Catalina Sandino Moreno
A new face to the movie industry, Catalina has already earned an Oscar nomination for best actress for her performance in the 2004 movie "Maria Full Of Grace." Arriving from virtually nowhere to stun viewers with her powerful performance as a poverty-stricken Colombian rose plantation employee looking to make a better life for herself and her unborn child in director Joshua Marston's Maria Full of Grace, first-time actress Catalina Sandino Moreno seemed to elicit near unanimous praise from critics and film lovers worldwide. The raven-haired beauty Moreno developed an interest in becoming an actor which prompted the young hopeful to enroll in the Ruben Di Pietro theater academy while she was still in high school. It was during this time that she essayed a number of stage performances in such productions as Griselda Gambaro's Acuerdo Para Cambiar de Casa, Tennessee Williams' The Dark Room, and Christopher Durang's Laughing Wild. Later studying advertising and theater at a Bogotá college, Moreno caught the eye of director Marston during an audition for Maria Full of Grace, and it didn't take long to convince the director that -- despite her relative lack of experience -- she was the perfect candidate for the complex and demanding role. Indeed, Moreno brought undeniable depth and onscreen charisma to her thoughtful portrayal of a smart but desperate mother-to-be, earning the emerging starlet numerous critical accolades in addition to a Best Actress nomination for the 77th Annual Academy Awards. Packing her bags for New York City shortly thereafter, Moreno enrolled at the famed Lee Strasberg Institute while preparing for her New York stage debut in a production of Shakespeare's King John at the Frog and Peach Theater Company. Catalina was born on April 19, 1981, in Bogota, Colombia.
Getting to know Catalina Sandino Moreno
As much as has been written about the similarities between Colombian actress Catalina Sandino Moreno and the Colombian girl she plays in Fine Line's acclaimed offering "Maria Full of Grace," it's the striking differences between them that are the real story. Moreno is really very little like the rural plantation worker who escapes to America as a drug mule; she attended a British school in Bogota, worked in theater and studied advertising at a university. "Grace," her first film, has made her the first Colombian to be nominated for an Academy Award (best actress). Her come-from-nowhere arrival in America has been just the sort of story Hollywood devours, and ShoWest is recognizing Moreno's star-making turn by naming her 2005's International Star of the Year.
The Hollywood Reporter: With the recognition you've been receiving for "Maria Full of Grace," you must feel like you've gotten a crash course in movie industry awards.
Catalina Sandino Moreno: Of course, I didn't even know a lot of these awards existed. I didn't have any idea about the ShoWest International Star of the Year. I think it's so, so great -- so cool. I feel happy that this project has led me to a lot of good things.
THR: Much has been made of the obvious parallels between you and the character Maria Alvarez, but there also are pretty substantial differences.
Moreno: Oh, yes, there's a total difference.
THR: Given those differences, how did you manage to deliver such a natural performance?
Moreno: I think the only thing we have in common is that we are Colombian. I grew up in Bogota all my life; she grew up in the country outside the city. I didn't know anything about flower plantations (where Maria works), so we are not similar at all. Josh (Marston, the film's writer-director) gave me the opportunity to discover things. It was just wonderful to go through this movie discovering stuff. (For example,) the dialogue -- Josh is not Colombian; he doesn't know Colombian slang, so it was up to us to put a little piece of Colombia in there.
THR: But on a personal level, how did you channel the poverty and desperation of this character? Where did that come from?
Moreno: I don't know. When they told me I was going to be Maria, I went to work in a flower plantation for two weeks; that was amazing because I understood why she was so tired and why she would risk her life, even though I thought I would never do that. I think when you respect your character's decisions, it's much easier to play them.
THR: Having never been in a film before, were you surprised by your performance when you finally watched the finished film?
Moreno: When I saw myself, it was kind of shocking that I was doing that -- that she, Maria, was doing that -- like little gestures, like how I put my head and my hands in the air or how I put my mouth. Little things only I would notice.
