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Some actors just look good holding a gun

That observation got Edgar Ramirez a recent film role, but he has so much more to offer.

July 22, 2007|Rob Kendt | Special to The Times

New York — WHEN actor Edgar Ramirez had a break from shooting "The Bourne Ultimatum" in London last spring, he didn't hit the English nightclubs or take a long weekend to unwind in the Cotswolds. Instead, he hopped over to Paris to observe the first round of the French national elections.

"I still have credentials to observe elections," Ramirez recounted recently over a slab of steak at an Argentine restaurant in New York. "I went to the banlieue, the very faraway voting centers, and it was really amazing the amount of people who were intending to vote."

Like many Venezuelan nationals, Ramirez knows both the fruits and perils of participatory democracy firsthand: He was in his native Caracas in 2002 and 2003, during the infamous period when President Hugo Chavez was briefly ousted in a military coup, then reinstated, then subject to a protracted and polarizing national recall referendum.

"It was one of the most terrifying and otherworldly experiences ever, to see my country falling apart, on the verge of a civil war," said Ramirez, 30, who has a degree in mass communications and got his voting-observer credentials through Dale al Voto, a Latin American Rock the Vote initiative. "And that's what happened in 2002: My country was divided in two, and one half was trying to take the other out."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 22, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Edgar Ramirez: A caption with an article in today's Calendar section about actor Edgar Ramirez, who plays a villain in "The Bourne Ultimatum," incorrectly gives his surname as Martinez.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 29, 2007 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 0 inches; 17 words Type of Material: Correction
Edgar Ramirez: A caption with an article about actor Edgar Ramirez last Sunday incorrectly called him Martinez.

And what was Ramirez, a diplomat's son who once dreamed of being the U.N. secretary-general, doing at this time of crisis? Making out with twins on national TV. In the wildly popular telenovela "Cosita Rica," Ramirez had rocketed to fame as a poor street vendor in love with two women he didn't know were twins, both played by Marisa Roman.

According to Carolina Acosta-Alzuru, an associate professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Georgia, who was also in Venezuela during the recall referendum period, the on-screen romance of Ramirez and Roman made them as iconic as U.S. soaperstars Luke and Laura in their early-'80s "General Hospital" heyday.

But it was the show's universal appeal, across all classes and political persuasions, that gave it more cultural, even political significance than your run-of-the-mill soapy potboiler.

" 'Cosita Rica' was on during those 11 months just before and during the referendum, and it was probably the only media product consumed by both sides," said Acosta-Alzuru. "Telenovelas are part of our daily intake in Venezuela: You eat three meals each day and watch at least one telenovela. So no matter if they were pro- or anti-Chavez, people continued watching. It was like national therapy or catharsis."

The show's success was a turning point for Ramirez, who had acted in a few independent movies but had qualms about introducing himself as an actor.

"That show actually walked hand in hand with the country through one of the most confusing periods of its contemporary history," Ramirez recalled. "It got the highest ratings of anything in the last 15 years or something, so it was totally undeniable -- I couldn't not call myself an actor. Everybody knew. I was on TV."

This combination of tumult and mixed blessing seems to follow Ramirez's career. A film he shot before "Cosita Rica" but released after its success, "Punto y Raya," garnered attention during a festival run in Los Angeles. Still, it was hardly the kind of breakout international hit, a la "Amores Perros," "Y Tu Mama Tambien" or "City of God," that typically launches Latin American talent into world cinema.

"I visited L.A. with 'Punto y Raya' and got close to some projects, but it was precisely the lack of that big transitional movie that was always the obstacle," Ramirez conceded.

But he did score a meeting with British director Tony Scott, who cast him as an unhinged bounty hunter in the hallucinatory action film "Domino."

"In 'Domino,' there's almost an animal ferocity in him," says director Pete Travis, who cast Ramirez in the political thriller "Vantage Point," slated for release in February. "He has the ability to be a kick-ass bad guy but also to be very vulnerable in a way that doesn't seem melodramatic or cheesy; Edgar manages to make it seem very real."

Paul Greengrass, who directed Ramirez in "Bourne," agreed.

"The essence of Edgar's strength as an actor is that he's morally ambiguous," he said. "He could be a good guy, he could be a bad guy; he could be a good guy doing bad things or a bad guy doing good things. You just can't know. His is a face that gives nothing away yet is full of possibilities, and that's what makes him so exciting to watch."

He's not gunning to become a Latin American Jet Li, though.

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