Sunday, December 7, 2008

Javier Cámara: On Acting, Scripts, Choosing Roles, America, France and Spanish Guilt

Above, Cámara in Blind Sunflowers

Javier Cámara is one hell of a charming guy. Effortlessly easy-going (or seemingly so), he makes everyone feel at home immediately via a persona that puts us all at ease and then insists upon interacting. At the Q&A following the film Chef's Special (Fuera de Carta) -- chosen as opening night attraction at the FSLC's Spanish Cinema Now -- he immediately plopped down on the apron of the stage, rather than standing or sitting in a chair, and started interacting with the audience, fielding questions without missing a beat.

After the press conference last Friday morning, I got nearly half an hour of the actor's time, helped along by a fine translator who did his work almost simultaneously as Cámara spoke. (The actor speaks pretty good English, too, but sometimes lapses into Spanish to make his points more purely.) After a minute or two of introduction and initial conversation, I turned on the digital recorder and…

TrustMovies: I want to talk about your entire career, rather than just concentrating on Chef's Special, since I wasn't all that crazy about the movie.

Javier Cámara: I understand that. I think one needs to see the film as just a good example of commercial cinema from Spain.

OK: We'll say that, but before we go further, I really want to find out what happened to Pablo Berger -- the director/writer of what I think is one of your best films: Torremolinos 73.

I don't really know. But I do know he has a little baby now. If you remember the film, it is about a man who wants to make a film and a woman who wants to have a baby. But they cannot have children and she imagines getting inseminated by the Danish actor who is making the film.

Mads Mikkelsen, right?

Yes: an amazing actor!

He is an amazing actor. But so are you! But what so surprises me about this film and one of the things that makes it so beautiful is that, while it is all about sex, the sex is also wonderful and natural and funny and fun -- with no shame! At least, you and the fine actress Candela Peña manage to make it seem this way.

Above, from Torremolinos 73

That was something so very important to Paulo -- that we should not feel any shame or embarrassment while making this film. Candela and I spoke a lot about this, and we talked to Pablo about it, too, and we tried to experience the feeling of this particular moment in Spain. Very naïve people like these two, deciding to do a pornographic film in Spain! This is so strange and distanced to our imagination. Something unimaginable. But what gave them a degree of freedom was that they felt they were participating in something totally scientific and educational that would help mankind. And this works because, then, they can fuck with "naturality." It is not something they did with any special learning or practice, just with how they really felt about each other.

If the characters had felt that they were doing something dirty, the film would not have come across with such freedom and joy?


But yet the movie is also kind of sad.

Si, muy triste! And black, and very dark. Pablo, the director, was a professor of directing and production here in the USA. When he first wrote the screenplay here in the USA, he thought of setting the story here, too, during the 1930s or 40s in Las Vegas. He thought that if he didn't get financing in Spain, he would try to do it here.

Wow. That sounds interesting -- the 30s and 40s -- but I don't know about setting it in Las Vegas?

He found a big contrast with how people looked at things like sex during the 70 in Spain. It was all the time in Spain, like people were saying, Sex -- Oh my god! People were very tourist-oriented and usually the Spaniards -- Spanish men -- were not seen as kind of stupid or slow exactly but, in films, they would always end up going to bed with the Swedish woman. It was a very conservative approach to sex. Paulo wanted to portray a different idea of the 70s. Something very singular.

And he did! Even if he never makes another film, I think Torremolinos 73 puts him in the category with the world's top filmmakers -- and he has achieved that with just one film. Before I forget, where is La Rioja, your birthplace, located ?

It is just below the Basque country in the north of Spain. It has very little area. (Javier shows me the area on a map.)

But the place itself is not part of Basque country.


Above, from Chef's Special

OK: On to something else. As a gay man, I am interested in how you approach roles like this one in Chef's Special. You've done several now, but they have all been so very different. Let's talk about Malas Temporardas, which I love, and is being shown in this festival. In that film, it seems like you might not even be gay, yet you have had the long and terribly important love relationship with your mate in prison.

That role was something I had never seen portrayed in any film. When I first read the script, the writer/director Manuel Martín Cuenca said to me, "Do you understand this film? Do you know what this character is? Do you understand the story line?" I said, "Yes, I think so. It seems to me that this man is in love with another man. Yet both men are probably heterosexual. Yet now, that they are both out of prison, my character has found that he cannot be without the other man. And this disturbs him so much because he does not understand what is happening to him. He is in love but he cannot explain it. So the director told me that, yes, this is a love story, in which the character himself does not know he is in love. Or, he knows that he is in love, but he does not understand what is happening to him.

This is a very powerful film.

I liked to be able to tell this story that way.

Another nice thing about this, is that your character was just part of the large ensemble, so that your story was not any more important than anyone else's. This gives the film a wonderful kind of universality and richness.

