11:10am

Wed August 21, 2013
Television

'Bridge' Actor Demian Bichir On Portraying Border Life

Originally published on Wed August 21, 2013 12:34 pm

The new FX series The Bridge begins with the discovery of a body on a bridge that connects El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico. In it, a Mexican detective, played by Mexican actor Demian Bichir, has to work with an El Paso homicide cop to solve what turns out to be a serial murder case.

Bichir has had a successful acting career in Mexico, but he's leaving his mark in Hollywood as well. He played Fidel Castro in the Steven Soderbergh movie Che, and had a recurring role as a drug kingpin and politician in the Showtime series Weeds. Two years ago, he earned an Oscar nomination for best actor for his performance in the Chris Weitz film A Better Life.

Bichir joins Fresh Air's Dave Davies to talk about how Hollywood portrays Mexico, his character on Weeds and playing Fidel Castro.


Interview Highlights

On Hollywood's negative portrayals of Mexico and Mexicans

"You have no idea how many times I say no to projects where they only talk about that. Of course, we in Mexico have given Hollywood a lot of stories, a lot of creepy stories sometimes, corruption stories, and that's our fault. But sometimes it's a little too much. Sometimes it's about exaggerating the point or stepping into clichés or stereotypes. And sometimes I just say no to projects where all the Mexicans are bad, all the Mexicans are corrupt, all the girls are whores, everyone is bad, and everything is filthy. I have to say no to those kinds of things.

"We are also seeing a very bad, ugly side of the United States on The Bridge. Many times we have characters who are creepy, characters who are filthy, streets that are really, really ugly ... as well. It's almost like Weeds. When we did Weeds, no one escapes from being portrayed drastically, and that's pretty much what I like about The Bridge."

On his Weeds character, drug kingpin mayor Esteban Reyes

"We could've probably gone into all of the clichés about kingpins and this and that, but then I was lucky enough to have my writers on my side, and we wanted to make this guy a very sophisticated man, well educated ... a great wine connoisseur, an opera lover, a music lover. And he was clean-cut, he would never be tacky or anything. He was elegant, dressed impeccably.

"And we came up with a very strong character and we wanted to contrast with that all the things he would move under the table between both cities, Tijuana and San Diego."

On playing Fidel Castro in the film Che

"I had to gain almost 30 pounds when I played Fidel because Fidel was huge.

"When they offered me the part, until we began shooting, I had five months. ... I had a lot of material, videos and recordings and pictures and this and that. I grew my own beard, I dyed it black.

"... The thing with a character like Fidel Castro is that everyone knows who he is and everyone knows how he talks and moves. ... I was lucky to have those five months preparing."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. The new FX series "The Bridge," a murder mystery set on the Texas-Mexico border, has gotten its share of attention this summer, along with its co-star, our guest, Mexican actor Demian Bichir. Bichir's had a successful career acting in Mexico, but he's leaving his mark on Hollywood as well.

He played Fidel Castro in the Steven Soderbergh movie "Che" and had a recurring role as a drug kingpin and politician in the Showtime series "Weeds." Two years ago he earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his performance in the Chris Weitz movie "A Better Life."

The series "The Bridge" begins with the discovery of a body on the bridge connecting El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico, and Bichir plays a Mexican detective who has to work with an El Paso homicide cop, played by Diane Kruger, on what turns out to be a serial murder case.

The relationship is complicated by the fact that Kruger's character, Detective Sonya Woods, has Asperger's. In this scene, she and Bichir's character, Detective Marco Ruiz, are driving in a truck, and Woods speaks to Ruiz in her typically blunt way.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "THE BRIDGE")

DIANE KRUGER: (As Sonya Cross) They say you're all corrupt, Mexican police, you all take bribes.

DEMIAN BICHIR: (As Marco Ruiz) Not all of us. The cartels threaten everyone, and sometimes for some people it's a lot easier to just look the other way - for a price, of course.

KRUGER: (As Sonya) They give you money so you won't do the police work?

BICHIR: (As Marco) Not exactly. They tell you plata o plomo, take our silver or take our lead.

