On Monday morning the Oscar®-nominated star of The Bridge (FX, Wednesdays, 10/9C). Demian Bichir, spoke with a group of journalists/bloggers about his role on the network’s newest hit series – and about the show’s themes and potential impact.
Bichir was charming, thoughtful, good-humored and insightful throughout.
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Demian Bichir: Thank you so much. Yeah thank you for being here.
My pleasure. The last time I spoke with you it was right before your Oscar nomination you told me you weren’t going to get it, and if you did you would treat me to dinner so I’ll have to hold you to it at some point.
Demian: Well, the offer is still on all right.
I was wondering what originally made you want to be a part of The Bridge?
Demian: I found a really powerful script when I read the pilot, and then I loved the character. I loved how a Mexican cop could be filled with so many layers and so many different tones and so many different types of emotions; a character that can actually walk on fire and never get burned was extremely appealing for, I guess, for any actor, but I just loved the fact that he, Marcos, is very, very human. Then, of course, the fact that Gerardo Naranjo was going to direct the pilot, one of the best Mexican filmmakers, and then the name of Diane Kruger was also a crucial part of it because I’ve been wanting to work with her for a long time, and then we finally got together on this. We were going to work on a film together last January with William … and then it didn’t happen for some reason, so I was shocked to have this chance again.
And what was it about this character that—was there something that you added to him that wasn’t originally scripted for you or did you stick to the page?
Demian: There are many things that you as an actor bring to the table and to the character in order to make it as good as possible, probably if we’re lucky maybe a memorable character. Of course, everything is on the page, written on paper, and from that point on you try to give this man certain personality or a way of being and that’s mostly something that you agree with your director. We just wanted to make him a real person. You know I don’t believe in black or white. We wanted a character that you could actually believe that he existed.
I was—this obviously is not a documentary, but for many American viewers this might be the most that they learn about what the U.S./Mexican border is like because it’s not very well covered in the news. I was wondering what do you see as the news or the educational value of The Bridge?
Demian: We still have to go deeper in that department. We’re not showing the real Juarez. We’re only showing the Hollywood Juarez that I guess they need to contrast to different countries, but the irony of it is that Juarez is a modern city. Juarez is a very modern city where you can find pretty much anything you need, especially if you’ve got money, and it’s a fantastic city that I’ve known for many years. I have family in Juarez, friends. I’ve been taking plays; every time I’m doing a play, that’s a stop that we have to, you know, make. Juarez is a lot more than just a difficult border sometimes, and we still need to show that part. Everything we’re showing right now it’s only the bad side of the, you know, the bad guys, as we’re showing also the bad side of the bad guys in the United States. So I just hope that the rest of the world won’t take this as a fact.
So are you saying that upcoming episodes will be showing that more realistic side of Juarez?
Demian: Probably not in this show because this show is about contrasts and even though we can—I mean the cast, Diane and Ted Levine and everyone else— we can always give our opinions and they listen to everything we have to say, but we don’t have any more power than that in order to say what should be seen or not. And so in this particular story we won’t be seeing the fantastic hospitals Juarez has, and the magnificent infrastructure that Juarez has, and the … maybe not, maybe not in this series, maybe not now.
Okay. One more question along the same lines, do you think it’s significant that The Bridge is airing just as the United States tries to tackle its biggest immigration reform in more than two decades?
Demian: I think it’s perfect timing for that because if we can bring in people’s attention to what the real problem of immigration is then that will be an asset to our show, because even though this is not about immigration, we talk about it, and immigration is not about building walls. It’s a universal phenomenon that will continue to happen in the next 20, 50 years even more and more, and the fact that our show is called The Bridge, that is exactly what we need; we need to build bridges and not walls. The immigration issue is about the separation of the families, and that is not human in any country in the world but especially in the United States. We should not root for a … law that separates the families.
So in Savages and Weeds and your 1996 series Nada Personal you’ve played characters sort of on various sides of the law concerning Mexican governmental corruption and the drug trade. I’m wondering if in approaching The Bridge, how familiar were you with that landscape and what aspect of it have you learned more about in playing Marco?
