Text: Kee Chang
Following a string of fleeting roles in testosterone-fueled blockbusters including Tony Scott’s Domino, Paul Greengrass’ The Bourne Ultimatum, and Steven Soderbergh’s Che: Part 1, Édgar Ramírez is kicking his career into overdrive with the arrival of Olivier Assayas’ three-part miniseries “Carlos” in which he takes on the titular role of the enigmatic and equally dogmatic Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, also known as Carlos the Jackal. Clocking in at a leg-numbing five-and-a-half hours, it’s a thrilling and epic scale dramatization of the exploits of the globetrotting radical-Marxist terrorist who left a trail of shootings and bombings across Europe and the Middle East in the 70s and 80s—the most notorious involving a hostage crisis at the 1975 OPEC conference in Vienna.
Having screened out of competition at Cannes and more recently at the New York Film Festival, “Carlos” is now set to air on the Sundance Channel in three parts from October 11-13, and open in select cities in its full-length and theatrical versions beginning October 15. We highly urge you to check this one out!
Anthem had the great pleasure of sitting down with Ramírez to discuss his enviable upbringing, criminal-turned-celebrities, and our mutual fondness for Guillermo Arriaga.
You’re still fairly unknown over here in the States, yet you’ve already worked with some of Hollywood’s biggest directors.
I feel lucky and privileged to have worked with such amazing directors. They’re all geniuses and so talented. They’re real sweethearts as well. It’s very inspiring to work with creative people who aren’t afraid to challenge themselves and invite other people in to join that challenge and adventure.
How did you land the role of Choco in Tony Scott’s Domino, which, if I remember correctly, was your first role in an American film?
That’s right. They screened a Venezuelan film that I was in at a film festival in Los Angeles and the casting director of Domino happened to see me and presented me to Tony Scott.
That’s mighty impressive. I think that speaks volumes about your skills as an actor.
It was really flattering. I was really surprised by that because it was the first time the film screened outside of my country. That was actually my first film experience ever, which then led me to Domino.
Did you study acting?
No. I actually studied journalism and specialized in politics.
What were you planning on doing with that?
I wanted to live here in New York City and work at the United Nations! [Laughs] I wanted to be UN’s secretary general or something like that. That was sort of the dream I wanted to realize.
What made you switch gears and take this dramatic turn to acting?
It was Guillermo Arriaga. He saw me in a short film that I did sort of as a favor. My friend was looking for someone with my kind of physique for his short film. It turned out to be very successful. Guillermo told me, ‘I didn’t know you were an actor!’ and I told him, ‘I didn’t know either!’ [Laughs] I’d be lying if I told you that I dreamed about becoming an actor as a kid. However, I wasn’t indifferent to the world of the performing arts, I was always very attracted to it. I just never thought about it as a career.
I had the great pleasure of meeting Guillermo last year when he was promoting The Burning Plain in Los Angeles. He’s an incredibly warm and gentle man. He has an amazing spirit.
Absolutely. He’s one of the most original storytellers in the world right now.
Do you guys still stay in touch?
We recently spent a weekend together in Paris for a festival. We’re very close. We haven’t worked together on a film yet, but who knows what might happen in the future?
You had an interesting upbringing. Your father was in the military and you traveled a lot. Was that hard on you as a kid?
I actually liked it! [Laughs] I think it was harder on my sister. Traveling from place to place, meeting new people, and adapting to new things… It worked for me. I guess that brings us back to our discussion about working with different directors because it’s all about adapting. I’m very open to change. I deal with change very efficiently.
When did you leave Venezuela?
It was back and forth, actually. I’d leave and then come back. It was always in and out.
Having relocated so frequently, how would you describe your relationship to Venezuela? Do you call it home or do you see yourself more as a global citizen?
When you travel as much as I do, you tend to gravitate toward your place of birth. You want to hold onto something from your culture so you don’t get lost. I’m a very proud Venezuelan, but I’m also a citizen of the world. I love different cultures and people from other backgrounds.
If you check out the comments on your YouTube videos, you can see that Venezuelans have immense pride for you as well.
