Bichir Earns Oscar Buzz For Illegal Immigrant Role

Nearly 11 million illegal immigrants live in the U.S., hoping to get a piece of the American dream. Mexican-born actor Demian Bichir brings to light their experiences in his new film A Better Life. He plays an undocumented gardener who tries providing a better life for his American-born teenage son. Bichir talks with Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We've been observing Hispanic Heritage Month, which began September 15 and runs through mid-October. And to mark the occasion, we've been hearing about the latest in Latin music and hearing from Latino-American trendsetters and newsmakers and really hearing from people who are living the American dream, Latino-style.

But there is another story to tell, about the challenges that many Latinos continue to face on their way to that dream. So now we're going to tell you about a film that tells the story about that struggle in a poignant way. The film "A Better Life" stars Mexican film star Demian Bichir. He plays a man named Carlos Galindo, an undocumented immigrant and single dad in California who's working hard to provide for his American-born teenage son by working as a gardener.

In an effort to obtain a better life for them both, he buys his boss's old truck and tries to start his own business. Here's a clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "A BETTER LIFE")

DEMIAN BICHIR: (As Carlos Galindo) So what do you think?

UNDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) (Unintelligible)? Yeah, it's all right. I've seen it before.

BICHIR: (As Carlos) It's not (unintelligible) truck anymore. It's ours.

MAN: (Unintelligible) are you going to let me drive this bad boy when I'm 16?

BICHIR: (As Carlos) Sure, if you get your license.

MAN: (As character) You ain't got a license.

BICHIR: (As Carlos) Don't say that too loud, okay?

MARTIN: Demian Bichir is earning raves for his role in "A Better Life," and he's with us now from NPR West in Culver City, California. Welcome, thanks so much for joining us.

BICHIR: Thank you, pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: I think it's worth mentioning that the film was directed by Chris Weitz, who directed "New Moon" of the "Twilight" series, so a little different.

BICHIR: Yeah, it's a lot different than...

MARTIN: Did you think it was about a vampire gardener when he first approached you?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BICHIR: Yeah, Chris always tells that story about our first meeting because I went in to read for "New Moon," and then, you know, he started talking about this gardener. So he jokes about me saying: So is this a gardener that is a vampire? Or how does this work?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BICHIR: I don't know. I think Chris Weitz is one of those really fantastic, eclectic directors because he jumps from one genre to another with such ease.

MARTIN: Well, you do too. I mean, you talk about jumping from genre to genre - you played Fidel Castro in "Che," and many people might have seen you in the Showtime series "Weeds," where you play Esteban Reyes, the drug-trafficking, you know, mayor. So you know, you do the same thing. What attracted you to this role?

BICHIR: I try to go for different roles, and when I read the script, it was real. It was so much like the way life is. I didn't find any gimmicks, any Hollywood tricks or anything, and I thought it was a magnificent script and that my character was so well-written, and he was so powerful.

It was like "Hamlet" in many ways. It was like one of those bigger-than-life roles, and I fell in love with it immediately and then, you know, when we went through the auditions, and then I got it, that was a really happy moment for me.

MARTIN: Well, tell me about Carlos Galindo, and just tell me about him, and then we'll talk a little bit about the plot and what happens. Just tell me a little bit about him as a man, how you understood him.

BICHIR: Yeah, Carlos Galindo is the best mother I've ever seen. He, being a Mexican macho in many ways, he becomes such a great mother to his own child. And then everything's about giving his son everything, whatever is necessary to have a better life than the one he had.

And I found that very, very moving because most of the time you see the stories with a mother and a kid, but never - not very often it's a father living alone with no papers in a country like the United States, where, you know, this issue is going on as we speak in many states in this country. So that's, for me, fascinating.

MARTIN: And you didn't - you meant mother. You weren't being ironic when you said he's the best mother you've ever seen in film. You weren't being ironic. You really meant because he's so what? Sweet. He's loving.

