Exclusive Interview by Brad Balfour
With the thaw between the United States and Cuba in the news recently--the country celebrated the 50th anniversary of its revolution this year--Fidel Castro appearances have nonetheless been scarce to say the least. it was noted that brother Raul has exerted his presence and influence on the country now, not Castro himself.
About the only way to see the animated Fidel is to view old news footage or see Che: Parts One & Two, director Steven Soderbergh's massive bio pic about El Jefe's favorite revolutionary, cohort, and fellow traveler, the late Che--played by Benicio del Toro. That two-part film (now viewable as two separate films) detailed Che's rise among Castro's inner circle and his role in fomenting the 1959 Cuban revolution to his demise in the Bolivian jungle when he tried to export the revolution there several years later.
If anyone garnered an insight into both Castro and Soderbergh, it was Mexican actor Demian Bichir, who has been seen by American audiences playing Esteban Reyes on the tv series Weeds. Though he didn't get anywhere near the screen time that del Toro got, he successfully got into the dictator's head and gave life to the young Castro.
I took a look back to an interview conducted with Bichir about Che: Parts One & Two, this epic five-hour telling of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara's rise and fall. The film premiered as part of the 2008 New York Film Festival and then had a limited release as the two-parter that now can be seen as two separate movies.
Q: You played a character who is obviously a living figure but also a mythic one as well. What did you come in thinking about him and how did that change once you actually played him?
DB: I came in thinking what a beautiful chance for any actor. What a blessing to play a character larger than life. And what a great responsibility and pressure it is, too.
Q: What do you think about the idea of Castro seeing you play him?
DB: I would love him to watch the films. Actually, I would love to have feedback about whatever I did as him. I would love that. I don't even know if that's going to be possible or not, but I would love to meet the guy.
Q: What were your impressions of Castro? He was a guy from a bourgeois family and then suddenly he's leading an agrarian revolution.
DB: You [are burdened] with those kind of ideas, or idealistic ideas about your task in life. He knew that since he was a kid going to school and all that, In our counties--in any other country in the world--it's so easy to see differences between classes and to see how bad that is in the world.
So it's not really difficult to realize that we need change almost everywhere. But very few people put that in their hearts as a task, and though he's not the head of Cuba now, actively speaking, he's still writing. He writes almost every day, and publishes his columns about many issues. So, he's restless [though] he's almost at the end of his life, and hasn't stopped worrying about making a difference. That's pretty amazing.
Growing up in Mexico, we were always close to the event [of the Cuban Revolution], and I already knew many many things about the revolution. Being a theater person and growing up in a theatrical family, you tend to know more about many things, and so I actually knew a lot about what he did and wanted to do.
Then, I had the chance to research the whole thing for five months before we started shooting, and that was perfect for me, because then I had the chance to jump into certain books, materials, pictures, videos, and recordings of this and that.
Q: Even though the movie is focused on Del Toro and Che, you're the one who's really his superior, his senior.
DB: That's right!
Q: How did you two figure out how to play that you're the boss, with the emphasis on Benicio/Che in the cinematic world?
DB: The hardest part was just forgetting about whoever Steven Soderbergh and Benicio del Toro were. Those names didn't mean anything for me [at that point]. I couldn't really think about Benicio as this huge actor--as the [monster] he is. I couldn't really be taken in by that, so I was commanding and would have to let him know and feel who was the boss.
It was easy, because these guys are so generous and they're there to put this project together--not to glorify whatever they are or whoever they are--so that was pretty simple in many ways.
Q: What quirks did you learn about Fidel that you incorporated? Even if you don't see it in the camera, did you add something you read about or saw--a gesture, a way of holding the cigar, something?
DB: Oh yeah, many many things. Most of the time, he holds his cigars in the left hand, and it's not because he's lefty, it's because he always writes, so he needs the right hand free, to make some notes, or write this or that. So whenever you see the guy smoking, it's always in his left hand. That's one stupid thing that I always wanted to bring to the character, and the fact that he was also always a secure person, sure, fearless, and stubborn, and bigger than life. I mean, Cubans are big anyway, but this guy is theatrically big.
Q: Were there things you learned about Fidel and his history that you wish had been applied in Mexico, because Mexico has a strange history. Theoretically it has had a leftist government in the past; Mexico had its own revolution.
DB: Yeah, exactly. We had a revolution, right?
Q: And it got corrupted like we've seen happen in Cuba. There have been failings in Cuba--the anti-gay attitude is terrible. But Mexico's been a disaster. What advice would you give to Mexicans that you learned about Cuba?
DB: Well, that's the only parameter that I have when I think about Cuba and the way they are and the way they were able or not to live their revolution throughout the last 46 or 50 years, and I always compare that and Mexico.
We had a revolution 100 years ago, and a revolution is done to make things equal for everyone, right? So where is that in Mexico? You don't see that anywhere, right? It seems like we need another revolution. That's the problem there.
So that's part of it. It's like, the [Cubans] have been blocked from the world for 46 years, so can someone explain me why they get the medals in Olympic games, not Mexico? Why do they have the best musicians, the best artists, the best doctors, and why no kid dies when he is born? Everyone reads and writes. Not in Mexico, in Cuba. See what I mean?
That's pretty scary when you think about comparing [them], and we are not being blocked. Not for 40 years, or 10 or for two. We are supposed to be the democratic government, with our elections every six years, and all that. So what the fuck's wrong?
