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The long-awaited Oscar nominations were finally announced Tuesday morning and while it was no surprise to have heavyweights like Brad Pitt (Moneyball) and George Clooney (The Descendants) nominated in the best actor category, it was the unfamiliar name of Demián Bichir (A Better Life) called out that left many wondering, who exactly is Bichir?
Some may recognize him as Fidel Castro in Steven Soderbergh’s Che, or as Esteban from the hit Showtime series Weeds and most recently as Carlos in Chris Weitz’s A Better Life. I grew up watching Bichir in Mexican soap operas. I was about 12 years old when he caught my eye in Lazos de Amor. He played a blind man, if I remember correctly, alongside Mexican co-star Lucero.
In A Better Life Bichir plays Carlos Galindo, an illegal immigrant who crosses the border into the U.S. in hopes of a better life for his wife and son. When his wife leaves him, Carlos’s goal is to provide for his son even though their relationship seems to be drifting apart. Trying to make ends meet, Carlos borrows money to buy a truck in order to start his own gardening business, but after a sudden turn of events he loses everything. With the help of his son they decide to take matters into their own hands and together embark in a journey that ultimately leads them to realize that family is the most important part of the American dream.
"I met Chris about a year before filming, and just by listening to the way he talked about it and by sharing the same feelings he had about the subjects and the story, I immediately felt connected to him," said Bichir while promoting the film. "When I finally got the script, I was impressed by its realism, the way it approached the people we mostly don’t know anything about. Your cooks, your gardeners, your maids and your valet parking people; what I liked about it was its human approach to their lives."
Born Demián Bichir Nájera in Mexico City, the actor comes from a strong theater background and a well-respected theatrical family. His father was a famed theater director and his mother an acclaimed actress, and his two actor brothers are also popular with audiences in Mexico. Bichir’s films have been seen by more than 12 million people in Mexico and millions more in Spain and South America. But like most actors the road to success didn’t come easy.
In 1985, at the height of his career, Bichir left Mexico and headed to New York City looking to enroll at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute but he was told to save his tuition money because he was already a professional actor. That’s when Bichir decided to stop acting.
He told The New York Times Style Magazine last year, "I wanted to give my actor a break. I wanted to live and to learn English. I wanted to be anything, a cab driver, a busboy, anything to keep me away from acting for a while."
After his break Bichir spent four years in L.A. auditioning with no luck. In 1993 he took on a film project in Mexico that would ultimately win him an Ariel, the Mexican equivalent of an Oscar given by the Mexican Academy of Cinematography. Over the course of 10 years Bichir participated in over 20 TV, film and theater projects in Mexico, Spain and Peru among other countries. By the time Bichir turned 41 years old he was ready to give Hollywood another try.
"One day, I was about 41, and I pictured my life… and [thought], what if I had tried a little harder? Been a little more adventurous? Tried a little longer?" confessed Bichir to NYTSM.
His big break came in 2008 when he received a call at five in the morning from Che director Soderbergh asking him to play Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. That same year he wowed audiences with his starring role in the play "By the Waters of Babylon," which opened at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. Four years later Entertainment Weekly’s Dave Karger called Bichir the George Clooney of Mexico, Mexico’s GQ magazine named him "Man of the Year," and now we’ll see him among the A-listers at the Oscars.
Said Bichir on his nomination, "I'm overwhelmed for having my name among those incredible actors. This could have never happened if Chris Weitz had not been the head of this film. Hopefully more and more people will jump into iTunes and Netflix to see our film. That will be the biggest reward we could get. I dedicate this nomination to those 11 million human beings who make our lives easier and better in the U.S."
"He’s a huge star in Mexico but relatively less well known in America. In that respect, he brings two great things to the movie: One, the most important, is that he is an exceptional actor. The other is that when he appears on screen, he isn’t totally familiar to American audiences,” said director Chris Weitz in a studio release. “This allows you to believe he is a gardener, a simple man who might lose everything, whereas with U.S. movie stars, you just never really believe it. Demián immersed himself fully into the role. I think people will be impressed with his performance."
A role, Bichir continues to be thankful for.
"You know, when you encounter a character like this and a project like this, the first reaction is how lucky I am. Because this is my Hamlet. This is my King Lear," Bichir told USA Today. "It’s a bigger-than-life character that any actor would fight for it, would die to do it."
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