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Overcoming a question of color

Playing opposite Halle Berry in 'Catwoman,' Benjamin Bratt is pleased that having two ethnic leads is no biggie.

June 13, 2004|Elaine Dutka | Times Staff Writer

Benjamin BRATT'S bicultural roots run deep, he says, affecting not only his professional choices but how he sees himself.

Hollywood, as he's experienced it, has rarely been colorblind. So he was heartened when, despite the high stakes, Warner Bros. cast him opposite Halle Berry in "Catwoman," a film based on the venerable comic book character, to be released on July 23. In it, the 40-year-old heartthrob plays a detective who falls in love with a meek graphic designer (Berry) while hunting down her feline alter ego.

"That a big movie like 'Catwoman' has two ethnic leads proves that, at a certain point, even people of color become green," Bratt says. "That's what it's all about. That nobody said a thing about it was a relief to someone like myself who's been up against walls of discrimination."

The movie is what it is, Bratt says, downplaying the female empowerment angle. Though young girls, especially African American, may find it uplifting, it's basically an "over-the-top, visually stunning piece of entertainment." Does casting Berry as a summer superhero mean that talent and looks supersede race? Depends on the day of the week, Bratt replies. Things are getting better, thanks to pioneers such as TV producer Dick Wolf ("Law & Order"). But, citing his experience with Wolfgang Petersen's "Troy," there's still a ways to go.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 17, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 62 words Type of Material: Correction
Benjamin Bratt -- In an article about Benjamin Bratt in Sunday's Calendar section, the actor said he had a meeting to discuss being cast in "Troy" but was told he was too "brown" for the movie. That meeting was not with director Wolfgang Petersen or the "Troy" casting director, and it was his agent who informed him that he wouldn't be cast.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday June 18, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 75 words Type of Material: Correction
Benjamin Bratt -- A Calendar section article on Sunday incorrectly reported that actor Benjamin Bratt, at a meeting on the possibility of being cast in "Troy," was informed he was "too brown." A correction Thursday indicated the meeting was not with the movie's director or casting director. The correction should have said Bratt said that he never had a meeting with anyone associated with the film, and that he received the news from his agent.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 20, 2004 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 62 words Type of Material: Correction
Benjamin Bratt -- In an article about Benjamin Bratt in last Sunday's Calendar, the actor said he had a meeting to discuss being cast in "Troy" but was told he was too "brown" for the movie. That meeting was not with director Wolfgang Petersen or the "Troy" casting director, and it was his agent who informed him that he wouldn't be cast.

"About a year and a half ago, I read a wonderful script called 'Troy' and, though the leads were set, even the tertiary roles, smaller in size, were of interest to me. I succeeded in getting a meeting but was told that I was too 'brown.' What do people in Asia Minor look like? If they all look like Brad Pitt ... fine. After the major roles were established, they said, they were only going to hire British actors."

Warner Bros. confirms that British actors were hired but provides some context. To qualify for a lucrative British financial incentive, "Troy" had to use film locations in the U.K. and employ a predominantly British cast and crew.

"We had an international cast with extras from all over the world," said a Warner Bros. spokesman. "What disqualified Bratt from consideration for a smaller role was his high profile. You couldn't cast him as a nameless soldier with two lines because it would have been distracting."

How did he add texture to the cartoonish mix of "Catwoman"? In TV shows such as "Law & Order" and movies such as "Traffic," after all, he's been ultra-reality-based.

"Working with this kind of material is much harder than doing something dramatic and representational," Bratt says by phone from New York, where his wife, actress Talisa Soto, and their 17-month-old daughter, Sophia, spend much of their time when not in his native San Francisco. "With respect to the writers, it's all on the surface. My cop was just an expositional device, a guy who asks questions -- much too soft on the page. I told the producers and writers that no one likes anything that comes too easy, so we made him more mysterious and dangerous -- building up the sexual tension. Halle's character would never be with someone who doesn't push back, so we gave him a bit of sass."

A student at ACT

Bratt always identified as an underdog -- and that feeling is with him still. Growing up, he recalls, his family was on welfare and, while studying at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre, he drove a Super Shuttle to make ends meet. The son of a Peruvian Indian mother who came to the U.S. at 14 and an English-German father, he participated in a takeover of Alcatraz Island at age 5.

Though he embraces Native American culture, he's primarily been cast as Latino in movies such as "Bound by Honor" (1993) and "Pinero" (2002), a breakthrough role in which he portrayed the famed poet-playwright. As Jerry Orbach's partner in "Law & Order" from 1995 to 1999, he was "NBC's answer to Jimmy Smits" of "NYPD Blue," a critic observed.

"One label doesn't express all that I think I am," he said. "And the more people we laud as true American heroes refuse to wear the ethnic label of the moment, the better off we'll be. Tiger Woods is of African American and Thai descent, but he refuses to be the hero for either. In 30, 40 years, we won't be having this conversation. With intermarriage on the rise, we're truly becoming a melting pot."

Another detective role wasn't exactly part of Bratt's game plan. But his desire to work with Berry persuaded him to come aboard. In the past, economic necessity has made him a "hired gun," he acknowledges. But he's trying to make a course correction, taking responsibility for his roles. He and his brother Peter are collaborating on a love story set against San Francisco's Latino community. The goal: to make it sufficiently formulaic to succeed yet infuse it with their politics.

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