Oscar-nominated actor Demian Bichir gives voice to immigrant community
Mexican actor Demián Bichir’s Oscar worthy performance in A Better Life speaks to the struggles of millions of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. (Summit Entertainment)
“One always hopes that his/her performance transcends the typical role,” A Better Life’s Demián Bichir tells me during a recent phone call from Mexico, in the weeks leading up to the 84th Academy Awards, where the actor, 48, is nominated alongside George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Gary Oldman, and Jean Dujardin in the Best Actor category.
In the film, Bichir plays Carlos Galindo, an undocumented Mexican day laborer in Los Angeles struggling to strike a balance between earning enough to provide for his son, Luis — whom he has raised as a single father — and finding the time to look after him. Driven by the prospect of getting Luis out of their gang-infested neighborhood, Galindo borrows money from his sister to buy a truck that would bump him from gardener to gardening boss. On the first day in his new role, however, a self-seeking colleague steals the truck, launching father and son into a heart-wrenching journey to get it back.
The performance has earned Bichir a rightful place on the Oscar ballot and in the pages of magazines, but more importantly, he says, it has helped put a human face on an issue that is often talked about in different terms.
“I don’t think anyone really needs a movie to get behind causes,” says Bichir, who’s currently starring in a play in Mexico City, Swimming With Sharks, alongside Ana de la Reguera. “That’s just what has been accomplished with the people who have been able to see it. I think they’re moved by the film, and at the same time it helps open their minds about a real problem, a problem that isn’t about politics, but about human beings and the need for immigration reform.”
“That’s where this film is so important and so relevant,” he adds, “because it speaks precisely about them [the undocumented population in the U.S.], about the voice that they don’t have.”
The role in the film has made him a sort of spokesman for those 11 million or so undocumented immigrants living here, a position that he considers an “enormous responsibility” and which he says he has gladly taken on “with all the gravity the circumstances require.” Though he has spent much of his time since the film’s release going back and forth between Los Angeles and Mexico, Bichir has presented the film before members of Congress and policy experts in Washington, D.C.
In what is probably a first in Oscar history, Bichir dedicated his nomination to those living in the United States without proper documentation. “I dedicate this to those 11 million human beings who make our lives easier and better in the U.S.,” he said shortly after the nominations were announced in January via an official statement.
Bichir’s admiration for the immigrant community is a feeling that stems in part from his own experiences, although he understands the key differences. “I arrived in New York in 1985 [using a tourist visa], before the first amnesty, and I worked without documents,” says Bichir of his time at Rosa Mexicano, an upscale Mexican restaurant in New York City, where he mastered the art of making guacamole—so much so that an article in The New York Times’ T Magazine discussed his relationship with avocadoes at length. Apparently, he holds a record for making 39 guacamoles in one lunch. “However, it would be absurd to try to compare my situation with that of any of my fellow Mexicans who have to cross the desert or the river to get to the United States.” The big difference, he says, is that he didn’t have to send money back to Mexico.
Born to a theater director and an actress, Bichir, one of three brothers (Odiseo, Demian, and Bruno) grew up in a modest Mexico City home surrounded by books. “It was very interesting, very intense,” he says of his decision to leave a successful acting career back home to try his luck in the Big Apple. “For me it was part of an adventure I was living.”
After a brief stint in New York, Bichir moved to Los Angeles for four years, where he went on audition after audition, rather unsuccessfully. A role in the Ariel-winning 1994 film Hasta Morir pulled him back to Mexico. At 41, fearful of becoming complacent, he decided to return to Hollywood for a second shot, which has proven more fruitful. And then, Steven Soderbergh, who was working on a biopic about Che Guevara, came calling. That’s when Bichir says “it all began.” Benicio del Toro, who played Che to Bichir’s Fidel, has put him in the same category as Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman.
Bichir also had a memorable role as Tijuana’s drug kingpin mayor in the Showtime series Weeds. Next up is Oliver Stone’s crime thriller Savages. “All he needs is one big role as a narcotraficante and if he hits that note just right he will have a worldwide reputation in a second,” Stone, the man behind Pacino’s Scarface, told T Magazine of Bichir.
Despite his Oscar nomination, Bichir knows all too well how hard it is for a Latino actor in Hollywood to come across meaningful roles that don’t reduce the actor to some sort of stereotype. “I think in general, you need to be consistent and patient,” he says. “Good projects are hard to come by. I hope I can continue to land projects and roles that have this much relevance and are as dramatically invigorating.”
In A Better Life, he worked with director Chris Weitz, best known for About A Boy, American Pie, and The Twilight Saga: New Moon.
Weitz and Bichir have been campaigning to turn Bichir’s nomination into a win, but both have told Univision News that the best thing about the Oscar nod has been to gain exposure for the film and its unintended political message.
“The greatest hope for all of us is that all the effort we put in… will encourage more people to watch the film, and if they like it, spread the word,” Bichir said.
Weitz has also embraced the immigrant cause, and recently directed a mini documentary series called Is This Alabama? to shed light on the effects that Alabama’s HB 56 immigration crackdown law, widely considered the toughest in the country, has had on people in the state.
“I think that Demian and I both realize that the nomination, which we pushed for so hard, meant a lot more than it did to other people who received it because it’s not just Demian,” Weitz told me before a presentation of the series in Washington, D.C., earlier this month, “it’s 11 million people who have been slandered in the Republican debates, and who are spoken of with tremendous vitriol, and who don’t have the ability to answer back because they’re afraid of being deported. So this was tremendous validation for us, of the notion that we could give a voice to these people. That’s the big thing.”
As for Bichir, this week he told Us Weekly that his Oscar speech is ready, in case he wins on Sunday, and he told Univision News that he plans to attend the ceremony in a bus full of people. He was joking, of course. Either way, millions will be watching.