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The first actor cast for the movie ‘A Better Life’, who is now up for an Academy Awards this Oscar season, was famed Mexican actor, Demian Bichir, in the pivotal role of Carlos Galindo.
While US audiences are somewhat familiar with Bichir’s work on the series “Weeds” and his portrayal of Fidel Castro in Che, he is a superstar in Mexico, who comes from a family of performers – his parents and two brothers are also actors. Indeed, the Mexican MTV Movie Awards created a special category for the brothers Bichir – “Mejor Bichir in una Pelicula,” “Best Bichir in a Movie.”
“He’s a huge star in Mexico but relatively less well known in America. In that respect, he brings two great things to the movie: One, the most important, is that he is an exceptional actor. The other is that when he appears on screen, he isn’t totally familiar to American audiences.
This allows you to believe he is a gardener, a simple man who might lose everything, whereas with US movie stars, you just never really believe it. Demian immersed himself fully into the role. I think people will be impressed with his performance,” director Chris Weitz says. Indeed, prior to the start of production, Bichir extensively researched his character by consulting local Los Angeles day laborers. He even bought a white pick-up truck from one of them and that became his preferred mode of transportation throughout the film.
“There are many different ways to approach a character and it’s different on every film. When I have the time, I always try to do a lot of research. So I interviewed a lot of paisanos [fellow Mexicans], working in gardens everywhere in Los Angeles. It was really great and informative to get to know those guys.
I wanted to build a character that was not a stereotype because even though it is specific to Los Angeles, it is a universal story – it is about pursuing and fulfilling your dreams and taking care of your family – my character’s son, in this case. He is a decent, hard-working man trying to build a better future, primarily for his son.
He doesn’t have many dreams for himself – if he can give his son a good education and keep him away from gangs and drugs, if he can achieve that, that’s a life worth living. It’s about heart and that’s something everyone can relate to,” Bichir says. Carlos’ dreams are literally linked to the truck he buys, which instantly transforms him into an independent contractor and allows him, he hopes, to take charge of his destiny. Everything changes, of course, when a supposed new friend and co-worker steals the truck.
“The truck means everything to Carlos. It is the boat that will take him to a happy port. It signifies hope and the possibility of a better future. It is his passport to better times, but in this case, in truth, also to rough ones,” Bichir notes.
These circumstances are untenable on every level – without the truck, Galindo has no means of finding enough substantial work to make a living and to repay his sister Anita, who has loaned him the money to buy it. He can’t report it stolen because he is an illegal immigrant, albeit one who has lived and worked in the United States for so many years he’s almost forgotten about his status.
Father and son unite to find the stolen vehicle and slowly forge a bond that has been broken for many years, each finding out more about the other. “The situation is completely risky for Carlos and he finds himself at the limits of desperation. But it is also an extraordinary opportunity – it provides the pretext for Carlos and his son Luis to join forces and to face things together for the first time.
They have an important adventure together and Luis sees that his father is a brave man, a whole person who is prepared to do anything to regain what is rightfully his, all for his son – and in the process, he demands and earns Luis’ respect,” Bichir says.
While clearly Bichir delved into the “head” of his character, part of his acting style is less intellectual and more visceral. Athletics are a big part of Bichir’s life – tennis and soccer, in particular – and he considers it a part of an actor’s job to stay nimble, both physically and emotionally.
To that end, he learned to climb to the top of a palm tree, using only the gardener’s belt and boots, shimmying up the trunk in a powerful, gravity-taunting dance. Weitz also clambered up the tree, on an early location scout with Bichir, in a nice bit of “method directing,” but it was Bichir who had to do it multiple times, balancing up in his perch for a few hours, when it came time to film the scene.
In fact, it was the intrepid, tree-climbing director coupled with the story of Carlos Galindo that attracted Bichir to the project. “I met Chris about a year before filming, and just by listening to the way he talked about it and by sharing the same feelings he had about the subjects and the story, I immediately felt connected to him.
When I finally got the script, I was impressed by its realism, the way it approached the people we mostly don’t know anything about. Your cooks, your gardeners, your maids, your valet parking people – what I liked about it was its human approach to their lives,” Bichir says.
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