Demian: That’s interesting because when we did Nada Personal and then the same character in a second series called Demasiado Corazon—the two were hard. I was playing this cop that was almost like a Hamlet, almost like a Shakespearian character who was always very sad and depressed, but he was a good cop. You could not buy this guy with any money. We did that in the middle of very difficult times in Mexico, like 15 years ago pretty much when everything, all this mess began. When I did that character, when I worked on that series, I got a really, really deep training in police procedures and the usage of all kinds of weapons, and so that training back then helped me a lot to portray Marco now.
I believe Esteban being a high-ranked politician in Mexico, that was a different approach to how things work sometimes, how difficult it is to solve many problems because high-rank officials and high-rank politicians are part of the problem, and, of course, being … and being that dark comedy Weeds was really, really—we approached that character and that issue with a very acid kind of sense of humor. And we didn’t want to go into any clichés or stereotypes about these drug lords being all stupid and ignorant. Esteban Reyes was a savvy man, a very sophisticated man, a well-educated man, so we wanted to go in that direction at that point.
Then Savages, you see in Savages this is the only character, Alex, the only character that is a victim of the circumstances because he’s the only one who is not a killer or an assassin or anything like that. I think he’s the one who dies very badly, and he’s the only educated person of that organization working in the wrong place with the wrong people.
And then Marco Ruiz, what I loved about Marco when I first read the pilot is that out of all those characters he is the simplest man. He is a family man. He is somebody that really believes that he can represent a difference in a very difficult world on both sides of the border because he works with the El Paso PD constantly. This is not the first time he’s joined a task force, and is a character that can actually transition between heaven and hell and be good with Dios y el diablo. That’s a very appealing character.
I was fascinated by how Marco’s private life was shown, you know from having a vasectomy all the way to having problems at home with his kids and his wife, and that made this character very human. This is a real human being, and he chose to stay in Juarez. Being a cop from the Chihuahua State Police you could go to … or you can go to many other cities instead of Chihuahua. It’s a big state but he chose to stay in Juarez because he believes that he can make a difference.
So all that training that I got in the past was crucial for me to play this character because I’m pretty much well-trained for anything, but without telling you much about the future of this character all I can say is that I’ve been getting many surprises every time I read a new episode because—I don’t know if you know that we get the episodes as they’re written, and every week we have a new one, and then the direction on where all these characters are going, especially Marco, it’s pretty shocking, and that’s good drama. That’s fantastic drama.
I think having this story in the American television…I think it’s a fantastic, huge step in terms of approaching an issue that’s right there. It will be there forever, because our vicinity, because we will be together forever and ever, and the problems that we share and the issues that we share as two different countries haven’t been put on screen like now in a border so difficult like El Paso and Juarez, two different cities and so much alike. Marco and Sonya represent those two countries. Marco and Sonya, they are as different as Mexico and the United States, but they understand that they need to work together on that, get to know each other as soon as possible so they can cover each other’s back and work in to the same direction.
I just wonder if you could offer your opinion on how—two things—on how the evolution of Marco’s working relationship with Sonya will progress, and how things are for him at home, because something happens in Episode 3 that kind of calls that in to question?
Demian: I know. You see one of the things that I love about Marco is that, as I was saying before, that this is a tridimensional character because he’s not black or white. He’s a good cop. He’s a good man but he’s no angel, and that’s what I believe. I believe in characters that can be tangible, that you can actually relate to, and loving his wife as much as I love my wife. He’s a man and he’s not very good sometimes in making decisions you know, and he gets himself in trouble at home where trouble is already there because the way he communicates with his son Gus. It’s kind of rough. I mean they don’t talk much, and that’s a problem with a teenager, whenever you have a teenager.
Then the relationship with Sonya, I think this is the first time that Sonya actually can have a friend, a real friend, because Marco, he doesn’t care about anything else but solving the problems that they share. And although she might be weird to Marco, he likes her. He likes her and he takes care of her just the way partners should do, and so you will see that more and more how this relationship goes from being awkward to being very tight without getting weird or anything.
I wanted to ask you—now that the first show has aired and we’ve gotten the initial numbers, what has most surprised you about reactions to the show? Whether it’s from critics or social commentators or friends, what’s been the most surprising reaction?
Demian: I think what shocks me the most is that I haven’t seen so many people agreeing on the same work. We have a pretty high rate on how much people like the show—specialists, critics, common people on the streets, fellow peers, friends, all kinds of people. Everything that I’ve heard in the last week is “I’m hooked; I can’t wait to go back on Wednesday.”
