Honored for his extraordinarily moving, and now Oscar-nominated, portrayal of an undocumented worker in A Better Life, Demian Bichir was presented with a Virtuoso Award at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF). Collider was there to cover and attend the event, and we’ve compiled the highlights of what the well-respected actor had to say, both on the press line and during the Q&A.
While there, Demian Bichir talked about what the whole award season experience has been like for him, getting to bond with some of his fellow nominees, what it means to him to be recognized for this powerful character, how he initially met director Chris Weitz a couple years prior when he auditioned for The Twilight Saga: New Moon, flying back and forth to Mexico so that he can continue a play that he’s currently doing, and how his nomination is dedicated to the 11 million human beings who work with pride, power and dignity to help this society go forward. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
DEMIAN BICHIR: It’s been pretty intense and a little fun, with very little time to rest. We’ve been going from one interview to another, and it’s been really great. We’re just having a good time and enjoying the ride.
What has been the biggest highlight?
BICHIR: Going out there and talking to different audiences and having those Q&As is always really interesting. And then, Chris [Weitz] and I had the chance to take the film to Washington D.C., and go to the capitol building and talk to a couple of senators who were pushing immigration reform and the Dream Act really strongly. And, we got a chance to talk to Cecilia Munoz at the White House, and she’s in charge of immigration issues. Just to witness how much a two-hour film can change everyone’s perspective towards an issue such as this, that’s really important and is going on everywhere, as we speak, was the moving part of all of this.
Have you gotten to bond with some of your fellow nominees?
BICHIR: I think we’re going to have that chance to spend some time and exchange some thoughts about our films at the luncheon for the Academy Awards. We had the chance to talk to Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt at the SAG Awards, and they were really, really nice. They were really moved by the film and they liked it a lot. They just wanted to talk about that. It was brief, but very nice.
BICHIR: It’s a really, really powerful character and a beautiful story. I just couldn’t be happier to be a part of it. Spread the word, so that people listen to your words and watch the film.
Are you already feeling a radical change in your career?
BICHIR: There are a lot more interviews. That’s been it, up until now. I’m going back to Mexico, where I’m doing a play right now. After this, I’m flying out at 7 am to do the shows on Saturday and Sunday, and then coming back for the Oscar luncheon on Monday, and then go back again to Mexico for the play, and then I come back. That’s pretty much that. Any actor who loves the stage can relate to that.
What play are you doing?
BICHIR: It’s called Swimming with Sharks, and it’s based on the film that Kevin Spacey did with George Huang. This is the first time it’s been done in Spanish, and my younger brother, Bruno, is directing it.
Have you done a lot of theater?
BICHIR: I grew up in the theater. I began my career at 3. That was the first time I stepped onto a provisional stage. And then, I was part of the National Theatre Company in Mexico for seven years, when I was 13. That’s what me and my brothers have done.
BICHIR: He’s amazing. I love that guy. He made my work easier. He behaved like an old-timer. He was incredible. He’s an old soul. He’s like a sponge. Of course, you need someone like (director) Chris Weitz to make that magic happen, in a kid like Jose Julian, but he made all this very easy. It’s all about what happens on set, and you need someone to be able to set up the perfect environment to make all that happen.
Hadn’t you met with Chris Weitz a few years prior to making this film?
BICHIR: It was not so many years back, but I got a call from my agents saying that I had an audition for New Moon. It was not in my plans to become a vampire, but I wanted to meet Chris Weitz. So, I went to talk to him and I remember that we started talking about this gardener. He started telling me everything about this story about an undocumented worker, and I just couldn’t get it straight. I thought it was a gardener vampire, or something like that. I was a little bit confused. And then, he told me, “We don’t have a script yet, but I’d like you to read it, as soon as we have it ready.” A year later, I got ahold of the script and I fell in love with it instantly.
Do you typically like to not break character, during the course of a performance, or was that just specific to this role?
BICHIR: When you shoot a film, you have very little time to waste, and I try to go into the character as soon as possible and stay there as much as I can. That’s what I did. As soon as Chris Weitz and I decided what we wanted for the character and what we wanted him to look like on the screen, I put on 20 pounds. With all the gardeners I talked to, none of them were fit. None of them were six-packing kind of guys, and we loved that. But, I had lost all of the weight that I gained to play Fidel Castro with Steven Soderbergh (for Che), and then Chris Weitz wanted me to gain another 20 pounds. I said, “Please, man, be nice. Can’t we just make him thin?” So, I went up again.
BICHIR: That was tall. I remember Chris Weitz asking me, “So, how do you feel about the palm tree scene?,” and I said, “Yeah, please, let me go up.” I love doing my own stunts, as long as it’s safe and sometimes I don’t care. He said, “Okay, let’s see what the insurance company has to say.” So, the real gardener went up first, and then I thought maybe it was not a good idea, but it was too late for me to chicken out. Then, our stunt coordinator went up. And then, it was my turn and I was getting ready to do it when I saw Chris Weitz getting all the gear on to go up first, before me. When your director does that, you’re screwed. You have to go up, for him.
This is the kind of movie that changes how you see people, in your day-to-day life, and you start thinking of them as actual human beings, opposed to just as archetypes. Now that you’ve made this film, how has it changed the way you view L.A.?
BICHIR: I’ve been an Angeleno for many, many years and I talk to these people every day, everywhere. They’re making our lives better, easier and happier, everywhere we go. We pretty much talk about the films that I’ve done in Mexico. They would say, “So, what are you up to now?,” and I would say, “I’m doing a film about you. I’m doing a film about us. I’m doing a film about a lot of us.” When I was preparing for this role, they were really nice and generous to share their stories with me. I would talk to the real gardeners, all the time. Now, they say, “I saw your film. That’s my story. That’s my father’s story. That’s my uncle’s story.” This is dedicated to them. I said that when I got the nomination, but this is dedicated to 11 million human beings who work with pride and power and dignity to help this society go forward.
As an actor, do you prefer playing characters that are closer to who you are, or completely different from who you are?
BICHIR: When I don’t know what to do with a character, that’s when I say yes to it. When it’s far away from the way I am, the way I feel or the way I think, that’s when it’s more attractive. But, Carlos Galindo and I have a lot in common. We are hard-working, decent people.
Was there a performance or film that you saw this year that really made an impression on you?
BICHIR: There is a film called A Separation. If you see it playing, go see it. It’s beautiful. It’s so well written and the acting is amazing. It’s one of those films that you would love to be a part of.