GAINING A FACE AND A NAME
A Conversation with Best Actor Oscar Nominee DEMIÁN BICHIR
By Tyler Malone
For many people, on the day the nominations for the Academy Awards were announced, the name of Demián Bichir was one they not only weren’t expecting to hear read as a Best Actor Oscar nominee, but perhaps one they hadn’t even ever heard before. Compared to Hollywood A-listers George Clooney and Brad Pitt, phenomenal English actor Gary Oldman, and even Jean Dujardin (whose film The Artist has been one of the most talked about films of 2011), Demián Bichir seemed a man without either a face or a name.
Hearing Demián Bichir’s name read was a surprise to almost everyone, including Demián himself. As film critic Roger Ebert wrote in a blog post on his website, “The balloting procedure is conducted honestly and reflects a collective opinion, which was demonstrated this year when the Academy voters had the curiosity to seek out Demián Bichir for best actor for his deeply convincing performance as a Mexican gardener in Los Angeles in A Better Life. He wasn’t on my mental list of possible candidates, but when I heard the name, I thought, ‘Of course! Good thinking!’”
Unsurprisingly, upon closer inspection, Bichir isn’t exactly the nameless and faceless unknown actor that you might have initially thought. He skillfully played Fidel Castro in Steven Soderbergh’s Che, has a recurring role on the popular TV show Weeds, and he is actually part of a successful acting family in Mexico–so successful in fact that the 2003 MTV Movie Awards of Mexico had a category for Best Bichir Performance in which his family members were pitted against one another. Demián Bichir won that award, and has won many other accolades in his home country.
But it wasn’t until recently, thanks to the unlikely but well-deserved Oscar nomination, that his face and his name are now really being recognized Stateside by a wider audience. And he’s using them to remind us of the millions of truly faceless and nameless individuals in this country that we classify as “undocumented workers” and call “illegal aliens.” The topic of illegal immigration is one that the film he is nominated for deals with directly. He hopes the human face and emotional journey of his character Carlos Galindo, a Mexican gardener working illegally in Los Angeles, will open the debate up more, and force people to deal with the human side of the illegal immigration issue. I spoke with him about that and much more over the phone while he prepared for the Oscars.
Tyler Malone: Why don’t we start by having you tell me a little bit about how you met director Chris Weitz and how your role in the film A Better Life came about?
Demián Bichir: I met Chris Weitz because I had been invited to audition for New Moon, the film that he was preparing for The Twilight Saga. We had a really nice conversation about this project that he wanted to do in the future about this gardener. A year later he sent me the script. I went through a couple of auditions, and that was that.
TM: What was it about the script that drew you to it?
DB: I found a real story. I found a story that I knew very well, being Mexican and being an Angeleno myself. I felt pretty close to the characters. I found it real. I found it truthful. There weren’t any gimmicks or Hollywood tricks. It was just a very powerful character and a very powerful story.
TM: Do you think the film can affect the immigration debate in the U.S.? It’s obviously a very heated topic in this country, and the film very directly deals with this issue. Do you think it has any chance of swaying anyone’s opinions or changing the dialogue? And is that something you wanted to be a part of the film?
DB: Yes, but it all depends if anyone wants to listen. When no one wants to listen, there isn’t anything you can do. You can make a thousand films, but if people are stubborn, it won’t ever sink in. And with how much lying there is in politics, it can seem impossible to change people’s minds, to help them see the truth. The truth is that immigration is a universal phenomenon that keeps happening everywhere. If people see the film, and allow themselves to see the actual facts, and the real meaning of the way human beings have moved through history, then people might be more sensitive about it. They might be more open to create real immigration reform. But that’s a difficult task when people are unwilling to stop for a little bit and try to understand and relate to other people’s problems.
TM: Yes, all too often, people are often not open to seeing the human side of it. They usually only see how it affects them, or how they perceive it to affect them. They don’t see the affect on real human lives.
DB: Yeah, that’s exactly what I mean about “lying.” It’s a common practice in politics. Instead of facing the real problems, they choose an enemy. The new enemy is called “undocumented workers.” So these politicians tell the American public that this community of human beings are here to take away their jobs. There isn’t anything further from the truth. Americans in general are unwilling to do all this work that the 11 million undocumented workers do. And that’s a fact.
They’re not taking anything because they can’t take anything. If you don’t have the proper documentation, you can’t go into any federal office and ask for help of any kind. You have no face and no name. Many of these undocumented workers pay taxes, they pay “ghost” taxes. They pay them through other social security numbers to get their paychecks, so money goes into the federal government without having to give them anything in exchange.
It is a vast community of human beings, and they are here to make our lives better and easier, not worse and harder. But people often don’t want to see that, and they don’t want to create a new atmosphere, and new reform, so we can give everyone a face and a name.
TM: I think the film does a good job of giving a face and a name–it’s your face, but it does a good job of putting a human face on the problem. How did you prepare for this role? What was your creative process in getting ready for the role?
