Kali “K.O” Mequinonoag Reis is a legend in the ring. Her ever-growing list of achievements rivals some of boxing’s most iconic names. Living up to her given name Mequinonoag, translated to “Many Feathers/Many Talents,” Kali is the first mixed Native American Female World Champion Boxer. Kali’s mixed background includes lineage from the Seaconke Wampanoag and Cherokee tribes and ancestry from the Cape Verde Islands. On November 12, 2014 Reis won the IBA crown defeating Teresa Perozzi in Bermuda. This fight was extremely special to Reis due to the historical aspect surrounding her Wampanoag ancestors who were taken to Bermuda during the slave trade. In February of 2016, Kali gained another strap around her waist, defeating New Mexico’s Victoria Cisneros in 30 seconds for the vacant UBF Middleweight World Title. On April 16, 2016 Reis won her first major world title in New Zealand against California’s Maricela Cornejo for the vacant Middleweight WBC World Title. She is currently the WBA Super lightweight champion.
Even with all her in-ring success, there were new worlds for her to conquer! In 2017, Kali crossed paths with director Josef Kubota Wladyka. This meeting would ultimately lead to Kali making her acting debut with the lead role in the film ‘Catch the Fair One, in which she also received a writer’s credit. The film follows Kaylee “K.O.” Uppashaw (Kali Reis), a former Indigenous boxer who discovers that her missing sister is possibly alive and circulating in a sex trafficking network. Determined to learn more about her sister’s fate, Kaylee plugs herself into one of the darkest and most dangerous of criminal underworlds. Her strength and determination are pushed to the limits as she fights the real fight of her life—to find her sister and make her family whole again.
Highlighting the MMIW (Missing And Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls) epidemic, this powerful independent film earned a Special Jury Mention award at the Tribeca film festival. In addition, Reis’s gripping performance has been nominated as an Indie Film Spirit Award nominee for Best Female Lead Actress.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with director Josef Kubota Wladyka and Kali “K.O.” Reis to discuss their creative bond and the impact of their knockout film!
You two make a fantastic team. ‘Catch The Fair One’ is a terrific film. Tell us a bit of what brought you together and the genesis of the film?
Josef Kubota Wladyka: This film was a collaboration between us. It’s now taken five years for it to come out. The writing process was a two-year collaborative effort and one that was constantly in flux. We initially met, ironically, through our love of boxing. I was getting very much into boxing at the time, and I had found Kali through social media through one of my friend’s boxing gyms. I was immediately drawn to her because she is a world champion boxer. I was watching videos of her hitting the mitts and thought, “Wow! She’s dope!” At the same time, she was also using her platform to speak out on the stuff that was really important to her. She was using her platform to do more, which I’ve always tried to strive for, even though I’ve only made two films. So I reached out to her, and we linked up. We immediately got along and connected as two OCD Virgos/mixed kids. I had an idea germinating about the MMIW (Missing And Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls) crisis because it was an issue that was coming more and more into the news. I just wanted to talk to her about it and see what she thought. At that point, we started talking about possibly making a film with her acting in it. I had this surreal moment when she was training for a fight in her gym. I saw her get in the ring and start sparring with these male world champion boxers. I was like, “Man, I don’t know what is going on right now, but this is a movie!” [laughs] From that point, I invited her in to help me with what I was already working on and to collaborate on the story. I wanted to incorporate her perspective because I know that was really important. Simultaneously, I wanted her to act in it. It was a constant journey of exploring scenes, rehearsing scenes, blocking scenes, and rewriting them up until we finally shot the film. We met in 2017, and we shot the film in 2019. It was a long road!
One of the most extraordinary aspects of this film is the great relationship you have developed through the process. You are both at the top of your games professionally. What were your biggest takeaways from being able to explore each other’s worlds?
Kali Reis: Just the fact that we developed such a good friendship was a blessing. As you know, good people are hard to find sometimes, but when it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. Through his openness and ability to share his education about a world I knew nothing about, I learned so much. I was so intrigued by film and the art of storytelling. I was intrigued by Josef wanting to approach this subject matter even though it isn’t his story to tell. He artistically wanted to tell it and have the perspective of real people. That’s what initially intrigued me about his whole creative process. I don’t have anything to compare it to, but I was blessed to have this opportunity, which was the first opportunity I’ve had to be in this type of situation.
Josef Kubota Wladyka: I think it was all about trust. Spending time with each other and building that relationship allowed us to go on this crazy journey together. I made my first film in a similar kind of way. For me, there is something really great about building a relationship with the person who’s going to act in your film for every single scene, every single day. By the time you are shooting, you are family! A lot of times, when I direct television, I don’t even know the actors before they come in and do a scene. So for me, this process is very fulfilling.
As you mentioned, this was a long journey for you both. What were the biggest challenges you faced along the way?
Kali Reis: The fact that he picked cold-ass Buffalo to shoot in, we can start right there, not to mention that my character had a squishy coat and not a North Face! [laughs] Again, I don’t have much to compare it to, but it’s not like the film is a romantic comedy. It’s very dark and close to my own experiences, down to her name, being indigenous, and Cape Verdean. I had to be very vulnerable, and I trusted him to take a lot of my real life and put it into the story. It was a fantastic experience in that regard. Probably the worst experience that I had was with the squibs! [laughs] I never want to pretend to get shot again! [laughs] It was interesting!
