Demian Bichir Hopes 'Better Life' Leads To Oscar Win

Actor Demian Bichir is a superstar in his home country of Mexico, but he is relatively unknown in the United States. In his Oscar-nominated role in A Better Life, he plays an undocumented worker scraping by as a gardener in Los Angeles. A single father, he lives in fear of being deported and losing his son to gang life.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The Academy Award for Best Actor has one surprise nominee this year, Damien Bichir. He is a superstar in his home country, Mexico, but relatively unknown in the U.S., though he has seen on the TV show "Weeds." In his Oscar-nominated role in "A Better Life," the actor plays Carlos Galindo, an undocumented worker scraping by as a gardener in Los Angeles. Carlos is a single father who lives in fear of being deported and of losing his son to gang life, even as he always strives to do better.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "A BETTER LIFE")

DEMIEN BICHIR: (as Carlos Galindo) I'm going to make something out of this business. I'm going to make it grow into something big, so we can move out of here and get you in a better school. And I'm not going to work Sundays no more. We can do things, spend time together.

MONTAGNE: As a young man, Demien Bichir was already successful in Mexico when he decided to try launching an acting career in America.

BICHIR: I grew up in the theater in Mexico and I was doing, already, you know, Shakespeare, Greenberg, O'Neill in the National Theatre Company in Mexico. But there was a point where I wanted to give my actor other kinds of experiences. And ever since I saw "Taxi Driver," I always wanted to drive a cab in New York, and I end up working in this Mexican restaurant learning how to make guacamoles. And...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: If something, I gather, you didn't really, really have to do back in Mexico.

BICHIR: I never did that in Mexico and I learned how to do that in New York. But I was paying my dues as an actor here, 'cause I was trying to learn English. I, of course, wanted to pursue a career over here. And it was really, really hard because the competition over here is brutal.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: I mean generally speaking, and then in your case, you would've also been speaking not great English at the time.

BICHIR: Oh, well, no. No, I didn't do any - I mean I didn't know any English. All I knew was the pencil is red and the window is open, and listen-up class, good morning and good afternoon, and that's that. And I thought I knew enough to defend myself. And then when I got to New York it was like Chinese for me, because I just couldn't understand anything.

But I'm really, really stubborn, so I kept trying. And then I moved back to Mexico and then back to Los Angeles. I've been, you know, coming back and forth for many years, but never quit.

MONTAGNE: Let's talk about Carlos Galindo. What did you learn that you actually didn't know from the very people who do these jobs, the day laborers here in Los Angeles?

BICHIR: I think what happened is that I confirmed what I knew, that all these communities of human beings are hard-working people, with pride and dignity. But the one thing that I didn't know it was that every time you go up on a palm tree there is a real risk that you can lose your life.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: And you discovered that by...

BICHIR: Yeah, I discovered that the hard way. There's this scene on the film and Carlos Galindo has to go up and trim the palm leaves, the palms. So, Chris White asked me...

MONTAGNE: Chris White is the director.

BICHIR: Chris White is the director, yeah. He asked me, how do you feel about going up in the tree. And I remember the day we actually tried for the first time. A real gardener did it first and he crossed himself. He made the sign of the cross and so we understood it was serious deal. And then Chris White went up first. And when your director does the stunts before you, you have to do it...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BICHIR: ...pretty much.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: We have a clip of that scene where your character, Carlos, is going up the palm tree. It's really, really high and the boss is down below with the homeowner.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "A BETTER LIFE")

NANCY LENEHAN: (as Mrs. Donnely) Please tell him to be careful.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As Character) Don't worry, Mrs. Donnely. He does this all the time. He's a professional.

BICHIR: (as Carlos Galindo) This is the way we do it in Mexico. It's safe, believe me. (Spanish language spoken)

MONTAGNE: That's you, Carlos, speaking from above down to the boss below. What are you saying?

BICHIR: I'm saying yeah, really? If it's so safe why don't you climb up, you fatty?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: It would be a moment where Carlos actually speaks out - of course, he's speaking in Spanish because, as he says of himself in the film: I like to stay - I will stay quiet; I will keep my head down and I will try to stay invisible in his real life.

BICHIR: That's right. And that's pretty much the way 11 million undocumented workers live in this country. They are not fully free and that's a really weird feeling. It's a terrible feeling.

MONTAGNE: What though, for you as an actor, was the challenge of playing a character who doesn't want to be seen?

BICHIR: Exactly that, because I'm also, you know, like an outgoing kind of person. And to keep it quiet, to keep it down, was the real challenge. Of course, there's the physical part of it; we gained 20 pounds for the character because we, Chris and I wanted Carlos Galindo to look heavier and to have this really wonderful tummy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BICHIR: And (Spanish language spoken). Because my paisanos, they begin working at 7 AM and they don't have time to take care of a proper diet.

MONTAGNE: When you say paisanos, paisanos meaning...

BICHIR: Paisano is your fellow countrymen. That's how we call each other, you know, in a nice kind of a familiar way.

MONTAGNE: There was a moment, I gather, where you were actually taken on the street by other gardeners to be actually working as a gardener. One of these workers was overheard having spotted you in character...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: ...saying what, something like, Gosh.

BICHIR: Exactly. Things aren't working in Mexico, huh? I bought this beat-up truck in a red light in the streets of Los Angeles. I just talked to one of my paisanos there, hey, paisano, do you sell your truck? He said, no man, I work with it - what do you mean? I said, oh please, man. Sell it to me, I need it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BICHIR: So we closed the deal that night. And so, that's what I drove for three, four months. And everything changes when you drive a beat-up truck in Los Angeles. And people are rude. And people assume you're a loser. And even my paisanos, when they saw me in that truck, they said something about, oh man, acting is not doing really well lately.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BICHIR: They're not paisanos, oh yeah, well, I'll tell you the story later.

MONTAGNE: Uh-huh. Well, good luck to you.

BICHIR: Thank you so very much.

MONTAGNE: And thank you for joining us.

BICHIR: Thank you very much.

MONTAGNE: Damien Bichir, he's nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor in the film "A Better Life."

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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