About the Cast
The first actor cast in the movie was famed Mexican actor, Demian Bichir, in the pivotal role of Carlos Galindo. While US audiences are somewhat familiar with Bichir's work on the series "Weeds" and his portrayal of Fidel Castro in Che, he is a superstar in Mexico, who comes from a family of performers - his parents and two brothers are also actors. Indeed, the Mexican MTV Movie Awards created a special category for the brothers Bichir - "Mejor Bichir in una Pelicula," "Best Bichir in a Movie."
"He's a huge star in Mexico but relatively less well known in America. In that respect, he brings two great things to the movie: One, the most important, is that he is an exceptional actor. The other is that when he appears on screen, he isn't totally familiar to American audiences. This allows you to believe he is a gardener, a simple man who might lose everything, whereas with US movie stars, you just never really believe it. Demian immersed himself fully into the role. I think people will be impressed with his performance," Weitz says.
Indeed, prior to the start of production, Bichir extensively researched his character by consulting local Los Angeles day laborers. He even bought a white pick-up truck from one of them and that became his preferred mode of transportation throughout the film.
"There are many different ways to approach a character and it's different on every film. When I have the time, I always try to do a lot of research. So I interviewed a lot of paisanos [fellow Mexicans], working in gardens everywhere in Los Angeles. It was really great and informative to get to know those guys. I wanted to build a character that was not a stereotype because even though it is specific to Los Angeles, it is a universal story - it is about pursuing and fulfilling your dreams and taking care of your family - my character's son, in this case. He is a decent, hard-working man trying to build a better future, primarily for his son. He doesn't have many dreams for himself - if he can give his son a good education and keep him away from gangs and drugs, if he can achieve that, that's a life worth living. It's about heart and that's something everyone can relate to," Bichir says.
Carlos' dreams are literally linked to the truck he buys, which instantly transforms him into an independent contractor and allows him, he hopes, to take charge of his destiny. Everything changes, of course, when a supposed new friend and co-worker steals the truck.
"The truck means everything to Carlos. It is the boat that will take him to a happy port. It signifies hope and the possibility of a better future. It is his passport to better times, but in this case, in truth, also to rough ones," Bichir notes.
These circumstances are untenable on every level - without the truck, Galindo has no means of finding enough substantial work to make a living and to repay his sister Anita, who has loaned him the money to buy it. He can't report it stolen because he is an illegal immigrant, albeit one who has lived and worked in the United States for so many years he's almost forgotten about his status. Father and son unite to find the stolen vehicle and slowly forge a bond that has been broken for many years, each finding out more about the other.
"The situation is completely risky for Carlos and he finds himself at the limits of desperation. But it is also an extraordinary opportunity - it provides the pretext for Carlos and his son Luis to join forces and to face things together for the first time. They have an important adventure together and Luis sees that his father is a brave man, a whole person who is prepared to do anything to regain what is rightfully his, all for his son - and in the process, he demands and earns Luis' respect," Bichir says.
While clearly Bichir delved into the "head" of his character, part of his acting style is less intellectual and more visceral. Athletics are a big part of Bichir's life - tennis and soccer, in particular - and he considers it a part of an actor's job to stay nimble, both physically and emotionally. To that end, he learned to climb to the top of a palm tree, using only the gardener's belt and boots, shimmying up the trunk in a powerful, gravity-taunting dance. Weitz also clambered up the tree, on an early location scout with Bichir, in a nice bit of "method directing," but it was Bichir who had to do it multiple times, balancing up in his perch for a few hours, when it came time to film the scene.
In fact, it was the intrepid, tree-climbing director coupled with the story of Carlos Galindo that attracted Bichir to the project.
"I met Chris about a year before filming, and just by listening to the way he talked about it and by sharing the same feelings he had about the subjects and the story, I immediately felt connected to him. When I finally got the script, I was impressed by its realism, the way it approached the people we mostly don't know anything about. Your cooks, your gardeners, your maids, your valet parking people - what I liked about it was its human approach to their lives," Bichir says.
Whereas Bichir is the accomplished veteran actor, his co-star, José Julián is an outstanding neophyte who makes his feature debut in A Better Life.
"We needed to find the right young actor to play Luis Galindo, someone who could hold his own against Demian on screen," remembers McLaughlin. "Usually, this involves a nation-wide search for an unknown that is fraught with the possibility that not finding the right actor will actually derail the production. In her interview for the job, our casting director, Carla Hool, declared she'd already found Luis for us. And then she showed us tape of José Julián. The first time we tested José and Demian together, we were beside ourselves because they found the father-son dynamic with each other instantly and so early in the process."
