Pete Hammond

Summit Entertainment got a head start on on awards season the day after Labor Day, September 6, by sending out DVD screeners of their boxoffice-challenged A Better Life. Because this Oscar hopeful is a small human drama they opened June 24 (the same ”good luck” weekend Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker opened two years ago) the company knew they would have to define it in different ways. It became the first movie of the season to set up Q&As in June with star Demian Bichir for SAG’s then-newly formed nominating committee. Bichir and director Chris Weitz have since been doing receptions for press and awards voters, lots of interviews and generally beating the drum for their “little movie that could.” Both appeared for a Q&A at Deadline’s The Contenders event December 10 at the Landmark. Weitz was blunt about the importance of achieving recognition for the film even though it has been out on commercial DVD since October. “I’m glad some of the gloves came off during the moguls panel about wanting to get nominated. We lost the first round at the boxoffice but we’re going to keep fighting,” he said. He knows the film won’t get a Best Picture nomination but is hoping there will be recognition for Bichir. “The film is giving voice to the 11 million people (illegal immigrants) who will not be watching the Academy Awards, but millions of other people will be watching. I’m betting the President of the United States will be watching as well. This is our moment for the film.”

The movie about an illegal immigrant gardener Carlos Galindo (Bichir) who tries to create a better life for his U.S. born son — while also trying to stay and work in the country himself — has been a long shot. It pulled off a major coup December 14 when the SAG Awards announced their five nominees for Best Actor and leading the list was none other than Bichir who was understandably thrilled. “My name starts with a ‘B’ so I thought if I get it I am gonna be first. It was almost like a joke or something but then it happened,”  he told me during a recent phone interview.

Being on the same list with George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio did not seem possible for the actor — a big star in Mexico. He’s best known to American audiences  for his supporting role on Showtime’s Weeds and for portraying Fidel Castro in Steven Soderbergh’s Che. “It is surreal. Growing up in Mexico City and playing soccer in the streets and trying to make a living as an actor in the Mexican theatre, I just never thought any of this could happen,” he says. “I mean not only did we come out six months ago, but we don’t have the infrastructure to be as powerful as the other major studios, so we only rely on whatever anybody who has seen the film can do to spread the word.”

Initially Bichir went to meet with Weitz about a role in the director’s The Twilight Saga: New Moon but wasn’t really excited ”about doing vampire movies.” Then Weitz started talking to him about this other project. ”I fell in love with it right away because it was so full of life. You can have a role like this directed by somebody else and not have the same results and that is why I give Chris all the credit,” he said about the project that had been gestating in one form or another for nearly a quarter-century.

Bichir said he did a lot of research meeting gardeners like his character Carlos and learning about their lives. It was especially gratifying for him to play the kind of role actors at his level are rarely offered. “You jump from one character to another as an actor and hopefully you can stretch your own range or ability or capacities. There haven’t been many chances. It all comes down to narrow stereotypes or cliches of being gangsters or drug lords or this or that. There are many stories you can tell and every one should be different. If there’s a chance to make the new role a different one that’s when I say ‘let me in’.”

Although A Better Life earned less than $2 million during its domestic theatrical run, it recently grabbed some unexpected publicity from GOP presidential contenders who kept (negatively) bringing up the status of illegal immigrants in their debates. Bichir hopes it will sustain awareness of the subject and perhaps motivate people to seek out his film which puts a human face on a hot button political issue. “I hope they have a chance to see the film and be moved by it. Hopefully if we are lucky maybe we can open their minds and change the way they think about this issue which is not political, it’s human. Hopefully they will ‘get it’ once and for all.”

Interestingly Bichir says the film has not done nearly as well as they hoped in Mexico. He suggests that Mexicans who can afford to go to the movies maybe didn’t care for the topic. “This is the problem with immigration. No one cares in Mexico. Everyone benefits from undocumented workers because they send a lot of money, billions a year to Mexico so the Mexican government needs those immigrants in the U.S. They don’t give a fuck about them or their fate. And in the U.S. it serves employers to hire someone who is not gonna join a union and go on strike or demand better conditions and salaries because they don’t have documents. So everyone benefits from these human beings, this community, but them. So I am hoping this can be solved,”  he said. Now that he has a never-dared-to-dream-of SAG nomination, what would an Oscar nod mean?

“It would be the pinnacle of craziness. Whenever you work in a new play or film you always think what if the whole world knew about my work? And so if that happened that would mean more people around the world could see your work and actually get to know you. And at the end of the day that is what any actor wants. You want your work to be seen by as many people as possible. And especially this film,” he said. “If A Better Life can change something in this country then that will be a big huge reward. With all this attention that we are getting now, probably a lot more people are going to go to iTunes and Netflix and try to take a look at it. That would be the biggest reward.”

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