BICHIR: Yeah. He's a real great mother, because I mean, you don't see too many fathers behaving the way he behaves with his son. He's there for him and he's trying to even spend more and better time with him, quality time with his son, and that's all he's thinking about. You never see him, you know, going to bars and getting drunk or going out with women and spending all his money on that. Everything that's in his mind is to provide his son with a better life.

MARTIN: You mentioned that this movie is making its rounds at a time when this whole question of immigration is very much in the news. The story is one that, you know, you're tempted to say it's kind of rips in the headlines, but it's really not. I mean it's kind of the story that's like right in front of you, but really doesn't make the papers, right? I mean here's a guy and he's working as a gardener and he's working all the time. And he's working so much he never really gets to see his son and he's worried about him. So he thinks, you know what? If I start my own business I could have more say. But the minute he buys the truck it's stolen.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: It's like what can he do? You know, can he call the police? No. Because if he calls the police and the whole question of his status comes out.

BICHIR: That's right.

MARTIN: Talk a little bit about his dilemma.

BICHIR: It breaks your heart that everything seems to be against him. And this is a human being that is playing his cards the right way. He's not committing any crimes or anything. He's only trying his best to, not only give his son a better life, but to contribute to the country where he's living at now. And it seems like everything goes wrong when he wants to make it right. So I think, for me, that was part of the things that struck me when I read the script, that it makes it very, very clear that this immigration issues, it's not a political issue, it's a human issue. And many battles regarding human rights in this country have been won, and I believe this is another one that's on its way of getting recognized and have a happy ending for many, many people.

Because you can't forget one clear fact - that is that those 11 million undocumented workers that are here, are everywhere, preparing your food and taking care of your children, and fixing your gardens, and parking your cars or - and helping you to have a better, easier, happier life. So I think this film, what "A Better Life" has done, is that it has touched many hearts and opened minds. So a lot of friends that I have - Anglo friends - they all told me I just didn't know that my perspective towards this issue could change so much in two hours just watching this film.

MARTIN: Well, I do want to talk a little bit more about the politics of the film, if I can, you know, call it that. But I do still want to talk a little bit more about the film itself and just the character and the struggles that they go through. You talked about how it breaks your heart. But one of the things that's really heartbreaking, this is something that parents, I think, can relate to, apart from the immigration status, is that all Carlos, your character, wants is for his son to be proud of him and to take care of him. Right? In the way that he feels loved. And there is a lot of, you know, tension there between what's pulling the son and what's driving the dad.

And there's this one scene between you and the young man who plays your son, where the son says - he's challenging his father, like why, you know, why are we in this situation? I'll just play that short clip. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "A BETTER LIFE")

BICHIR: (as Carlos Galindo) You asked me why I had you, to be able to take care of you and watch you grow because I love you. You're the most important thing in this world to me, amigo. I wanted you to be able to be anything you want to be.

MARTIN: Now you just became a father, yourself, recently. You had a little one. Congratulations.

BICHIR: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: How did you understand what was going on there?

BICHIR: I think that is exactly why this is such a powerful film, because it's not about immigration. It's not about politics. It's only about the love of a father for his son, and that's universal. And anybody who is a father or a son, pretty much all of us, can relate to this film and whatever these characters go through.

When my son Luis, played beautifully by Jose Julian, asks me, why did you have me? That's really hard. It's really hard to answer, especially if his mother is not around anymore. So basically, that's exactly, I totally agree with you, that's what any parent or any father wants - just to be your son's hero and to be sure that he's looking after you too, you know, as well as you're looking after him; and to become best friends, and hopefully be a true beautiful role model for him. So that is something that a lot of people relate to when they see the film.

MARTIN: We're speaking with actor Demian Bichir about his role in the movie "A Better Life." I understand that to prepare for this film that you, you know, bought a beat-up truck which you drove around L.A. - that you wore the same clothes for days at a time...

BICHIR: Yeah.

MARTIN: - that you only slept a few hours at night. And I should mention that this is a lifestyle change, because you're such a big star in Mexico. I'm sure you won't mind mentioning, the MTV Movie Awards, the Mexican version of the MTV Movie Awards, even created a Best Birchiri in a Movie award because, you know, your parents, your brothers are also actors and you have your own category.