"From the start we knew we were going to cast an unknown as Luis, his son. In his performance, José demonstrates what an extraordinarily clever, intelligent and talented actor he is, even though this is his first movie. I felt he was the guy from the first time I saw him. Plus, he's an example of someone the film represents - it took him three hours to get to his auditions, due to the number of buses he had to take," says Weitz. "Also, mixing an extraordinarily technically accomplished actor, like Demian, with someone who is making his motion picture bow, like José, worked beautifully."
As it turned out, Bichir, a garrulous man who typically greets everyone with a bear hug, happily took José under his wing, which thrilled his young protégé.
"It was incredible working with him, it was like being in a fantastic acting class and he was the professor. He's completely an actor's actor. He has a very systematic approach to how he works, the roles he takes and I completely admire him," Julián says.
"Demian is a consummate professional. He completely understood the character he was playing. And he's been a great gift to José Julián--to work with someone who is both so generous and so professionally accomplished. He's everything a young actor could ask for, and José has been quite a gift as well. The movie is driven by these two characters. If either one of them is even a little off, you lose so much. And to find someone this age who's this talented and charismatic is just, quite frankly, more than I had hoped for. And I think he has an enormous career in front of him," producer Paul Junger Witt sums up.
Julián, who was 16 during production, was always disappointed that, due to child labor laws, his shooting day ended earlier than Bichir's. Their characters' fraught on-screen relationship was the total antithesis of their off-screen partnership.
"Luis is teenager who lives in Los Angeles with his father who is illegal. Luis is always angry and pissed at his father and has no respect for him, even though deep down he loves him. He always gives his father a hard time. Luis has many friends who are in gangs and if he isn't careful, Luis will end up in that lifestyle. He's smart, he doesn't want to end up that way, but after a while, he may not have an option. When his father buys a truck, it's a great thing because it means a better life for them but when it is stolen, Luis and his father go to find it and that becomes the opportunity for them to finally connect," Julián explains.
Julián adds that there were certain aspects about the character and the film that he related to personally.
"I'm from California, I grew up with kids like Luis. I think it's a very realistic portrayal, not just of the teenagers, but of illegals - and we lived in areas that were very gang oriented, I know what it's like to be subjected to those conditions, exposed to that environment," Julián says.
Julián also developed a special bond with producer Jami Gertz. Gertz certainly empathized with his position as "the newbie." Invariably, in between takes, Julián would seek her advice - or just sit and play scrabble, a pastime that allowed him to be distracted and present at the same time.
"I've been in his place before. I was the young, first-time actor on a set, so I completely empathized with him and hope I was a resource for him. My attitude about movies in general and performing, specifically, is that it is a huge team effort and the goal, for me as a producer, is to aid in that effort in any way I can; to help everyone shine and be the best that they can be. If I could be a sounding board for Jose in that way - or even just provide a safe place to hang out, I was happy to do it," Gertz says.
Julián shared many of his scenes with Chelsea Rendon and Bobby Soto, who played Ruthie, Luis' tough, loyal girlfriend and Facundo, his energetic best friend. The three teenage actors genuinely liked each other and the natural rapport they shared on and off camera was apparent.
"I'm the man, definitely. I kind of push him around. Ruthie is a bad influence. Her whole family is made up of gang members. She's grown up in that atmosphere, she's very cocky and confident because she knows she can talk smack - her family is backing her up. I think she really cares for Luis - I think he brings out her girlier side because he is not as big and tough but at the same time, she wants him to be part of the gang lifestyle because literally that is her family," Rendon says.
Rendon, friendly with a quick grin, is far less intimidating than her character. Nevertheless, she found she had quite a bit in common with Ruthie.
"This role was really close to home for me. I grew up in East LA, about ten minutes from where it's set. Ruthie will always speak up for her friends and so will I. I've always been a tomboy, always hanging around guys, so in those respects I'm a lot like her. I think the whole movie is very accurate, in fact. I go to public schools, so I know about the influence of gangs and drugs and the [presence of] illegals - I think the movie really depicts all that authentically," Rendon says.
