Demián Bichir may not be a household name in the United States, but in his home country of Mexico he is nothing short of a superstar. His breakthrough Spanish-language film role came with “Sexo, Pudor y Lagrimas” (Sex, Shame and Tears), a 1999 ensemble comedy and one of Mexico’s highest-grossing films. However, this dynamic actor made the difficult choice to relocate to the U.S. to pursue new opportunities. Best known to U.S. viewers as the Tijuana mayor Esteban Reyes opposite Mary-Louise Parker on Showtime’s “Weeds” and for tackling the part of Fidel Castro in “Che” (2008), Steven Soderbergh’s two part bio-pic about legendary Cuban-Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara, Bichir’s hard work and dedication to his craft is paying off in spades. In his most recent role in “A Better Life,” he stars as an East L.A. gardener, an undocumented immigrant who’s doggedly pursuing the American dream. His performance in the film garnered praise from film fans and critics alike and his amazing portrayal earned him a piece of his personal American dream, as he was named one of five best actor nominees for a SAG Award! Jason Price recently caught up with Demián Bichir to discuss his start in the entertainment industry, the challenges of his role in “A Better Life,” his recent nomination for an Independent Spirit Award, and what the future might hold for him!
Thanks so much for taking time out to speak with us today, sir. It is a pleasure!
Absolutely, man! Thanks so much for your time!
Let’s jump right in then! All of your hard work has led to an amazing career. What can you tell us about how you got started on your journey in the entertainment industry?
I have come a long way and it has been a long, long journey — a beautiful one! My parents met each other studying theater in their hometown in Mexico. My brothers and I were born in Mexico City and we grew up in the theater. We were always in touch with art in every form. My brothers and I began acting in professional plays when were we just kids. We had the best teachers, schooling, and everything we needed to read was right there in our parents library. I grew up in the National Theater Company in Mexico. Theater was the thing that I enjoyed the most. Then I started doing some films and decided to expand that territory and experience by moving to New York to learn and do something more as an actor. After I lived in New York, I moved to Los Angeles and I have been going back and forth doing a lot of things in Mexico, Spain and Latin America. Right when I landed the role of Fidel Castro for Steven Soderbergh, a lot of great things began happening!
I am curious to know, who are some of the influences who helped shape the actor we see today — both on-screen and off?
I think everyone that I worked with as a kid in Mexico. As a kid, growing up with those amazing actors, creative directors, artists and musicians … there were so many talented people involved in the production of a play and in the arts who surrounded my family and I. You have to include all of the influences that you get as a movie lover. I remember the first time I wanted to go to New York was when I saw “Taxi Driver.” I just wanted to go to New York and drive a cab! [laughs] When I saw “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” I think I was 14-years-old. I remember taking the long ride home on the bus. I remember playing that I was Jack Nicholson on that bus going to The Cuckoo’s Nest instead of my house, which is pretty much the same anyway! [laughs] You grow up watching the best of the best and they become big influences. Of course, my parents and my brothers — there was always inspiration right there at home.
One of your recent and very exciting projects is Chris Weitz’s “A Better Life.” How did you initially get involved with the project?
I met Chris Weitz because I auditioned for “The Twilight Saga: New Moon.” He was preparing that film. When I got there, we began talking about this other project but, actually, I didn’t know that “A Better Life” was what he was talking about. We sat down and he started telling me about this gardener and I was confused because I didn’t know if the character was a vampire gardener or what! [laughs] In that half hour of talking, I was hooked by what Chris told me. He said, “We don’t have a script or anything but if we get one soon, I would love for you to read it and see if you can do this.” Sure enough, I got the script a year later and I read it. It was fantastic! It was beautiful! I was hooked immediately and I fell in love with it! I felt not only lucky but honored. I knew that I had a huge responsibility in giving voice to this community of human beings that are making our lives easier and better in the United States.
This role is clearly very close to your heart and it is a terrific performance. Did you do any special preparation or research for the role?
