When Pablo Larraín started out, he arrived at the Berlinale in 2008 with extracts from his second feature, “Tony Manero,” starring Chilean actor, playwright and theater director Alfredo Castro as an off-the-rails, impoverished, over-the-hill imitator of John Travolta’s character in “Saturday Night Fever.”
A symbol of cultural alienation, Castro’s character practices his disco moves as Augusto Pinochet’s tanks rumble through the streets of Santiago de Chile, clamping down on any opposition.
For the next near decade from that breakthrough through to 2015’s “The Club,” Larraín’s passport to English-language filmmaking – Natalie Portman watched it, accepted “Jackie” – the filmmaker pinned his colors to Castro’s mast, casting him in leading role in “Post Mortem,” and a co-star in “No” and “The Club.”
As an actor, Castro’s transformative powers are evident, from his turn as a coroner’s assistant in “Post Mortem” to Gael Garcia Bernal’s casual chic ad agency boss in “No” to a pederast priest in “The Club,” still justifying his predations.
Star of Venice Golden Lion winner “From Afar,” Castro brings a sense of empathy and humanity to characters sometimes beyond the normal social pale. He is looking to do that again playing the lead role in “My Tender Matador,” among Chile’s biggest upcoming movies and a big-screen adaptation of the only novel of Pedro Lemebel, maybe the most politically transgressive writer to who emerged in the last years Pinochet’s Chile.
In the movie, set in 1986, Castro plays La Loca del Frente, The Queen of the Corner, an aging, lonely, loquacious, physically squalid cross-dresser who lives in a shanty barrio of Santiago, and falls in love with a member of the armed resistance.
Castro’s metamorphosis in the novel is large and multi-faceted as the Queen of the Corner rings the option on multiple roles, a self-fashioned martyr of love. As La Loca says in the movie’s first trailer, dropped last Friday by lead producer Forestero, “I don’t have friends, darlings, I have lovers.”
Castro talked to Variety on the eve of Cannes, where “My Tender Matador” was presented at a Marché Producer’s Network event on Monday.
Could you talk a bit about the importance of Lemebel in a political and cultural context?
In my life on the Chilean stage he is so fundamental. Not only does he stand up as a key gay, disruptive figure, but in the ‘80s he filled the role of a politician as a participatory, critical and subversive political entity, like his writing continues to do today. Sometimes he’s seen only through his “party” persona, but Lemebel was a man who suffered persecution and discrimination yet managed to subvert that with his creativity and impose his point of view through writing. He inserted himself into the Chilean political movement of the ‘80s, conscious not to reduce himself to just his sexuality.
How did you come to this role?
15 years ago, or more, I don’t remember, Pedro found me in a bar in Santiago to tell me in person that he wanted me to play the role of “la loca de el frente,” and that there was no one else he wanted. That was big because it’s not like he and I were friends. We’d crossed paths, but we weren’t close. I think it’s important to point out that my character is not Pedro. The book has autobiographical parts, but the book is not Pedro, and Pedro is not the book.
You’ve played many difficult roles before. Was this one particularly challenging?
It was extremely difficult because the frontier between reality and fiction was delicate. I had a long conversation with a close friend of Pedro’s, and I asked him if I should speak as though I were imitating a woman, and if I should use rude or foul speech. He said Pedro wouldn’t have tolerated that because he was very cultured, refined, and the novel doesn’t use that kind of language. Also, many people assume “La Loca del Frente” is Pedro, but that’s not the case. In the book she’s a thin, all bones woman with very little, badly died hair who is missing teeth. That’s not Pedro. So I asked them to die my hair, to ruin it, and I spent six weeks as this woman.
Someone once said that all movies can be summed up in a sentence. What would that be for this film?
There are two. The first is from the film and the book, “I don’t have friends, darlings, I have lovers,” and the other says so much about Pedro, “When there’s a revolution that includes gays, let me know and I’ll be the first one there.” It says so much about how alone he was in his fight at that time and his inability to ever find a great love. The social movements of today towards greater inclusion, Pedro anticipated this through his radicality which he focused politically and lovingly, but he was often alone in his fight. Thankfully, today there is a chance for Pedro’s dream of an inclusive revolution.