Rodrigo Santoro is becoming quite a familiar face to American filmgoing audiences. His roles in such films as ‘300,’ ‘What to Expect when You’re Expecting’ and ‘Hemingway & Gellhorn’ have established as one of the most gifted and versatile actors gracing the the silver screen today. His latest project, Heleno is yet another high water mark for this young actor. In the Jose Henrique Fonseca directed biopic, Santoro shines as Heleno de Freitas — a gifted yet troubled Brazilian-born soccer player who conquered the soccer world in the 1940s. A volatile athlete, womanizer and bona fide superstar in his homeland, the story of Heleno is both beautiful and tragic — the perfect role for an actor with the incredible range of Rodrigo Santoro. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Rodrigo Santoro to discuss the origin of this passion project, the research involved and the challenges of bringing this legendary and complicated man to life on the screen.
You latest project is ‘Heleno’. I was curious to know what about this script or the character itself made you pursue the role?
I will tell you how I was approached. I didn’t know about this character, he is a very important soccer history, but I didn’t know about him at all. I think that is true of much of my generation. My grandfather who is 96 is the one who told me about him. I just knew that he was a great player and troubled. The director, Jose Henrique Fonseca (The Man of the Year), approached me 5 years ago with a picture of this player and said it was a great story and we should start to investigate. There was a biography on it and we started to research even more. I was completely fascinated by everything I was finding out. I became really, really intrigued and started to interview people, like 90 year old guys who actually saw him play or knew stories of him.
We did that for about a year and uncovering a lot of stories about this guy and started to develop the script. I actually participated in the process since the very beginning of the research. Then, the director invited me to produce the film with him. I decided to do it! I had never done that before, being so involved with a project such as this one. It was a little different for me. It wasn’t that I just read the script and thought “Wow! I have to do this!” Seeing the picture was my first contact with it. I was intrigued because there was something about the body language of Heleno in that picture that told me a lot of things. He was just so elegant and there was something very aesthetic, so beautiful about it. If you look at the picture, like so many pictures that are beautiful, there is so much going on there. As I discovered more about his story, I was truly captivated.
The research you did for this picture is fascinating. What was the biggest surprise that you uncovered during that period?
There were so many stories that I heard! I heard so many crazy stories, you wouldn’t even believe it! [laughs] A lot of it is not in the movie, otherwise it would be a five hour movie. There are so many stories that I heard, things about what he did, his behavior, his relationship with peoples, goals he scored and things that he did to tease the audience. This guy was not only a fantastic, skilled player but a performer! He was a wealthy man who had graduated and become a lawyer. He gave up everything to play soccer in a time where soccer wasn’t the coolest thing to do. He was really driven by his passion and instinct, which was “I want to be the best soccer player. I love this.” There were so many stories, man. Many of them are in the movie, like when you see him with the kids and he asks them to hit him in the face. It is all these stories that come from people we talked too. It wasn’t a case of “I heard he did this…” Not at all! They tell you with details, “I was there! I saw it!” He is a myth, basically, Heleno was a myth. When I decided to do this film, it was exactly for that reason. I didn’t know about his story. I heard about him from my grandfather but I didn’t know exactly who he was. Then, all of a sudden, I am hearing all of these stories! I was like “Wow! This is incredible! I can’t believe this guy was like this!” We just tried to understand who the man was behind the myth, the nicknames and objectives. It was a long process which took us around five years to develop the script, find the financing, put it in place, shoot the movie and all of that.
What was the biggest challenge for you in bringing Heleno to life on screen?
Hard to pick one, man! The whole thing was very challenging. Trying to portray his personality, he was a very complex personality, was a challenge. It wasn’t like he was good or bad or that he has a bad boy. I was very careful not to fall into a caricature of or the stereotype of “the bad boy soccer player”. I paid attention to all of the stories and all of the material I had access to and also talked to people from his family. I was very careful with the research to try and understand who he was for real — Who was this man? The process of trying to bring humanity to the character was the challenge. It is basically a character study at the end of the day. We are trying to discover who this man was. I was surprised by many things. I was surprised by the contradictions that I found about him. He could react one way where there was something behind it and he would suffer for that. There were a lot of little things to discover about Heleno and it was a very rich character in that way. I like the term contradiction but I don’t think that illustrates the whole picture, I think he was more than that. That guy had a lot going on! He definitely left a big mark wherever he went.
What is the biggest lesson you took away from learning about this man’s life?
I think Heleno was coming from a very interesting place, which is that he was really trying to be the best at what he was doing. He was really interested in overcoming any obstacle and any limits. He was interested in using his full potential as an athlete to become better and better. He was completely committed to what he was doing to an extreme level, which is probably the reason for many of his troubles and lead to his death at 39 years in an institution. It is a very tragic story in that way and his journey was very quick, intense and powerful. I think the place he was coming from and what he was trying to accomplish was interesting and it moved me!
Thank you so much for your time today, Rodrigo. You are quit a talent and we look forward to all you have in store for us in the years to come!
That is great! Thank you so much, Jason!