Interestingly, although Ruthie's kin are clearly affiliated with gangs, Luis' visits with her and her relations are almost old fashioned - no violence, just a welcoming, familial sensibility - even if her supportive uncles are covered with ominous tattoos and may have designs on Luis' future that his father doesn't share.
While Luis' interest in Ruthie does not necessarily extend to her gang affiliations, their friend Facundo has no such reservations.
" Facundo is definitely into the gangs and is all about influencing Luis into joining one with him. They've been best friends since childhood but Facundo sees no way out - a gang is what he thinks will give him high ranking in the neighborhood. He tries to influence Luis in that direction. He is not like Luis, who can just ignore it. Facundo needs to be part of a gang, and he would love for Luis to be a part of it with him," says Bobby Soto.
Soto adds that he hopes kids who see the movie will relate more to Luis than to Facundo, who often seems to be fueled by false bravado and misguided ambitions.
"I think a lot of kids romanticize violence and drugs and gangs. Hopefully, if they see this movie they'll think differently - that you don't have to be a thug to be somebody, that you have a choice," Soto says.
Dolores Heredia, who plays Luis' Aunt Anita, Carlos Galindo's sister, is an experienced Mexican actress and producer, who has worked many times with Demian Bichir. The two old friends were delighted to reunite on A Better Life.
"I think this was my fifth film with him. He is a great friend and colleague and I really admire him as an actor. We were constantly laughing and joking in between takes, it was great to work with him again," Heredia says.
Heredia adds that it was equally exciting to work with newcomer José Julián.
"It's wonderful to work with an actor who is just starting out, there is a special effervescence about it. In addition, José is a very calm, quiet young man but he is very attentive. He was a real pleasure," Heredia says.
Whereas Anita's brother Carlos is somewhat struggling to find his way in America, Anita is married, a mother, nurse and lives in a nice neighborhood. Although she is often impatient with her brother, the two share a bond that began many years earlier, when they left Mexico for the United States, both hoping for a better life.
"Carlos and Anita have been in the United States from Mexico for many years. They are very close but things have gone rather better for her. They will always love and help each other but there is a small rift between them having to do with her nephew Luis, who, from her point of view, is not taking very good steps with his life. She doesn't like his friends, that he doesn't study. She is always asking if he is behaving, even though she loves him," Heredia explains. "She is quite rigid in that respect, she thinks things have to go in a certain way and she wants Luis to follow a certain path that she thinks he is not on, so that really is the first emotional crack between brother and sister. And her own relationship with Luis is tense - he feels she abandoned him and his father, to look after her own life."
Still, Anita takes a huge risk in loaning her brother money to buy the truck that will literally become his ride to the American Dream - and ultimately, because of the truck, she will have more say in the way Luis is raised, though hers is a pyrrhic victory at best.
And yet, the truck - or, actually, Carlos and Luis' search for it - becomes an adventure as father and son explore Latino Los Angeles - and emotional terrain that they have avoided for many years.
"It starts out as this traditional father-son story - Luis is a typical teenage boy who is finding his way in the world, and like many teenage boys, that includes being embarrassed by your parents. You want them to drop you off miles away from school so your friends won't see you together. When the truck is stolen, Luis and Carlos go on this journey together and you find yourself caring as much about that truck as they do - because along the way, you see father and son learn about each other in ways they never did before - Luis, in particular, starts to learn not only how hard his dad is working to give his son a better life and all the advantages he can, but also how to be good person, how to treat people with respect," says producer Stacey Lubliner.
The disconnect between Carlos and Luis is specific but also, as Paul Junger Witt points out, also touches on familiar cultural/generational aspects.
"We're also dealing classically with the immigrant and first generation divide in A Better Life. So you have a boy who is totally American. He has been formed by the same things that formed all of our children; be it film and television and the Internet and media. At the same time, he sees his father as someone from the old country. When we deal simply with generational differences, it's enough. When you have an inherently and totally American child and an immigrant parent, that gap is even greater and more difficult to bridge," he notes.
However, it is this father/son relationship, adds producer Jami Gertz, which makes A Better Life a universal story. As the mother of three boys, it is something she can attest to firsthand.
"Two of my three boys are teenagers and I'm always amazed at that moment that their peers and peer pressure start to take over their life. And as a working parent, I could also see things from Carlos' point of view - the guilt at not being there all the time because of your job. So while it's about a gardener, it struck me that all these extraordinary people who make our lives better who we don't really know - their lives, on some level, can be similar to yours even if their socioeconomic backgrounds are not," Gertz says.