KRUGER: (As Sonya) So you just let the girls die?

BICHIR: (As Marco) I do the best I can. The situation is (unintelligible).

KRUGER: (As Sonya) You should try harder.

BICHIR: (As Marco) Of course I should.

DAVIES: And that's our guest, Demian Bichir, with Diane Kruger in their new series "The Bridge." Demian Bichir, welcome to FRESH AIR.

BICHIR: Thank you, Dave.

DAVIES: I know that this is not the first time that you have played a Mexican detective. How did you learn to be a cop onscreen?

BICHIR: I did one of those TV series, weird, strange TV series in those - back in those days because pretty much the Mexican audiences were used to only novellas, the plain Cinderella story, the poor girl who falls in love with a rich guy - da, da, da, da, da. And that was - that has been told like over and over again the same way.

But suddenly Argos Television in Mexico, they came out with this new series about the problems that we were living in Mexico, and that series, that TV series, dealt with not only the different types of corruption that you encounter as a cop trying to do the right thing in Mexico, but also with, you know, how the church play a key role and how, you know, politicians are - who they are and this and that.

And I was playing this cop, and I went through deep, deep training not only in terms of police procedurals but also in terms of handling any type of weapon. And that went on for almost two years. So that was the first time I had a chance to play a cop, and of course I'm bringing all that experience into this character now.

DAVIES: Yeah, do you feel like when you - do you in effect kind of put on an attitude when you become a detective onscreen?

BICHIR: Yes, you can certainly go that way. You can have that as a choice. But we wanted Marco to be a little more like us, a little more like a common type of a person that you could actually relate to. This is a guy who chose to stay in Juarez. He could have gone anywhere else in Chihuahua. The state of Chihuahua is a beautiful state, very big, and there are many different places where, you know, a cop can work, especially an honest cop.

But Marco chose to stay in this place and sometimes he has to deal with heaven and hell the same day, with demons and angels, sometimes in the same table. So that gave Marco really, really juicy kind of territory to work on. And we wanted to bring him into more like a kick-back kind of a cop, knowing that he can walk on fire and never get burned by it.

DAVIES: Did you say a kick-back kind of a cop?

BICHIR: Yeah, kick-back, you know, relaxed.

DAVIES: Oh, kick-back and relaxed as opposed to take kickbacks in terms of bribes, that kind of thing.

(LAUGHTER)

BICHIR: No, not that kind of a kickback, no. Yeah, just relaxing and taking it easy, knowing that he can - you know, in order to do good, he also has to be a diplomat in many ways. He knows the diplomacy. He knows how to talk to all kinds of levels of power, not only in Mexico but also when he works as a joint task force with the El Paso PD.

DAVIES: Yeah, he's - we see him in circumstances, in effect turning down situations where he could take money, he could be corrupt, and then also having to kind of defend, you know, the Mexican police from those who see all of them as corrupt. He has a fine line to walk. And he's a charming guy too.

You know, in fact, I want to play a little moment. This is where you have come to work with the El Paso Police Department on this joint investigation of this murder, and you're just walking into the office to get your temporary bag and you've brought a bag of pastries, of pan dulce. And you have an encounter in this scene with a woman, the receptionist. She's going to make out your badge. She's - her name is Kitty Conchas, you see on her nametag. She's played by Diana Maria Riva. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BRIDGE")

BICHIR: (As Marco) Good morning, Kitty.

DIANA MARIA RIVA: (As Kitty Conchas) Good morning. Who are you, hon?

BICHIR: (As Marco) Detective Marco Ruiz, policia Chihuahua, (Spanish spoken)

RIVA: (As Kitty) OK, OK, no comprendo, I was born and raised in El Paso, don't speak a word.

BICHIR: (As Marco) Oh, sorry. I said I will be assisting Detective Cross in an investigation.

RIVA: (As Kitty) That ought to be interesting.

BICHIR: (As Marco) Why's that?

RIVA: (As Kitty) Well, Sonya's an interesting gal.

BICHIR: (As Marco) I noticed. Would you like a pan dulce?

