iglesias, but one of us said, ‘La Veneno,’” Calvo tells Variety during a Zoom interview from the couple’s home in Madrid. “It was like a revelation. One man was looking down at his papers and looked up and was like, ‘What did you say? Who?’ And I was just like, ‘She was a transgender woman. She was famous, but she was a prostitute. And then she went to jail.’ We started to develop this TV show in our heads.”
Cristina “La Veneno” Ortiz was a pop culture superstar in Spain in the 1990s. She was discovered working the streets and became a sensation after her appearance on the late-night talk show “Esta Noche Cruzamos el Mississippi.” Her spotlight faded long before her death four years ago at age 52.
Calvo and Ambrossi, known affectionately in Spain as Los Javis, eventually secured backing for their Ortiz series by Astremedia. “Veneno” premiered in Spain earlier this year and will make its U.S. debut when HBO Max drops the first two of its eight episodes on Nov. 19. The show follows Ortiz’s childhood in a small fishing village in Spain, her running away from an abusive and homophobic mother when she was a teenager, her transition, and her later years when she is befriended by a trans writer Valeria Vegas (played by Lola Rodriguez) to pen her memoir.
“As gay men, we grew up without stories, without mirrors to look at or to guide our lives,” Ambrossi said. “We thought La Veneno was the perfect way to talk about how important it is to be visible and how it is not important to be perfect. It’s important to show yourself and that’s a political statement to be yourself that is undeniable.”
Ortiz is portrayed by three trans women. Jedet plays her when Ortiz began her transition. Daniela Santiago is Ortiz during her rise to fame and Isabel Torres plays her later in life.
Speaking from her home in Spain, Jedet tells Variety that she had already begun her hormone treatments when she was cast in the series. She delayed her final procedures because she had to be male-appearing on the show and didn’t want to give up the chance to play someone she admired for so long.
“La Veneno’s reality wasn’t seen before,” Jedet said. “We weren’t used to having a woman like her on the TV but the country fell in love with her. But it was for a short period of time because when the show ended, she had nothing. She was kind of a lost woman. She didn’t know what to do and she was surrounded with the wrong people. I think she made a lot of bad decisions. I think that maybe if she had good friends and someone that loved her, maybe she would be alive.”
Jedet praised Calvo and Ambrossi for casting so many trans performers to play the trans parts. “It was revolutionary because we’re used to seeing male actors playing trans roles with wigs,” she said. “We are not men in wigs. We are women.”
They also made sure to hire as many trans people to work behind the camera as well. “If you want to create the stories about the LGBT community, you have to do it with LGBT people,” Ambrossi said. “That’s important because these are our stories and no one can tell them like we can.”
Early on, Ambrossi and Calvo received support from Pedro Almodóvar. “He would ask us how it was going when we saw him,” Ambrossi said.
Just as they were on the verge of casting Santiago, they ran into the legendary filmmaker at a party. “We said, ‘We want to show you Daniela’s audition because you are god. If you like her, then everyone is going to like it,’” Ambrossi recalled.
Almodóvar approved, but admitted, “I didn’t think you were going to find someone.”
Jedet says her next goal is to be a “chica Almodóvar.” “I want to play a narco traffic girl who sells drugs and has guns,” she said. “I am a bad ass.”
Ortiz’s official cause of death was attributed to a fall she had suffered in her apartment, but conspiracy theories claim it was much more sinister. One popular belief is that she was murdered after she wrote in her memoir, published just a month before her death, that she had sexual relations with several powerful men.
But the series doesn’t provide any answers. “The show tries to be a tribute and not an investigation show,” Ambrossi said.
Jedet added, “They are trying to open again the case and see what really happened.”
A theme throughout the series is Ortiz’s unsuccessful attempts to gain her mother’s acceptance. “I think that is why the show has been so popular with people outside of the LGBT community because in the end of the day, this is a show about someone who is desperately searching for love,” Calvo said. “That’s something everyone can relate to.”