SSIFF interview: Alfredo Castro (El Principe)

One of South America’s most prolific actors, Alfredo Castro’s career from his early TV work to the two films he was in San Sebastian with (El Principe and Some Beasts) spans almost four decades. In a lively conversation with Cédric Succivalli he spoke about his concept of ‘the third body’, red jackets and their significance in the ’70s, his love for his profession, and about warnings from the past that still resonate today.

Warning: this interview will contain spoilers for the film.

CS: Your career over the past decade or so has been an embarrassment of riches. In my humble opinion you have one of the most prolific careers of any living actor, and you keep coming up with incredible part after incredible part. Today we are here to talk about El Principe (The Prince) by Sebastián Muñoz, one of the two films you have in San Sebastian, the other one being Some Beasts by Jorge Riquelme. Before we start I would like to draw a parallel between Armando, the main character you played in Desde Alla (From Afar) that won the Golden Lion in Venice a few years ago, and El Potro in The Prince. What is interesting is that in both instances you play a character with some gay components, but they are completely remote from one another. In From Afar Armando is a very introverted character whereas in The Prince you play an incredibly flamboyant character, very charismatic. When we meet you everybody is after you, more or less, be it for strictly sexual reasons or for intricate political reasons that have to do with life in jail. How did you feel about that character when you first discovered him on paper? And did you know beforehand about the novel of which the film is an adaptation?

AC: It is not a very well known novel but I knew about it. It was written in the ’70s when homosexuality and gay people were subject to imprisonment. The writer is gay, he wrote this novel trying to disguise his homosexuality, which is the subject of the novel. But what I love about the novel is that my character is not gay, he is a heterosexual man with a woman, with a wife, so it’s the law of the jail. If you go into jail in Chile, you must have a man to protect you, everywhere.

CS: But in your case, you are the one who protects the others.

AC: Yes! I was the older one. And then my story is that this man, heterosexual as he thinks he is, teaches or shows this young man who is not sure of his sexuality how to do it, to discover his real sexuality. So the young man is the passive one in the relationship, and halfway through the story my character turns and he becomes the passive one in the relationship. And then he gives him a red jacket. At that time in Chile if you used red, you were gay! Or pink, or green, or blue. But red meant you were a woman. It is a Roman Catholic society, so men should use no colors at all, you know. There was something very symbolic at the end of the film. He said, you killed a young man, a beautiful young man, because he was dancing with an old man. And now I am an old man fucking you, and I am giving you the right to be gay. So go and use this red jacket and be yourself.

CS: This is pretty fascinating, I didn’t know about that color component! The film is what we call in French a roman d’apprentissage

AC: Oui, oui! Because nobody, no man had chosen to wear a red jacket until that moment. Except him! That red jacket.

CS: I have a question about the shoot, which was obviously particular for this film. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it was entirely shot in a real jail, wasn’t it?

AC: Yes, but it was empty, it was not used anymore.

CS: How was your perception of that environment, as an actor to be in, because it is something you hardly ever do. You don’t spend an entire film in jail normally, do you?

AC: I get involved with everything. With each movie, I get involved with the environment, with the place, obviously with the other actors. I dress up and I feel… I change my body. I was invited to Cambridge to talk about cinema and cruelty, and about The Club. And I wrote a text about ‘the third body’. There is the actor: myself, the character, and I have to become another character, another body, and that’s the third body. I like that idea.

CS: Most of the actors in the film are very young. Were they impressed when they first met you?

AC: No. Most of them were… You see, I am an old actor, I have a theater in Chile. I have a drama school, so most of them, beginning with Pablo Larrain, were or are my students. Not all of them, but most of them.

CS: Was Juan Carlos Maldonado, who plays Jaime, The Prince, one of your students as well?

AC: No, he wasn’t. They look at me, they see me like a sort of teacher. I don’t want to say ‘master’, but someone who has a career. So I can talk to them and give them some tips.

CS: The symbiosis between him and you as characters is really phenomenal and unique. You basically rape him to start with and…

AC: Yes, we talked a lot about that scene.

CS: You do rape him, let’s call a spade a spade. It’s like when we talk about the Stockholm Syndrome, with hostages at times ending up developing a psychological alliance with their captors. A person that has been raped and abused may end up reproducing that same pattern. Not always of course, but it can happen. In this case his rape in a twisted, bizarre way opens him up to his gay desire, which is a very politically incorrect thing to say in our very politically correct society.

AC: Yes! And for a homophobic country back then too! But even if we don’t penalize homosexuality anymore, each year several cases of homophobic harassment still occur in Chile.

