For every star, there’s a turning point that takes an up’n’comer from “Who’s that?” to bona fide breakthrough.
For Edgar Ramirez, that moment is now.
By now you’re probably familiar with Edgar Ramirez’s face, the Venezuelan-born actor has been in over a dozen hit movies in the last decade. From his American debut in Domino opposite Keira Knightley, to his headlining role in Point Break, along with his stand out roles in Bourne Ultimatum, Wrath of the Titans, Zero Dark Thirty, Joy, Girl on the Train and Hands of Stone. The former journalist turned UNICEF Global Goodwill Ambassador and Golden Globe nominated actor currently stars alongside Matthew McConaughey in the movie Gold. The 39-year-old actor’s reign is rapidly gaining much-deserved momentum.
We discuss what Ramirez thinks about the impact of the current political climate in America, artifice in art, role-playing, and the human condition.
ROGUE: The other day at the shoot, we were talking about change. A lot is changing right now all around the world, how does change affect you?
ER: The thing is that change hurts, it can be frightening, but it's inevitable. That’s the only permanent thing in life: change. Things are going to change always, constantly… whether you like it or not things are going to change. I was very exposed to that as a kid. So, for me change was a normal thing. I'm not saying that even in this day and age it doesn’t hurt, sometimes it does. Because the older you get, the more attached you get to certain things. I hate when people say that when you're getting older, you're getting conservative. It’s not that you're getting conservative, it’s that you know already what you're going to lose. So you want to hold on to the things that work for you. But, the reality is that some of them may stay, some of them may just go away, because you are changing as well.
Yeah, nothing stays the same.
ER: Not only are people always changing, but the environment is changing. It's like surfing, everything's moving at the same time. You're moving and the wave is moving and nothing is inert. Surfing is a great metaphor; you will never catch the same wave, ever. You will never have the same feeling, you will never have the same experiences twice. So I try to find a surprising element in things. If you don’t cease to be surprised by things, that’s what keeps you excited and motivated.
What motivates you most as an artist?
ER: I think that art is a profound thing. Performing arts specifically. I'm fascinated by the human condition...human nature for better or worse, with all its light and darkness. Acting has given me the chance to come to terms with the ambiguity and the dirtiness of life. The contradictions. Life is filled with contradictions and they hurt, they're violent contradictions. And we all have them. Since it’s hard to deal with contradictions for everyone I think that my craft as an actor, allows me to come to terms with that--to feel less pain about the contradictions of the world. Because when you go deep into these characters and their contradictions, they're far away from yours. They expand your understanding and your compassion and how to be honest about being compassionate and it's an exercise; it’s a discipline everyday in order to not see into or give into the darkness.
How do you keep from giving in to the dark moments?
ER: It's about renouncing, it's about giving up your own prejudices, your own contradictions, your own fears and your sense of self and everything that you have, in order to be infused by those from somebody else. When you do that, when you open up to that, when you put yourself on the service of that experience, it changes you. I've never been the same after I’ve played a character, never. I don’t want to be. I want to change, I want the patina, I want the stain, I want the layers. Something changes in you because you have to open up, you have to become one and … I wouldn’t put it in binary terms like you're better… you're just different. You understand more. It’s not necessarily that you understand better, but you understand more about what the human condition is. That’s the reason why I act and that's the reason why I was a journalist and the reason why I wanted to be a sociologist and an anthropologist and a feminist. I want to understand.
What made you see that you could understand humans by acting them out?
ER: I was always very attracted to the world of performing arts. I love cinema & I love fear because they're mirrors. Art in general architecture as well. Fashion even. If somebody takes a picture of us here right now and we look at the same picture 50 years from now, just by the way that we're dressed people will know. People will get hints of what our life was like. Of what our aspirations were, our frustrations.
How will they know our frustrations?
ER: Who knows exactly. That’s the thing, who knows in the end? The analysis of the human phenomenon comes from speculation, we can't really know it now, while we’re in it. We need distance.