RIVA: (As Kitty) Oh no, no, no, no, I'm on a diet.

BICHIR: (As Marco) The ones with walnuts are really good.

RIVA: (As Kitty) No, hell, OK. Thank you.

BICHIR: (As Marco) There you go. Just keep it here for a coffee break.

RIVA: (As Kitty) Oh, all right then. Here you go.

BICHIR: (As Marco) Thank you. See you later, Kitty.

RIVA: (As Kitty) I hope so.

DAVIES: And that is our guest, Demian Bichir as Detective Marco Ruiz, flashing a little charm in the FX series "The Bridge," which he stars in. Your character has to negotiate a lot of situations like this. There's one moment when you - you're introduced to one of the American cops. And when he hears that you're, you know, from the Chihuahua police, he says buenos dias. And do you remember your response here?

BICHIR: Howdy.

(LAUGHTER)

BICHIR: Yeah, howdy, partner.

DAVIES: Right back at him, yeah.

BICHIR: Yeah, that's written on the script. That's why I say - you know, when I read it, I found those type of things, you know, that make a script rich.

DAVIES: This drama is set on the border between El Paso and Juarez, and the Juarez we see in the film is pretty seedy. I mean, there are scary people and there are prostitutes and there are criminals. And I know that you have friends and family in Juarez. Does it trouble you that that's the image Americans get?

BICHIR: It's kind of a difficult issue because every city, even Paris, they have their own, you know, filthy little corners, their own little places where no one wants to walk on. And it's your choice to show this part or that, or the part of any city. And yes, I have family and friends, and it's a city that I know very well because we have been there many times presenting plays and visiting my family and all that.

And just like any other city in the world, we have our own problems, but Juarez, it's a wonderful city. It's a modern city.

DAVIES: But does it bother you to see it portrayed the way it is? I mean, in this series and others, I mean, Mexico is sort of, you know, riddled with criminals and corrupt.

BICHIR: Yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes. I mean you have no idea how many times I say no to projects where they only talk about that. Of course, we in Mexico have given Hollywood a lot of stories, a lot of creepy stories sometimes, corruption stories. And so that's our fault. But sometimes it's a little too much. Sometimes it's about exaggerating the point or stepping into cliches or stereotypes. And sometimes I just say no to projects where all the Mexicans are bad, all the Mexicans are corrupt, all the girls are whores, you know, everyone is bad, and everything is filthy. And so I have to say no to those kind of things.

And we are also seeing a very bad, ugly side of the United States in "The Bridge." Many times, we have characters who are creepy, characters who are filthy, characters - streets that are really, really ugly and filthy, as well. So it's almost like "Weeds." You know, when we did "Weeds," no one escaped from being portrayed drastically, and that's pretty much what I like about "The Bridge."

DAVIES: We're speaking with Demian Bichir. He stars in the new FX series "The Bridge." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, our guest is actor Demian Bichir. He stars in the new FX series "The Bridge." It airs Wednesday nights at 10.

You grew up in Mexico City, in a whole family of actors. Is that right? Your parents were in the theater. Your brothers are actors, right? Did you always want to do this?

BICHIR: That is correct. Well, my parents are just a beautiful love, art, theater kind of story. They met each other studying theater in their home town, in Torreon, Mexico, up north, Mexico City. And they kind of rescued each other from their own families, because no one knew what theater was. And then they moved to Mexico City, and my brothers and I were born.

And we became actors, as well. But I was the only one in the family who wanted to be a soccer player. I wanted to be something else. I was doing already professional theater ever since I was a kid, but, you know, it was like a hobby for me. And I just wanted to really become a professional soccer player.

And then, one day, I invited my coach in one of the - to one of the opening nights of a play that I was doing in Mexico City, and the next time - he was overwhelmed by, you know, seeing all the stars and everyone, you know, coming to my dressing room and saying how much they enjoyed my work and da, da, da, da, da.

And then the next time we saw each other in a training day, he called me out from the group, and he said, you know, it was great to see you on the stage. I wanted to ask you: Do you know who Pele was? I said, are you kidding me? Pele? Everyone knows who Pele was. At that point, Maradona didn't even exist. So it was all about Pele.