DB: There are two different paths. The first one is the physical characteristics of the character. Chris and I spent a long time discussing these aspects. I put on some weight, about 20 lbs., to give him a nice tummy, to make him heavier. Even the way he walks is different. The way his mustache is, the way his beard is, we wanted a mustache that goes down on the tip of it, so it gives you the impression that he never smiles. We dyed my beard to be black because mine is reddish and blond in spots. His complexion we made a darker tone. But all that is only the physical aspect of it. There was also another physical aspect of learning everything that has to do with gardening, including climbing up that tree, and performing all those tasks–which are really very hard to do, and these guys do them all day long from 7am until the evening.
And the emotional ride was a whole other challenge. This character goes through a rollercoaster of emotions. I think the challenge was to keep them down, and to keep him in a low profile kind of behavior and attitude towards life. That sort of choking off of one’s emotions is the only secure way of surviving and not bringing any unwanted attention from anybody.
TM: You’re part of a very successful acting family in Mexico. Tell me a little bit about your family and your acting background.
DB: We’ve been in the theater ever since I can remember. My parents met each other studying the theater in their hometown, and then they moved to Mexico City, and that’s where my brothers and I were born. My first time on stage was at the age of 3. For my brothers it was sometime around when they were 8 or 9. The stage is where we learned our craft, so every chance we have to get on stage, we do it again and again and again.
My brothers and I have worked together on the same stage multiple times, as well as my father. My mother’s an actress as well. Right now I’m doing a play in Mexico that’s directed by my younger brother Bruno. We’ve been around for many years.
TM: And how did they react to your Oscar nomination for Best Actor?
DB: It’s been crazy. They were, of course, really, really happy. I don’t think they ever thought in a million years that this kid who played soccer in the streets of Mexico would ever be there. No one else in the family besides me ever felt the need to move or go anywhere else. Now they all say, “Wow, it finally paid off, all this stuff about you being an adventurer and wanting to find new horizons.” So they were really happy about it. And not only for them, but for many of my friends, it’s been something really beautiful. A lot of them tell me it’s like it is happening to them, that’s how strong this is.
TM: That must be a great feeling for you. What’s been your reaction to the nomination? Were you surprised? I mean, it’s a great performance, but great performances often get overlooked and go unrecognized if they’re not in the biggest movies of the year. So were you surprised?
DB: I feel very honored. To be in the company of Brad and George and Gary and Jean, it’s a real honor. And not only because my name is one of those five names, but also because there are at least another ten names that aren’t there that could have been. But that happens in this industry. Right now you have a French silent film that’s on top of all the categories, and you couldn’t have imagined that would happen either. So it’s weird. You never know in this industry what is going to happen. For example, a great actor like Gary Oldman is getting his first nomination ever this year, and here I am getting mine as well. Maybe these are signs of the end of the world? I don’t know.
TM: I’m curious how you think the nomination and possible win will change your career?
DB: You always hope for the best. I’ve been always hoping to get good projects and to be a part of great casts in great films. You dream about landing beautiful roles like Carlos Galindo [his role in A Better Life for which he is nominated], or like playing Castro for Steven Soderbergh in Che, or like my role in Weeds. You don’t need a nomination in order to know what you want and what you don’t want. But hopefully more and more interesting projects will come after more and more people know about me.
TM: I know one of the interesting projects coming up for you is that you’re in Oliver Stone’s Savages which will be released this year. Could you tell me a little about who you play in that movie and any other Savages details?
DB: We finished that about three or four months ago. It was quite a ride. It was really intense to work with Oliver. He’s done many films that I love. I play Salma Hayek’s lawyer. It’s based on a novel by Don Winslow.
TM: So you’ve now worked with Oliver Stone and Steven Soderbergh–two major cinema auteurs–is there any other major director you’re dying to work with?
DB: Yeah, of course! There’s a huge list, and there’s always the risk, when you list them, that you’re going to miss one, but there are many: Kathryn Bigelow, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg, Jim Jarmusch, Pedro Almodóvar, lots and lots of great directors. David Fincher, the list goes on and on.
TM: Well, I’m sure they’d be as happy to work with you as you would be to work with them. you’re a great actor so I’d bet there are lots of great films in your future.
DB: Well, thank you.
TM: I just have one more question. Besides your own film, A Better Life, what is your favorite film from 2011?
DB: I loved many of the films that came out this year, but there is one film that I was particularly fond of, and it’s called A Separation from Iran.
TM: Yes, that was a wonderful film, one of my favorites of the year as well.
DB: It’s a truly beautiful film.
TM: Well, thank you for a lovely interview, and good luck at the Oscars.
DB: Thank you very much, Tyler.
Demián Bichir is an actor, currently nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Carlos Galindo in A Better Life.
Demián Bichir interviewed by Tyler Malone
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography Courtesy of Demián Bichir & Heather Weiss
Design by Marie Havens
Demián Bichir, Photography Courtesy of Demián Bichir & Heather Weiss