I’ve heard from a lot of people who like the show, but the one question I have heard from a few viewers is will they solve this murder in the first season or am I going to get dragged into multiple seasons with it? Do you have any sense of that—that it will get wrapped up this season, and then we’ll be onto a new story in future seasons?
Demian: I guess that’s hard to know because if you think about the original series that was only one season. I’m not sure what the future of the Sweden and Denmark version will be, but this is pretty much what it’s based on, and at this point I haven’t seen the original series because I heard so many great things about it that I just wanted to stay away from it.
I didn’t want to bring any ideas into our story, our production, or my character, because I wanted this to be like something new for us, at least for me, and to go from scratch. So I guess it’s like with any film, you know, the way Hollywood works is that if people like it, if people make a bit hit of a film, chances are you will see a sequel. I guess this is what everything comes down to; if these 13 episodes are watched by a lot of people, I’m sure there will be a second, a third, and a fourth, and maybe 25, or maybe not.
At this point I have no idea. I don’t know what the plan is. I barely know the new episodes as they come out from the oven, warm and nice. And so we’re still hoping that people will like it because that would be translated into another season, which would be really nice to see how everything develops, because from that point on it will be our original kind of approach because we won’t be based on anything anymore.
I hope your character recovers soon from that vasectomy because it is looking very painful.
Demian: You know I sometimes used to go a little more like, “Whoa it hurts,” but then we had some vasectomy patients on set, like part of our crew or a couple of guys who went through that, and they say, “Yeah it hurts but not that much.” I mean take it down a notch, and it only lasts like a really bad week, but after that I’ll be fine and yeah that’s kind of awkward anyway.
Okay. Well, I know the plot twist you were speaking of in Episode 3, but what I wanted to ask you about is that you talked about this show being about contrast, and there are many cultural differences that are being shown between the law enforcement agencies, but for you as an actor, what do you see as the cultural differences between working in the U.S. on films and television and working in Mexico?
Demian: Well, there are a few. Basically, as an overall picture I think we’re all the same and we do what we do exactly the same way. The technological part of it is one that has to do with very basic things. We do show some films pretty much the same way here, Columbia, Bolivia, Ireland, Spain, everywhere that I had a chance to work in, it’s pretty much the same. But I think one of the biggest differences between, for example, TV series here and Mexico is that we have a different director for every episode, and that’s a very interesting way of shooting to say the least because it is kind of difficult sometimes. It’s challenging. There are certain risks involved when you work like that, and I pretty much understand why they do that. When we’re shooting one episode another director is preparing the next episode because you wouldn’t be able to prepare if you were shooting every episode as a director. So that’s probably the biggest challenge, changing directors in every episode.
I guess first off did you spend much time with the police officers in Mexico to talk to them about how they function, or did you know already what kind of work to do for the role?
Demian: I kind of knew that from before. I had a chance to go through some deep training because of the characters I play in Mexico. I have a few friends that are cops, captains, and believe it or not there are many, many Marcos out there. There are many good men out there who actually go out every day and risk their lives for two pesos, for very little money. I think one of the biggest challenges for any officer of the law in Mexico is the fact that you don’t get a good retribution for your work and it doesn’t matter how good you want to do it, you will always encounter obstacles here and there.
But as I always believed, you know when you’re a crook, you’re a crook and that is only an excuse for you to be a crook. If people say, “Well, the situation is bad; that is exactly why I’m just going to go out and point a gun to an old lady and get some money,” well excuse me my friend, but you are just a rat. This is not because the economy is bad, this is just because you are a rat and that’s pretty much that.
A lot of people have dignity. A lot of people believe just like Marco that they can represent a difference in a very difficult world. I think one of the great things about The Bridge is that we talk about violence on both sides of the border. We talk about corruption on both sides of the border, and I think Mexico’s biggest problem is not corruption because you find corruption everywhere. Mexico’s biggest problem is impunity because if you are corrupt in the United States and they catch you, they find you, they bust you; you are going down. Your life is finished and you go to jail. In Mexico there’s always a way out, especially if you went to Harvard, right. If you were educated at Harvard, and then you become a president, you can actually end up teaching at Harvard.
