When Demián Bichir was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award for A Better Life, he became only the second Mexican actor to get the nod after Anthony Quinn (who, technically, moved to El Paso when he was two). Born to a family of actors, Bichir has racked up a a rap sheet of heartthrob roles in his native Mexico, where he's one of the biggest names in the business. After Steven Soderbergh cast him as Fidel Castro in Che, Bichir decided to take on more work north of the border, including three seasons of Weeds. Still, people were surprised by how dedicated Bichir was to playing struggling immigrant father Carlos who must make peace with his estranged son when they go on a quest to find his stolen truck. Bichir gained 20 pounds, spent time with gardeners and "illegals," and tried to figure out what it'd be like to be father to a son. (He has a daughter with singer Lisset Gutiérrez). We sat down with him and his director Chris Weitz, (American Pie, The Twilight Saga: New Moon, About a Boy) to ask Bichir about going up a palm tree, Weitz about choosing the best take for the movie (even if it's not so great for the star) and prod them both about the Oscar race-a race Mr. Bichir might just win.
So, The Bicycle Thief...
Chris Weitz: Yes, we made The Bicycle Thief! No. It's funny: it's the film which shall not be named.
Chris: Well, because it's one of the most beloved films of all time, and far be it from me to say, "Oh, we've remade The Bicycle Thief. Certainly, A Better Life is a tribute to Italian neo-realism and to The Bicycle Thief, but the one thing I did not watch before going into directing this was The Bicycle Thief. It's the last thing I wanted on my mind. I did watch a lot of Italian neo-realism. And there's a bunch of other people—Ramin Bahrani is one of the people I think of—who did Goodbye, Solo.
Right, he's one of the "New Neo-realists."
Chris: Yeah, there's breathing room between those gigantic films and the 3D spectacular for films that are about people and about everyday situations, and about things that people might not know about, but are still very emotionally impactful.
Tell me about the process of preparing these characters, especially when you two haven't worked together before.
Demián Bichir: I was just lucky to have Chris as my director because I loved the script so much and I found a wonderful, amazing character, but I also knew that I couldn't just go along on that ride. I needed someone to guide me and to have a perfect, well-trained eye, and that was Chris. We had a lot of long hours, talking about what we wanted from this character and how we wanted Carlos to look onscreen. There was a physical part that we were interested in. And then of course, the emotional part of it, too. One of the things that we did was we wanted the character to be heavier, so we added some 20 pounds or so, which was a lot for me. And then I had to learn about gardening—going up a palm tree and being fearless about it. And then dealing with the emotions of having a teenage son. The kid who plays my son made that really easy because we connected right away. I auditioned with him.
As a team?
Chris: It was like a chemistry read. In my mind, Demián was cast, but I wanted to make sure that whoever was gonna play the son was, first of all, going to be able to bring it up to Demián's level—anywhere near his level—and just that the feel would be right. Demián is an under-actor—I mean that in a good way, that's the way I like things to be. His part relies on subtlety and gesture and nuance and being really quiet. I think just by nature Demián was suited to the way I like to make films and to work with people. I'll never ask for a result. I won't say, "This needs to be faster," or "I need you to go there, at this moment." It's more about making suggestions that might filter through an actor's particular set of tools, to get to a certain place. The interesting thing is that once the film is in the can, I'm in the editing room, and the actor's sort of at my mercy.
Chris: Because I could use the best take, or I could not. And it's not so much like, "Oh, I have to avoid the take where Demián messed up," because he's that good all the time, it's fine. But, am I going to get the best stuff? Am I going to go to him at the right moment? Am I going to stay on him long enough? A lot of this is really about when the camera lingers, and he's not saying this.
Choosing what's best for the film versus what's best for Demián, which is a constant balancing game.
Chris: Well, I think in some movies they're at odds with each other, where you've got a very showy performance, and that's gonna hurt the movie. In this case, the movie is Demián in many ways. It's about his spirit and his character. So that was really a problem in this instance.
Demián, you're from a family of actors. So one, as family and two, as actors, they had to be a resource to you in the process of figuring out your character. Do you see your father, your brother, your grandfather in the performance?
Demián: Interesting. Growing up in a theater family, we would never interfere in anybody else's work. My father, being a theater director, would never dare to tell us what to do. We respect very much everyone's creative process. But what I did do was to have my father very present throughout the whole process of creating this role, and of course throughout the shooting. Because Carlos and my father are pretty much alike in many ways. I don't have a teenage son, but I related to my life as a teenager with my own father, and how close we were-we've always been-and how many of the virtues that I love about Carlos, my father has. So I transported that in and out all the time, and that was present. Very present.