You know, I always try to go as deep as I can in any project. It has a lot to do with the time you are given to prepare. For example, when Steven Soderbergh called me to play Fidel Castro on the “Che” films, I had five months to prepare. I was able to gain a lot of weight because Fidel Castro is huge and I have always been skinny. I put on 25 pounds or something like that of the part. I had Fidel Castro for breakfast, lunch and dinner for five months! I became an expert on the Cuban revolution. I used to know a lot because growing up in Mexico, you are really connected with that and we knew everything about the event. I became an expert on all of the small details on the subject. I had a great chance with “A Better Life” because I lost all of the weight from playing Fidel but I had to gain it again. Not as much, only 18 or 20 pounds for the role of Carlos Galindo because Chris and I wanted that for the character. We agreed that my pizanos don’t have time to keep a proper diet and be perfectly fit. Carlos is fit because going up palm trees, you need to be! But that was only the physical part of it. I had to learn everything about gardening for the part, including going up a tree! Then there was the emotional ride, whcih for me was the most difficult part of it. Besides the physical part of it, I also got rid of my car and bought a beat up, pickup truck. It was a piece of crap! [laughs] It was really, really bad! I didn’t want to get deep into the role and then leave to go get into the car and see yourself in the the mirror as another character. You need to be in tune. You need to be there, in character, 24-7, if necessary for the six or seven weeks that it takes to shoot a film because it goes so fast and you need to be there, at least I need to be there. I remember that was really great because my character doesn’t have anything. Carlos Galindo he doesn’t have money, he doesn’t have anything! Driving in Los Angeles in that beat up truck changed everything! It changes a lot of things. People are rude, people assume that you are a loser for driving such a truck. It also raises many of the same issues we address in the film.
As I am sure you and many of our readers know, there is quite a buzz about this film and how special it is. What do you think director Chris Weitz brings to the table for a project like this?
A lot of things. Many things! We were very lucky to have this script, a really great script by Eric Eason but Chris Weitz is so smart and has everything so clear in his mind. You need to be able to communicate what is in your head and he does that very well. That communication made it easy for me. Anything that you see on screen is because Chris has an expert eye and takes care of you all the way. He has some Mexican blood in his veins also! He doesn’t play games. Once he is on a film, he goes really deep as well and nothing that you see on screen was an accident. Everything was very well planned. For example, Chris didn’t want the gangbangers to be disguised, you know? Like people disguised as gangbangers. He needed that to be as real as possible and that is exactly what he did! All of the guys that you see on screen are ex-gangbangers and are actors. Some of them came From Homeboy Industries, a place that Father Boyle commands and helps rehabilitate ex-gang members into society. Some of them were actors and we were very lucky about that too! Little things like that were always taken care of by Chris and really add to the realism of the film.
Each project serves as a learning experience for an actor. What did you learn from your time on this film?
I learned a lot of things. Of course, I know about gardening now! [laughs] I know everything about gardening and could even create my own business! I am pretty good at going up palm trees! But basically, I learned a lot of things but I confirmed a lot of things that I knew before. First of all, there is this community of 11 million undocumented workers that are working really, really hard in an honest and decent way with a lot of dignity to make our lives easier and better. I knew that and I reconfirmed it while making this film. Also, it is now clearer than ever that this is not a political issue but a human issue that needs to be solved. We need to demand that politicians stop lying about this “new threat” that are undocumented workers because they are not a threat, they are helping us to improve the economy and we are not giving them anything in exchange. We need to be fair in that sense. This film has helped to not only touch hearts but it is also touching minds. It is teaching everyone that the real problem is human, not political.
That is very true. Your work was amazing in the film and people are definitely taking notice. You were recently nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for your role in “A Better Life.” What does being nominated for an award like this mean to you?
It means a lot! Being an actor in such a competitive industry here in the United States. When you get the attention of being nominated for an Independent Spirit Award from the SAG awards, you can’t stop thinking about how much talent there is everywhere around you. You cannot stop thinking about the great performances that were there in the course of the past year. Just the fact that they look to your work and decided to include you in those five names, that is an amazing thing for me. I am grateful for it and I am enjoying it a lot! It is a wonderful ride and I am just having fun with it! I am really grateful to be a part of it in a place where there is so much talent everywhere!
You career has been, and continues to be, very diverse. Is there a particular type of film or genre you are anxious to tackle in the future?
There are many things that are going to happen soon. Hopefully, a lot of doors will open and I will be able to work with some of the directors that I have come to admire the most like Woody Allen, Jim Jarmusch, Guillermo del Toro and so many others. I would also very much like to work again with Chris Weitz. I would love to work with J.J. Abrams, I just met him the other day and I am sure that we are going to do something together one day. I would also love to do a western, that would be really, really nice!
What is the best piece of advice you can pass along to someone who is just starting out?
You have to chase your dream and don’t let anyone tell you that you cannot achieve it. Don’t ever stop dreaming and don’t every quit! Keep going and remember to be patient. Most importantly, work really, really hard and your dream can be achieved!
Thank you for your time today, Demián! We wish you continued success on all of your endeavors!
Thank you! It has been a pleasure! Take care!