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First Person: Demian Bichir

The Mexican-born lead actor nominee for 'A Better Life' talks about his past, his passions and his life since getting the Oscar nod.

February 26, 2012|By Demián Bichir, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Demian Bichir is a lead actor Oscar nominee for the film A Better Life.
Demian Bichir is a lead actor Oscar nominee for the film A Better Life. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)

As an actor, you know when you've got great material in front of you. When you're working you think, is this the one? The one that everyone will respond to and be moved by? You pray that you have told the story well ... that your peers will see it and audiences will love it.

It is the dream that began when I was 3 years old and performing onstage in Mexico. My two brothers and I grew up in the theater, going everywhere with my parents when they performed. In beautiful plazas and parks all around Mexico City they would perform; sometimes my brother or I would be called upon to perform as well. Often we would play among the statues, unaware of the significance of bringing public theater to the farthest reaches of the city. We loved the life, but like most artists, we were broke. The five of us lived in a tiny one-room house, but that room was filled with joy and color, emotion and drama. I remember feeling when I was onstage, as much as a child of 3 can, extremely connected and a part of something bigger. The energy from the audience was extraordinary and I watched, fascinated, as my parents played at this very serious game. I continued to act in plays and at the age of 13 became a member of the National Theatre Company of Mexico.

I was lucky that audiences in Mexico liked my work. I was even luckier when I got to do movies and plays with my brothers. As a young actor, I booked a movie in the U.S. I didn't speak any English at the time, so I learned my lines phonetically when I auditioned for it.

My other love is soccer. As a kid, I played every chance I got, but it turned out I didn't quite have the talent to go pro. I remember my father sitting me down and saying, "I know you love soccer, Demián, but the theater loves you more."

I believe that things work out as they should, because acting has become my passion and saving grace. It's given me a full and beautifully rich life filled with self-discovery and connection. Last year when I was in Spain for the birth of my daughter, Gala, my father flew over to join me and we sat down to lunch. He shared with me, for the first time, that when he found the theater, he had discovered his reason for living. It was a beautiful moment I will never forget.

In my early days I went to New York, and paid my dues working in a restaurant while going out to different auditions. I stayed for one year and got no parts and only one callback. I returned to Mexico. About six years ago, the urge to move struck again. It was a risk. All my friends told me, "What are you gaining by going there? You have your name here." I had just won the Ariel, the Mexican Oscar, for "'Til Death." I was comfortable. But I moved — this time to L.A. — and started all over again.

This time things moved fast. In Mexico my publicist, Amy Brownstein, asked me to take another chance on the U.S. She introduced me to my manager, Sekka Scher, who in turn introduced me to casting director Mary Vernieu. In less than five months I was in the jungle with Benicio Del Toro and Steven Soderbergh. The movie was "Che" and I was Fidel Castro.

As a Latin actor you come across many scripts about drug dealers. In the one I liked most, "Weeds," Mary Louise Parker played the drug dealer. I played her boyfriend, then husband, the mayor of Tijuana. It was at that time that I met [director] Chris Weitz. He was working on one of the "Twilight" films. My agent, Carlos Carreras, said that Chris wanted to meet me, and when I got there we discussed playing a gardener. A vampire gardener? The kind that only trims hedges at night?

No, it was the film that became "A Better Life." We spent most of the film shooting in areas of Los Angeles that people in our industry don't usually go to. It was where many of the people who wordlessly support the flow of this city and this country live. Day laborers, restaurant workers, housekeepers, nannies and gardeners. It was where they lived, with their children, their parents; often with other families and lone workers. Crammed into bunk beds in apartments designed for one family. It seems very far away from the press conferences and nominee luncheons.

Chris Weitz is now my brother too. Working with him was like when I was a kid; we were in it together. It was what you call "no frills" shooting. He stuck to the issues that were most important: protecting and providing for your family. I followed and mirrored his passion to tell the story of the unsung, the people ignored in daily life in Los Angeles. We were hoping for more people to see the film when it was released but Chris got back in the trenches and kept fighting. He is my "carnal" (bro) and the leader and the reason I've been nominated for best actor. He is the tireless worker and the visionary.

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