In the historical drama Libertador, Venezuelan actor Édgar Ramírez (Zero Dark Thirty, Carlos) portrays Simón Bolívar, a military and political leader who played a key role in Latin America earning their independence from the Spanish Empire during the early 19th century. The film was recently named by Venezuela as their submission to the 87th Annual Academy Awards for a potential nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category.
During an interview with Ramírez, I talked to him about the importance of Bolívar’s history to the country of Venezuela and whether he is naturally attracted to these types of iconic roles. We also discussed issues facing Venezuela today, working with Oscar-winning actor Robert de Niro in an upcoming film and whether he thinks Latino audiences in the United States will respond to a film featuring a historical character they may not know.
I’m assuming you knew quite a bit about Simón Bolívar before coming on board for this project since he is such an iconic historical figure in Venezuela, right?
Yeah, Bolívar’s legacy is part of our collective imaginary in Latin America, especially in Venezuela. There are paintings of Bolívar everywhere. I was a huge admirer of Bolívar’s legacy. I think he was a very interesting combination of a strong and clever military strategist and also a very thoughtful and smart man of the state. He was also a philosopher. That combination is very rare. Bolívar embodies all those aspects. He was a brilliant mind in the body of a magnificent warrior. For an actor, that was a treat to play.
Did the fact that your father was in the military make you even more interested in taking on this role?
You look for characters that confront you and cannot be easily defined.
My father being in the military helped me to feel more familiarized with the military world. It was a huge part of Bolívar’s life. But what attracted me to the role the most was the script that [screenwriter] Timothy Sexton put together and how he was able to include all of Bolívar’s complexities as a character. It’s hard to give a character this many layers in a movie – give an essence to someone who has a myth and can be seen all over Venezuela in statues and paintings. You don’t normally get that from historic figures of this size.
It seems like you gravitate to these bigger-than-life roles. In the past you’ve portrayed Venezuelan terrorist Carlos the Jackal. In one of your next films, you’ll be portraying legendary professional boxer Roberto Durán.
You know, I’ve been very lucky these characters have come my way. I haven’t really consciously thought about it, maybe subconsciously, but I’m not sure. I haven’t figured out if it’s us as actors who chase these characters, or if it’s the characters that find us. But I have been very lucky to have the opportunity to portray characters that are larger than life and characters that are always put under the lens. That’s what you look for – for characters that confront you and cannot be easily defined. You look for the contradiction in characters – those characters that are not in black and white.
Is it important for you at this stage of your career and with the success you’ve had in American films like Zero Dark Thirty to go back to your home country and tell stories about your own history?
It’s a huge privilege to get to work on different types of movies in different countries and territories. That’s always been a dream of mine. I just wrapped Hands of Stone, the film about Panamanian boxer Robert Durán, in Panama. Now I’m on a worldwide shoot for a remake of [the 1991 movie] Point Break. It’s a totally different type of environment with a totally different type of cinematography. I’m very grateful I have the opportunity to go back and forth to different cultures and different ways of filmmaking.
We need all voices to be heard. That is the source of a peaceful future.
How active of an interest do you take in Venezuelan politics today? Is there a specific issue in all the political unrest the country is currently facing that you feel needs to take priority?
I think the main priority in Venezuela needs to be that both sides of the conflict can find a common ground to allow a conversation. We need all voices to be heard. That is the source of a peaceful future. The country is divided and if we don’t come together, it’s going to be very hard to solve any issues that are hurting our country right now – from economic difficulties to violence to political conflict. The more divided our society is, the more difficult it is to move forward as a nation. I hope this movie about Bolívar can serve as an instrument of change for a country so deeply divided. I hope this movie can bring people together.
Back in June, comedian and critic of the Venezuelan government Luis Chataing’s show ChataingTV, which is popular in Venezuela, was cancelled. Many people are saying it’s because he used the show to ridicule Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Do you think the cancellation of his show was politically motivated?
It’s definitely a tragedy that he is off the air. As I said before, every point of view must be heard. We need his voice. I have a lot of respect for Luis and his integrity and his consistency as a communicator. It sends a very bad message that he is off the air because we need those voices for the conversation that we desperately need to have.
Do you think Latino audiences in the U.S. will respond to a film about Bolívar, an important historical figure, yes, but not one I’m guessing a majority of mainstream audiences would know much about? I mean, Latinos got a film about someone who is historically significant to them in Cesar Chavez earlier this year, yet they didn’t support it at the box office.
I hope audiences can connect to the spirit of freedom that the story of Bolívar conveys.
You never know. I hope the people can connect to the universal message of this movie. It’s very difficult to predict how audiences will receive a specific movie, but I hope they can connect to the spirit of freedom and independence that the story of Bolívar conveys. I think this movie can bring people to reflect on the importance of long-term decisions that will take us into the future.
It must’ve felt pretty surreal to be the set of your upcoming boxing movie Hands of Stone working with actor Robert De Niro, who many know from his own iconic boxing movie Raging Bull.
Definitely! Working with someone like Robert is not a minor thing. I mean, I had Raging Bull himself in my corner! It was a dream come true. I was pinching myself every time I was on the set with him. I was on the receiving end of his generosity as a human being and as an actor. Having the actor who starred in the most legendary boxing movie in history next to me was incredible. I never take any of that for granted.
Libertador opens in theaters across the country on October 3, 2014.