Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Alice Braga Reaches New Heights in "Lower City"

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Alice Braga Reaches New Heights in "Lower City"

(from timessquare.com 4/21/06)

It may be a star-making performance. Alice Braga had exhibited a remarkable screen presence when her characters hung out with teenage gang members in the award-winning "City of God" and raced around the dangerous streets of Sao Paolo in the noirish melodrama "Journey to the End of the Night," which debuted recently at the Tribeca Film Festival. 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 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 '70s and '80s.

Now her early promise has been fulfilled, as she gives a truly sizzling performance in her first starring role, as a hooker and stripper in Sérgio Machado's debut feature "Lower City." I had been charmed by Alice when we met at the Tribeca Film Festival and was eager to speak to her again about her rising career and her daring turn in Machado's naturalistic, sexually-drenched ménage-a-trois picture that is set in the lower belly of Bahia, Brazil.

Q: Did you always want to be an actress?

AB: 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 20 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. She was always abroad.
Now I'm here and she's in Brazil doing a soap opera. 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: Do you live in New York now?
AB: I still live in Brazil but I've been traveling for five months to festivals, so I've spent a lot of time in the U.S.
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: So you want to break into Hollywood pictures?
ImageAB: I want to open doors. I'm really lucky that all the films I've been doing are coming out here. "Journey to the End of the Night" debuted in New York at the Tribeca Film Festival. The other film I did, "Sólo Dios Sabe," is a Mexico-Brazil coproduction that played at Sundance. I know it's a strong industry here, so if the doors open for me I'd love to get in. Even so, I'd love to do more and more Brazilian films and more and more Latina films in Mexico and Argentina and other countries.

Q: "Journey to the End of the Night," is 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, are 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?
ImageAB: 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: How did Sérgio cast Deco and Naldinho, the two best friends who become enemies when they each fall for Karinna?

AB: Lázaro and Wagner are best friends in real life. That's why Sérgio chose them. The actor he went after was Lázaro at the time he wanted the whole cast to be black. Then he went to Lázaro's birthday party and Wagner gave a beautiful, emotional speech about how their friendship was so important to him. Sérgio said, "Great, I have my other actor."

In my opinion, Wagner and Lázaro are among the best actors now in Brazil. They had done a really famous play that brought them up to cinema and television in Brazil. So they were really good actors and they're both from Bahia, like the two characters—and Sérgio. So Sérgio thought they were perfect.

Q: Had you met either of them before?

AB: I met Lázaro before doing the film, but really fast at a party. But I'd say I met them both for the first time in Bahia when we rehearsed for the film.

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.
Q: Do you think it was important to set the film in Bahia rather than in another part of Brazil?
AB: Sérgio always said this story could be about a rich woman and two lawyers, instead of a hooker and two uneducated guys who transport things on a small boat. But I think the type of love and passion and sensuality in the movie isn't found all over Brazil, but specifically in Bahia. It's a state that has sensuality and seductiveness in the way they live and talk and dance. It's all very physical. The love story between the three of them and everything else could have been done anywhere, even Sao Paolo, where I'm from. But 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.
ImageQ: 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.

Q: On "City of God," you also worked with her. Was she different on "Lower City" when your part was so much bigger?

AB: It was more intense how she worked with me on this film, but she was trying to get the same result. 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

ImageQ: What was it like each night after you began shooting the movie? Was it so intense that you couldn't divorce yourself from what took place on the set?

AB: I tried not to go too far away from the character because I'm at the beginning of my career and still learning about acting. I tried to stay connected to her at all times. There was always a strong energy between us. But that the same time, when I went home I needed leave her at the set just so I could rest. Because, as you say, there was such intensity in her and her relationship with her two lovers.

Q: Did it become difficult to shake out the character from yourself?
AB: Not at all because Fátima works at both "getting into it" and "getting out of it."

