On paper, a show like Veneno reads like the kind of project often described as a risky proposition — a niche story destined to remain at the margins of mainstream fare. The Spanish series is an ambitious, decades-spanning ode to the life of the late trans icon Cristina “La Veneno” Ortiz Rodríguez, a sex worker who rose to fame in the late 1990s as a no-holds-barred guest on late-night television and became an infamous media personality, known as much for her revealing outfits as her prickly wit. Starring a formidable ensemble of trans actresses of all ages, this unabashedly queer drama is a celebration of Veneno, myth and woman alike, and a love letter to the community she’s come to represent.
But creators Javier Ambrossi and Javier Calvo, endearingly known as “Los Javis,” never approached Veneno as a niche endeavor. On the contrary, and in keeping with the work they’ve been producing together for the better part of their decade as a couple, they dreamed up Veneno with the hopes of pushing back against such gatekeeping.
“I think when the industry talks about niche audiences — that whole, Oh, this is only for a small number of people — it has more to do with personal biases than actual numbers,” Ambrossi tells Vulture.
To that end, the runaway success of Veneno cannot be overstated. An award-winning ratings hit in Spain — and a word-of-mouth phenomenon that’s found stateside fans in RuPaul, Mj Rodríguez, and Janet Mock, among others — the show also boasts a distinctly pandemic-era marker of popularity: When its first three episodes were released theatrically last year, they topped Spain’s box office, dethroning Christopher Nolan’s Tenet in the process.
Such an accomplishment, which Ambrossi and Calvo share with gleeful pride as they take stock of their past year over Zoom, is but another tangible reminder of how far the two have come. Ambrossi thinks back, for instance, to those many bit roles he took as an aspiring actor in the early 2000s, a time when his childhood dreams of being a writer seemed like an impossibility. And while Calvo had more success — especially with the groundbreaking role of Fer, an openly gay teen on the hit 2008 show Física o Química — he, too, found that few opportunities followed. By the time they met and began dating in 2010, they decided to forgo the industry altogether and make their own content.
In the decade since, they’ve grown alongside their ever-more-ambitious projects. Their cult hit musical La Llamada — about two teenage girls at a Catholic summer camp, featuring a Whitney Houston–belting vision of God — began its initial eight-night run in 2013 in Madrid and became an underground hit, spawning a 2017 Goya-nominated feature film, several international iterations, and a Spanish tour that recently restarted following a pandemic hiatus. Similarly, Paquita Salas, a 2016 indie web series the two created as a way to hone their filmmaking skills, soon turned its titular washed-up ’90s talent agent (played by Brays Efe in a killer wig and bold lip) into a meme-ready sensation. Netflix picked up the campy comedy and ordered three more seasons, including a fourth pending release.
Veneno is both the culmination of Ambrossi and Calvo’s work thus far and a thrilling calling card for what’s to come. As the first major project under their new production company, Suma Latina Producciones, the series was an intentional step forward in terms of what kinds of stories the two hope to continue telling.
“What do we want to do now that we’re in this position where we can do whatever we want?” Calvo remembers asking himself. “And we decided to do something important — something that didn’t just feed our ego, something that could give back to our community and that could be of service. And we knew that meant telling Veneno’s story.”
But they didn’t want to write a straight-up biopic, one that would follow familiar tropes and well-worn narrative beats. Taking inspiration from films as disparate as Casino, Goodfellas, and My Week with Marilyn, they opted for an approach that would fragment and filter the audience’s understanding of Cristina. Valeria Vegas, who’d written Cristina’s memoir, ¡Digo! Ni puta ni santa. Las memorias de La Veneno (Listen! Neither whore nor saint. The memories of La Veneno), served as the perfect character through which to structure the series. Veneno would become a hydralike narrative: As Valeria (Lola Rodríguez) gets Cristina (Isabel Torres), now in self-imposed media exile following her 2006 prison release, to unearth her own stories for a college assignment that morphs into a full-blown manuscript, the audience witnesses Veneno’s life perhaps not the way she lived it, but the way she tells it. The many flashbacks that make up the bulk of the show depict actresses Jedet and later Daniela Santiago inhabiting younger versions of Cristina during and after her transition in 1990s Madrid. They’re juxtaposed with Valeria’s own transition under the guidance not only of Cristina, but the many trans women she meets through her.
By telling Veneno’s story through Valeria’s eyes, Los Javis wield a bolder form of storytelling that plays with the blurred lines between fact and fiction. As Cristina looks back on her life as young Joselito in Arda, where her homophobic mother all but casts her out of their home, and reminisces about her early days walking the streets in Madrid’s Parque del Oeste, she finds herself borrowing from different genres, often aggrandizing her own achievements, making them more epic, more fabulous (and, for that, utterly beguiling) than they were.