BICHIR: Yeah.

MARTIN: So I'm curious what it was like for you, driving around in your beat-up truck wearing your nasty, dirty clothes. And did you feel different?

BICHIR: I felt like I was Galindo. That's what I wanted. I wanted to get as close as possible to the character. And I remember when I played Fidel Castro I also, you know, was wearing...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BICHIR: ...my green outfit, and my hat, and my beard all the time. I was, I got pulled over at the airport once and they, you know, asked me to open my trunk and then they ask me so, what's with the Fidel look?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BICHIR: And I was like I'm glad you're asking because I am Fidel today. So, and then, you know, we end up talking about the film, and this and that, and Steven Soderbergh and Benicio Del Toro. And when I bought this truck for "A Better Life" I bought it from one of my paisanos in a red light, actually, and I drove it for as when we rehearsed and prepare and the whole shooting also. And everything changes, everything changes, and I wanted to experience that because when you're driving a beat-up truck it's harder to transit through life in general. People are...

MARTIN: What do you mean?

BICHIR: People are rude. They assume that if you're driving that you're a loser, especially in a city like Los Angeles, right? And then when my paisanos would look at me, because, you know, I talk to them all the time, every day. And when they look at me in my car, they would always ask so, it's really hard, huh?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BICHIR: Life is not really easy for you lately or what's going on, right?

MARTIN: That you've really come down.

BICHIR: Yeah. I remember once pulling over the location where we were shooting, and they had changed the security guard and he stopped me at the entrance and he asked me yes, can I help you? And I said well, I'm here to shoot. He said yeah, are you, what do you do here? Well, I'm part of the cast. Oh, OK. You go ahead and park over there. And he pointed at a parking lot like a thousand miles away from there.

MARTIN: For the film that you were starring in.

BICHIR: For this film that I was starring in. And then it was really, really interesting for me, and I kept playing along, you know, telling him well, you know, I need to park over here. No. Really? Why? Because you said you were working here. But, so the whole thing was really weird and it was something that I was experiencing every day, driving that truck.

MARTIN: Well, let me just ask you this, though. You said earlier that this is not a political film; it's an emotional film, and I credit you that. But this is both an emotional and a political issue in this country, right now. As you and I are speaking, for example, the state of Alabama just adopted a very severe set of restrictions on people who are lacking proper documentation. It's considered the toughest law in the country; requires school officials, for example, to document the status of students and their parents. It says that police officers are supposed to evaluate the status of people that they stop for whatever reason - you know, traffic violations, you know, on a reasonable suspicion that they are, let's say for example.

So for many people listen to this and they will say well, that's a shame. But if people are here without proper, you know, proper authorization then they just - they should leave. What do you say to that?

BICHIR: Well, there's a really great film by Sergio Arau called "A Day Without A Mexican." And it's a really (unintelligible) comedy or dramedy about what would we do, you know, without these guys. There isn't anybody that is willing to do that work for that money. So I totally understand both sides, you know, because people are afraid, and those problems are this information about how you are fear can increase if your neighbor looks like this or does that or is here with no documents and stuff, and all that. And then my biggest fear is that, fear plus ignorance, only gives you hate and that's where, you know, real problems can happen.

I think there is an issue here going on that is a fact. I don't see how you're going to take back 11 billion human beings to - I don't know where, because their homes are here. They don't have anywhere else to go and their homes are here and it's just too many people. So there's got to be a way - it's urgent that they work, or we all work - an immigration law that can help everyone.

MARTIN: Demian Bichir is the star of the film "A Better Life." It's being released on DVD this month, and he was kind enough to join us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Demian Bichir, thank you so much for joining us.

BICHIR: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. And whether you've been listening from the beginning or just found us today, we'd love to hear from you. To tell us more, please go to npr.org and find us under the programs tab. You can also friends be on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at TELL ME MORE/NPR. I'm Michel Martin you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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