And he said, you know, he didn't really have any other choice in life, and you're a really good actor.

(LAUGHTER)

BICHIR: So it was a really nice way to tell me that I wasn't talented enough to play soccer. And I heard. I heard him. I was I think 14, 15. And from that point on, I only concentrated my whole energy and everything I wanted to do on theater.

DAVIES: And then, at the age of 22, you moved to New York. Is that right?

BICHIR: That's correct. My mom calls me (Spanish spoken). (Spanish spoken) is, it's something like, you know, we call it (Spanish spoken), because there are a lot of lonely dogs wandering the streets in Mexico. You don't see that here.

(LAUGHTER)

BICHIR: I haven't. But (Spanish spoken), someone that is always, you know, on the streets and wandering around. And I could never stand still. So my mom used to call me (Spanish spoken). You can never stay, you know, quiet. And I always wanted to move. And I remember when I was a member of the National Theater Company in Mexico, I was already looking for a chance and a time to go and emigrate and leave.

And I did a film with the late, fantastic Raul Julia called "The Penitent" in Mexico City, and I met my former girlfriend. We fell in love in San Miguel de Allende. And then she was living in New York, and I said perfect. Let's go. And that's when I left everything else behind, and everyone around me thought I was crazy, that what are you going to do there? You have your place here. You have a name here. I said, I know. I know. I just have to get out there and try to find something.

DAVIES: Did you speak English?

BICHIR: Not at all. That was one of the things that I wanted to do, because I went to public school, and all you learned, there is the pencil is red. The window is open. Good morning, good afternoon and God bless you.

(LAUGHTER)

BICHIR: So good luck with the world. And so I thought I knew some English, but when I arrived to New York, when I arrived in New York, I remember the first time I wanted to go and apply for a job. I just looked at the newspaper, at the job section, and I found this ice cream store. And I thought this is perfect, because I'm going to be able to eat ice cream, and then, you know, learn the flavors. And so that's going to be a good first lesson.

But I couldn't even apply for a job, because I didn't understand anything. When the manager talked to me, it was like Chinese for me. I could not understand a word. And then, you know, I took many different courses in New York, and I'm still trying. I'm struggling. You know, to learn a language when you're an adult, that's really very, very difficult. But I did it, and I never thought I would be acting in English.

DAVIES: You worked in a restaurant, right, as a busboy?

BICHIR: Well, my first job was in this club called The Underground, Union Square, Broadway and 17th Street. And I showed up, and I filled out my application, and I began working right away as a receptionist, stamping everyone's hand so you can drink, after you show your ID, of course. And I was helping the bartender. I was a busboy. I was - you know, that was my first job in New York, all the way up until, you know, 2, 3, 4 in the morning.

And then I moved to El Rosa Mexicano. I arrived there, and they asked me have you any - do you have any experience as a waiter? I said, of course. I've been a waiter all my life. And they say, OK, perfect. When can you start? Yesterday. I began training to make guacamoles, and that's when I regretted never paying attention to my mom when she was making fantastic guacamoles at home.

So - but it was a different recipe, anyway, and I began really, really good. Up until now, I'm really good at it. And so I stayed there for a long year. And pretty much half of the English I learned at that point, it was from my work in that restaurant.

DAVIES: And did you get to act in English? What was your first experience acting in English like?

BICHIR: Actually, my first experience acting in English was something I did in Mexico, and I learned my lines phonetically, because I did not know what I was saying. It was a movie for the - the movie of the week for NBC. It was called "Choices of the Heart." Joseph Sargent, a lovely, lovely director, he directed that film with Melissa Gilbert. Martin Sheen was in it, Mike Ferrell, Pamela Bellwood, a bunch of great actors.

And I remember auditioning - I was ready, getting ready to go in, and I was asking: What is this? Can you tell me how do you pronounce this? Is this weapon? No, that's weapon. Oh, OK. Weapon, OK. Weapon? No, it's weapon. So I would write it phonetically, weapon.

