Invitation to the Adventure of a Lifetime
by Jay S. Jacobs
You’ve been seeing a whole lot of Mexican actor Demián Bichir in the movies and on TV these days. While Bichir has been a well-known actor in his native land for well over a decade, and even had some show-stopping turns in Hollywood projects like Stephen Soderbergh’s Che and the hit Showtime series Weeds, he knows that one name is probably most responsible for his ascendance in Hollywood.
“God bless Chris Weitz’s heart,” Bichir told me recently at the Crosby Street Hotel in New York’s SoHo section.
Bichir was sitting down with me to discuss his latest film, Dom Hemingway, but he also wanted to share his gratitude for the director who cast him in A Better Life. That 2011 film earned Bichir an Oscar Nomination for Best Actor. In the movie Bichir played a Mexican gardener who was living in Los Angeles without a green card, trying against great odds to build an American dream for himself and his teenaged son.
The movie was a bit of a departure for director Weitz, who was known mostly for bigger Hollywood fare like American Pie, About a Boy and Twilight: New Moon. This small film about the undocumented aliens living in LA was a total labor of love for the director.
Weitz discovered his leading man while watching Che. He was impressed by Bichir’s performance as ruthless dictator Fidel Castro. But could the actor who played this powerful demagogue also play a humble father searching desperately for the American dream? Weitz believed that he could.
“That’s what we actors hope for,” Bichir said. “That someone would have the eye to see you playing some other type of character. I don’t see any resemblance between Fidel Castro and Carlos Galindo from A Better Life. Those two human beings are so different. The fact that Chris Weitz thought that the same actor could play a completely different type of role, it’s a blessing. You don’t find that very often.”
The director’s faith in his star was well founded. Though it was a little movie, Bichir’s work and the film in general generated raves from critics and the audiences who stumbled upon it. Then the Motion Picture Academy made it official by giving Bichir one of the five nominations for Best Actor of 2012.
However, Bichir was not so much happy about the nomination for personal reasons. On a much more basic level, he hoped the nomination would get more people to watch the film.
“I think we were all happy that our film got that attention,” Bichir recalled. “Our film, being a very small film, quote-unquote. A film that didn’t do good at the box office. It did great afterwards in DVD and Video On Demand and this and that. On Netflix and iTunes. Airplanes,” he laughed.
“It was a reward for all of us who made the film that we got that attention,” Bichir continued. “I personally believe that we deserved a lot more attention than that, because Javier Aguirresarobe’s work on the photography is fantastic. The writing [by Eric Eason] is incredible. The story is fantastic. Let alone Chris Weitz’s direction. And of course Alexandre Desplat’s music. We had a really, really good film.”
And, yes, it was nice to have his work be acknowledged by his peers.
“It was incredible that we got that [nomination],” Bichir acknowledged. “Of course, you never think about it. You never wake up in the morning going to set to shoot a film thinking: oh, I’m going to win an Oscar, or I’m going to have a nomination. That comes after that. That’s totally out of your hands. You only hope that you’re going to make the best film possible. Everything else is secondary.”
That nomination also set up a two-year hot streak for Bichir in which he has starred in a hit movie (The Heat with Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy) and a buzz-worthy TV series (FX’s border drama The Bridge.)
Now, Bichir is co-starring with Jude Law and Richard E. Grant in the acclaimed British crime comedy/drama Dom Hemingway. In the film, Law plays a hard living and hard-fighting former safecracker who returns to London after twelve years in jail for taking the rap for his boss.
Bichir plays that boss, the suave, sophisticated and understatedly brutal Russian gangster Anatolievich Fontanov… who has anglicized his name to make it Mr. Fontaine. Mr. Fontaine appreciates Dom Hemingway’s sacrifice and is planning to make it up to him, until Hemingway’s big mouth almost ruins his chance.
From the second he read the script, Bichir knew he had to do the film.
“It intrigued me and fascinated me and made me very excited,” Bichir said. “It was a script like nothing I’ve read before.”
Dom Hemingway was written and directed by Richard Shepard, who had also helmed the acclaimed crime caper The Matador with Pierce Brosnan and Greg Kinnear.
“I had seen The Matador way back,” Bichir recalled. “Of course I remembered the film, but I didn’t have Richard Shepard’s name very present [in my mind]. He was very kind to have invited me to this adventure. When he invited me to be a part of the project, I thought it was a fantastic opportunity to explore many different things. The fact that Jude Law was going to play Dom Hemingway, that was a big, big, big asset. A big plus.”