Yalitza Aparicio never in her wildest dreams thought she’d be in a movie but hers is a classic Hollywood story by way of Oaxaca, Mexico. It’s not quite Rita Hayworth discovered in a malt shop but it’s a classic discovery nonetheless. Aparicio was studying to be a preschool teacher in her small city of Tlaxiaco when her sister saw a flyer for an audition for a film at their town’s community center. Her sister ended up not being able to audition but Aparicio decided to anyway and when the casting director decided to filmed her briefly it turned into a defacto audition and, after seeing hundreds of young women, Academy Award winning director Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity) knew he had found his Cleo for ROMA, his most personal film to date. Aparicio knew nothing about Cuarón or his films, nor this film or part she was to play, much less that it would come with the weight of being Cuarón’s own live-in nanny, Libo, he had growing up. Aparicio more than rose to the challenge. After a hugely successful festival run that included Telluride, Venice and Toronto, Aparicio was nominated for a Gotham Award for Breakthrough Actor, named Best Performance of 2018 by TIME magazine and is on the shortlist for Best Actress Academy Award nomination alongside names like Viola Davis, Nicole Kidman, Lady Gaga and Glenn Close.
For Marina de Tavira, the accomplished Mexican television and film star was more than ready and up to the task of playing against Aparicio as Cuarón’s own mother. She developed her craft on the Mexican stage working with the most prestigious directors and playing the lead parts in stagings of playwrights like Bertolt Brecht, Harold Pinter, David Mamet, and Ximena Escalante. She came to ROMA with deep admiration of Cuarón’s work and, having grown up in Mexico City herself, felt a kinship and connection with the neighborhood and the time period of the mid 1970s.
I met up with Aparicio and de Tavira last month at the Mill Valley Film Festival to chat about the film, motherhood and found a deep connection to them both not only as a fan of their work and their process but on a deeper level in recognizing the pain and sacrifice was sometimes foisted upon newly single mothers.
This interview was conducted in English and Spanish with a translator.
AW: Marina, did you feel any extra pressure because you were not only playing a real life person but also playing them for that person’s son?
MdT: I did feel a lot of pressure at the beginning. Maybe not for that specific reason because somehow I managed to put that away from my mind. I don’t know how I did that. I was very much worried, more worried of not being, of not doing the acting work Alfonso wanted. Then worried about that it was his mom because I really didn’t think about that. I. He gave me all the background of his mother, but then he said forget it. Just forget it. He gave a lot of details and then he said forget it. So I was much more worried about working in an emotional way.
AW: Yalitza, how did you find out about the film and why did you audition?
YA: I heard about it because my sister was invited to do the casting, so we went there, we went together, but then she didn’t want to do it because she was pregnant by then, but she insisted that I do it, so that’s how I found out. At first I didn’t want to do it, but I think it helped that they came all the way to my community where I live because if they had been in another place, maybe I would have done not.
AW: This is your first film. What did you learn about making movies or learn about movies that you didn’t know before?
YA: Well, I learned to give a higher value to the film itself and I used to go to see a film and then when I saw the end I just left. But now I take the time to see what was involved in the film because I now know it’s a whole team. There’s the makeup artist, the wardrobe people, the person who even cleans every day for everything to be ready. The drivers that made sure we were on time whenever we had to and if anything goes wrong, then the result is on the screen.
AW: Marina, what was it like working with a first time actress? How was that experience for you?
MdT: Well, in Yalitza’s case it was incredible. I didn’t even stop to question if she wasn’t an actress or not. She was Cleo, all the time Cleo [the film version of Libo]. There’s something about her that’s so beautifully transparent that if you look at her at her eyes during a scene, you have what you need to connect. So it wasn’t important if she was or not an actress. There were other cases because in that film, most of them are not actors. I would say like 99 percent, I think there’s another actor, but I didn’t have any scenes with him. For the children it was mostly the same because they’re children, but there were others, like there were real life doctors and stuff like that that would speak to you or say something just right before the ‘action’ word. And I was like, not right now, you know, but she [Yalitza] knew it. She had it.
AW: What was the most difficult part of making this movie for you?
YA: I think the most difficult one would be the scene of the ocean. I heard before that I had to go in the ocean so my nervousness started even before that because I don’t know how to swim. I live in a place where there’s no ocean nearby. I wasn’t able to ever see before such a magnitude to the water. So at first I thought it was only going to hold my breath or something, but it was not the same. But anyways, when we started shooting the children were inside [the water] and I lost sight of them, like totally lost them. So my mother’s instinct just came out and as any other mother, the only thing I was thinking was I have to save them and you do that risking your own life.
