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The Contenders: Demian Bichir

The star of 'A Better Life' found his character beautiful. The palm tree, not so much.

February 07, 2012|By Lisa Rosen, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Mexican actor Demian Bichir was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Actor category for his role as a Mexican day laborer in the film "A Better Life."
Mexican actor Demian Bichir was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Actor… (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)

Perhaps the biggest surprise as the Oscar nominations were announced was the inclusion of a name familiar to few American audiences. As those early morning viewers waited to hear the expected announcement of Leonardo DiCaprio, they heard instead the name Demian Bichir. But the inclusion was baffling only to those who haven't seen his performance in"A Better Life." As Carlos Galindo, an undocumented Mexican gardener desperate to achieve some tiny slice of the American dream for his son, Bichir gives poignant life to an invisible man.

He's famous in his home country of Mexico, with dozens of film and stage credits to his name. And while here his face is recognizable to viewers of Showtime's "Weeds," in which he played kinky Tijuana Mayor Esteban Reyes, his name is not; it was recently mangled at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, where he was also a lead actor nominee. Head's up Oscar announcer: Bichir is pronounced Be-Cheer; and that's actually a pretty accurate description. Finishing up an interview on his phone as he slides into a coffeeshop booth to chat with yet another reporter in person, he mouths his apologies and makes goofy faces at the phone.

You come from a theater family; you're kind of the Barrymores of Mexico.

They're going to love that one.

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When did you start acting?

I was 3 years old the first time I stepped onto a stage in a real professional play. I grew up in the National Theater Company in Mexico. At 17, I had my first lead, in Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness!' That was the first time I realized I wanted to do that forever. I did Shakespeare, Strindberg, Peter Shaffer's "Equus," Neil Simon's "Broadway Bound" and"The Odd Couple"...

After getting all this great work in Mexico, it must have been humbling to move to Los Angeles and hear, "And you are ...?" Why put yourself through that?

Everyone at home asked that. There's a saying in Mexico: It's better to be the head of a mouse than the tail of a lion. And I thought, no, I want to be the head of a lion.

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What drew you to "A Better Life"?

When I read it, I fell in love with the story. I remember closing the script and saying, "What a beautiful character, what a wonderful role. I have no idea how to approach that." That's when I say yes. That's when I go crazy about it, because then the ride becomes interesting. Carlos Galindo is a man who transits through life with a tremendous dignity, but he doesn't want you to look at him.

Tom Cruise got a lot of press for doing his own stunts on "Mission: Impossible 4," but that palm tree you climbed looked almost as scary.

I remember when [director] Chris Weitz asked me how I felt about that scene. I said, "Are you kidding? Please let me do it. I beg you. I said yes to this project because I wanted to go up." I love doing my own stunts.

Our gardener did it first. He crossed himself, then we realized it was dangerous. He told us that every time you go up there's a risk of losing your life. So we added that to the character: I cross myself. The stuntman went up, and then Chris went up. And I said, "OK, I'm screwed. If my director did it, I have to go." I think I went up and down nine or 10 times, all day long. We chose one of the tallest palms that I've seen. The view was really pretty.

Why did you gain weight for the role?

He can't have the six-pack; "Hello, I'm the sexy gardener." All the gardeners I interviewed, they had these nice little pancitas, these round bellies. I had lost the 20 pounds I gained for Fidel Castro [whom he played in Steven Soderbergh's "Che"], and then I had to go up again another 20. For me it takes forever to gain weight.

Poor you.

Chris sent an email asking how's the weight going, and I sent him this picture [he holds up his phone, displaying a photo of his bare pancita] and Chris said, "Stop! Stop!"

Even your gait had a heaviness to it, stepping side to side.

I wanted this type of pace where he's never centered, he's never in a safe position. It's like he's on the deck of a boat; the ground is not secure. That's the way his life is — a ship in constant movement.

MORE: Oscar Nominees | Play-at-home Ballot | Cheat Sheet | Buzzmeter | Heatmeter

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