THR: Because "Maria" was literally close to home for you, are you eager to take on some unexpected roles?
Moreno: Right now, I'm just looking at everything. I think it's important for me to learn and see what's out there. "Maria" was my first project -- I never thought that I was going to be playing a drug mule; it was not on my schedule. I like when characters surprise me like Maria. When I was reading the script, I was like, "I just don't understand why she's doing that." You have your internal fight with the character on paper; that's when you know the script is appealing to you.
THR: Hollywood can be a scary place in a lot of ways -- is there anything in particular you're cautious about?
Moreno: Hollywood has great movies and bad movies, so I can't just say I'm afraid to be in Hollywood. I've been having such good luck, and I have good people that can advise me on projects. I think I'm well-taken care of, and I shouldn't be scared. Of course, I'm not scared. You just have to do what you really want to do.
Meet Catalina Sandino Moreno
Newcomer Catalina Sandino Moreno plays the title character in the thriller Maria Full of Grace. The story follows Maria from Colombia where she leaves her job in a flower house and her family for America. But the only way she can get to America is to be a drug mule, swallowing pellets of heroine and carrying them through customs. Every step of the way threatens to get her caught and imprisoned or killed.
Fortunately, the journey for Moreno has been more pleasant. The role has won her acclaim at festivals and she’s experiencing the limelight on her first press circuit. Though the film is in Spanish with subtitles, Moreno speaks mostly perfect English with only the occasional gaffe. The film is also the first time feature for writer/director Joshua Marston, an American who decided to tell the true story of what many Colombian women do in hopes of a better life.
How did you practice the pellet swallowing? I didn't practice. Why should I? I think it was more about [if I seemed like] a pro doing it, like okay, Josh, that’s it, it was not real. I think, especially for Josh, it was important to be real. And, for me, just coming in and seeing these pellets and trying to swallow them, I was like, “I'm not going to swallow that.” It's not easy. It was really hard, and that's the scene in the movie.”
Did you meet any drug mules in preparation? My preparation was going to a flower plantation, working for two weeks. I worked for two weeks there. Not dethorning roses, just cutting them. And Maria was born there. Maria just appeared. I never wanted to go and talk to mules because Maria doesn’t know how to be a mule. And I didn’t either, so I was just relying on Josh how to do it. I didn’t want to have another concept in my mind.
What were the pellets made out of? If Josh didn’t say, I’m not going to say either. He will kill me if I say it.
What was your acting training? I was studying theater. When I was 13 years old, I began studying theater. Then I was studying advertising, but I've always studied theater. I was very shy and I'm like, “Okay, I'm going to just jump into theater.” That was my background in acting. I'd never done anything professionally in Colombia. To make this character was a challenge, because I've never done anything like that. Maria was very different from who I am. I don’t live in a little town. I was in college and I didn't have to work because I needed money. I was blessed because I had a different life than her. And for me, it was a challenge to do it. Thanks to Josh and thanks to all of the actors, they made my work much easier.
How did you feel about getting in front of a camera? The good thing with that, in this movie, the camera was hand held. And Josh told me that whenever you feel that Maria needs to walk, just walk. The camera's going to follow you, because he just wanted to feel what Maria was feeling. And it was much easier for me [to say], “You know what, Maria should just stand up.” Whatever I wanted and whatever Josh approved, I just did it. It was easier. It was like theater.
What prompted you to audition for the film? Curiosity. I was curious to meet this American that was looking for a Colombian girl. I'd gone to a couple of auditions in Colombia and they never chose me, so to hear there's an American looking for a Colombian, I really needed to see who he was and what this movie was about. I read for Blanca the first time and the casting director saw me and said, “You should just read for Maria, just to show the director.” And I read for Maria and a couple of weeks later, they called me and said that Josh was coming to Colombia to see a couple of girls and that I was in the three top girls.
