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Whereas Oscar-nominated Demian Bichir of the movie ‘A Better Life’ is an accomplished veteran actor, his co-star, José Julián is an outstanding neophyte who makes his feature debut in as the son of Bichir’s character Carlos Galindo in A Better Life.
“We needed to find the right young actor to play Luis Galindo, someone who could hold his own against Demian on screen,” remembers producer Michael McLaughlin. “Usually, this involves a nation-wide search for an unknown that is fraught with the possibility that not finding the right actor will actually derail the production.
In her interview for the job, our casting director, Carla Hool, declared she’d already found Luis for us. And then she showed us tape of José Julián. The first time we tested José and Demian together, we were beside ourselves because they found the father-son dynamic with each other instantly and so early in the process.”
“From the start we knew we were going to cast an unknown as Luis, his son. In his performance, José demonstrates what an extraordinarily clever, intelligent and talented actor he is, even though this is his first movie. I felt he was the guy from the first time I saw him.
Plus, he’s an example of someone the film represents – it took him three hours to get to his auditions, due to the number of buses he had to take,” says the movie’s director Chris Weitz. “Also, mixing an extraordinarily technically accomplished actor, like Demian, with someone who is making his motion picture bow, like José, worked beautifully.”
As it turned out, Bichir, a garrulous man who typically greets everyone with a bear hug, happily took José under his wing, which thrilled his young protégé.
“It was incredible working with him, it was like being in a fantastic acting class and he was the professor. He’s completely an actor’s actor. He has a very systematic approach to how he works, the roles he takes and I completely admire him,” Julián says.
“Demian is a consummate professional. He completely understood the character he was playing. And he’s been a great gift to José Julián—to work with someone who is both so generous and so professionally accomplished. He’s everything a young actor could ask for, and José has been quite a gift as well.
The movie is driven by these two characters. If either one of them is even a little off, you lose so much. And to find someone this age who’s this talented and charismatic is just, quite frankly, more than I had hoped for. And I think he has an enormous career in front of him,” producer Paul Junger Witt sums up.
Julián, who was 16 during production, was always disappointed that, due to child labor laws, his shooting day ended earlier than Bichir’s. Their characters’ fraught on-screen relationship was the total antithesis of their off-screen partnership.
“Luis is teenager who lives in Los Angeles with his father who is illegal. Luis is always angry and pissed at his father and has no respect for him, even though deep down he loves him. He always gives his father a hard time. Luis has many friends who are in gangs and if he isn’t careful, Luis will end up in that lifestyle.
He’s smart, he doesn’t want to end up that way, but after a while, he may not have an option. When his father buys a truck, it’s a great thing because it means a better life for them but when it is stolen, Luis and his father go to find it and that becomes the opportunity for them to finally connect,” Julián explains.
Julián adds that there were certain aspects about the character and the film that he related to personally. “I’m from California, I grew up with kids like Luis. I think it’s a very realistic portrayal, not just of the teenagers, but of illegals – and we lived in areas that were very gang oriented, I know what it’s like to be subjected to those conditions, exposed to that environment,” Julián says.
Julián also developed a special bond with producer Jami Gertz. Gertz certainly empathized with his position as “the newbie.” Invariably, in between takes, Julián would seek her advice – or just sit and play scrabble, a pastime that allowed him to be distracted and present at the same time.
“I’ve been in his place before. I was the young, first-time actor on a set, so I completely empathized with him and hope I was a resource for him. My attitude about movies in general and performing, specifically, is that it is a huge team effort and the goal, for me as a producer, is to aid in that effort in any way I can; to help everyone shine and be the best that they can be. If I could be a sounding board for Jose in that way – or even just provide a safe place to hang out, I was happy to do it,” Gertz says.
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