Josef Kubota Wladyka: Yeah, it was tricky! [laughs]
Kali Reis: Yeah, it was very educational being on set. We shot in only twenty days.
Josef Kubota Wladyka: Yeah. As an indie filmmaker, the biggest challenge lies in making a film that isn’t necessarily going to be a four-quadrant film for everyone. You don’t have some massive star involved to get it financed. Obviously, as always with these films, the biggest challenge is just willing it into existence. You have to scratch, crawl and bleed to find the money somehow, help bring a team together and somehow make the movie. Another big challenge came with the majority of the post-production. We had only been cutting for about a month or so before the pandemic hit. At that point, everything switched to remote. That led to me finishing the entire film remotely, and I had never gone through anything like that before. It was definitely challenging. My editor and I bicker and fight like an old married couple all of the time. We need to be in the room together. When things get tough, we need to go and walk around and have that distance. I think many filmmakers who’ve created films with that process have also found it challenging. However, we made it through!
What do you feel you learned about yourselves through the creative process?
Kali Reis: First and foremost, as a fighter and an individual, I didn’t want to accept that I was that good as a fighter. I’ve been fighting for a long time, but up until recently, I didn’t think I belonged at the elite or world-class level. I was just happy to be fighting. It was almost like I didn’t want to believe I was worthy of being that good, where now I do. It’s that fine line of being cocky but confident. Then there was him discovering something in me that I didn’t even know I had or liked, as far as acting or expressing myself in a totally different way than boxing. Another big takeaway for me was that when people come together to create art, it might not be what you thought, but it’s probably ten times better! By going through this process, I discovered this newfound talent that I can use after I’m done getting punched in the face for a living! [laughs] With this film, I felt a huge responsibility to be a voice for the voiceless and fight for those who can’t fight on their own. The reason I fight in the ring is the same reason I want to tell this story. I want to encourage more of our people to tell our stories. We need more stories told from our perspective.
Josef Kubota Wladyka: Listen, you are always learning. Each film brings another lesson. I’ve only made two films, this being my second, but a big lesson I learned was patience, especially with Covid happening. As a filmmaker, you often want it all at once! [laughs] You’re always in the mode of “Let’s go! Let’s go!” However, it takes a lot of patience, and that’s all part of the process. The process never changes! So, I learned that being patient and letting things happen in the way they will happen is something I need to embrace moving forward.
Any chance we will see this friendship blossom into another big-screen project in the future?
Kali Reis: Absolutely!
Josef Kubota Wladyka: Yeah, I’m sure of it. We’ve talked about writing some stuff. Again, she’s a professional fighter, and I’m doing a lot of T.V. directing, so it’s just a matter of us finding the time! [laughs]
‘Catch The Fair One’ may be some viewers’ first exposure to the MMIW crisis. So what’s the best way for someone to help bring more attention to this issue?
Kali Reis: I think you can start by knowing what land you occupy. Learn where your house and town are and what indigenous or tribal people had or still occupy that land. You will realize that this type of sex trafficking of missing and murdered indigenous people, not just women, happens everywhere. Even if you think it doesn’t happen in your area, it does. Start there. Don’t overwhelm yourself with changing the world but have these conversations. Search more locally rather than globally or nationally and see who needs help or what you can do to help. It’s so important to know about the land you occupy. There are many issues with broken treaties, where pipelines are being drilled. We also have these issues with residential school children that have been uncovered in the past one or two years. Those at fault need to be held accountable for what they’ve done and must acknowledge what they did to indigenous people, not lastly. Again, the path starts with doing research locally.
It’s impossible to look at what both of you have accomplished in your careers and not be inspired. What lessons did you learn early on that continue to resonate?
Kali Reis: I would say the biggest lesson I’ve learned that has transferred to every aspect of my life is “When you make a choice, stick to it.” It’s either going to work or not, but don’t second guess yourself. Once you make that initial choice, ride it all the way through. You’re going to learn something from it either way. That ties into my life, my acting, and my boxing. Just because I made that choice yesterday doesn’t mean I will make the same choice tomorrow. That’s been a huge takeaway for me.
Josef Kubota Wladyka: Building on what I said before, it’s really about the journey. Making a film is not black and white. It’s not an exact science. You’re trying to hit a moving bullseye when you are trying to make a film. What you see in your head a lot of times isn’t what you’re going to end up with. That’s just what the process is and one lesson that I’ve learned. You must continually sharpen your skills. Each project you take on brings you a little closer to hitting the bullseye on that moving target!
Thanks so much for your time today. I can’t wait for people to see what you have created with this incredibly gripping film. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for both of you, and I look forward to the next time we cross paths!
Josef Kubota Wladyka: Thank you, Jason. I appreciate it!
Kali Reis: Thank you, Jason. It was great to speak with you.
Josef Kubota Wladyka’s ‘Catch The Fair One’ opens in select theaters, on digital platforms and VOD on February 11, 2022 via IFC Films.
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.