Did you ever correct Josh on his perceptions about Colombia? Not in terms of details, because as I told you, there were more details that Josh knew that I didn’t. There were more words and for him being an American, he had to really rely on us to change the script and to do a lot of improvisations from the script. We never changed the structure of the film but we changed the script I think 100 %.
What did he nail just right? The pellet. I didn’t know how the pellet was made. I didn’t know that they cut the fingers of the surgical glove. You live in Colombia, you know about mules and you know that they are there, but you don’t know the details. You don’t know why they do it. You just know that they are there and bad people and they’re in jail and they deserve it.
But now, you just see what it is like to be a mule. So, he was incredible.
Did you ever worry this reflected your country in a poor light? I read the script and I was so proud that an American was not stereotyping Colombia. He never showed a gun. He never showed, like, bloody Maria's face. He never did those types of things, and for me it was incredible.
What are the stereotypes we have about Colombia? That we just kill each other. That’s not just it. There's more about Colombia and what Josh did was an incredible, incredible job and I'm so proud that he did it. That's why a lot of Colombians are so grateful with him, because he just put his eyes on Colombia and he just made this incredible movie. And everybody in Colombia liked it. And they’re very proud that somebody really put Colombians as they are.
Does the film say the way to get out is to come to the U.S.? Not just Colombians. Like in America, there’s people from every part of the world. And not just in my country that they think that the American dream is in America. Of course, we heard about the American dream and if you go to America you’re going to have a great life and you’re going to be a millionaire and you’re going to just have a lot of kids and you’re going to be happy. But when you get there and you go to Jackson Heights especially where all of the Colombian community is, you’ll see their reality. And it’s very hard for them to just deal with work every single day. If you don’t have papers, you have to work illegally and if you’re caught, it’s very hard, and I don't think [it’s] just Colombians. If Colombians see the movie, it’s not “Oh my God, maybe I’ll go to America.” I know that it’s not going to change people’s life. Nothing can change people’s life. Just decisions. And if somebody sees this movie, it just gets in the back of their mind how is this done? But they’re people. They’re not just mules. I know they’re just good people and this can happen to anybody. If you have an intestine, you can do it.
How has your life changed since making this movie? Well, I’m making this press thing. I’ve never done it, so it’s changed a lot. Now I’m living in New York. I have an agent. It changed a lot. I’m alone in New York and living by myself. So everything has changed. I have to be independent and I feel like Maria. In Colombia, it’s a slower process to grow up, just live with your family for 20-something years. Then you finish college. Then you get to work, then you get married and then you go. But here, I’m growing up faster and that’s good. I’m learning a lot of things that I should have learned [when I was younger].
Will you continue doing films? I'm not going to jump in another project so fast. I think I'm going to finish Maria's cycle of being in the editing, of being in the sound room. I think it is so incredible how they do movies. I think, when I do another movie, I won't be next to the director in the sound room, to see how they mix the sound, or to be in the editing room. So, I think being so involved in this movie, it's so personal, that I just want to end this cycle. I just want my head in one place. I don't want to think about another project, but I'm reading. I'm reading a lot. I’m reading what’s out there, what’s waiting for me. But I’m just taking it really easy.
Do they plan to come over, or do you send money home to help them? I don’t send money to my family, but what Carla says in the movie, it’s real. She just took the phone and she heard the grandma in the back of the room and like they’re asking how is life there? It happened to me. My mother had been to New York with my brother and when I talk to my father, it’s like, “Oh, I don’t want to talk to you because tears come in my eyes.” To be here alone, it’s very hard. Especially for Colombians. I don't know for Latin America, but Colombians, we’re very close. That’s why Jackson Heights is full of Colombians because they’re all there and they really like being near them. It’s true.
Is there temptation to go back, or get them to come here? No, no one wants to come her because to build a new life is very hard. My mother’s a doctor, so she’s there and my brother has finished school, so he’s fine. They’re all fine. They’re happy there. And of course the temptation to go back home is always in my mind, but right now I’m married to Maria for a couple of months. I’m sure before this year ends I’ll be back home definitely.
