INTERVIEW: Actor: Edgar Ramírez

Interview courtesy of Optimum Releasing.

A rising star in Hollywood, Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramírez, 32, plays the international terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez in this week’s new cinema release, Carlos...

How did you come to play Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, a.k.a. Carlos?I think Olivier Assayas had seen me in Domino by Tony Scott. He sent me the script of the film in Caracas and we met in Paris in August 2008. We talked about Carlos, international politics, history, the 1970s, and it became clear that we had to work together.

What attracted you to the project?
Above all, the opportunity to work with Olivier Assayas, because I’m a fan of his films, especially Clean.
   Olivier's an extremely sensitive filmmaker and an astute observer of human nature. He can tell very simple stories with a rare depth. Any director could have turned Carlos into a vulgar stereotype: either an evil terrorist, or a romantic revolutionary. In reality, he’s a much more contradictory character. I knew in advance that Olivier Assayas’ Carlos would be anything but Manichean. Beyond the historical and political dimension of his story, he first and foremost imagined it from a human point of view.

Can you say that Carlos was human?
Humanizing a character doesn’t mean making him a humanist. Assayas unpicks the myth whilst taking account of all the light and shade: his cruelty, his charisma, his misogyny, his doubts, his seductiveness and his cupidity. He depicts Carlos as an extremely complex being who takes decisions that have terrible consequences, sometimes even to his own detriment. Essentially, his film deals with the choices a man makes and their repercussions on his life.

Was it complicated playing a character as ambiguous as Carlos?
I’ve always been drawn to characters that are hard to fathom, and who operate on the boundary of humanity. I like roles that allow me to question my own values, and to gain a better grasp of the paradoxes in human nature. I understood that I had to feel a minimum of empathy for Carlos if I wanted to represent the character as honestly as possible. Otherwise, I’d have turned him into a cliché.

Did you meet him in prison for the role?
That didn’t happen for legal and logistical reasons. But I approached some members of his family, his friends and former mistresses in order to gain a greater insight into his character. In parallel, I read up on him in history books and lots of archive material, before going into the screenplay with Olivier Assayas.

How did the shoot go for you?
It was very intense. We were filming for seven months between Britain, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Austria, Hungary and Lebanon. The weather conditions were, at times, very arduous, notably for the scenes filmed in the middle of the desert, or in the DC‐9 plane at Beirut airport in the middle of the summer and without air conditioning. The film is all the more realistic for that.

What are the most striking memories you have from the shoot?
In Lebanon, during a control at a checkpoint, I didn’t have my passport and I ended up in prison. Luckily for me, it only lasted for four hours. The film crew explained to the local authorities who I was and everything was straightened out. But, mostly, I remember it being a very rock’n’roll shoot, very lively.
   Olivier Assayas is able to create such realistic atmospheres that you almost end up forgetting the fact that it’s fiction. During the scene of Carlos’ birthday in a Budapest hotel, for example, I was having so much fun that I got the impression that this party was being thrown in my honour and that the actors were my friends. As the months went by, we formed a real family.

Is it possible for an actor to emerge unscathed from playing such a character?
After the shoot, I underwent therapy for a month-and-a-half. Not because I identified excessively with Carlos, but I’d been through such a frenetic seven months that my emotional system had been somewhat altered by it. I need to evacuate all that energy from my body.

Like Carlos, your name is Ramírez, you are Venezuelan and a polyglot. Were these similarities an advantage for the role?
One way or another, that certainly helped me slip into Carlos’ skin. Our respective families come from San Cristóbal in Venezuela, and we have both lived in Caracas. My father was a military attaché and, like Carlos, I’ve travelled a lot. I’ve lived in Austria, Mexico, Canada, the United States and Colombia. As a result, I can speak five languages: Spanish, Italian, German, English and French. For the film, I also had to learn some Arabic phonetically.

How did you become an actor?
Alongside studying political communication at university in Caracas, I used to organise a short film festival. During a trip to Mexico, I met the screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga who’d seen me in a friend’s film, and who encouraged me to become an actor. At that point, I didn’t feel I had the time, because I was running an organization to promote the right to vote and free access to means of communication in Latin America.
   In 1998, Arriaga offered me a role and I accepted it. My international career took off thanks to my performance in Domino by Tony Scott, and then I followed up with The Bourne Ultimatum by Paul Greengrass and Che by Steven Soderbergh.

Besides movies, your name is associated with many NGOs. Where does this commitment come from?
I was initially aiming to work in diplomacy, and I remain very concerned about human rights issues. Last year, I took part in a campaign by Amnesty International against firearms violence in Venezuela. I also represent a national charity for the fight against breast cancer, and I’m involved with Unicef activities in Latin America. Using my image as an actor to defend humanitarian causes allows me to pursue this vocation and not to lose sight of my convictions. OR

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