Q: Is it true that for you to "get into" one of the really intense scenes, you had a crew member lie down on you a few minutes before the cameras rolled? Did all the crew members volunteer to lie down on you?
AB: I invited him. I needed someone who was strong. I needed someone who wasn't Sérgio or the boys. He was the one holding me down, but all the crew was respectful and being silent. As I said, Fátima wanted us to get into our characters in a physical way and connect to them through our bodies. What I did with the crew member was a specific exercise. He lay down on me and I struggled to get up. But he wouldn't let me. What I wanted was to feel like Karinna, who had to try to get up and struggle through every day. Fátima gave me that exercise so I'd feel like I had to get up and keep going like Karinna, and it helped me a lot.
Q: Wagner said Fátima Toledo told the three of you that "you should find yourself in the role." He thought it would be a piece of cake but found it very difficult. 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. It was so natural because we'd done so much rehearsal. When I say natural, I mean it was Karinna, it wasn't me.
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: Was it important to dye your hair blond to play Karinna?
AB: It helped play the part because I'd look in the mirror in the morning before going to the set, and I'd see it's not me. Looking at myself in the mirror for three months with that blond hair, I became her. It was such a strong change. It definitely helped me portray her because I understood her better.
It was part of who she was. She's one of the girls who dream of looking like a Hollywood movie star or someone who sings on the American dance music they listen to. She probably thinks she's sexier and more glamorous because she has blond hair. A lot of girls in Lower City have that look. In fact, Karinna was based on a girl who had dyed her hair.
Q: Mandy Moore told me during an interview about her character in "American Dreamz" (read interview...) that she changed her hair from blond back to brunette the moment shooting stopped on the film. How about you?
AB: Yeah! I changed it back immediately, too. Nothing against the color, but I didn't like it on me. It was in the script to be blond, but I asked if I had to dye my hair because it destroys it to do that.
Q: Do you think these three lovers could be played by actors in their 40s?
AB: I think it could be anyone. But Sérgio chose these three characters because he was curious about the young people who inhabit Bahia nowadays. He said there are lots of Karinnas, Decos and Naldinhos in Salvador.
Q: Sérgio has said he's a fan of François Truffaut, whose characters often made vain attempts at communicating their love or anything else. In "Lower City," the characters communicate almost exclusively through sex.
ImageAB: I think it's done sexually because Bahia people don't feel shy--if they're horny and want to have sex, they go for it. But I don't think this story is only about sex—it's about love and caring between these three people. The three of them are lonely in the world, and while she is drawn to the men for sex, she also is attracted to their friendship and love and being part of a family, things she never got before in her life.

Q: But these are people who would never just sit around and talk—they are always communicating their feelings physically.

AB: Sérgio wanted to show the sensuality and sexuality, and not have the characters hold back when they're feeling that. But I think they do talk as well, on the boat and at other times. Maybe a little.

Q: Do you think Karinna would love Deco and Naldinho separately? Or does it have to be as a pair?

AB: I think it has to be the two of them. She loves them as individuals with passion, but she really loves what they are together. She loves them both as men, but they complement each other and together they are what she loves. She can't live with only one of them because she never had in her life what they give her. I knew that from the beginning. Each of the boys would joke, "Please, please don't love him more than me."

We were all concerned and I was paying attention all the time to make sure I didn't show more love in one scene for one of them than for the other in another scene. Sérgio said it was an equilateral love triangle and everyone loved each other with the same intensity, so I had to show the same love to both of them.