CS: Was it challenging for you to have all these gay sex scenes or was it just a part of your work? Because the film is extremely graphic.

AC: Everything is a challenge for me. But no, the problem… maybe not the problem but the issue with this scene was that the young actor is not gay. So we talked a lot about it, and I said, “I am not going to touch your penis“. We talked a lot, and in the end we simply did it. And it was even more graphic than what you see on film. So many erect penises! (laughs) And for Chile, that’s incredible!

CS: It’s like Jean Genet is alive almost!

AC: Or Pasolini!

CS: The film won the Queer Lion in Venice a few weeks ago. How important was that for the film and for your country?

AC: It’s very important. I do believe that cinema or theater or whatever can change people’s mind sometimes. If I have a room with a hundred people watching the film and I think that five or ten people will change their mind, I’m happy. That’s already a victory.

CS: Were you ever challenged by the fact of not having the chance to finalize your path, your narrative arc in the film? I mean, you die unexpectedly in the film. How does an actor react to that when reading a script?

AC: There is a very nice and funny story of an actor friend of mine. Both his mother and father were actors, so he grew up in the theater, and sometimes he came on stage with a letter or with a tea or something. And he said to me, I grew up watching my mother dying, having sex, taking drugs, my father killing people… So, that’s my idea: I watch the film and I feel very sorry about that death at the end.

CS: Because it is a cathartic ending, it is a dramatic one. We genuinely feel for this character.

AC: Because he doesn’t say that he is going to die. He tells him, “I am fine, I will be recovering in a couple of days and I give you this gift,” which is of course the red jacket.

CS: Speaking of you liking challenges and being such a chameleonic actor, let’s go back to one of your recent performances in Rojo by Benjamin Naishtat, a film that I loved immensely. I saw it here last year and then I saw it again in Marrakech, because I was so in awe with that performance. How can somebody go from that gloomy detective in Rojo to this charismatic and flamboyant gay magnet of a character in The Prince? I don’t know that many actors who possess such a range of possibilities.

AC: We were here last year with this film indeed! I don’t know. I just know that I love what I do, my work. I love my job, I love it! I really love to find this third body. When I dress up for the role, I look at myself and something happens with my body, with my mind. I loved working on Rojo!

Let me show you something. (he grabs his phone) It’s not vanity. It’s just… It’s the most recent film I shot, I finished it one month ago. It’s from a novel of a very gay Chilean activist writer, almost a transvestite. He was very important during and after the dictatorship. His name was Pedro Lemebel. I think he may be translated into French or English. So he has only one novel, the rest of his writings are facts about life. There is just one novel, and that one we shot. My Tender Matador, that’s the title. It’s a Spanish song. I’m the protagonist in it, and…

He bursts out laughing as he eventually finds and shows me a picture on his cellphone of him dressed up as a transvestite.

AC: I love this! Look at my legs!

CS: You are really glamorous there!

AC: Unbelievable, no? This woman, this transvestite, helps some very young and handsome terrorists with an assassination attempt on Pinochet. So this guy finds this lady and hides the firearms in her place.

CS: What is the title of the novel and the film? This is such a decadent and almost aristocratic look, like a decadent Louis XIV so to speak. Is the film finished?

AC: Yes. I think they are in post-production, trying to make it to the Berlinale maybe. I really loved working on that film. It’s the third film of a… not a young director (editor: Rodrigo Sepúlveda). And I had one scene where I had to run away from the police with two real transvestites, very young ones dressed up like women in high heels. And I won! I said, “I am three times older than you, bitches!

Anyway, that was to talk about changing characters. I love doing that, I love to dress up. I’ve done theater for 40 years. And I love theater because it’s the only thing that remains alive, you know. All the rest, everything we do is just immaterial. So I love doing theater.

CS: I wish I could see you on stage one day. Have you ever played in Paris on stage?

AC: No… Yes! I did, many years ago. A text by Copi, Eva Peron. I played Eva Peron.

CS: What was your take on the very end of the film? We see this young gay man with his radio in his jail cell listening to a discourse by Salvador Allende. It is a very strong scene. You weren’t there for that scene, were you?

AC: I was not, but I knew it from the script. I think there is a very important parallel, because Chile was going to become socialist. It was the only country in the world that through democratic elections elected a socialist president. And in the first discourse he warned us. Be careful! There will be very hard days ahead of us. And there were! So this young guy listens to this discourse with the same ideas, I think. Be careful, you have a red jacket, and there will be very hard days ahead of you being gay in this country. So it’s a warning, about freedom, about being free, living the real life he wants to live… but he needs to be careful living in a country that is fascist.