AW: I think that is the scene that most people when they watch the film are going to be amazed, but it’s one shot. The technical difficulty is outstanding and I think people will be very impressed. I am very impressed.
AW: Marina, how would you describe your character of Sophia?
MdT: I think she is complex, she is a woman that’s going through a very difficult moment in her life. She’s facing that maybe she’s going to have to be a mother alone without her partner, her husband, and that makes her go through very contradictory emotions. I think she’s frustrated. She’s mad at life and that she throws at Cleo, lots of her frustration and pain, but she’s also loving. She’s also strong and she’s also fun. She’s fun, but she’s worried so sometimes she doesn’t show that part of her. She’s faced… she’s going through a lot and she knows that she has to come up and be strong. And that’s what I think we see in the film that, that arch.
AW: Were you able to meet the real life version of Cleo?
YA: Yes. I met her before the shooting. She told me a little bit about the relationship she had with the children, the way actually she arrived to Mexico City as well as the love she had for her own family that she had left behind to be able to have a better life. And how as soon as she got to the house, she gave them all her heart.
AW: Marina, I’ll ask the same question I asked Yalitza a moment ago, what was the most difficult part of this shoot for you?
MdT: There are scenes that had a technical difficulty, like the one you mentioned about the beach where you know, you have to enter exactly in the moment where you have to because it’s one take. But I think for me, I will speak generally, the most difficult thing was to have the strong emotions and feelings that Alfonso was asking because he was also asking not to show them and not to make any actual comments on the emotion. So we had to work a lot before the action. He would tell me, ‘go away, go to the room upstairs, throw it all out, throw it all out and then swallow it. I don’t want to see it,’ you know, he would say that. So it was working with this emotions, but day they only had to be like really deep down.
AW: That’s interesting to hear Cuarón’s approach as a director with his actors.
MdT: I’ve heard that he’s very different in every film and with every actor. I didn’t know him before as a director so I don’t know if that’s the way he does it always. But I think that what he did for this film is something he knew he had to do for this story and for this character and for this acting moth.
AW: That makes sense. I think this is so different from anything he has done before.
MdT: He was really meticulous with everything, with every word, with everything. Sometimes he would listen to the way I was even breathing before the action. And he would say, ‘no, no, no, you’re not there. So stop. Okay, get into it. Okay. Now you’re there.’
AW: How has it been to travel all around the world for this film? What has this experience been like for you?
YA: To me, it’s been awesome. It’s been almost like a dream coming to all these places. I never imagined I was going to visit them and letting this many people know about the film, especially live the experience and revive all these memories they have of their own. It’s been incredible and I’ve been very thankful.
AW: Marina, how about you? How is this worldwide experience been for you?
MdT: Well, even though I’m an actor and I do that for living I feel the same thing as Yalitza. It’s exactly the same for me. For me it’s also a dream and also I something I never imagined. But the most beautiful thing has been listening to the experiences, or better yet to the own personal memories that people share with us. They talk a lot about the mothers and most of them had mothers that raised their kids alone. So that for me has been really important and really moving and I’m very grateful that maybe they [mothers] are being given credit with this film.
AW: Do you think you will make another movie?
YA: Well, I don’t know yet. I haven’t heard of anything. I am here right now in this moment and we’ll see afterwards.
AW: What is it that you would like people to understand about this movie? The most cases?
YA: Well, I think each person will understand whatever they want based on their own experience. But in general I hope the film helps us to be more human and to stop judging according to stereotypes. That is what society does. And I think in the end we are all the same.
AW: That’s beautiful. Oh my goodness. I’m honored really to be able to talk to both of you, I really, really am.
MdT: On the contrary.
AW: I know I said this to you in Toronto too, but I’m very blessed to be able to talk to you about this because I think it’s a really special film.
MdT: Well, it’s beautiful to listen to those words because we feel the same thing and it’s the human contact that’s important.
AW: Yes, absolutely. I agree. I can’t wait to see it with my mother, she will love it. I was also raised by her as a single mother, so it will be a great experience to have with her.
MdT: (tears up) Oh, that’s so beautiful, it really moves me a lot. You can’t imagine how much.
ROMA is currently in limited release in select theaters in Los Angeles and New York and will be released globally by Netflix on December 14th.