Have you ever been stopped by customs like Maria is in the film? I was studying in New York. I had to go back to Colombia to get my student visa and so, I was coming back to New York, and they stopped me. And it is a very weird feeling when you just put your feet in America coming from a Colombian flight. They're waiting for you, they're there. Their eyes are wide open, and you feel like you did something bad, even though you haven't done anything, but you're there with your bag, just waiting for them to stop you. And when they stopped me, I'm like, “Okay, I know I have to be calm.” But of course I wasn't calm, I was crazy. My heart rate was 1,000 and my hands were shaking. Of course, they saw, I was so nervous that they stopped me more and they were keeping me asking questions. I remember, at a point, I was thinking, “Okay, I have to be calm,” because I know they might put me in a little room. But it was so weird. I was, like, acting to be calm and I was not calm. And of course they knew it.
Did they believe you were doing a movie? I didn’t tell them. I was so crazy. I just wanted to get out of there. It was a horrible experience. They padded me, they took my wallet. They were, like, “How much money do you have?” I was, like, “Oh, my God, hopefully I didn't spend ten dollars.” I was trying to get the amount really close to the amount that was in my wallet. “So, like $200?” And they counted it. It was very crazy. At a point I was very mad, I was like, “I’m just a student” And I cried. It was a horrible, horrible scene.
Did they ask you these suspicious questions? Yeah. I have a work visa, I have a student visa, I have a visiting permit. So I have three visas in my passport. They’re like, “Now, you’re a student? Hmm.” And I’m like, “Oh my God, I’m just going to die here. I’m just going to die.” And they keep saying, “Have you visited New York before on the work visa?” They tried to make me fail. And of course I failed I think 1000 times, asking those questions, responding to those questions. At the last part, I was really mad. I cried. I’m like, “You know what? I shouldn’t be here. I’m a guest in your country. I’m a student making a movie.” Of course I sound like a crazy person. So of course they didn’t believe me, but they were so sick that I was crying and they made people look at me, I don't know why they let me go.
What did the director say when you told him about that? He just laughed. He was like, “Oh my God, that’s so funny.” Of course, Maria would have been caught. Thank God she was more brave. He was laughing. “Oh, so you experienced that.” It was not funny at all. It was not funny for me.
How did you learn such good English? Oh, thank you. In school. I went to a British school in Colombia. I studied for 14 years there. Not English, just high school. You’re lucky that I’m speaking good English. Sometimes I just get out of my bed and I just need to speak Spanish.
Will you do a role in English? I really want to do my next role in Spanish. I'm just waiting for the role. I don’t want to jump so fast. I'm very proud to be Latin, I'm very proud to be Colombian and, to me, it's very important to just keep with that.
New face: Catalina Sandino Moreno
Birthplace: Bogotá, Colombia
When casting Maria Full of Grace, director Joshua Marston scoured the Colombian countryside, auditioning more than 800 girls before he finally found his drug mule. “I wanted a Colombian actress who had training, but hadn’t been doing soap operas,” Marston says. Finding Catalina Sandino Moreno among the masses, “I instantly recognized the character I had in my head,” he says.
“Someone told my mother about the film,” says Moreno, who was earning a degree in advertising when she decided to audition. “I was doing theater, but only on the side. At that point the movie was more gossip than anything else. People were saying, ‘Why is an American here, trying to make a movie about Colombia?’ I just went
to find out.”
A few days later, she had the lead, “and my life completely changed,” she says. As a Colombian girl forced by circumstance to traffic drugs (an illicit gig involving the ingestion of heroin pellets for transport to the U.S.), Moreno comes across as simultaneously fragile and defiant, smartly eschewing any easy stereotypes, making the movie, which is equal parts social commentary and crisply told melodrama, more than memorable.
“After I first saw Catalina, I said, ‘We’re going to make her a star,’ ” Marston says. “We didn’t make her a star, of course. She made herself a star. Since doing the film, Catalina, in a way, has discovered herself.”