And then I enter, and I just follow a simple rule. You know, when they laugh, I laugh, and if they were serious, if Joseph Sargent was serious, I would, you know, be serious, also. And that was pretty much that. And I don't even know why they gave me the role. And I did it.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: Do you remember any of the lines that you spoke phonetically?

BICHIR: Yeah, yeah, of course I do. There was this point where there was - because this is based on a true story that happened to some American nuns who were killed in El Salvador during the guerrilla period. And I was playing a Salvadorian sacrostant(ph), and I remember having these scenes with Melissa, lovely, she was so - she was beautiful, but she was lovely then.

And we had a love scene, but also, we had this scene where I was complaining about, you know, we have to fight back because, you know, forget about what God says, you know, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. That is what God says. You can always, you know, take it easy and go back to your country, because you can watch it all on TV, relax in your living room. But here, they are killing my people every day, and with those weapons you say are not important.

(LAUGHTER)

BICHIR: Something like that.

DAVIES: Ah, yeah. Well, it doesn't sound like you were doing it phonetically there.

(LAUGHTER)

BICHIR: Well, it was a lot harder. It sounded something like, yeah, you can say that, because this is not your country. You can go back to the States and watch it all on television whenever it gets a little too real for you here. It worked, you know, I managed to pull it out.

DAVIES: I know you went back to Mexico after some time here, and were enormously successful there. You won an Ariel, which is kind of the Mexican equivalent of the Oscar. But you came back again in the 2000s.

BICHIR: Yeah. I'm very stubborn. I remember after New York, I went back to Mexico to work on a TV series and save some more money. And when I came back, I remember all my friends saying, oh, OK. You finally came to your senses. Perfect. Welcome back. And I said, no. I'm just saving some money, and, you know, I'm going to just go back and continue the adventure.

But then I moved to Los Angeles, because I booked a series of commercials, and I booked those commercials because one of the characters needed to play soccer, to be a good soccer player. And, yeah, sure enough, I was really, really good. And I stayed here for, I think, four or five - I mean, I had never left. You know, I'd been coming in and out. But I somehow, after a few years, I thought nothing's happening here, you know, I need my actor to come back to life.

I was doing a lot of, you know, stuff at the same time. I did a play in Mexico, and then I closed. I said, you know, I think nothing's going to happen here, and I decided to come back and try again about six, seven years ago. And then, you know, everything happened, as we say in Mexico (Spanish spoken), we opened the oyster. And once you open the oyster, chances are you might find a pearl.

DAVIES: Demian Bichir co-stars in the new series "The Bridge," which airs Wednesday nights on FX. He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with Mexican actor Demian Bichir, who co-stars in the new FX series "The Bridge," a murder mystery set on the Texas-Mexico border. Bichir was a movie star in Mexico, and has a growing following in the U.S. He played Fidel Castro in the Steven Soderbergh movie "Che," and earned an Oscar nomination for his performance in the film "A Better Life."

One of the roles that you really have become well-known for is a long appearance on the Showtime series "Weeds," which, of course, stars Mary-Louise Parker. She's a middle-class, single mom in San Diego named Nancy Botwin, who has supplemented her income by becoming a marijuana dealer and gotten really deeply into it. You play a drug lord and politician - mayor of Tijuana, I think - that she becomes associated with, and then eventually, romantically involved with. And this is a moment kind of early in their association where she's had a dispute with one of your lieutenants, a guy named Guillermo, played by Guillermo Diaz. You have summoned them to your office, where you've been served a nice lunch. They don't get any. They're just sitting in front of you. And then you proceed to reprimand Guillermo. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WEEDS")

BICHIR: (as Esteban Reyes) (Spanish spoken) Guillermo. Last week, Nancy received a portion of your shipment. Verdad?

GUILLERMO DIAZ: (as Guillermo) Si.

BICHIR: (as Esteban Reyes) I instructed you to give her that portion, and you did.

DIAZ: (as Guillermo) Si.

