NEW YORK — Think leaving your poverty-stricken family in South America at the tender age of 17 to embark on an international modeling career is tough? Try auditioning for your first theater role in front of Philip Seymour Hoffman.

“I was so nervous … the night before, I couldn’t sleep at all. I was so tired, I remember, I went to take the subway and I was so out there I ended up in Harlem,” recalls Patricia Velasquez, who makes her stage debut in “School of the Americas,” opening today, a joint production of the Public Theater and Labyrinth Theater Company (where Seymour Hoffman is one of the artistic directors).

The play, written by José Rivera (of “Motorcycle Diaries” fame), and based on true historical events, focuses on Che Guevara’s last days imprisoned in a schoolhouse in Bolivia. Velasquez stars as schoolteacher Julia Cortes, who through sheer determination and passion convinces the guards to allow her time alone with Che before his execution.

The Venezuelan beauty is so devoted to the part, aesthetically speaking, that she has grown in her eyebrows, chopped off her long hair and forgone shaving her legs. She also hunted down a long-lost cousin in Bolivia who, in turn, put her in touch with Cortes, 59, who still lives there. The cast and directors spent two hours posing questions to the former teacher via Webcam.

“They told me, ‘Can you ask her, of all the things that Che said to her, what was the thing that got her the most?'” says Velasquez of the company’s queries. “And she said, ‘He told me I was very pretty.’ Here you are thinking she is going to tell you the revolution, the malnutrition … No, he told me that I was very pretty. That was very cute.”

Velasquez identified with Cortes on countless levels. Both women are from South America, both have been leaders in their respective communities (Velasquez has a foundation, Wayuu Taya, to help the poor in her country) and they both have a strong political drive.

At 35, though, Velasquez’s life has sharply differed from that of Cortes. After leaving her family, she became one of the most famous Latina supermodels in the Nineties, landing a Cover Girl contract and the affections of Sports Illustrated readers and designers like Isaac Mizrahi and Karl Lagerfeld (along with making headlines for a much-gossiped-about relationship with Sandra Bernhard).

This story first appeared in the July 6, 2006 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“I grew up as a dancer and around all these intellectual things, and then when they asked me to go and work as a model, it seemed so superficial. But I thought if I get to send $30 a month home, that’s going to pay for water for the whole building,” she says of her initial reaction to modeling, though she quickly warmed to the fashion industry.

Her entrée into acting was laced with a similar mixture of ambivalence and circumstance. A couple of years before her first film, the 1996 “Le Jaguar” with Jean Reno, Velasquez had quit smoking and gained weight, putting a temporary damper on modeling jobs. So when the script for “Le Jaguar” came her way, she decided to go for the part, even though acting had never been on her radar. “I just thought it was another way for models to get attention,” she says simply.

The “Le Jaguar” shoot in the Amazon changed her perceptions and she has since fully embraced a thespian career, with roles in “The Mummy” and “The Mummy Returns,” as Fidel’s wife on TV, Zapata’s wife in “El sueño del héroe” and even a recurring part on “Arrested Development.”

If her résumé seems particularly politically loaded, it is only in keeping with her devotion to helping her less fortunate countrymen.

“I’m an Artist for Peace for UNESCO, so definitely there is some political [quality] to me … I believe in my own politics. That’s what I’m doing through the foundation, affecting the lives of, I would say, thousands of kids that have been saved in Venezuela,” says Velasquez. “I love playing political roles. I love playing roles that make a difference, regardless if it is a comedy or a drama. If I can touch somebody’s life with maybe one of the things that I say, then I feel like I did my work.”

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