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The right place at the right time

Pedro Castaneda (and his boots) caught the eye of director Chris Eska. Then others noticed him too.

September 21, 2008|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

There were four familiar names this year among the nominees for the 2007 Film Independent Spirit Award for best actor -- Don Cheadle, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Frank Langella and Tony Leung. But there was one name few filmgoers had heard of before: Pedro Castaneda, who was nominated for his work in the leisurely paced Spanish-language drama "August Evening."

The stocky, gray-haired Castaneda had never acted, much less made a movie, before "August Evening," for which he and his cast mates were honored at last year's Los Angeles Film Festival. The film opens Friday.

The 53-year-old native of Laredo, Texas, was working in the computer business in San Antonio when he was spotted by filmmaker Chris Eska. The writer-director, who makes his feature debut with "August Evening," thought the soft-spoken Castaneda had the perfect look for the role of Jaime, an undocumented farmworker toiling on a Texas chicken farm whose life is turned upside down when his beloved wife suddenly dies.

"I was meeting potential crew members at an art space in San Antonio called Urban 15," recalls Eska, who won the Spirit Awards' prestigious John Cassavetes Award for best feature made for less than $500,000.

By chance, Castaneda was there too, to repair a computer system.

"I kept looking at him," Eska says. "I was in the middle of casting. He had this great sort of quiet dignity on his face. He was wearing these great pair of boots."

So Eska, who shot the film for a meager $40,000 partly in the small Texas town of Gonzales, where he used to go to school, went up to Castaneda.

"I said, 'You have a great look. I'm making a movie. Have you ever thought about being in films?' "

Castaneda was initially taken aback.

"He asked me to read some lines," he says. "He said I had the look he wanted and he liked my boots -- they were just old, beat-up cowboy boots. I told him I especially don't like to talk in front of people. But he showed me the script and I liked it a lot. I thought it would be nice to do. I talked to my dad about it. It is something I can show my kids, that no matter how old you are you can still do things. . . . Here would be something I could have for the rest of my life."

Eska's hunch paid off beautifully in the case of Castaneda and Veronica Loren, a singer (who also had never acted before) who plays Lupe, Jaime's devoted, widowed daughter-in-law. The two bring a quiet, poetic dignity to their roles, especially in the scenes in which they move to San Antonio to live with Jaime's son and daughter, neither of whom is thrilled by their arrival.

The cast and crew, Eska says, "rented a couple of houses in Gonzales. We slept on air mattresses, cooked and cleaned together, sang karaoke and played video games. It was a great little commune we had there."

Eska threw out "all of the romanticized ideas of the relationships between the director and actor" when it came to directing his non-actors. "I did what was necessary to get the best performance out of them. It's a very physical process. I told them not to act. I told them I don't want them to sell it to me. Memorize all of the lines and say them with no emotion. I told them physically what I wanted."

"I did what he said," Castaneda says. "The crew was extremely helpful. I didn't know anything. I didn't know where to stand. They explained it to me on the fly. I would not say it was easy, but easier because I didn't know anything. I didn't know any better."

But it really wasn't hard for him to understand Jaime because the part reflected his parents' experience. "My dad was U.S.-born, but my mom was from Mexico," he says.

"They used to be migrant workers, and we used to travel all over the northern states and also in Texas picking cotton. I remember living in really shanty conditions, but, as for me, I was young. I was 4 or 5 years old, and to me it was more of a game. I can't say I suffered. I probably did, but I wouldn't have known."

Castaneda, who graduated from medical school in Mexico and worked in the medical field in San Antonio before turning to computers, spent the year after completing "August Evening" caring for his dying father. He then moved back to San Antonio, where he has his computer business, as well as a tow truck company with a neighbor. "I try to fit them both in," he says.

And although he lost out on the Spirit Award to Hoffman, Castaneda says he wouldn't mind giving acting another go.

"I have to eat my words. Sometimes I used to say, 'Actors! What kind of hard work do they have?' But it was extremely difficult. The locations were out in the open, and it was pretty hot. But just even the rehearsals and shooting over and over again different scenes and different shots. . . . But I enjoyed it a lot."

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