For Los Javis, authenticity needn’t be synonymous with veracity. Cristina’s flights of fancy, her campy attitude, and her penchant for exaggeration remain central to her iconicity. It made sense to build the entire series around the way Cristina indulged in myth making to fight for her own survival. “We knew we could create anything,” Ambrossi adds. “We could stage a scene straight out of a superhero flick — like when she bites off a [fellow sex worker’s] nipple out in the rain — because at the heart of it, we were anchored in truth.”
That truth was their North Star, the guiding principle that softened the weight of responsibility that came with bringing Cristina’s life to the screen in what would undoubtedly be a pioneering series in Spanish television. Los Javis nurtured a collaborative spirit in their writers room (which included both Vegas and trans writer-director Ian de la Rosa) and on set (the cast included Cristina’s real-life BFF Paca la Piraña as herself, as well as more than a dozen trans and nonbinary performers), empowering everyone involved to bring their own truth to the material.
“This was going to be the first series in Spanish history starring trans actresses,” Ambrossi recalls. “We needed to do it justice. There was no way around it. And it was a lot. You know: write it well, direct it well. But then, also, we made sure that every department employed trans people. Every single one. We’re talking costumes, hair and makeup, our drivers, sound, lights, our camera crew, all of them. We knew this show had to look beautiful on the outside, but be real on the inside.”
As for a second season, Calvo is hopeful but measured: “If we were to do it — and right now it’s not on our plate just yet — it’d be because we’ve come to learn a lot about the world around Cristina; about 1980s Madrid and even before that, when we had a dictatorship here in Spain. It’d be about those pioneers from our community, who we know so little about still.”
“It’d be about continuing to write a love letter to the [Spanish] LGBT community,” Ambrossi clarifies. “It’d be a continuation of Veneno’s philosophy more than its story.”
Audiences may have to wait a while, though, as Ambrossi and Calvo have a full slate of projects in the works already. They were signed by CAA just a few months into 2021, and they’re also gazing beyond the roles of writer-director to more public-facing work, dabbling in everything from reality television competitions to fashion lines. Embracing their roles as public figures is something the two now see as central to their own careers, even if it’s taken them a while to warm up to such a proposition.
“It’s been hard, in a way,” Calvo notes. “Especially moving past our own prejudices. Because every time we said yes to any of these other projects, we kept telling ourselves that in the end we wanted to be seen first and foremost as serious filmmakers. But slowly we came to see that approach as a really outdated one.”
So they channeled one of their own creations: Paquita Salas. As the driven (if oftentimes hapless) talent agent tells her would-be clients, performers in the 21st century have to be “360.” It’s not enough to be a triple threat or handily shuttle between comedy and drama. It’s about understanding that being a public figure nowadays necessitates a well-rounded approach to one’s career. As she puts it, you never know if the director of that milk ad will be the next Alejandro Amenábar.
Paquita’s cheeky advice is the reason Los Javis worry less about boxing themselves in. Self-described workaholics, the two find the most joy in diving headfirst into an eclectic career brand that feels distinctly millennial. “We’re part of this DIY generation,” Calvo says, “and I think we’ve just learned to do all sorts of things from all kinds of different places. So why wouldn’t we just tap into all of that?”
“I think with La Llamada, with Paquita Salas, and with Veneno, we’ve always focused on this ideal of freedom,” says Ambrossi. “We’ve always been interested in exploring what it means to be true to yourself. And I wouldn’t be comfortable writing about that without also staying true to that in my life. You can’t just write it. You have to live by it. That’s also why we’re so open and public about our relationship.”
Three-quarters of the way through 2021, the two have already amassed an enviable tasting platter of projects that feel distinctly “Javis.” Calvo kicked off the year with a return to Física o Química for a reunion special, with an Ambrossi cameo to boot. The two followed it up with a return to Spain’s The Masked Singer and the unveiling of Drag Race: España, which found the two having a ball as judges of the Spanish Ru spinoff. They scored plum appearances in the kickoff episode of the much-awaited variety show B.S.O., are hard at work as executive producers on the upcoming series Cardo, and even found time to launch the latest collection of their As If clothing brand. All while keeping addictively active social media accounts that chronicle Ambrossi’s reading habits, Calvo’s ever-changing hairstyles, adorable throwback pics, and plenty of gushing praise for one another — a virtual extension of their joyful, campy oeuvre.
After a decade of working independently, at a moment when they’re on the brink of a global breakthrough, Los Javis feel emboldened to continue following their gut and paving their own wayward road forward. And with that, the ethos of their work remains as simple as ever: “No es para pocos, es para todos.” It’s not for the few, it’s for them all.
This interview was conducted in Spanish and translated into English by the author.