Actor Rodrigo Santoro,a native of Rio de Janeiro, exudes peace. Despite his pacifist aura, Santoro masterfully played sadistic Persian king Xerxes in Zack Snyder’s intensely violent 300. Though Santoro seems to believe that serendipity has catapulted his career, the truth is his own preternatural intuition, talent and dedication to his craft (not to mention good looks and charm) have blasted him to the pinnacle of Brazil’s film and TV industry and landed him on a rapidly expanding career track in Hollywood.
Even after winning a slew of awards in his native country, Santoro was taken by surprise when director Robert Allan Ackerman cast him in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, a TV movie starring Helen Mirren. He has subsequently sparred with some of America’s most noted directors and actors.
After delivering a riveting performance in David Mamet’s Redbelt, Santoro then played Raúl Castro in Steven Soderbergh’s four-hour extravaganza, Che. Next up, he’ll play Jim Carrey’s ex-lover in I Love You Phillip Morris, followed by The Post Grad Survival Guide in August.
When one first meets Santoro one might not assume him capable of the depths of darkness, angst and pain required in many of his roles. But the balance, focus and depth that permeate his surfing and meditation practices also impact his approach to the craft of acting. His feral approach to deconstructing and reconstructing his characters results in acutely visceral performances. During our interview, my eyes continually grazed his hippie bracelet, emblazoned with a peace sign. It reflects Santoro’s Zen approach to life and to acting, which is to always maintain a delicate balance between passion and peace.
Anne Norda (MM): Tell me about your first English-language film opportunity.
Rodrigo Santoro (RS): It was a Showtime movie called The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, from a Tennessee Williams novella. That was my first lucky experience; I played opposite Helen Mirren. The director, Robert Allan Ackerman, saw a film that I did in Brazil called Brainstorm, which played at the Biarritz Film Festival and won an award there. Ackerman got in touch with my director, Laís Bodanzky, and brought my name to Showtime.
I had no plan to work in America. It never even crossed my mind.
MM: I always assume that most actors around the world want to be in Hollywood films.
RS: I never thought about it. I was happy in Brazil. Everything was perfect. The Brazilian film industry was picking up. It was 1996 and everything was going very well. I had great opportunities working with great people. I had no desire to go somewhere else. Then this happened. The next thing I know, I’m in Rome and working with Helen Mirren. I never expected anything like it; this was beyond my dreams.
Then I was in a film called Behind the Sun, directed by Walter Salles. That movie was bought by Miramax, so I went to the premiere in Los Angeles. I met a producer who came to me with Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle. Next thing you know, I had an agent and a manager. But it took about two years for me to embrace the idea of of working overseas. Finally, last year, I had a great year; I worked with David Mamet and Steven Soderbergh and said, ‘Wow, this is really interesting.’
MM: When did you know your destiny was to become an actor?
RS: Have I? It took me a long time to look at it as a profession. When I was eight, I used to get together with my cousins and put on performances for my family. And I always loved all kinds of films.
I studied journalism at the university for two-and-a-half years. I met this guy who had a street theater company—kind of like a rebel performance theater. We would go out on the street and talk poetry and politics. It seemed so interesting. I was studying journalism and all those great things—philosophy, psychology, politics—and I really enjoyed it. Then a friend of mine was casting for the biggest studio in Brazil, TV Global, so I ended up taking the general test. They had a workshop for young actors to work in the studio and I was approved.
I did little parts on shows and still studied journalism. But I got to a point when I had to choose, which is when I looked at acting as a profession. I took it seriously. Not too seriously… and I still don’t, because if you take yourself too seriously, you’re probably on the wrong path.
MM: What’s the difference between American and Brazilian moviemaking styles?
RS: I think films are a reflection of us as a society, as human beings, and Brazilian culture is very different from American culture. America has a very strong film industry. Brazilian film was very strong, but it died for many years. There was no incentive from the government. Nobody would invest.
Then Walter Salles’ Central Station crossed overseas and that gave the community in Brazil more hope. They were stimulated and people began to invest again. Now, after six or seven years, it has picked up. It’s an independent film market; the highest budgets are around $5 to $10 million. Here, it’s so much bigger. But we’re still talking about human beings and relationships. They’re all the same essence, bottom line.
MM: The same conflicts?
RS: Exactly. The culture is different, but we cry for the same things.
MM: You recently worked on The Post Grad Survival Guide with two of my favorite comedic actors, Michael Keaton and Carol Burnett. I believe it’s one of your first comedies. How was the experience?
RS: Michael Keaton—he’s so funny; Beetlejuice was one of my favorite movies. And Carol Burnett was very funny and she was just beautiful, as a woman; she’s very generous.
My role is an infomercial director. I was coming from Redbelt with David Mamet, where everything was very heavy. Next I shot Lion’s Den in Argentina, which took place in a prison. Then along came this script.
The role was written for a British actor with a British sense of humor, a Hugh Grant sort of guy; it wasn’t written for a Latin stereotype, which I liked. So I thought, ‘If I mix who I am with this, it will be an interesting combination.’