Why do you think we need distance from human experiences to understand it better?
ER: Because we're not attached to it. When you’re not attached, you don't have a conflict of interest. When you have distance, you can view things differently. If you are really close to something you can’t be objective, because it might hurt. Then you put the distance and you might use [that experience] as a defense mechanism and decide to be cynical about it because you just don’t want to be attached to it. You’re entitled to your own fears but the reality of it is, what if your fear is bigger than your curiosity to find out?
What drew you to the movie GOLD?
ER: The story immediately captivated me. It’s a movie about loyalty about trust, about trusting somebody else’s word and that to me is great. I think it's very relevant. I think my word is all I have, if I break my word then, how would I be happy with the image the mirror reflects? Gold is a metaphor for everything that has value for you. So gold in this movie is all about self worth, self respect--prove them wrong, stick it to the man. It's about being respected by finding gold. It’s about two guys that come from very different worlds that are united, they understand each other, they bond over the need for vindication, they want to prove something. They've been underestimated & disrespected so it’s not about money, finding gold means being respected. As Matthew [McConaughey] says, they’re at the back door of the american dream, they look at the american dream from the windows, not even close to the door. But they try everyday to achieve that dream and they finally got it.
Gold drives your character in the movie, so what drives you as an artist? Why is acting important to you and what does it illicit?
ER: To establish empathy. I think the performance of acting is an act of empathy to understand others. Acting has given me the opportunity to explore other people's realities whether that context is fictional or not. Whatever happens there is real and it goes to my neurotransmitters, my real emotions, so it's real. The only thing that is fictional is the context, but whatever happens in the scene, for me, it’s real. It's like with kids, kids don't lie, they fantasize, that's different than lying. Whenever people, especially journalists at the beginning of my career, say "so you must be good at lying, you're an actor, you're good liars", I don't get offended, I just feel like it's a misconception. Because it's the opposite of that. The fact that it's fictional doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. You're not lying, you're telling the truth, the circumstances are fictional but whatever happens within that context is real. So that has given me the opportunity to understand and expand my knowledge and basically my understanding of the other, the "otherness" the one that is on the other side. The one who thinks, feels and lives differently from me. I think that in the end what we do is an exploration of human nature but from different points of views, different methods, different methodologies.
So what then would be your criteria for role selection?
ER: I need to be personally related to the material, something needs to excite me.
Let’s talk about working on your upcoming film, BRIGHT. What excited you about it?
ER: I think that it is an amazing metaphor of the times that we live in. Life is symbolic. Cinema is one of the most vivid and vibrant expressions of symbolism because you have two hours to atomize reality, a whole world in a few hours. In the movie, I play an elf. I'm the ruling class, the one percent of the population. It's an amazing metaphor of the racial, social tension and the collapse of institutions and the cracks in the system and the lack of trust. Trust has been broken, not only here, but everywhere. You're living it this generation, you feel the world is cracking and crumbling. I've been through that the last 18 years in my country and it's happening all over the world, it's a trend. There is a collapse of trust.
Yeah, now more than ever. Especially in America, which was one of the few facades left standing but now the cracks in its foundation are showing...
ER: Yeah The United States... the beacon of institutional power...of democracy. Democracy is based on institution. Institution are non partisan that plants equality before the law, these are confusing and scary times, but I think the only way for us to push back the division and the hate is by empathy. There is a disconnect between what we live, the realities that we live here in the coast and what the people in the middle of the country live.
There was such a lack of transparency that is now being exposed.
ER: Coming from a country torn apart by bigotry and fanaticism, a country that is so polarized like Venezuela, I'm telling you that hate is artificial, it comes from the distance. From a distance, it seems like people from opposing sides really want to kill each other, but if you put them together in a room with a couple of beers, they will start to find common ground. I think it's more of a disconnect that is amplified in a way--manufactured and manipulated. It's not just our leader’s responsibility to push back against this hate and this division, it's our individual responsibility. Our ability and our openness to listen to the other. To listen to someone’s else’s suffering as much as as our own.