Q: Having played Castro, did you ever think about participating in a revolution yourself, or about getting political? After doing this film, does it make you run screaming away from any politician you'll ever meet?
DB: I'm not as smart, or as brave, as these people were--not at all. One wants to think that--and this is really a stupid thought--that through your art or whatever you do as an actor you can actually affect someone else's lives and thoughts or whatever.
I've been offered before to be a member of the Congress for the left party in Mexico, and I said, "You got to be kidding me. I'm complaining about that all the time. Don't offer me that!" And it's a lot of money, too that you can get for that, and I said, "No, I'm an actor. You guys do whatever you do--if anything."
Q: There must have been times when you and Benicio had some philosophical engagement about this role and this character.
DB: That's funny, because Benicio was insanely busy all the time so we didn't really have the chance to put our ideas together other than on the set. We were always having fun and cracking up and telling jokes and, you know, not really--because he was always, as soon as he was over shooting, he would have to go with producer Laura Bickford and Steven and have meetings here and there, so it was kind of crazy for him.
Q: Would you like to reprise this role and play Castro as a more central figure in a film?
DB: I would love to do that. There were so many things [he's done] in his 80 years of life. I'm not going to play him when he was 14, but I'd love to explore a little deeper and wider, with another story maybe, but it would have to be done by the same people, because once you're lucky to jump into a character like Fidel, that's fine, that's great, but who's going to do it with you, who's going to direct, who's going to play Che, for example? So whoever's going to tell his story, it has to be as big as Fidel, and if that happens I'll be more than happy to jump in.
Q: Did Fidel make a mistake in sending Che to Bolivia at that time?
DB: He didn't send Che to Bolivia...
Q: Well, according to the notes, it was Fidel's decision that Che went to Bolivia.
DB: Well actually, Fidel even thought it was premature for him to start with this dream about liberating the rest of Latin America. It was not the right time yet. It was something I read in this book called One Hundred Hours with Fidel by Ignacio Ramonet where Fidel tells everything. From before he was born up until the last 10 years.
He says that he told Che that it was not time to go, that he was not going to be able to help him as much as he could. And Che thought they couldn't waste any more time, and that was part of some confusion about their relationship, which is absurd, because they cared for each other, respected each other, and were friends and comrades.
Q: Did you speak with people who had actually participated in the revolution?
DB: We had many interviews with key people, The closest I got was... I met Aleida Guevara, Che's widow, and Che's son, Camilo.
Q: Did you make an effort to meet Raul Castro?
DB: I didn't even try because that's just impossible. Only Sean Penn can do that.
Q: Have you been to Cuba before?
DB: Yes, and it's really has a strong spirit in many ways. As I told you before, you walk along the Malecón, and you see these perfect bodies of men and women. You say, "Wait a minute, you need to eat to get those bodies, you need to exercise to get those bodies. It's not that easy."
So who's starving here? Who's having a bad time? It's all about music, and about smiling; it's about having a great time. So, hopefully things are going to change for the best.
Q: To ask the obvious, what did you want audiences to take away from this film--if people are not already into it, what would you hope it could change or influence?
DB: This is not a political statement. We're trying to tell the story of this extraordinary man that said no to everything he had twice in his life to give it to somebody else, and you don't find that very often. And maybe, hopefully, people would see that image that's so famous around the world and learn about the story behind it. After seeing this film, or films, hopefully they're going to be able to know the story behind the face
Q: How has affected your personally, as an actor and as an individual?
DB: For me it's been maybe the biggest challenge I've been through as an actor, because not only the character, but also the people involved made it stronger and more difficult. So for me, it was like a huge leap, a huge step into my acting. I don't know if it's going to be reflected in my career or not, but I am a better actor now.
Q: How did you relate to Castro's passion?
DB: I guess I relate to El Jefe in many many ways. You need a revolution when things are not equal to everyone, and in Mexico we had a revolution a hundred years ago, and it seems like we need another one. Nothing has really changed, and if the vote was respected everywhere, then you'll have that type of revolution--I'm talking about Mexico, and some other countries.
So, hopefully now that we have won--I have to say "we won" because I wanted [the election of Obama] here--but it seems that in some places like in Mexico, the vote's not really respected. But there's no other way, right? But I think the last armed revolution we have seen was the one these guys did in Cuba.
In Mexico we need a cultural revolution more than anything else. So people can really learn to read, and in that way, get educated and defended themselves better.
Q: Having met those people who knew Che and Fidel, did that affect the performance?
DB: I wanted to meet Fidel, and that's obviously impossible, and it was impossible then, too. A character like this, so well known by everyone, there's so many things about him, and books, and pictures, and video, and footage, and all that, so I had the chance to get access to all that. So that was my material, the things I worked with, and lucky enough I had five months to prepare. I had Fidel for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for five months, and that was basically it.
I don't remember encountering any other character that made me feel so guilty and lazy, because no matter how hard I have worked, they always worked double and triple. throughout Fidel's life, up until now--he's writing and he reads a lot. He always said that it was a waste of time even shaving. That's one reason, he has said, why he keeps his beard.
He said that they wouldn't cut their beards because if anyone wanted to infiltrate his guerillas, they would have to have spent at least six months growing a long beard to be part of it.
Castro also said, "It's a waste of time because if you add the 15 minutes that you spend shaving your beard everyday, you could use that [time] by reading, or doing sports." So, I really feel lazy and useless, compared to these guys.
Q: Is that why you kept the beard?
DB: Yeah, I'm grooming it.