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The Star Next Door – Demián Bichir

Long a marquee name in Mexico, Demián Bichir earned some acclaim stateside with his portrayal of a corrupt politico on "Weeds." His latest role, a starring turn in "A Better Life", might just snag him an Oscar.

Author JOHN SELLERS

IF DEMIAN BICHIR TAKES HOME an Academy Award for playing the hard-working, protective father at the center of “A Better Life”—as early buzz suggests he might—his acceptance speech could include an unlikely benefactor: Stephenie Meyer, the author behind the Twilight movie juggernaut.

It was his audition for the franchise’s second installment, New Moon, that brought Bichir to the attention of that film’s director, Chris Weitz. And while the 48-year-old Mexican actor ultimately lost out on a chance to play an Italian vampire (“I would have loved to do that film!” he groans), he earned a meeting with Weitz to talk about the director’s next project, a low-budget movie about a struggling day laborer determined to give his son a brighter future. Within a year, Bichir was cast as the lead in that movie, “A Better Life”.

Although this is his first major Hollywood role, Bichir has been a box-office star in Mexico for years, appearing alongside the likes of Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz. His U.S. breakthrough came when Steven Soderbergh cast him as Fidel Castro in the 2008 biopic Che; soon after came Bichir’s high-profile role on TV’s “Weeds,” in which he played the corrupt, seductive mayor of Tijuana. Up next: a meaty part in Oliver Stone’s Savages.

Play caught up with Bichir to talk about how he prepared for “A Better Life”, why he’s known for his singing voice and what telenovelas have taught him about the value of a well-timed slap.

To get ready for your role in “A Better Life”, you went so far as to buy a beat-up truck similar to the one driven by your character, Carlos Galindo. How much did you pay for it? [Laughs.] Well, it was kind of expensive. When I asked my paisano, “Do you want to sell your truck, man?” and he said, “No, no, no, I don’t want to sell it,” and then I said, “Well, if you did want to sell it, how much would you ask?” When I got him to agree to $1,800, he said, “Yeah! Let’s do it!” I sold it when I finished the movie, though—for about $500.

Ouch. Did you get your money’s worth? I think I did, in many ways. It really made a lot of difference for me because it got me in the zone. That helped me very, very much.

Would you call that Method acting? You could say that, because I try to invent as little as possible, and I try to be as truthful and real as possible. But when you’re shooting a film, you don’t have too much time to prepare. I wish I’d had time to become a gardener like Carlos for a couple of years and then make the movie—you know, really go through that, and get rid of my passport and live in a very small space. That would have been ideal. I try to do whatever I can, and I needed that truck for this role. But that’s not the approach I take for every character or every project.

Meaning you didn’t exactly need to become the mayor of Tijuana to play your “Weeds” character, Esteban Reyes? That’s right, or smuggle weapons the way he did. But with “A Better Life”, I just wanted to get in touch with the character’s needs and lack of material things. Carlos Galindo doesn’t have anything. He doesn’t have money. He sleeps on the sofa so he can give the only bed in the house to his son. All his trying and all his goals in life are aimed at the same thing: giving his son a better life. That’s why I didn’t want to drive my own car and why I tried as much as possible to live the character’s life 24/7 for all those months.

Back in the 1980s, you spent a year in New York working as a busboy, though you hadn’t learned to speak English yet. Did that give you any personal insight into Carlos’ situation? I was working with no permit, so I can say that, at some point, I was an undocumented worker. But I went to New York with a tourist visa. Not many of my countrymen who are working here had the chance to actually have a passport and take a plane and get a tourist visa. So I could never, never relate to their suffering. My heart goes out to all those people because of the effort involved, the danger and the risk.

Like when Carlos’ truck gets stolen and he can’t even go to the police for fear of being deported. Yeah, that makes everything harder. And it’s a terrible way of living your life, when you’re always hiding and trying to live in the shadows under the scrutiny of many other people because you don’t have the proper documentation to prove that you’re a good person, that you are a hard-working human being.

Even though this is your first major film role in the U.S., you’ve racked up a lot of acting credits in the past few decades. For instance, you appeared in the 1983 made-for-TV movie Choices of the Heart, starring Melissa Gilbert, Martin Sheen and Helen Hunt—how the heck did that happen? Wow. Yeah. To this day, I just don’t know how I booked that part, because I couldn’t speak any English. I had to learn the whole thing phonetically and I didn’t know what I was saying.

Also: Were you really the voice of Aladdin in the Spanish-language version of the Disney film? Oh, man. Yeah, the voice for Aladdin for Mexico and Latin America is mine, the songs and everything. Absolutely. I had so much fun doing that. The Little Mermaid, also. The Little Mermaid for Mexico and Latin America. In that, I played two characters, the prince and the fat French cook, and I sang the songs, too. That’s me.

During your long career in Mexico, how did you manage to steer clear of telenovelas, the hugely popular soap operas? Well, I have done a few. The first telenovela I did, I think I was 11. But in the past 15 years, I did only three in Mexico, and I did those because they were different in many ways. They were not your everyday Cinderella stories. One was about the way the country was at that time: I was playing a good cop and we were talking about election times, so it was a political telenovela. We were playing with the everyday news and talking about the government and the church. We didn’t have great ratings.

You needed more people slapping each other. True. There’s a lot of slapping going on in telenovelas. I remember this guy who was a producer who used to say that whenever the ratings go down, he just puts in a little more slapping. Most novelas are really, really bad. I’ve had to say no so many times to them, even though there’s a lot of money involved, because they don’t have the stories I’m looking for as an actor. That’s pretty much what made me close the door and come to Hollywood to look for some other options.

Esteban Reyes is probably your best-known character over here; sadly, he died in prison on “Weeds.” Any chance he’ll come back as a zombie? Why not? I mean, they say they killed me, but no one saw the body …

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