BICHIR: (as Esteban Reyes) You gave her that portion, and then, from what I hear, you announced that you will kill the (Spanish spoken) bitch in front of her children. But I didn't instruct you to do that, did I? No, I did not. Now, Guillermo, you know I don't like to micro-manage. I work with people who do their jobs well, and I leave them to do it However, slaughtering a coworker - in front witnesses, no less - has to be cleared with upper management. And your request is denied. Julio's just doesn't travel well. You know, in the restaurant, this is delicious. (Spanish spoken) Guillermo, nothing bad is gonna happen to Nancy. Right?

DIAZ: (as Guillermo) Of course not.

BICHIR: (as Esteban Reyes) I'm glad to hear that. I will increase your commission for shipments. You should live to enjoy your money.

DIAZ: (as Guillermo) Gracias.

BICHIR: (as Esteban Reyes) Good. Everyone's friends again. You may go.

DAVIES: And that is our guest, Demian Bichir...

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: ...in the Showtime series, "Weeds." This guy's very funny. You want to tell us about your character here, Esteban?

BICHIR: Esteban Reyes, we could have probably go into all the cliches about kingpins and this and that, but then I was lucky enough to have my writers on my side. And we wanted to make this guy a very sophisticated man, well-educated (Spanish spoken), a great wine connoisseur...

(LAUGHTER)

BICHIR: ...an opera lover, music lover. And he was clean-cut. He would never be tacky or anything. He was elegant, dressing impeccably. And we wanted to contrast that with all the things that he would move under the table in between Tijuana and San Diego. And I was really, really lucky, because the first thing that I got here, who opened that oyster was Mary Vernieu, a fantastic casting director who proposed my name to Steven Soderbergh to play Fidel Castro on the "Che" films. And then we went to Puerto Rico and we shot those films, and then I got this character when I was ready to go to Cannes - to the Cannes Film Festival to present the "Che" films. So it was a very interesting, crucial time in my life, because those two things were coming along together, "Weeds" and "Che."

DAVIES: Right, and hard to imagine two people less alike than, you know, a duplicitous drug lord/politician and Fidel Castro.

BICHIR: No. Absolutely.

DAVIES: Tell us a little bit of both getting ready to play Fidel.

BICHIR: I had to gain almost 30 pounds for when I played Fidel, because Fidel was huge. When they offered me the part, until we began shooting, I had five months. And I had Fidel Castro for breakfast, lunch and dinner for those five months. And I had a lot of material, all the videos and recordings and pictures and this and that. I grew my own beard. I dyed it into black, because my own beard is black, blonde, red and now white. And I think that was very - one of the biggest challenge I've ever had, because Steven Soderbergh never rehearsed. We never even talked about the character, how we wanted to do it. We pretty much arrived the day we were going to shoot, and he said action. And the thing with a character like Fidel Castro is that everyone knows who he is, and everyone knows how he talks and how he, you know, moves and this and that. And I was lucky to have those five months preparing, because it worked.

DAVIES: Yes. Yeah, that could be intimidating. Having seen your performance in there, there are moments I don't know whether it's archive footage or it's you. I mean, you - I think you really nail it.

BICHIR: Thank you.

DAVIES: And his voice is a little higher than yours. There's sort of a staccato delivery.

BICHIR: That's correct. Yes.

DAVIES: I'm old enough to remember what Fidel sounded like.

BICHIR: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

DAVIES: Were the gestures - the way he held a cigar, the way he pointed it, the way he exercised authority? Because, you know, he had led a guerrilla army, and then kind of dealt with all kinds of people.

BICHIR: Yes. It was fascinating to find out many of the things that Fidel would do and the thousands of pictures that I looked at. I always wonder why he - whenever he smoked a cigar, for example, why he always held it on his left hand if he was writing. And, of course, he always wanted to be ready to write. He writes a lot. He still writes a lot. And the way he talks, you know, being a lawyer, it's (Spanish spoken). And sometimes it's hard to understand. This guy is a lot more clear, and he wants to make sure that you listen and understand every word he says. And his pitch of voice is like (Spanish spoken). And he goes like that - pa, pa, pa, pa. I barely remember that. That was many years ago.

