When Alfonso Cuarón began casting the role of Cleo, a domestic worker closely based on Liboria “Libo” Rodríguez, who raised him from the time he was 9 months old, the director embarked on an exhaustive search throughout Mexico. He eventually found the woman to play Cleo — 24-year-old schoolteacher Yalitza Aparicio — in the southern town of Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca, the same state where Rodríguez grew up. It was the first film for Aparicio, who spoke to Variety about getting the chance to star in a movie and accompany it all over the world.
Did you ever give any thought to being an actress before “Roma”?
No. I never imagined being a part of a project like this.
What was your first reaction when Alfonso Cuarón told you he wanted you to star in his film?
There were mixed feelings. I couldn’t believe it. After every screen test, my family would ask how it went, but I would just say that I didn’t know. At least I could visit more places with my mom.
Was it strange at all, knowing you would be portraying someone, or a version of someone, who was so close to him personally?
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To be honest, it was. The fact that he knew Libo so well made me nervous. I didn’t know if I could give life to the character the way he imagined.
Did you relate to the character at all?
Yes, in a way, because of her background and how she managed to keep going despite adversity.
Did she remind you of anyone in your life?
She reminded me of my mom. When Alfonso told me about Libo’s past and how she was part of his family, I remembered my mom’s job and how the children that she took care of value her.
What was the most difficult thing about acting?
Re-creating the scene at the beach. Because I don’t know how to swim and looking out at the ocean’s vastness scared me.
How did Alfonso make things easier for you?
The trust that he had in me since I met him, and the fact that he shot the film in sequence, helped me imagine that this was my life, which surprised me day by day.
What was the easiest thing about acting?
The interaction with the children — because it was something familiar. As was making jokes with Adela [played by Nancy García García], because that’s how we get along.
You’ve traveled a lot with the film. What’s that been like for you?
It’s like a dream that came true without me realizing it. I remember it was something I had wished for — traveling to different parts of the world — and it fills me with joy that through the film I can go to magnificent places. [In the past] I only went on school trips, to states close to Oaxaca.
“It’s like a dream that came true without me realizing it.”
What has been the most interesting thing to you about how audiences have responded to the film in these different cities and countries?
The fact that despite the film being so personal for Alfonso, and that it touches on the different problems here in Mexico, people from different countries identify with the story so much that it touches their hearts.
What do your friends and family think about all of this, seeing you in this big movie?
They feel really happy and proud about me living this experience, and they’re really excited to watch the film.
Do you want to continue acting?
Yes, if possible, even though I feel a little scared because I’d guess that every movie is different. And of course I would need to take acting classes.