“Yes, it’s my first film,” says Yalitza Aparicio, the lead of Alfonso Cuarón’s latest film and major awards season contender “Roma.” The 26-year-old actress has encountered many firsts this year, on the trail of promotion for the lauded film.
“When they finished filming the film I thought that was it; I thought they’d probably call us to watch the film,” she says in soft-spoken Spanish, speaking through a translator inside a suite at the Bowery Hotel, where she was staying during a short visit to New York. She’s been doing a lot of traveling since “Roma” premiered at the Venice Film Festival, where it snagged the Golden Lion; before that, the newly minted actress had only ever traveled to a few states in Mexico. “I was not aware that there would be more things and that the process of editing the film would be so long. And actually Alfonso told me, ‘You’ll see, there are more things coming, and we’re not going to stop,'” she adds.
While it’s not unusual for an unknown actress to be thrust into the public’s attention seemingly overnight due to a buzzy film during awards season, this year has delivered quite a few noteworthy breakouts. What is unique is that before “Roma,” Aparicio wasn’t an aspiring actress; she wasn’t even aware she was going to audition when she accompanied her sister to a casting call in their hometown of Tlaxiaco, Mexico. She certainly didn’t know she was auditioning for a film directed by one of modern cinema’s greats.
“She was the one that had been invited, because she sings,” Aparicio says. “So I went with my sister — I was accompanying her — and when we were there she told me, ‘I just want you to go inside and take a sneak peak on how casting is done, because I’m pregnant and very advanced, and if they ask me to do anything rough I’m not going to be able to do it.’ And so I decided to do it.”
From that smaller casting call, she went on to meet the film’s casting director Luis Rosales in Mexico City. “When I went to Mexico City, I met Gabriela Rodriguez, the producer of the film, and she’s the one that told us it was a film with Cuarón, but the name didn’t ring any bells for me. Other people who were auditioning for the film were very happy because he was Cuarón, but the name wasn’t familiar [to me].”
On all accounts, the film takes unconventional risks, which might have alienated audiences Stateside: It’s in black-and-white, set in the late Seventies and entirely in Spanish. But it’s also a love letter. Cuarón, who wrote and directed the project, drew from his own childhood and the story is loosely based on his nanny while growing up; that character is played by Aparicio.
“The movie is about the life of so many people,” Aparicio says. Apart from its focus on the personal life of one family, the story also hinges around the student demonstrations occurring at the time, including a depiction of the Corpus Christi massacre. It was a time period that Aparicio had only encountered in the context of school before filming, although she notes there is a timeliness to the story as well.
“About a lot of the political issues in the film, I was not very aware,” she says. “But I also realize that many things keep happening. Like politicians make a lot of promises when they are campaigning, and they come to towns and people get enthusiastic about them coming to their communities. And then they don’t fulfill the promises.”
As for her own community’s reaction to “Roma,” Aparicio says, “My family was very surprised. They were not imagining it was going to be this kind of film. They did a lot of crying.”
The film will be released on Netflix for streaming today; it opened for a limited theatrical release in late November to meet requirements for awards season. With so much buzz around the film — it’s been a strong contender for the Best Picture category, and Aparicio’s name has floated in the competitive shortlist of possible Best Actress nominations — the actress is likely to many more appearances ahead of her in the new year.
“There is not really a preparation process; there’s not a lot of planning around that,” she says of her upcoming awards season schedule. “A lot of things emerge: interviews, invitations. And so we’re just playing by ear.”
Despite all of the attention, Aparicio doesn’t currently have another film project on the horizon; when asked if she even wants to continue acting, she demurs.
“I haven’t really made plans for the future; I’m just enjoying the moment, going with the flow. I haven’t really had time to mortify myself thinking about the future,” she says. Before “Roma,” Aparicio was studying to be a teacher.
“What I have discovered,” she adds, “is that both cinema and what I was doing before, teaching, are ways to educate people.”
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