Peter Sollett and Victor Rasuk: Mad about the boy

The tale of a sexed-up teenager living on New York's Lower East Side has bowled over festival audiences this year. Ryan Gilbey meets the director and the star of Raising Victor Vargas
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As Peter Sollett is explaining how he came to make his debut film - a delightful, on-the-money coming-of-age tale called Raising Victor Vargas - I realise that something is wrong. He seems distracted; snippy, even. He's telling me about Bensonhurst, the Brooklyn neighbourhood where he grew up.

"It's mainly Jewish and Italian. Saturday Night Fever country. Spike Lee makes fun of it. It's close to Bedford-Stuyvesant, and historically there's been racial tensions between those neighbourhoods. My childhood was spent on one side of the street. My parents wouldn't let me cross to the other side." I nod solemnly, and ask if that was because of the racial divides. "No, it was because I was a little kid."

The source of Sollett's restlessness soon becomes apparent. I have requested an interview with both him and his leading man, the 18-year-old newcomer Victor Rasuk, and we are shooting the breeze before the actor arrives. Sollett hasn't seen Rasuk for a while, and he is exuding an affectionate nervousness in anticipation of their reunion. "I thought we'd get to see more of each other promoting the film, but people only ever want to talk to one of us. We're always being separated." Like troublemakers in class, I say. Sollett warms to the idea. "Yeah! Hey - you two who made the movie! You get over there!" His laughter fades suddenly. He rearranges the cushions in his armchair. He might be preparing for a blind date.

Eventually Rasuk pads in and collapses on the sofa, rubbing his eyes with his knuckles. "Hi, cutie," says Sollett, without a hint of camp. "Want a coffee?" Rasuk mumbles something. Sollett: "What's that?" Rasuk (a shade scornfully): "Water". Sollett does the honours.

The director adopts a brotherly, even paternal, attitude toward his young star, though Sollett himself, the son of a newspaper photographer, is only 26. He has curtains of dark hair swept back, and wears a tidy chin-strap of stubble. Meanwhile, the smouldering Rasuk looks dressed for a first job interview, in a spotless shirt under a smart pullover, with the afro he wears in the film now noticeably shorter and tamer.

The pair met back in 1998 when Sollett was casting his NYU thesis film, the short Five Feet High and Rising, which first introduced the sexed-up 14-year-old chancer Victor Vargas. The character had a different name and ethnic background back then, but Sollett was so impressed with the Latino kids who strolled into the casting call that he immediately refashioned the script around them and their milieu, inviting them to incorporate into the movie details from their own lives. That process spilled over into Raising Victor Vargas, which uses most of the cast from the short film, but widens the focus to concentrate on Victor's family, with whom he lives in a cramped Lower East Side apartment - his adoring brother Nino (played by Rasuk's real-life sibling, Silvestre), his antagonistic sister, and their eccentric grandmother, who is alternately tenacious and doolally. Most of the film focuses on Victor's attempts to square this claustrophobic home life with his soulful pursuit of the cute girl on the block, "Juicy" Judy Ramirez.

"I'd written the conventional action-and-dialogue script," says Sollett, "but I didn't give it to the actors. I didn't want them to just parrot it back with nothing additional. The 'additional' was exactly what I wanted."

It's clear Sollett wanted Rasuk to invest as much of himself as possible in Victor; so much so that when the actor plays down the similarities between himself and the character, Sollet begins plugging away at him.

Rasuk: "Victor at the end is like me. I'd never be as aggressive as him when it comes to going after females. No way." Sollett: "But there was a time when you would've been, wasn't there?" Rasuk: "Yeah, I wish." Sollett: "But I mean, there was a time when you had that level of bravado. I'm not saying it worked. I'm not saying you got the girls."

Rasuk: "Yeah, I tried to work it, but there was no way..." Sollett: "Right, so that's what I said, that you had some." Rasuk: "Yeah, but I wouldn't have just started speaking to Judy the way Victor does. I'm too scared of rejection."

The room falls quiet. Sollett is probing for something, but I'm not sure what. In his persistence, he has taken over my role as interviewer, though he clearly has a rapport with Rasuk. When the lad answers with a grunt, Sollett gestures impatiently as if to say: "And...?" Then Rasuk will smirk and elaborate grudgingly. I think I'm getting a glimpse of what it was like on set.

The weirdest thing about meeting Sollett and Rasuk together is seeing the man who created Victor Vargas as his fantasy idea of his teenage self, sitting alongside the actor he chose to embody this idealised alter-ego. There's a kind of displaced narcissism at play: Rasuk represents the boy Sollett would like to have been, would liked to have resembled. But this, in turn, is undercut by Sollett's humility, which obliges him constantly to confess that he was, and is, a long way from being as cool as Victor Vargas.

"I was the kid in my neighbourhood who watched all that stuff going on between boys and girls," says Sollett, "but could never access whatever juice those guys had to do it. I was more like Judy's brother Carlos, who vomits when he gets nervous in front of girls. Actually, that hair-trigger vomit thing comes from my brother, who used to vomit at everything when he was a kid. Weak stomach. But the anxiety around the opposite sex - that's me. So part of the film is my fantasy of being one of those guys, having that confidence."

The precise level of wish-fulfilment that Victor represents for his creator really hits you when the pair start discussing the film's enticing opening scene, in which the hero undresses straight to camera, seducing the audience directly.

"Oh, man, that shit was hard to shoot," cringes Rasuk. "I asked Pete if we could have a closed set." Did he get his wish? "Well, yeah," shrugs Sollett, "but what's a closed set? That just means that the make-up person leaves when they've finished."

"I didn't know at the time that's all it meant," grumbles Rasuk. "It's really hard to look at the camera, to try to fool it into thinking you're sexy."

"He loved it!" hoots Sollett.

"Come on, Pete. That's bullshit." He is disappearing down the back of the sofa.

Sollett relents. "No, it's hard enough to take off your clothes with your partner. For me, just being alone and looking in the mirror can be a hideous experience."

Once again there is an uncomfortable silence. It's never clear how you should respond when a stranger makes a disclosure like that. Do you rush to their defence? Give them the number of a decent gym? But if it's awkward for Sollett and me, it must be plain weird for Rasuk, exposed to the glare of another man's envy and insecurity.

Sollett doesn't have any plans to follow Victor Vargas into maturity, as Truffaut did with his own alter-ego, Antoine Doinel, after The 400 Blows. But he has mused on Victor's future. "What do you think he'll do next?" he asks Rasuk. "You never thought about that?" he presses, after his first enquiry is met with a surly shrug.

Rasuk: "I dunno. College, maybe. Nothing special. He learns things, then he moves on." Sollett: "What about him and Judy?" Rasuk: "They stay friends." Sollett: "Friends but not lovers?" Rasuk: "Never." Sollett: "What, never?"

Rasuk starts to correct himself, as though he's given the wrong answer, but Sollett interrupts. "No, I agree with you," the director says. "Although I think there could be a flare-up once in a while. You know, if the moon's in the right part of the sky..." Sollett is in full flow now. "It's a warm evening. Cocktails by the river. Maybe the temptation is there - but then they're like, 'No, no, no, this is all wrong.' "

Rasuk shakes his head and turns to me. "He watches too many films," he says.

'Raising Victor Vargas' is out on 19 Sept