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Alice Braga in Mamet's "Redbelt"
(from brinkzine.com 5/1/08)
- Alice Braga
I first met Alice Braga two years ago when I moderated a press conference for the nourish melodrama "Journey to the End of the Night" when it debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival. She had made a big impression in the landmark Brazilian film, "City of God," but now she was graduating into adult roles. It was apparent that the young Brazilian actress had the striking beauty, talent, ability to make you believe her characters existed outside the lens of the camera, and the earthy sex appeal that made her aunt Sonia Braga (“Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman”) an international star in the late seventies and eighties. I got to hang out with and again interview Alice the following year when she was promoting Sérgio Machado’s debut feature “Lower City.” In that gritty, sexually-charged film, her early promise was fulfilled, as she gave a torrid award-winning performance in her first starring role, as a hooker and stripper in love with two men. She got everyone's attention and offers of leading roles in "I Am Legend," opposite Will Smith, and now "Redbelt," David Mamet's mixed-martial arts film that is playing at the Tribeca Film Festival and begins a theatrical run in New York this weekend. She plays the money-obsessed wife of a jujitsu instructor (Chiwetel Ejofor), who is too honorable to fight competitively and get them out of debt. I got to speak to my old friend again as part of a roundtable. Below, I combine the interview from last year and the roundtable.
Danny Peary: Did you always want to be an actress?
Alice Braga: I grew up going on sets with my mom, Ana Maria Braga. Today, she works in commercials as a director and an editor, but she used to be an actress. I knew I wanted to work in the cinema, but I wasn’t sure if it would be acting or something else. I took some acting courses and did some theater in school, but I was still trying to figure it out because acting is such a difficult career to choose. Then my mom’s friend allowed me to do some auditions and I started to get some commercials, which I did for fun. Then I did a short film, "Trampolim," which was great. Then Fernando Meirelles invited me to do “City of God.” As soon as I started acting in movies and playing characters, I realized that’s what I wanted to do.
Q: Has your aunt Sonia Braga been a major influence on your career?
AB: Yes and no, because Sonia left Brazil when I was very young and hasn’t lived there in more than twenty years. She’s always visited and we’ll always been in touch, but her influence has been from a distance. I was influenced by the fact that she was a really good actress and became really well known; and because of her I always believed in my dream and worked hard to get what I wanted. It’s great to have someone in the family who does the same thing you do, but she was never so close that she could help me or give me advice. I have always been Sonia’s niece, but my mother was a much bigger influence on my career. She never pushed me, she was always supportive, and if I’d wanted to become a lawyer she would have supported me just the same. She was always there for me. When I audition, she still says, “Concentrate, focus…” Once you’re an actress, you always have those feelings.
Q: Was your first contact with Hollywood through "City of God?"
AB: Yes. I didn’t know how it worked, so it was interesting. It’s a different culture and the Hollywood way wouldn’t work in Brazil, but I liked my experience. I even got an agent.
Q: “Journey to the End of the Night” was your first American movie. It was directed by an an American, Eric Eason, and stars American actors Brendon Fraser, Scott Glenn, and Mos Def. The two female leads, however, were Latinas--you, who are from Brazil, and Catalina Sandina Moreno, from Columbia. AB: It was an American film, but all the shooting took place in Sao Paolo. That’s where I am from so even though it was shot in other places of the city, I felt like I was home. My character spoke English, Portuguese and Spanish.
Q: Eric Eason says he found you in New York when he was casting the film.
AB: He found me at a party for a charity screening of “City of God” in Soho. He saw me and Mos Def talking about the movie and he said, “Those are my Wemba and Monique,” two characters who spend a lot of time together in the movie. How do you say it? “Right time and the right place.” It was a great experience. Mos is a creative actor and really sweet and generous, so he was wonderful to work with and learn from.
Q: In that movie, you were part of an ensemble. How did you get your first female lead in “Lower City?”
AB: Walter Salles, who produced this film, had also produced “City of God.” He spoke to Sérgio Machado and recommended me. But Sérgio couldn’t find me because I was in New York. So he tested many girls to play Karinna, but didn’t sign any of them. Meanwhile the two male parts had been cast with Lázaro Ramos and Wagner Maura, and they were already rehearsing. Finally, with only a month before shooting, he found me and got in touch. I was in New York doing press for “City of God” and the Oscars. He asked me to come back to Brazil. I read the script with Sérgio and the film’s acting coach, Fátima Toledo, and they invited me to play Karinna. When I read the script I immediately thought, “This is such a challenge, so I said yes on the spot. I only had to meet the boys and do rehearsals and figure out how we felt about each other. And it happened.
Q: Did you later have second thoughts?
AB: When I read the script, I had no hesitation about accepting the role. But when I began to rehearse, I’d say “Oh, my God, am I doing this?” I was really afraid of the amount of work and responsibility. I asked, “Should I do this? Am I talented enough?” I had to go through all of my fears to get past that.
Q: Before you were born, your aunt did a lot of nudity and became a respected actress, but did you worry it was a real risk doing so much nudity and fairly graphic sex scenes so early in your career? Or would you say, “Well, I’m young, this is the time to do it?”
AB: Yeah, definitely. I really wanted to do it because Karinna is such a strong character that I knew she would be important in my life. I loved the opportunity to throw myself into the part. My only worry was the challenge to portray someone like that--I wondered if I could do it. I never worried about exposing myself and getting criticized for that, just about the acting. However, when I read the script I definitely knew it was a risk. Not because I’d expose my body, but that I’d I expose myself in other ways by giving so much of myself. But the moment I met Sérgio and Lázaro and Wagner, and because I had already worked with Walter and Fátima on “City of God,” I knew it was something special. I knew these people were going to take care of me, the character, and the story.