DAVIES: Mm-hmm.

BICHIR: And he's very assertive and very aggressive when he, you know, stresses some words and this and that and da, da, da. And that's fascinating, because we actors love those kind of challenges.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Demian Bichir. He stars in the new FX series "The Bridge." It's on Wednesday nights at 10.

And we'll talk more after break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, our guest is actor Demian Bichir. He stars in the new FX series "The Bridge." It's on Wednesday nights at 10.

You got an Oscar nomination for best actor for the film "A Better Life," directed by Chris Weitz. It's a really powerful film where you play a, I guess a landscaper, a gardener, an immigrant, you know, without - an undocumented immigrant working in Los Angeles, a single dad, has a teenage son. You want to tell us how you prepared for that role?

BICHIR: Let me go back a little bit, because when I met Chris Weitz, he had invited me to audition for "New Moon," one of the sequels for the vampire films.

DAVIES: Mm-hmm.

BICHIR: And I was very excited about, you know, playing a vampire. But, basically, I wanted to meet Chris Weitz. And I remember when I got there, we began talking about this character. And he says, well, you know, it's really great. It's a gardener that, you know, he's working very hard to give his son a better life, and this and that. And then I - I was a little bit confused, because I didn't know if it was a vampire gardener or...

DAVIES: Oh, he was mixing the two roles.

(LAUGHTER)

BICHIR: Yeah. And then - no, they were two different projects. And he told me I wanted to talk to you about this, also. You know, this is a project that we've been working on. We don't have a script ready, but if we - when we have it, can I send it over to you? I said, please. I beg you, please send it over. And a year later, he sent it over. I read it, and as soon as I finished it - in one shot, by the way - I called him immediately and I told him, just please, tell me what I have to do to fight for this role.

DAVIES: Is it true that you bought an old truck and went and kind of did some gardening...

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: ...and wore old clothes and...

BICHIR: Yeah.

DAVIES: Yeah?

BICHIR: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You know, actors, we do everything in order to get there as soon as possible. And I remember when I was preparing for Fidel Castro, I was already, you know, wearing green shirts and my green cap and my beard. And at some point, I drove my girlfriend to the airport, and there was an orange alert, and they stopped me. They stopped my car, and they said, can you open the trunk of your car? And when I exit the car, the officer asked me, so what is it with the Fidel look?

(LAUGHTER)

BICHIR: And I said, you have no idea how happy you make me.

(LAUGHTER)

BICHIR: You know, you have made my day. Thank you so much, because, yes, I am Fidel. And he went, like, excuse me? What you mean you are Fidel? I say, well, I am now, and I will be for the next, I don't know, few months. And he said, can...

DAVIES: Congratulations. You're under arrest, huh?

(LAUGHTER)

BICHIR: Exactly. Exactly. Well, you know, let's talk about it. And then I said, yeah, I'm doing this, you know, films with Steven Soderbergh and Benicio del Toro. What are you talking about? You kidding. Hey, Johnny, David, come over here. He's Fidel Castro. He's doing the films. And before I knew it, I was talking to three officers about the project. And so I knew I was on the right track. And then when Chris Weitz finally called me, he told me, well, I was right. Everyone loved you. We had auditioned before that. I had a long audition with Chris Weitz for all the rest of the producers. And he said, yup, I was right. It's yours. And then I began working on the whole process. And I had just came back from losing all the weight that I gained for Fidel Castro. I was already, you know, back in my weight. It took me a year. And then when Chris Weitz and I met, he said I think we should go for a heavier kind of gardener. I said, oh, boy. Yeah. OK. Let's...

DAVIES: So put the weight back on?

BICHIR: Let's go back again. And, you know, kids, you can't do this at home. You know, I'm a professional. Don't do this.

(LAUGHTER)

BICHIR: It's about pigging out like never before in your life. And - but you still have to be careful, you know. You don't want the (Spanish spoken) to go all the way up and die and get a heart attack or whatever. You know, so...