So he was present in a mental sense.
Demián: You want that. You want that to be only your own story. There are many things that the audience doesn't need to know about you or the story that you create for your character. There's a story behind Carlos that only Chris and I know, that nobody has to know. That's something that we came up with together. Unless you're doing a film on Fidel Castro—you know that that's that, and there's a biography that you have to follow, and everyone will know about it. But there are things that we build also. The film begins at this particular time in these two persons' lives and what happened before. Sometimes you need to create a life before that, so you can have a really solid base for whatever you're gonna do as an actor on screen.
With a back story that "No one needs to know," that says so many things, including about what authority means in the film. And to a certain extent, no one needs to know means that it's better for you to conceal.
Chris: No, no. There are various ways one could have approached this movie—different ways, which we didn't want to go. For instance, it's not really explained exactly where the character came from, exactly what kind of life he'd led. He refers to it in the end, but he's a silent man for much of the movie or he's very quiet about his emotions. When he and his son pass by a pro-immigration demonstration, his son asks him, "What is that?" and he doesn't give him a breakdown of why people come here and the whole reasons behind it, and why anti-immigrant sentiment is wrong. He just says nothing. He literally says nothing. Because he's too busy. He's too busy trying to get done what he has to get done. So there's a world of background which we had to know. I was doing my research on meeting ex-gang members, meeting a detainee in an ICE detention unit, talking with young people in east Los Angeles, and giving them the script and saying "Here, tell me where we got the language wrong." And Demián was learning gardening, was driving around in a gardeners' truck for months. But we wanted to wear that very lightly. All that is done in passing because I think a lot of films are over-explained in that regard and we don't give the audience enough credit in terms of what they can understand, or how much they can catch the tone of something. For instance, the scene in which you see the kid, in his world, half of what they're saying doesn't make sense to the average person because they're using slang that is so deep and is really particular to one neighborhood in Los Angeles, that I kind of knew nobody was gonna get this. I could practically put subtitles under it. They're talking about the police, they're talking about gangs, and there are all these slang terms that they use, but you sort of get what they're going on about. It was a decision to have characters speak Spanish and to have that subtitled, rather than to have them talk in Mexican accents. Getting this across to the studio-the authenticity of that, the authority to that, is just a very kind of quiet authority. And I guess the metaphor is that Carlos has a very quiet authority to him and we wanted the film to be very authoritative. But it washes. The camera doesn't move, the camera isn't very grabby, the camera doesn't move very fast. It's not about hitting you in the head with things. And yet, the authority is built up over time.
As publicly as you've made the film, you've both made a real effort to explain that this story is not political. How, then, have you dealt with the political issue?
Chris: Well actually, when it first came out we were like, "Oh, this isn't a political film." But that doesn't make sense in retrospect. Because just to turn a camera on an undocumented immigrant in a sympathetic way these days is a political statement. It's political—it just doesn't address things completely directly. Which is to say, you can kind of learn more about the situation by watching this film. It presents a picture of someone and something that we haven't really seen before in a feature film. And definitely the person that this film is about is a person that the Republican candidates are talking about right now. These are the "illegals" that they're joking about constructing an electric fence for. These are the "illegals" that Mitt Romney says he never employed. These are the people who are living in the shadows and who are easily exploited and who are driving down the wages of the entire country—and, by the way, would rather be legal. They would rather be paid more, they would rather be able to maintain the respect of the average citizen. They would rather contribute to the tax base. Start their own businesses, buy their own homes. But it's not convenient for big business, like big agriculture or the big meatpacking industries, or the people who get gardeners on the cheap, or nannies, to ask about these things. There's some tremendous hypocrisy to the power of big business as it keeps this situation going and funds candidates who use undocumented immigrants as punching bags. I wrote about this recently in The Daily Beast, that inconveniently for Republicans, Osama bin Laden is dead. Well, who do you take on next? You take on the "illegals." Which is a horrible thing to call someone, by the way. There's no such thing.
The more you're talking about "these are the people"—that's a lot of pressure, Demián. I remember in one scene you're sleeping with your arm over your face, and that there's something incredibly specific to the sort of man that sleeps with his arm over his face, those protective instincts. But at the same, now it also sounds like you're like Atlas and you've got a lot riding on your shoulders.
Chris: Well, there was never a moment where it was like, "Okay, this is gonna be about something bigger than what it is." One of the great things about Demián as an actor is that he's very much: "What does my character want to feel right now?"