The point of politicians is not just to keep the infrastructure there but to be a representative for the voice of the people and the problem is they haven't been that for a long time. They're suppose to unite and bridge gaps but instead they've created bigger gaps.
ER: They have their own agendas. I feel a lot of respect for this country, I love this country, this country has given me many opportunities, it has given the opportunity to fulfill my dreams so I'm not cynical about America at all. It’s so easy to hate or to be cynical, but I just think of all the amazing people, the amazing minds I've met here. I think that there is a very profound disconnect between the people. We need to build bridges for people because one vision is not going to win over the other. We have to agree to disagree, and the beauty of this system of American democracy is the ability to come together, the social tissue of this country has always been very strong, as strong as the institutions that built it, but it can be completely destroyed.
Many people are afraid that institution is crumbling right now…
ER: The country is fanatic right now but again it goes down, it’s a fever. I'm telling you from experience I've seen it all before. I've seen this before like dinner table with friends being completely heated by conversations with politics, people who are not very cautious about talking about politics so that it doesn't affect another one or that a riot doesn't start. People screaming in airplanes, getting slammed or attacked at rallies, people getting spit on at supermarkets, discussions in elevators. I've seen all of that in Venezuela. Its an opportunity to grow and to really pay attention. To pay attention and get involved and think that politics has nothing to do with me whatever happens with politicians in Washington is not going to affect me. It is affecting you right now.
Systematically, there’s been an environment created in America that’s quite insidious and gradual, a subliminal message that you can't make a difference, you can't unite, your voice doesn't mean anything, the gradual dumbing down of society as a whole. It’s incredible the amount of distractions we are given so the focus is deflected.
ER: It's smoke and mirrors. For control, to make people complacent. I think a very dangerous thing to do is to consider that everyone on the other side is radical. We need to learn how to coexist. Disqualifying another for having a different view, religious belief or sexual preference, reducing one another, diminishing one another, insulting one another, it’s dangerous. It's very dangerous normalize that behavior because that’s what [occurred] in Germany during the holocaust. Those dark passages of humanity's history started with words before they turn into actions. Politics can become about manipulating and controlling people when it [should be] about reaching consensus. Once you get into power, the trap of politics is that you want to change the world.
In terms of pushing your own agenda?
ER: Yeah, sometimes you have a real agenda to really change the world. I believe that there is a small percentage who really want to change the world but when you get in power you make so many compromises and there’s so many people that you need to please. Once you get into power there are so many trying to get you out of power. So if you spend 20 hrs of the day fighting battles, when do you have time to change the world?
Do you feel responsibility culturally speaking to represent your background and where you come from?
ER: Not necessarily, I don't see it as a responsibility, although I love politics and am politically aware, I don't take on roles for political reasons. If I were to assume a cultural responsibility about representing my background in my roles and in my movies that would be an acceptable political agenda. My culture is represented by the work that I do. I’m at the service of my characters and not the other way around. I don't take on roles because I want certain things or ideologies to be represented by those characters, I do it out of very personal and artistic reasons. I am I'm very proud of being Venezuelan, I don't shy away from it. In many of my movies, my directors, my writers have chosen to include my cultural heritage in the background and I'm super happy to do it. I feel happy, I feel proud, I feel grateful and privileged to have the opportunity that I have.
How does it feel being someone from another country, knowing the odds against you, and succeeding so well in America, how does that feel?
ER: Despite any obstacles--the things that I've learned, that I've seen--my own history as a human being has infused my art and my craft with a certain uniqueness, because I started my career like a train looking ahead, always looking at glass the half full, not half empty. I've never seen [my background] as a limitation. I remember once a journalist asked me, "are you afraid of being pigeonholed as always playing latino characters?" But there’s no stereotype when I play a role, I have no nationality. If the character is three dimensional and has layers and contradictions then it’s not about nationality or ethnicity or sexual orientation, it’s about the nature of the character. So I've never seen my ethnicity as a limitation, disadvantage or a stereotype.