You’ve never seen a boxing movie quite like Sambá. Set in the Dominican Republic, the Israel Cárdenas and Laura Amelia Guzmán-directed film follows Francisco “Cisco” Castillo (Algenis Pérez Soto) as he returns to the DR after 15 years in a US prison. Since he can’t find much work given his criminal record, he puts to good use the fighting skills (and the muscles) he gained while he was locked up. He begins to take part in organized street fights for cash. Eventually, he catches the eye of Nichi, a former Italian boxer played by Sambá‘s screenwriter Ettore D’Alessandro who decides to train him and give him a chance to make a name for himself as a boxer.
With fighting scenes set to merengue, training montages that use bachata dancing as a template, and a female head of a boxing ring (Orange is the New Black’s Laura Gómez as Luna) Sambá is not your run of the mill boxing flick. For Gómez, it’s a movie about the human condition—“an existential boxing film,” she calls it.
Remezcla caught up with Gómez to talk about Sambá, how she collaborated with writers and directors to embolden her character, and of course, what we can expect from the upcoming season of Orange is the New Black. Check out some highlights from our chat below.
Sambá screened as part of the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.
On How She Landed the Role of Luna
I was in the Dominican Republic involved in another project that, unfortunately because of logistics, I couldn’t do. Just days before I was about to leave I got a phone call from Laura Amelia, who I didn’t know personally. We knew each other because we have sort of, friends in common. I’m a big fan of their work, so when my father was like “It’s Laura Amelia on the phone” I was like, “What?” Maybe there was a Facebook message first and then she called me and said, “Look, I’m casting this film that my husband and I are directing. We’ve heard of you and we’ve seen a couple of photos of you that I’m impressed with and I’d like to come by just to talk.” I was leaving just two days later so immediately we had a meeting. I met the producer and writer, Ettore. It was all very organic—we had a little rehearsal. They said they’d let me know and that same night they said they wanted me in the film. I had a great chemistry with Ettore. It was an audition but in a very informal way. It just happened! It’s one of those things that was meant to be. I always remember that fondly because it was in a matter of 48 hours that all of that happened.
I was so looking forward to making a film in the Dominican Republic after being gone for so long. I mean, I go there every year because my family lives there, but I haven’t done anything professionally. This was like a little gift from life. The script changed a lot. It evolved. Which is another one of the things that I loved about our collaboration. The heart of the film was always there. It was kind of a exploration of the human condition. Boxing is almost like the background. It’s really about the concepts of human interactions. And I think that is what’s so successful about the film, and about Latin American cinema in general. The main concern while I was reading it was, “Oh, I hope it doesn’t read like an imitation of Hollywood.” I knew their work so I knew that was not gonna be the case. And from the get-go that it wasn’t gonna be that.
On Making a Non-Hollywood Boxing Film
Their films are really, what’s the word in English for “contemplativo”? Like you contemplate the film. It’s not something you rush through. That’s another thing that makes it so different, so sensual. Because the scenes happen through the interactions of the characters and you live through them. I think that’s what also makes it stand out. Its rhythm. It’s very different than your regular boxing film, which is usually very rushed, and it’s all about the punches. But this is all about the contemplation of that.
Talk about another thing that makes it not-Hollywood: the time! We shot, I think, for like 24 days. It was a very tight schedule. But they did a lot of work in pre-production to have everything prepared. Because you can imagine those fights – just how you have to orchestrate and choreograph that. It was a lot of work for the team involved. And the way that Laura and Israel work is very… they take their time. You can see it on the screen. It’s not something that’s rushed. So I have no idea how we did that in such a short window of time.
On Developing a More Complex Character Than Just “The Girlfriend”
Originally the idea of working with [Laura and Israel] was the first thing that hooked me. But when you’re looking for something, or when you’re trying to build a specific career – I knew I wanted to work in the Dominican Republic and Latin America in general, but I’ve been very patient with that process because I know what I want to build when it comes to the characters I want to play. Especially over there. Here, sometimes you don’t have much of a choice even though I’ve been very lucky with the characters I’ve gotten to play. But I’m always looking for female characters that are not cliché or stereotypes. I knew there was potential with this character. Though, originally she was not this developed. She was someone’s girlfriend! Of the guy who owned the gym. So that was my first comment. And they were so open, including Ettore who knew that the draft he had was going to change and move in other directions. They were also especially open to Laura and I – we were very clear that this character needed to change in many ways. And then it just happened, and started to take shape. So all of a sudden the boyfriend is no longer in the picture, and I told them, “I’m starting to feel very comfortable about this!” This female character among this male world was so necessary. It kind of levels the field. It’s this unapologetic individual who owns her power, owns her sexuality. She doesn’t need anybody’s permission to be. But also, it’s kind of the opposite—they need her permission! I love how this defies many rules.
On Shying Away From Playing Clichéd Female Roles
“The work has to challenge me. It has to bring something to the table and allow me to grow both as a person and as an actor. I can’t be ‘someone’s girlfriend.’”
I was doing theater and things that I found very interesting and fun. But sometimes when you’re an actor, you don’t have much choice when you’re trying to get somewhere. You just have to go with the flow. So when I started writing and directing a few shorts, it was about opening up opportunities for myself. If things were not gonna happen for me, I’m gonna create them! From the get-go I knew that I had this urge to write strong female characters. That’s always been inside me. But, of course, I was writing the roles that I wanted to play. But then came Orange, and it was such a game-changer in so many ways. And opened many opportunities in my career. It’s such a great show and it has these amazing female characters and it kind of validated my journey. Like, okay, I am creating something here. So this is what I want to do when I go back to my roots and when I go to the Dominican Republic, or any other country in Latin America. But the work has to challenge me. It has to bring something to the table and allow me to grow both as a person and as an actor. I can’t be “someone’s girlfriend.” That’s what Hollywood’s for! I think that independent cinema is precisely for this other thing. To explore humanity and new avenues of making film. And that’s what I’m looking for.
Mary Louise Wilson, who played the old lady in my episode of Orange who’s like 83 and still working a lot. She said to me, I’m gonna go work but I’m not gonna be an old lady who’s always dying of Alzheimer’s. I want to be an old lady who’s robbing a bank! It’s the same for me. It’s like, if I’m gonna be someone’s girlfriend, it better be someone who kicks ass. There has to be a layer that makes it interesting.
On the Next Season of Orange is the New Black
I’m excited for everyone to see it. It’s gonna be a very interesting season. There’s not much I can say, but the writers always have a way to surprise us with unlikely relationships that you’re not expecting. Not relationships per se, but interactions where you’re like, “Where did that come from?” In the case of my character in season 4, I’m this revolutionary figure. We’re not gonna disappoint in the sense that we’re gonna keep exploring what’s happening in society. Season 4 was such a mirror of many things happening and season 5 kind of continues in that direction. They’re brilliant, our writers, in that sense.