Before there was Salma Hayek, a successful Latin American actress who crossed over from telenovelas to well-received English-language flicks and Hollywood projects, there was Sonia Braga. The Brazilian actress, who just turned 66 earlier this summer, got her start in theater, gravitating towards work that put sexuality at its center. It’s no surprise she was cast in the first-ever mounting of the 1960s rock musical Hair. Her beauty and sex appeal, which soap operas like Gabriela exploited, later turned her into a household name and eventually an international icon.
Braga’s sensuous appeal has made her endurance a laudable achievement in its own. While The New York Times, in reviewing her 1983 feature film adaptation of Gabriela, argued that “staying covered up is not one of her specialties,” Braga has proven that not only is there endless nuance and depth to her performances but that frank looks at sexuality need not have been left in her early career. To many, for example, she’s a household name thanks to her guest-starring stint on HBO’s Sex and the City, a show that seemed tailor-made to welcome a star of Braga’s wattage to further discuss “later in life” female sexuality.
Proving that she’s not slowing down, Braga can now be seen on screens both big (Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius) and small (she has a role in Marvel’s Luke Cage, now on Netflix.) And if you’re curious about where else to catch the legendary actress, we’ve compiled a handy primer on Braga’s most memorable roles, from raunchy Brazilian comedies to spy dramas and everything in between.
In her most recent big screen outing (which has seen its fair share of controversy in her homeland), Braga plays a retired music journalist who finds her vibrant daily life being threatened by a young businessman who hopes to tear down the apartment building where she lives and replace it with an expensive condo complex. But Dona Clara, in true Braga form, will not be so easily bought or dissuaded.
In this Jennifer Garner-led CIA spy drama, Braga played Elena Derevko. She is Sidney Bristow’s (Garner) aunt and a former KGB assassin, even more ruthless than her sister. As with every other character in this JJ Abrams-created show, Elena is involved in a plot much too complicated to summarize and one which depended on many shocking twists and turns, including secret identities and ties to Sidney’s half-sister Nadia Santos (played by Mía Maestro).
American Family (2002)
Created by Gregory Nava, this PBS series was the first broadcast television drama series featuring a predominantly Latino cast. In addition to Braga, who played the family’s matriarch, it starred Edward James Olmos, Esai Morales, and Raquel Welch. In the vein of Nava’s own The Family (1995), the show centers on a Mexican-American family trying to live out the coveted American Dream.
Sex and the City (2001)
Playing (if perhaps over-playing) the fiery Latina lover trope, Braga became one half of the show’s most indelible lesbian couple. As Maria Diega, a Brazilian artist living in Manhattan, she seduced Samantha (Kim Cattrall) who’d spent the better part of the show fucking around “like a man” (sleeping with men and avoiding getting attached) into a monogamous relationship. It ended, of course, disastrously and hilariously.
The Burning Season (1994)
Braga earned an Emmy award nomination for her work on this retelling of the story of Chico Mendes’ fight to protect the rainforest in his native Brazil. The biopic, produced by HBO, starred Raúl Juliá as Chico, and traced his activism in the 1980s until his murder in 1988 at the hands of a disgruntled ranchero.
The Rookie (1990)
Clint Eastwood’s The Rookie, which stars the director alongside a young Charlie Sheen, is perhaps best remembered as the movie where Sonia Braga rapes Eastwood — a scene that various critics thought exemplified the exploitative aspect of this distasteful buddy cop thriller. Alongside Raúl Juliá, who plays the film’s villainous criminal Strom, Braga got to play a ruthless woman in what was her very first attempt at an action film role.
Moon Over Parador (1988)
In this Hollywood comedy set in a fictional Latin American country (Parador), an actor working on a shoot (Richard Dreyfuss) finds himself playing the role of Paradorian president when his lookalike, the Pinochet-like dictator of the region dies of a heart attack. Braga plays Madonna, the president’s mistress, who along with everyone else in the country, is slowly won over by this new and improved president.
Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)
In this adaptation of Manuel Puig’s beloved novel by the same name, Braga plays the “Spider Woman” of the title, a muse of sorts for William Hurt’s Luis Molina, who daydreams about this larger than life actress while recounting a specific black and white movie she starred in and which Argentinean director Hector Babenco shows us in full glory.
Reuniting with her Dona Flor director and reprising a role she had already played in the long-running telenovela by the same name that had made her a star as well as a sex symbol, Braga starred in this adaptation of Jorge Amado’s novel Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon. Set in 1925, it tells the story of the romance between a young girl and the owner of a bar in a small town (played Marcello Mastroianni) that traces the retrograde sexual mores of the town and the time.
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (1976)
Perhaps her most famous role and the one that made her an international success, Bruno Barreto’s film Dona Flor e Seus Dois Maridos set the tone for the view of Braga as an actress willing to tell frank stories about sex and sexuality. In this comedy, we see Dona Flor’s two marriages: the first to a spendthrift man who sexually fulfilled her, and after his death, to a man who lavishes her with money but is appalling in bed. The twist of the film, and its comedic triumph, comes when her first husband reappears as a ghost to share her bed with him.