PANAMA CITY — Venezuelan-born actor Edgar Ramirez (“Joy,” “Carlos”) spoke to Variety at IFF Panama about his role as Panamanian boxer, Roberto Duran, in Jonathan Jakubowicz’s soon to be released “Hands of Stone,” also starring Robert de Niro, as his trainer, Usher as Sugar Ray Leonard, and Ellen Barkin, Ana de Armas, and Panamanian cult salsa singer, Ruben Blades.
Ramirez says that it was an honor to play Duran, who was nicknamed “Hands of Stone” because his hard hits led him to 103 wins in 119 fights. He considers Duran to be the greatest-ever Latin American boxer and one of the top ten all-time greats.
The pic is produced by Jay Weisleder, Carlos Garcia de Paredes, Claudine Jakubowicz and Jakubowicz of La Piedra Films and the executive producers include Ben Silverman, Max Keller, George Edee, Ricardo del Rio and Roberto Duran’s son, Robin Duran.
Robert de Niro championed the film for a long time, even before becoming involved as an actor in the pic. Ramirez says that he worked with helmer Jonathan Jakubowicz right from the beginning of the project and helped put the different partners together.
The Panamanian government put up significant funding for the pic, which lensed for four months in Panama in 2014, as well as a one-week shoot in New York. The production involved 15,000 Panamanian extras.
The pic is primarily Spanish-language with some English.
At Cannes in 2015, The Weinstein Company outbid Relativity to secure U.S. distribution rights, with a commitment to release on 2,000 screens. According to Ramirez, the pic will bow on 2,600 screens on August 26, which he says will make it the biggest ever U.S. opening for a Latin American film.
“I think it’s a great movie,” says Ramirez. “It not only tells the tale of a legendary Latin American boxer, it also tells the story of a man who became a hero in his country and his region. Panama has somehow always been a country under foreign control, so there’s always been a question of identity. Roberto Duran in many moments, including in some of the most difficult moments in the country’s history, has served as an instrument of unification and celebration of the pride of the country, and that’s is very beautiful.”
Jakubowicz and Ramirez are long-time friends from Venezuela and are planning a further collaboration on a pic to be released in 2017, but cannot disclose details at present.
Ramirez considers that it’s a particularly interesting moment for Latin American cinema but identifies distribution problems as one of the main factors holding back cinema from the region. At the Panama Festival, he bemoaned the fact that it’s often easier to catch a Latin American film in New York, London or Paris than in Mexico City, São Paolo or Buenos Aires.
He says that he was delighted to portray a Latin American hero whom he says is also a “good man” – an example to others.
“Latin American characters portrayed in films are often the bad guys. It’s very important to also show role models, that can help Panamanians and Latin Americans feel pride. Many countries in Latin America, including Panama, suffer from an identity crisis, in part due to their dependence in the past on foreign nations. Icons such as Roberto Duran can bring people together and make them feel proud of their heritage.”
Ramirez says that he loved filming in Panama and feels that it’s his second home. He visits the country whenever he can and says he especially likes the friendliness of the people and the sense of joy.
Having worked in films made in France, Latin America and the U.S., Ramirez believes that there are tremendous opportunities for Latin American filmmakers at present, notwithstanding the numerous obstacles.
“We are nothing but diversity in this continent – across North America, Central America and South America. This is the New World – because people from all over the world were welcomed here. And the stories on both sides of the continent are the product of our contradictions. The Americas, as a continent, has always been a place of hope, of renewing things, the hope of change for a better life, the place of new ideas. There’s always the possibility of creating new things in the Americas. In Latin America, this is even truer because of our contradictions. We have to capitalize on that heritage.”
Ramirez considers that one of the greatest problems facing Latin America is the gulf between the super rich and super poor, but that such problems are not unique to this part of the world – quipping that “L.A. is the perfect example of the problems found in the Third World, one only has to travel along the full length of Sunset Boulevard and you’ll find a tremendous spectrum of social privilege along a single street.
“That somehow unifies us as well,” he went on. “Cinema comes as a way to deal with these social and economic contradictions.”
One of the main problems for Latin America in his opinion is the legacy of colonial rule, via which Spain made sure that no individual Latin American country was stronger than it was. He believes that this fragmented mentality persists and is one of the main obstacles to creating a stronger Latin American cinema.
“Cinema can play an important role in building bridges,” he says. “Through films we can understand our neighbors.”
He believes that to build a stronger Latin American cinema will require leaps of faith at many levels, for distributors who will bet on the films and for directors who need to believe in their productions. “We cannot blame Hollywood for everything. There are a lot of local distributors who also need to take a leap of faith.”