DAVIES: The triglycerides. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

BICHIR: Yes, sir, triglycerides, and cholesterol and all that, you know, you have to do it - I did with my doctor. And so I was already wearing the clothes that we chose for this character, and that became, like, my life 24/7. And then I didn't want to drive my car. I was not driving a fancy car, anyway, but life changes a lot when - it changes a lot when you are driving a beat-up truck. People don't react the same way. So I bought this truck from a real gardener at a stop sign. I just rolled down my window, and I asked him: How much would you sell your truck if you had to sell it? And he said, no, I'm not selling it. You know, I work with my truck. I said, well, if you had to sell it. And then we closed that deal, you know, that same night. And then I remember, one day, arriving to set, and they had changed the security guard. And when I pulled up, he stopped me, and he asked me, yes, can I help you? I say, yup. I'm here to shoot. Yup. What do you do in the film? I'm one of the actors. OK. Extras parking lot is all the way there. Please move your car and park over there - like 1,000 blocks a way or something. And I was really happy to live that experience...

DAVIES: Yeah.

BICHIR: ...everywhere I go, because it's a whole different scenario.

DAVIES: Yeah.

BICHIR: You know, it puts you in perspective, into the real, real - into a different world

DAVIES: Well, I thought we'd listen to a clip from the film. This is you as the character Carlos Galindo. You're a gardener and a single parent. You have a 14-year-old son who you're worried about. You know, you're trying to make a better life for him. And this is a moment in the film where - I won't give away all the details, because folks may want to see it. But some important and unwelcome changes are coming in your life and his. And you're sitting down, having a serious talk about yourself and your life. And he is asked you why, given all the hardships, you and your ex-wife had had him in the first place. And this is part of what you say.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "A BETTER LIFE")

BICHIR: (as Carlos Galindo) You know, back in the village, each day, what any man would do: Fall in love, you get married and then you - you've headed north. And that's what I did, because I didn't know any different. So we came here, and then we had you. Why? Because your mother and I loved each other very much. But then people change, and things were different here. Your mother changed. She wanted more than I could give her. So she went away. And I was left alone with you. I didn't know how I was going to manage with a small boy with no money and no regular job. I had a lot of anger inside me. But the thing - the one thing that helped me get over all that - it was you.

(as Carlos Galindo) 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, mijo. I wanted you to be able to be anything you wanted to be. That would make me feel worthy.

DAVIES: And that's our guest, Demian Bichir, from the film "A Better Life." That performance earned him the nomination for - Oscar nomination for Best Actor. You know, when I look at some of the roles that you had, I mean, you've played cops a lot. You've played, you know, you played the drug dealer in "Weeds" and you played a lawyer for a drug dealer in "Savages" and then of course you play the immigrant gardener in "A Better Life."

But I'm guessing that when you were in Mexico you may have had a much wider varieties of roles and for the American audience had seen you in a more limited way. Is there a film in Mexico that we should look up that would give us kind of a different sense of Demian Bichir?

BICHIR: Hmm. You know, Dave, this is really interesting because this is the first time that I'm realizing that I've had more variety in the roles that I play than ever before in my life. Being in Mexico, I was always playing a Mexican. A Mexican cop or a Mexican this or a Mexican that. But now here I've been playing Cuban. I've been playing Fidel Castro.

I've been playing, you know, all kinds of nationalities. I just did a film in the south of France and London with Jude Law and I play a Russian. But there are many, many interesting films that some curious people could look at. I did a film with Penelope Cruz and Victoria Abril, one of the best Spanish actors ever called "Don't Tempt Me," "Sin Noticias de Dios," the title in Spanish.

And then there is "Hasta Morir," or "Hidalgo: The Story Never Told Before." This is about the father of Mexican independence, and "Fuera del Cielo." A lot of those films, they're everywhere like Netflix or iTunes, and it's really easy to jump and take a look at it.

DAVIES: Well, Demian Bichir, it's been fun. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

BICHIR: Thank you very much, Dave.

DAVIES: Demian Bichir costars in the new series "The Bridge." It airs Wednesday nights on FX. Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new record from pianist Orrin Evans. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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