Q: Could you have done “Lower City” as your first film, or was it better that you did as part of a progression in your career?
AB: Everything went in the right order. I think I needed to move from one thing to another, and learn more each time to be prepared for the work and process I needed to do on “Lower City.”
Q: You live in Sao Paulo, but are you familiar with Bahia, where the film takes place?
AB: Yeah, it’s one of my favorite areas of Brazil. It’s in the northeastern part of the country and I’ve been going there since I was a kid because my grandma is there. My family is from there. So I know Salvador a lot, I know Lower City—the area and the energy. If it were set in Sao Paolo it would be a different film. Sao Paolo is like New York, where people wear ties and go to work and jog. This area is more sensual.
Q: There is such intensity to the sexual scenes, so could you have made this film with two actors who knew each other without two months of rehearsals?
AB: No, we really had to get involved. It was something Sérgio really thought necessary for us to get 100% into our characters and see how they related to each other. Their love for each other is so passionate that we needed to understand their feelings and emotions and to be part of the life that they live. The film could have gone terribly wrong if we didn’t throw ourselves into it. Without rehearsals, we wouldn’t have felt anything, we just would have done it. If we were only half into characters and half out of them, it wouldn’t have worked. That’s why he had Fátima, who is a really important acting coach in Brazil, work so closely with us for so long. She had a specific way of working, where she tries to get the character’s feelings and emotions into your body. We read the script and then I just worked with the physical exercises she gave me—I did a lot dancing and singing exercises and I did a lot of kundalini to loosen my pelvis and free my sexuality. Her work is really sensorial. Once you feel like them, you can get into the story they are living. You believe that these characters exist in that area and environment.
Q: Did you bring any of yourself to this character or was it too far removed from anything you’ve done?
AB: It’s far away from what I’ve done or who I am. But I think I bought sweetness to the character, a childlike quality that she still has even though she’s now a young woman. Even though she’s a hooker, everything that’s sexual has something sweet about it, something pure or non-vulgar. If you have a character so challenging, you have to reveal yourself. You go for it and discover a lot about yourself. Karinna is a character who is alone in the world, so she fights to survive. She needs to take care of herself. I don’t have that in my life, thank God. I have my family. But she has fear and I have fear—I had fear to portray Karinna. It was really painful because while Fátima is amazing, she is a really intense and difficult person to work with. She makes you dig deeper and deeper into yourself and sometimes you suffer in order to do good work.
Q: You won a lot of awards for "Lower City," which led to your getting the female lead in one of 2007's biggest Hollywood films, "I Am Legend." Your character survives, so have you been contacted about doing a sequel?
AB: We were talking about a sequel while they were writing the film and there were having meetings and readings. That was just for fun. When you write, you come up with more ideas and we thought a sequel would be cool. But I haven't heard anything more about it. It was a joy to make that movie, so I hope they call me!
Q: What was your reaction to getting a David Mamet script?
AB: You always have butterflies when talking about David Mamet. He has such a big name. I couldn't picture jujitsu and David Mamet together but when I read the script I understood it wasn't just about the martial arts. It was about the man. David wasn't at all worried about the words, and he was kind, gentle, and generous with me because he knew I had to think in one language and then translate, but meanwhile had to keep the feelings of the character. There were so many things going on. He was so nice with me.
Q:: Does your character Elise love money more than her husband? Does she really love him at all?
AB: It's not in the script, but she definitely fell in love with him and married him for that reason. And she still loves him. And she admires his beliefs but she is more grounded. He is more heart and emotion and passion; he's more reason and business and matter-of-fact. They have financial problems and there comes a moment when she has just had enough. I'm not protecting the character by the way, but I had to understand her. Because the first time I read the script she was—pardon my language—a bitch! Then I re-read it and decided I couldn't judge her because then I might try to change who the character is. I just tried to understand the reasons for how she acts. We never talked about it, but my feeling is that she loves him but decides to take care of herself. Emily Mortimer's character falls in love with him for other reasons and it's beautiful that they get together, but there is love from Elise as well.
Q: Did you have to do any martial arts training for the film?
AB: I didn't have to because she doesn't know it. I decided to learn it because Elise is married to a guy who lives that life 100% of the time. And she comes from a jujitsu family, dating back to before she was born, It was in her blood. I didn't do much, but I did take a couple of classes to get an idea of that world.
Q: What projects do you have coming up?
AB: I just finished a movie in Canada called "Repossession Mambo." It's set in the near future and is quite curious. And I have "Blindness," with Fernando Meirelles. And Wayne Kramer's movie, "Crossing Over," about immigration in the U.S, with Harrison Ford and Sean Penn. I'm reading scripts now. I'm back and forth to Brazil. In August I plan to be in a movie there with an actor I truly admire. He's going to direct his first feature and I'm honored that he invited me to be part of it.
Q: Maybe there's a David Mamet play in your future. Have you ever done theater?
AB: Only in school. I took courses and had little theater groups, but I never did it professionally. I really want to, but I think I'd do it in Portuguese first.
Q: You have a great sense of humor, but have you done comedy?
AB: No, never. It’s a different language, a different kind of acting. Somebody told me that the breathing and timing is different in comedy. I’m curious about it, but I don’t know if I’ll do it. I love to do drama, so let’s see. I’m still at the beginning so I have to study much more to pursue different characters.