Thursday, November 3, 2011

AWARDS SEASON 2012: Demián Bichir and Chris Weitz
Fathers, Regular Guys And Better Lives

Demián Bichir (left) and Chris Weitz.  Mr. Weitz directs Mr. Bichir in "A Better Life", now on DVD. 
Omar P.L. Moore

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
ay, November 3, 2011

AT THIS LATE AFTERNOON HOUR Chris Weitz is on a cellphone talking to his son Sebastian, giving him some words of advice before talking about "A Better Life", his latest film (now on DVD), critically acclaimed for its natural and humanistic portrayal of undocumented workers in Los Angeles.  Demián Bichir, who plays Carlos, one of the workers, has been hearing Oscar talk about his internalized, disciplined performance, and as he and his director sit down it is realized that all three in the room have children. 

"A Better Life" is about fathers and sons, and the relationship between them that evolves in not the most ideal of circumstances .  Parents instinctively want better lives for their children, and Carlos, who works as a day-laboring gardener, wants higher aspirations for teenage son Luis (José Julián), who has been flirting with gang life in East Los Angeles.

Mr. Weitz, the son of fashion designer John Weitz, wastes no time thanking the real powers behind "A Better Life", a drama written by Eric Eason (who directed the New York City immigrant family drama "Manito" several years ago.) 

"Reverend Gregory Boyle and Hector Verdugo (of Homeboy Industries in L.A.)  They were guides to East Los Angeles, to the gang culture, and to Ramona Gardens, where Hector grew up and was a gang member.  He left that life and gave his life to public service.  Father G . . . is an extraordinary human being.  The most saintly person I've ever met."

Mr. Weitz, 42, says this with the utmost calm and looks you firmly in the eye, as he will throughout the conversation, a refreshing trait.  "We needed to do the work to get this right," the director says of the tone, mood and atmosphere of the environment "A Better Life" immerses itself in.

"A Better Life" was not immediately personal to the director but became so as Mr. Weitz worked on the film, which was shot almost entirely on location on the streets of Los Angeles, a rarity these days.  Mr. Weitz has a kinship of sorts with the Mexican and Mexican-American characters of his film.  His maternal grandmother is Lupita Tovar, a Mexican actress who starred in the country's first talking film in the 1930s.  Ms. Tovar is alive and well, a ripe, young 100.  Mr. Weitz, a New Yorker, is married to Mercedes Martinez, a Cuban-Mexican.

Mr. Bichir, 48, comes from a famed Mexican family of acting brothers, and as Carlos in "A Better Life" he tries to take hold of a piece of the American dream.  After more than 20 years thriving as a national hero in Mexico on film and television, he's most well known in the U.S. for his work in "Che" as Fidel Castro and in the Showtime cable series "Weeds" as Tijuana's drug-dealing mayor.  Mr. Bichir will appear next year as part of an ensemble cast in Oliver Stone's film "Savages", which also takes place in part in Mexico.

Right now the actor, in a black t-shirt and navy blue pants, leans over a cushion at his midrift.  One might think Mr. Bichir is ill but he's perfectly fine and relaxed as he carefully deliberates and looks at the floor in a local hotel suite as he formulates his responses to questions.  Like Mr. Weitz, his sincerity is self-evident.

"I'm just so happy when people see what we did, because sometimes the most significant things aren't out there in the open like a shining light bulb.  Sometimes you have to pay attention," Mr. Bichir said, every word uttered with earnestness between brief pauses.

José Julián as Luis and Demián Bichir as Carlos in Chris Weitz's drama "A Better Life", now on DVD.  Summit Entertainment

"When we hear the audience crying when we attend screenings we attended before, we realize we did good.  And we took our own risks going for the subtle kind of things that the characters feel.  For me acting is about thinking and feeling, so after doing a character like Fidel Castro who's completely opposite to Carlos Gallindo I was lucky to find this script and this character but I could not have done it with any other director."

"A Better Life" unfolds without the manipulative or self-pitying devices that many films about migrant workers force audiences to make specific judgments about.  Mr. Weitz allows for none of that in a quiet, matter-of-fact story that is procedural and absorbing.  You ache and agonize with Carlos, and through his eyes.  Mr. Bichir gives him a grounded reality, and great restraint.  What he doesn't say or do is more important than what he does when tough times arrive.

"There's no real bad guy in the story, not even La Migra (the East L.A. gang in the film) is portrayed as bad people.  They're just doing their jobs," Mr. Weitz acknowledged.  The director cites the clash of values between Carlos, a man from old-world traditional Mexico, and Luis, his Mexican-American son, who views palatial estates, fast cars and opulent neighborhoods as the nirvana of America.

"The rule of the day was under acting," Mr. Weitz added. 

Acting is the very thing Mr. Bichir, back in his early twenties, moved to New York City to get away from.  "'You're not going there, not over my dead body!'", Mr. Bichir recalls his mother saying to him, using an exaggerated voice to mimic her.

"Mom, I'll be fine.'

"I think I learned more about acting that year when I stopped acting, than all the years before, in my professional training," Mr. Bichir confesses. 

"I basically gave my 'actor' for the first time real-life experiences.  So I, for the first time, was in touch with a world totally different from the things that I grew up with in Mexico and all that, and being an actor and being a professional already and paying taxes at 13.  When I was thirteen years old I was already a member of the National Theater Company, and all my friends were 50 and 60-year-old guys, so that was pretty weird for a kid."

Mr. Bichir talked about how he was told by some work colleagues at Rosa Mexicano, a Mexican restaurant he made guacamole at in New York that he should stay in Mexico and continue doing the Shakespeare he did as a teenager there. 

"I've always been really stubborn in many ways." 

The actor added that he told the manager of the restaurant, "I know [the acting world in America] is packed, but there's got to be a place for me."

Some years later, it has all paid off for Demián Bichir, and on a grander, more expansive scale.  For Mr. Bichir acting is a global entity.  "It's not about the United States only.  It's about how art, in general, is universal.  And it shouldn't have any frontiers.  And I've been going everywhere in the world to tractor my work.  And of course, you know, in Los Angeles the weather is a lot nicer."

Mr. Bichir hails his work in "A Better Life" as "the most important film that I've ever done in my career."

"This film could have been made in Mexico and been forgotten.  But just the fact that Hollywood did it, that Chris Weitz made it, that it's getting all this attention, that it's touching hearts and opening minds -- it makes this the most important film in my life.

"You know so much about my life!" Mr. Bichir says, smiling.  There's a hint of astonishment in his voice.  (One wonders if that makes Mr. Bichir uncomfortable or impressed, though he affirms the latter.)

"He's CIA," jokes Mr. Weitz.

"A Better Life" was released in June 2011 in the U.S. and Canada.  The film is now on DVD in the U.S. and is expected to be among the Oscar nominees in the acting category come January.

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