I was looking for something light. I’ve never really done comedy before—90 percent of my work is drama—but I love comedy.
MM: What is the darkest role you’ve ever played and how did it affect you?
RS: My first movie, Brainstorm, was dark. It’s about a teenager who has a conflict with his father. It’s a true story about this guy whose father put him in a mental institution. His journey inside this place is like hell. It was shot in a real institution and we worked with real patients, so it was very intense.
It was my first experience [starring in a feature] and I was 23. I immersed myself in this work. Afterward, I decided to go to San Diego to relax. There was a cloud of heaviness around me and it took me almost a month to clean it.
I used to be absolutely immersed—there was nothing else—and that would drain me. Then I learned to disconnect a little bit. I would go get a book or take 20 minutes between scenes to recycle. It’s very important to be concentrated, focused and immersed, but it’s also very important to disconnect, to breathe and to get perspective.
MM: Your latest film, I Love You Phillip Morris, was well received at Sundance.
RS: Yes, it’s the first time I saw it. I’m still digesting. When I got the script, I really liked it. And then the possibility of working with Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor, two artists who I really admire and have a lot of respect for, was amazing. The character I play is the first lover of Jim Carrey’s character. It’s a true story of a guy who comes out of the closet and starts to live a gay life. And he’s a con man, a genius con man. There’s a dramatic turn, which I can’t reveal, because I don’t want to ruin it. It was a very intense and delicate place to be, but a beautiful place to be.
MM: Is there a genre you haven’t explored?
RS: I haven’t done an adventure like The Last of the Mohicans. In Brazil, we don’t have the structure to do those films. We have great stories, but those movies cost a lot of money. It’s all about the material, the experience you’re going to have. The only thing you take with you when you get to D-Day, when you look back and ask “What was my life?” are the experiences you had. It’s not going to be the money, the awards or the photographs, it’s going to be everything you felt—everything you experienced. Those things will never be erased. Those are the things I seek.
The world becomes colorful when I have something to do—a character that I have to research and prepare. I think, ‘Okay, now I see all the colors.’
MM: What’s the strangest experience you’ve had in your career?
RS: When I did 300, I played a nine-foot-tall creature and my eye line had to be very low. We did everything blue screen, so I had to speak with my co-stars’ sandals most of the time. (laughs)
It can be funny, but for me it wasn’t funny at all. We ended up with this sticky tape for a reference. And I was talking about my army and there’s nothing there. (laughs) It reminded me of a stage, when you only have the actor, the lights and the audience. It’s basic, it’s essential.
MM: Eckhart Tolle wrote that the darker the nightmare you descend into in life, the stronger your motivation is to awaken. This, for me, captures the driving force in many an artist’s life.
RS: I think it’s interesting to feel uncomfortable—it pushes you, it drives you, it moves you to evolution. Every time you play a role, you have an opportunity to become better, to mature, to grow. The nightmare is when you’re uncomfortable—something is bothering or affecting you. When you do something ordinary, you tend to go to the common place, which I don’t think is interesting to an actor or to a human being.
You’re constantly trying to learn, to evolve as an actor and as a human being; they go together… I find the nightmare mode interesting. I don’t remember a job where, the first day on set, I was thinking, ‘I know how to do it.’ There’s no right or wrong in acting. It’s a matter of point of view. I don’t have a formula when I work.
MM: Do you ever get nervous or afraid?
RS: Oh yeah, all the time. Fear should be there; fear is what protects you. But if you let it control you, then you’re in trouble. I get scared, especially when I start preparing and the night before the first day of shooting, because I’ve chosen a challenge. Even if I have only one line, or one scene, I’m going to devote to it the same as I would doing Shakespeare. It comes from passion.
MM: What’s next?
RS: I’m looking for something substantial. There are so many great scripts out there, but so many sit on the shelf for five years and never get made. Nowadays it’s not about doing a great job, it’s about having the opportunity to do a great job. Being a foreigner, it’s not easy. I’d like to play a character that has more of a journey.
MM: You’re also producing a film?
RS: Yes, the movie is called Heleno. I will play Heleno de Freitas, the most famous soccer player in Brazil in the 1940s. He had the most controversial personality. It’s not really about soccer; it’s a biography about this interesting man. I decided to join the production company and I’m an associate producer; I helped put the money together.
We’re going to start shooting at the end of this year. I’m very excited about it, but the producing is really tough—really, really tough. I have friends who are producers who told me how hard it is. Watching it is one thing, but go do it. That’s how you find out what it really is.
MM: Is there any question you’ve never been asked during an interview?
RS: “What’s your favorite dessert?” I like desserts. I’m really into bread pudding right now. I had the best bread pudding in New Orleans. I was shooting I Love You Phillip Morris there and I had just gotten off a diet for my role. And when I broke my diet, I wanted something very, very delicious. Then I saw this bread pudding. The lights were shining on the bread pudding, and there was ice cream melting on it, and I thought, ‘My God, what is it?’ And they said, “It’s our famous bread pudding.”
MM: Be careful. After this interview is published, all your female fans will be FedExing you bread pudding!
RS: I just had one here, yesterday. It was really good. MM