Demián: That's right. And that's pretty much all you have control over. Not anything else. An actor, all I can do—and that's why I'm an actor—because that's everything I can do, or everything I am, or whatever I can bring into the experience, it's only then. It's only happens then, you don't think about anything else. Whatever choices we make, they are choices that my director and I think are the best for the character. If from that point on, we can create a change, we can touch hearts, we can open minds, we can transcend-that's a whole extra package that we never thought of.
It wasn't the goal to begin with?
Demián: [Laughs] I'm an actor because I believe that art is the only thing that can move you and change you through your emotions. I believe in the power of cinema, of course, in the power of two hours paying attention to something. And that's all we can hope for. Me as an actor, I really hope every time I'm doing something that it's going to be significant for many people. My life changed the first time I saw a Van Gogh in front of my eyes, for example. The first time I got in touch with a symphony orchestra, an opera when I was a kid, going to the theater for the first time, reading a great novel for the first time, reading a poem—only art can create that change in human beings.
Chris: Also, there are happy accidents along the way, don't get me wrong. A character holds his hands over his eyes when he goes to sleep. Well in Ramona Gardens [a block of public housing in East LA], partly to prevent the gathering of gangs, they put big lights up on poles which were protected by bulletproof glass. So that the public areas at night are blasted with light. And this makes it very uncomfortable for the people that live there. The first image in the movie is of a man asleep on a couch. Now that, normally, you'd associate with someone who's lazy, he's asleep on the couch in front of the TV. You're gonna learn the reason he's sleeping on the couch is because his son is sleeping in the one bedroom in the house and this is where he sleeps every night—he comes home from work and collapses there. But visually, there are things that we were playing with all the time. The number of times the Virgin Mary appears, stuff that people don't even necessarily notice. Having read about Steve Jobs lately, he cared about the design of things inside the computer that nobody would see. But when the father and son are driving around, the kid has a t-shirt which has the flight into Egypt on it, the Virgin and child, and you don't really notice it. We actually had four versions of it, in which it became more and more—
Chris: No, actually it became more worn out, as time went along. But that's kind of the stuff to play around with. Essentially though, what's at the heart of it is this amazing performance that does become politically relevant because the character never says anything political. He only says things that relate to his immediate circumstances, what he needs and wants, and how he explains what he did. Eventually, that's about it.
Carlos and his son Luis duel constantly. Even though that's not the subject of the film, there's a lot to be said about the struggle between the two of them, the way Luis is becoming an individual, the way that Carlos is maintaining the home without a wife. How important is authority and manhood for your character?
Demián: I think you need to show authority when you have kids because you are responsible for the way they grow up and create their own personality in many ways. Everything begins at home. And the big, big, big problem with a lot of workers is they don't have a lot of time to spend with their kids at home. And they don't have that time to help them create a good, strong, safe, confident personality. So, authority can only be taught through respect for others. And that's exactly what my character does throughout the film. He's trying to teach his son that doing the right thing is an easy step. It only takes some self-respect first, and some guts to face reality, and to be able to do the right thing whenever you need to—and don't run away from that responsibility. And the best way of doing that is by setting up an example. I do believe in that as me, as a man, as an actor, as a human being, as a father, a brother, a son, a friend, that's what I find fascinating about this man, Carlos, in the film. That there is this macho Mexicano in becoming the best mother, a loving mother. A loving teacher, also. A best friend of his own son.
How are you dealing with the Oscar buzz—and has it culminated into more work for you, too?
Chris: I mean, I think that Demián deserves to be nominated. [Laughs] I think his performance deserves that recognition.
You're not alone.
Chris: But we have very little control other than to get more people to watch the film. I think that the film is the best advertisement for itself. Other than that, when it comes to this year, you're in the tall trees among the big movies and the long-awaited artistic films. It would be a wonderful, wonderful thing. It would be a timely thing. It would be an interesting sort of ratification that people see undocumented immigrants. They see their role, literally. But other than that, it's a fun ride and it's nice to get to talk about a movie we care about. If we're recognized, it's amazing. If not, well, it's still our job to try and get the movie out there in front of peoples' eyes.
Demián: Yeah, well that's what I was talking about a few minutes earlier. You don't have control over anything else but your work on the set. Anything I can have control of, is the time between action and cut. After that, you really never think about anything else. And whatever's happening after that, that's gonna be great, if anything happens. But I think we have a beautiful film. I appreciate what you say about my work, but I think this film is one of those altogether great things.