Ruben Blades: In 'Spoken Word,' A Certain Wisdom Ruben Blades is a Renaissance man -- he acts, he writes and performs salsa music, he even served as Panama's minister of tourism. Now he returns to film in Spoken Word as a cancer-stricken man reconnecting with his son. Blades talks with Scott Simon about getting into character and embracing maturity.
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Ruben Blades: In 'Spoken Word,' A Certain Wisdom

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Ruben Blades: In 'Spoken Word,' A Certain Wisdom

Ruben Blades: In 'Spoken Word,' A Certain Wisdom

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In Victor Nunez's new film, "Spoken Word," the protagonist is a San Francisco celebrity poet played by Kuno Becker, who comes back to his home in small town New Mexico when he hears that his father is dying.

(Soundbite of movie, "Spoken Word")

Mr. RUBEN BLADES (Actor): (as Cruz, Sr.) Hey - this is private property, not for sale.

Mr. KUNO BECKER (Actor): (as Cruz) Que paso. You dont recognize your own son?

Mr. BLADES: (as Cruz, Sr.) I thought you were another gringo trying to buy me out.

Mr. BECKER: (as Cruz) It's just me, Pops.

SIMON: His father is a retired schoolteacher and inveterate tinkerer. Father and son are both well-spoken, but they can't seem to say much to each other. The father is played by Ruben Blades, who returns to movie work after five years as Panama's minister of tourism.

"Spoken Word" opens this weekend. Ruben Blades joins us from New York.

Mr. Blades, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. BLADES: Thank you very much for the opportunity.

SIMON: What drew you to this film?

Mr. BLADES: Unemployment.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLADES: One. Two, I'm always attracted to stories that have to do with describing family, people's relations. I think they're very, very important to be presented as a sign of solidarity, I think. It was a challenge to play this role without submerging yourself into sentimentalism, so it was very interesting.

SIMON: Yeah. I mean, a father dying of cancer - that sounds like its rife with opportunities for sentimentalism. But he's tough, isn't he?

Mr. BLADES: Yes, he is, because he was a man who lived with dignity and chose to go the same way, and saw it as just another phase. I really liked that. And in a way, my mother, God bless her - who died of cancer - you know, I got to be with her during her last year, and she really taught me a lot by the way that she chose to face that test.

SIMON: In this film, Cruz Montoya, the - what I'd describe, I guess, as a celebrity poet, comes back home from San Francisco to see his father.

Mr. BLADES: Mm-hmm.

SIMON: And it seems like, let me put it this way: Some people rather - I mean, on the one hand they say Cruz, nice to see you. On the other hand, they seem to rather resent the fact that he's gone big city on them.

Mr. BLADES: Well, I think that that is true of any experience where you abandoned the place that - where people have had with you, sharing the same dreams of doing better, and see you go and then come back - may create a sense of failure. It's almost as the survivor of a wreck, or the guys who survived the war - always wondered, you know, why me and why not the other guy? You know, so its tough to come back, in that sense.

SIMON: And without giving away too much of how the story plays out, what draws Cruz back into some of the criminal life that he thought he'd left behind?

Mr. BLADES: I think one of the main problems is like - really, the impossibility to really communicate with his father. I think as he goes back, he really doesnt know what to tell his father. He's sort of it's sort of, I guess, when you go back to your family, you sort of turn into the child you were when you left.

(Soundbite of movie, "Spoken Word")

Mr. BECKER: (as Cruz) Emilio offered me a job. Hey, you got something to say, just say it.

Mr. BLADES: (as Cruz, Sr.) Even as a child, I didnt trust him. And when he bought Ramon's land, and what happened before with you...

Mr. BECKER: (as Cruz) This is different.

Mr. BLADES: (as Cruz, Sr.) No, it is not.

Because of that, then you start making the choices a child would make, not a man with experience. You know, and I think it's easier to get drawn to what you know than to face what you have learned that you should be. And that's why its so interesting, the spoken word aspect of it. The incredible difficulty that these men had to communicate with each other, I think, contributed to pushing, in a way, Cruz Jr. to go back to the kind of life he had left.

SIMON: Mr. Blades - and this, finally: How do you feel about portraying characters of a certain age in films?

Mr. BLADES: I'm just glad I'm working. I actually feel that I can portray them now with the knowledge of the experience. It's the same thing with songs. I think there are some songs that you sing better as you understand them better.

I wrote a musical 30 years ago, called "Maestra Vida," and there was a song that an older character in the musical sings. And when I wrote it, I was 30 years old.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. BLADES: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

And now I'm 62, and I sing that song, and it has a different meaning for me. So if anything, I think I'm better suited to do that. You know, there's never a good day to die. There's never a bad day to be born. So I'm just going to keep on going, do the best I can.

SIMON: Mr. Blades, awfully nice talking to you. Thanks so much.

Mr. BLADES: Oh, thank you. Thank you very much, Scott.

SIMON: Ruben Blades - his new film opening this weekend, "Spoken Word."

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. BLADES: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

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