When I read the script, and you understand that when an actor opens a script and he reads it and says, "Oh, this is such as beautiful role. And then of course, the director says, "Yes, but this is not your role. And then you say another role is so good, and this line or that one is so wonderful, and then he says, yes, but that is not your role, either. This is your role. You look at it, and think, Oh…. But with this role, I did absolutely understand it and loved it. And also the role of Benigno in Talk to Her. I loved that one so well, too.

Do you think that Benigno in that movie was a gay man?

I really have no idea. (He laughs).

Yes. Almodovar loves to change things or switch them around.

At the beginning, yes, he is a homosexual character but at the same time he does go to bed with the young woman played by Leonor Watling. I did not understand anything at all about this. I mean, can you explain to me why he is gay in his relationship with his mother, and other things. But yet… He still fucks with this girl?

It must be about the mysteries of love. And how these things can change us.

(The PR person interrupts us, signaling an end. But Javier says, "Oh, please, five more minutes!" So we continue...)

Let's talk about some of the things that were brought up during the press conference downstairs. First off, was Chef's Special actually titled Off the menu in its original language (Javier nods yes.) That is so much better a title than Chef's Special! (He laughs and nods again.)

So much better. I don't know why they change it. The idea is that you go to the menu and look, but then the chef comes to your table and says I also have these items, which are off the menu. Better title, yes? Makes sense of the movie.

It is much better. It wouldn't have improved the movie, but at least it made some sense. (Javier laughs again.)

American people are so funny.

Well, we babble a lot and say what's on our mind and let the shit hit the fan.

Spanish people, we keep things inside and think about them a lot before we say them. We think about everything first so it won't be misconstrued. We're shy and all that…

Well the press conference downstairs wasn't like that. Everyone pretty much opened up and shared their ideas and thoughts…

Yes, and I feel this way when we are with American and the French. I think because the French and the Americans love the Spanish cinema. But not so much with other countries. But it does scare us sometimes when you Americans are so plain and clear! I loved it when you opened the conversation with "Oh, boy what a terrible picture that was!" I love that!
(He's referring to the moments before we started recording this conversation.)

That's true, but remember that I did open our conversation with how much I love your work. And I do. Only then did I say what I thought about the movie! I wouldn't have wanted to interview you if I didn't love you work. One more question: About the conversation downstairs in which all the Spaniards agreed that the Spanish must learn to sell their movies better. I was just talking to the two young genre directors Gutiérrez and Vigalonda and they felt that way, too. And they also felt the same about the question of Spanish guilt.

I think some of what we were saying there has to do with our religion. We are entirely a Catholic country, where in other countries there is a mix of the Catholic and Protestant, which makes the relationship with religion much healthier. Relgion and the Church has been an overwhelming part of Spanish life, and so the culpability and that feeling of guilt is very common. I mean, we need not to worry so much. Life is complicated, yes, but try to enjoy it! But now, as to the selling of the films, I think we have at last learned that we must know better how to sell our product, as well as other technical things that we must do: To put a good posture on the publicity. We have the talent. Now we must concern ourselves with other issues. America is really the best at marketing! Of course, you also have the budget, too. With just what was recently spent on the advertising budget of the new Tom Cruise film Valkyrie, you could shoot three whole films in Spain!

Yes, and for what Hollywood spends on making movies and marketing them you could feed how many third-world countries for a year?!

In Spain, an industry like yours does not exist. But we are beginning to create something like this now. We are beginning to believe in ourselves. At last. Because we are the descendants of generations of moviemakers, after all!

And on that note, we are given the high sign to end the conversation.


dhvibe said...

To be honest I don't think you like the genre that "Chef's Special" is in. Its a fun little movie. Naturally it will not compare to his greater work like "Talk to Her" but Camara's energy is boundless. So I think you are all wrong about this film. It is important as a contribution to gay cinema. The more rolls gay actors can play in mainstream cinema the better. Of course Javier Camara can play anything. I have watched him in terrible sit-coms to serious drama and he is always fresh and exciting to watch.

James van Maanen, said...

Hey, dhvibe--
I DO like that genre -- a lot! But I think Chef's Special is a crappy example of same. Clearly, you do not, and so, to each his own.

But, as you say, you have watched Javier Camara in terrible sitcoms (for me, Chef's Special is one of these), and indeed he CAN play anything.

The movie simply seemed to grab every cliche in the book and run with them, rather than offering anything remotely new and different. And so many of the performers seemed over-the-top -- in the manner that many TV directors seem to push for.

Have you ever seen the Spanish film I LOVE YOU BABY? For me, this provides all the things that Chef's Special does not: It's exploratory but fun and takes you places that are different and challenging. See if you can find that one (Netflix has it) or, even better, see KM.O (this one's fucking brilliant -- and also from Spain!) Try these and then come back here and let me know what you thought of 'em.