Yeah there’s a difference, and one last thing really quickly. How much of Marco do you relate to on a basic level?
Demian: We are alike in terms of we’re passionate about life and what we do. We love our work, and we love our family.
I was wondering what message would you like American audiences to interpret from The Bridge?
Demian: I don’t know. I think I’d like people to fall in love with the story and get hooked on it because they’re moved, because they are touched. There are many issues that are very sensitive, many things that remind us that we are very close together, Mexico and the United States. I hope people can stop believing everything politicians say about Mexico and the United States about the problems that we share. I hope that maybe we can ignite some kind of curiosity so people can go and dive into more information about many issues, not only immigration, but also the way we work as two different countries so close together.
If we’re lucky we will do that. The Bridge could do that, like maybe someone would say, “Huh, interesting. So let me see exactly where Juarez is,” let’s begin with that. How is Juarez really or what’s exactly going on with El Paso? Why is El Paso considered one of the safest cities in the world and what is this thing about the dead girls of Juarez? Why are so many girls dying in Juarez? Why is the target so specific for these young ladies, poor ladies that come to work in the factories, between 15 and 25, dark skin, beautiful young ladies, and they just disappear? Who is involved in all this?
Maybe we could bring people’s attention even to what Asperger’s is. You know, what is this thing that Diane’s character has, Aspergers? Is that autism? Is that some sort of autism? Sometimes that’s what a good film and a good book or a good series can do, they can probably make you a better person.
Maybe if we’re lucky we will make you curious about it, curious about many issues, and pretty much about the way politicians lie. Why are they passing this law, this new immigration law, and why is there a new chance for amnesty, but at the same time why do they want to build this huge wall? Why do they want to use our tax money to build a wall? Haven’t we learned that there is no wall high enough to stop immigration? That is not the problem. That is not the issue, so we need to know the facts in order to tell the politicians, “Excuse me, I don’t want you to use my money on building a wall that is not going to solve any problems. We have to go this direction instead.”
A lot of the questions I had were taken by other reporters about the show, but I just wanted to know about your beginnings. Did you always want to be an actor when you were younger? And could you kind of talk about your beginnings in the career.
Demian: Yeah. Acting was like a normal way of living at home because my parents met each other studying theatre in their home town in Torreon, Mexico up north; a state very close to Chihuahua. Then my brothers and I were born in Mexico City when my parents moved. My parents had to rescue each other from their families because there was no artistic history in their families, so it was weird that two kids from Torreon wanted to be actors. My brothers and I didn’t go through that problem because everything we needed to read about acting and theatre and drama and this and that and techniques and everything was right there in my parents library.
My brothers and I were already doing professional theatre ever since we were kids, but I was the only rebel in the house. I was the only one who wanted to play soccer professionally. I remember doing theatre as a hobby, but my main goal in life was that I just wanted to play soccer. It was when I was somewhere around 14 that I invited my coach—the coach of the team I was playing—I invited him to the opening night of the play that I was doing, and then he was overwhelmed by all the stars present and by everyone saying really nice things about my work. And so this same coach told me, “You know all those guys…didn’t have any other chance in life and you’re a good actor.” So that was a good, nice easy way to tell me that I was not talented as a soccer player and that I needed to focus on what I knew, and then that was that. After that it’s been a nice ride.
Just quickly was wondering which U.S. TV shows, if any, do you like to watch?
Demian: Oh, I have to confess that I’m really bad at that and I promise—I am promising everyone that I will do my homework. There are so many shows that are waiting for me to be watched, from the Sopranos with the great James Gandolfini, and then, of course, Mad Men and … and dat, dat, dat. The list is really, really long. When I got cast on Weeds they asked me if I ever watched a series and I had to confess that I hadn’t, so they sent me over the first three seasons and I couldn’t stop watching. I was watching that, and you know, I think I watched the three seasons in four days. Sometimes I watch some Frazier, my girlfriend is a big fan of Frazier, so I go and review the reruns. And Curb Your Enthusiasm, that’s something that I watch regularly, but I still need to do my homework.
That’s great. Thank you, I appreciate it.
Demian: Thank you guys, thank you very much.
Photos by Byron Cohen, Frank Ockenfels and Prashant Gutpa/Courtesy of FX