Q: Do you think she tries to break them up?
AB: No. She loves that they are such loving friends—that is part of their appeal—and it's hard for her to see that she might be the reason for the rupture in their friendship. She doesn't want to break them apart. She never wants them to split.
Q: While I watch the movie, I'm thinking that these are three doomed characters because you can't end up with a woman in love with two men and their all being together. But without giving away the ending, there is a powerful metaphor when she mixes together the blood of the two men, showing how strong their bond is.
AB: Exactly, they share blood. I didn't see that the characters were fated for a bad ending. I saw that they're trying to live in the moment. They're just struggling to get together and struggling to experience this love without suffering or without anyone being lost. It's hard, but they're trying to stay alive and do the best they can to stay together.
Q: Sérgio included a cockfight in the film and I think he did that to draw a parallel between the physical acts of the human characters, whether they're having sex, which is like a painful wrestling match, or--in the case of the men--beating each other. Everything is so primal and primitive and instinctive that it's like a caveman movie in which two brutes fight for a female. I'm wondering if Sérgio ever used the word "animalistic" when directing you.
AB: Yeah. He always said he wanted to have real human beings, people who touched each other and looked each other in the eyes, and when the boys fought, he wanted that to be like two dogs or animals going at each other. Because we are animals so he wanted to portray that. The sex is not always sensual. Sérgio wanted us to show a very human but animalistic lust and desire, connecting with each other. He wanted to show truth and reality, not just show well-shot, beautiful-to-look at it sex scenes. He wanted the audience to smell it and touch it.
Q: There's sweat, blood, tears, vomit, grime, pealing paint. As a viewer you almost want to shower after certain scenes.
AB: That's right! We had an amazing cinematographer, Toca Seabra, and he tried to make it look like a documentary. Sérgio wanted a very specific language for the film, and the camera was another character, in my opinion.
Q: I was struck by the intensity of the sex scenes, due in part to the camerawork. A twosome seems like a threesome and a threesome seems like a foursome because the cameraman is right on top of you with a hand-held camera. Toca Seabra's so close that you're not always completely in the frame. When you saw the dailies were you surprised at how close he was to you?
AB: Fátima told me not to watch dailies, but curiosity kills. So I'd say to Sérgio, "Please let me see just one scene." I preferred not to watch, but what I saw didn't surprise me. The sex scenes were all planned. I knew there would be a handheld camera there on top of us and there would be intense close-ups It was Sérgio's desire to do that and Toca spoke to us about it a lot, and it was great because when Sérgio started to shoot we were just doing ballet with the camera.
During those scenes we could feel the camera moving around. Toca would breathe just like us when we were excited, and if we were calm, he'd be calm. He figured that out. If we were sweating so was he. If we were crying, he was almost crying. We were all dancing together, the actors, Sérgio, Toca, and all the crew. It was such a beautiful connection. It was really special.
Q: Would you do the sex scenes more than once, perhaps all day long?
AB: We would do them a few times and Sérgio would tell us what he wanted each time. We didn't have the money to do one thing all day. This was a medium-budget film for Brazil, but there's not much money in Brazilian cinema.
Q: Do you think the nudity and steamy sex scenes will be seen as much more shocking in America than in Brazil?
ImageAB: There's a different culture in America. In Brazil they're more used to nudity. And in Europe, too. In America they're more conservative. But people in Brazil were shocked a bit by the movie. That's funny, right? Not because it is sensual but because of the strong sex scenes in it. They were shocked by how much was revealed. They weren't expecting that. But they like it. I'm curious to how Americans will respond. I think they'll like the movie, too, because above all else it's a love story.

Q: Could you do another film like "Lower City" after "Lower City" or would you need something less demanding?
AB: Not right after, but after two months of vacation? Yeah.

Q: What is next for you?

AB: I have the two films coming out. I'm reading scripts in Brazil, but I haven't signed to do anything yet. I'd also like to do a play in Brazil. I want to take acting courses, maybe in New York, maybe in London.

Q: You have a great sense of humor. 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.

Q: Do you have favorite actresses in Brazil or elsewhere?
AB: Fernando Montenegro is an amazing actress. Maria Luisa Mendonça is another Brazilian actress--I love her work. Others are Isabelle Huppert, Maggie Chung, Brenda Blethyn. Natalie Portman is a really good actress who does different things than other young actresses who are coming out. I really admire Rachel Weisz. I haven't met them—I think I'd have a heart attack if I did. No, I'm kidding.
Q: You're the only person associated with "Lower City" here in America promoting it. Where's Sérgio?
AB: Sérgio is in Sao Paolo. He's busy working and being with his little boy. Lázarus is doing a soap and theater, and Wagner did a soap and is having a kid. So everything is happening at the same time. I can speak English, so they sent me here. Sérgio said, "Go work for me." I said, "Ok." I have fun. I love it!

Video Interview:

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