In the film “A Better Life,” Mexican actor Demián Bichir stars as an East L.A. gardener, an undocumented immigrant who’s doggedly pursuing the American dream. On Wednesday, Bichir, who immigrated to the United States some 20 years ago to pursue English-language roles, earned a piece of his own personal American dream when he was named one of five best actor nominees for a SAG Award.
He and Jean Dujardin (“The Artist”) are the least familiar names in a group that also consists of George Clooney, Leonard DiCaprio and Brad Pitt.
After years spent washing dishes in New York restaurants and doing other menial jobs while studying English and trying to land minor film roles to break into Hollywood, Bichir said that receiving SAG’s recognition was “amazing, incredible and fantastic.”
“This is my fellow peers voting, and that makes me immensely proud,” said Bichir, who hails from a prominent Mexican theater family and began performing on stage as a child before graduating to lead roles in translations of Shakespeare and Chekhov.
Bichir, 48, already was a Mexican film and television star when he moved across the border. Relocating meant leaving behind not only his family but a comfortable career. His breakthrough Spanish-language film role came in “Sexo, pudor y lagrimas” (Sex, Shame and Tears), a 1999 war-of-the-sexes ensemble comedy that’s one of Mexico's highest-grossing films. “When I decided to leave Mexico, pretty much everyone thought I was crazy,” he said.
He’s best known to stateside viewers as the ethically challenged Tijuana mayor Esteban Reyes opposite Mary-Louise Parker on Showtime’s “Weeds”; and for tackling the part of Fidel Castro in “Che” (2008), Steven Soderbergh’s two-part bio-pic about Cuban-Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
He also starred at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood in a 2008 production of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan’s drama “By the Waters of Babylon,” about a Cuban novelist obliged to become a manual laborer after migrating to Texas.
Although “A Better Life” touches on the red-hot political topic of illegal immigration, the film is essentially a domestic drama about gardener Carlos Galindo’s efforts to raise his teenage son and keep him out of gangs while earning a living landscaping lawns and hoisting himself up palm trees with an electric trimmer. Bichir, who’s bilingual, communicates in the film in Spanish and halting English.
Director Chris Weitz said he wanted to cast Bichir after seeing his “Che” performance. Although the filmmakers were under pressure to recruit a more prominent Spanish-speaking star, such as Javier Bardem or Benicio del Toro, Weitz and his producers were intent on casting a Mexican actor as the lead.
To connect with Bichir, Weitz – who was then preparing to direct the “New Moon” film of the Twilight Saga -- invited him to read for the part of a vampire lord in that film.
“He did a great reading,” Weitz said, but “I think there was some confusion in his mind about whether he was playing a vampire or a vampire who likes to climb trees.”
Christian McLaughlin, a producer of “A Better Life,” said that Bichir’s achievement was to convey Carlos’ inner thoughts and struggles with minimal dialogue. Because he’s illegal, Carlos “has to keep his head down” and be as anonymous as possible, McLaughlin said. Bichir “has to communicate a lot with his face and eyes without being passive.”
“It’s so powerful because it’s so understated,” agreed Stacey Lubliner, another of the movie’s producers.
Bichir remains relatively unknown to mainstream U.S. movie-goers. “A Better Life,” although well-reviewed by critics, earned a modest $1.8 million at the box office when it was released in June. Next up for Bichir: an appearance in Oliver Stone’s upcoming crime thriller “Savages,” and a Mexico City stage adaptation of “Swimming With Sharks.” (He plays the role pioneered by Kevin Spacey; the play is directed by Bichir’s brother.)
When he eats breakfast at his favorite West Hollywood diner, Bichir seldom draws stares from other customers. But waiters and busboys always chat with him in Spanish, and the actor always treats them like old friends. This year, some of them have shared their impressions of his character in “A Better Life.”
“They say, ‘That’s my dad’s story, that’s my uncle’s story, that’s my family’s story,’ " Bichir said. “And it touches everyone’s hearts.”
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-- Reed Johnson
Photo: Demian Bichir in "A Better Life." Credit: Merrick Morton/Summit Entertainment