It’s very touching. But I’m not totally aware of things like that living in London. You just do what you do. The fact that we’re having this conversation right now and knowing that thousands of people will then read it and become a part of it in some way… I think it’s magic because right now, you and I, we’re talking and it’s a private conversation. It’s very touching to feel people’s appreciation and enthusiasm for what you’re doing.
Do you think all that traveling and your command of multiple languages helped you bag the role of Carlos?
Yeah, that definitely helped. The character called for an actor who was perfectly fluent in French, English, and Spanish—at the least. This international sort of education that I had only helps because that’s what the character is like, essentially.
The OPEC raid happened when you were just two years old. When did you first learn who Carlos the Jackal was?
I think I had a rough understanding of that whole thing when I was in primary school. I had a very vague understanding of it—this very crazy, mysterious Venezuelan master of disguise who was hijacking planes and bombing his way through Europe and the Middle East. It just felt like something very distant and faraway. Carlos left Venezuela when he was 17 and he never went back. It’s not like we grew up with Carlos as a constant memory or presence. He was lost and fleeing justice for so long that it made sense that we wouldn’t hear from him very often.
What are your thoughts on criminals who take on a celebrity status like Carlos or Jacques Mesrine? Do you think it’s harmful to society?
I think it really depends on what your take on celebrity is and what it means. “Notoriety” is a term I prefer because “celebrity” already gives a moral or emotional judgment to notoriety. You could make the connection between “celebrity” and “celebrate”—that has something to do with celebrating someone you know or celebrating fame. I think that aspect of it was the trigger for Carlos’ tragedy because he had a thirst for fame and recognition. You could see this movie as a metaphor for the struggle between the pure, convincing will to change the world on one side and the obsession for fame and recognition on the other. At a glance, these look like polar opposites, but they actually coexist in perfect balance in a person’s behavior like in the case of Carlos. It’s idealism and individualism coexisting in one character.
Didn’t Carlos file a suit against the filmmakers for defamation of character?
Yeah, but that was before the film was even made.
Do you know if he’s seen the film?
I’m sure he’s seen it, but we haven’t heard from him.
Is it harder for an actor to portray a historical figure as opposed to a completely fictional one, or does that not matter?
It really depends. I’ll break down my answer into two parts. For one, if you’re portraying a public figure—whose behavior, demeanor and gesture is public knowledge—it’s a challenge because people have a preconceived notion of what the person is like. However, on the other side, you’re recreating life because that person only existed once. Just look at what Helen Mirren did in The Queen. Beyond imitating or impersonating Queen Elizabeth the Second, she created a living character. It’s not all about imitations. You see imitators walking around Hollywood Boulevard all the time and there’s no creativity there. In the case of Carlos, he was a mysterious figure. There was no way to imitate him because nobody really knows what he’s like. So, what we were aiming for was giving a human face to the myth.
You also gained weight for this role, which is fun for me to watch as a spectator, but I can’t imagine how fun it would be for you as an actor.
I just looked at it as part of the process. That was one of the few things that we were absolutely sure about from the beginning because Carlos is fat if you look at the limited number of photos available from the end of his life as a free man. Doing that was just respectful to the story and to history. I think it also helped to show the emotional and ideological degradation of the character.
Did your impression of Carlos change during the course of making this film?
When you recreate someone’s life, it’s a different thing. It’s a creative process and it takes on a life of its own. When I took on the role of Carlos, and I’m being very honest here, I didn’t have a specific idea as to how this person should be. I tried to live and feel the experiences of the character step-by-step. I was discovering the character as I was portraying the character. At the end of the movie, I had an idea of who this guy was, but not in relation to the real Carlos. No one will really know who the real Carlos is. The name Carlos is itself a fabrication; it’s a nom de guerre. It’s an image created by Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, the secret services at the time, the media, and the government. It was never our intention to create a biography.
What’s next for Édgar Ramírez?
I’m not sure. I just want to surprise myself. I’m waiting for a project that will really speak to me. There are no criteria. I don’t see my career as a checklist. I want to be mesmerized by materials and I’m excited to see what will come next.
You gave an interview on a news program a few years ago to promote Vantage Point, and you mentioned having wanted to direct. I think you also said something like, “But I feel inexperienced.” Are you ready now?
Same answer. I’m not ready yet.