AFM 2012: Actor/Director/Screenwriter Selton Mello on Representing Brazil's Oscar Chances with 'The Clown'

Selton Mello Portrait - H 2012

Selton Mello Portrait - H 2012

The triple-threat spoke to THR about his responsibility to represent his home country: "I feel like a soccer player wearing a yellow shirt in the World Cup."

Brazilian actor-director Selton Mello has a huge reponsibility to represent the country with his comic drama The Clown -- Brazil's official entry for Oscar's foreign film category.

Mello co-wrote, directed and also starred in the movie, which also stars legendary Brazilian actor Paulo Jose.

PHOTOS: Fall Movie Preview 2012

The Clown follows a father and son, Valdemar (Jose) and Benjamin (Mello), who travel with a circus working as clowns. When Benjamin starts to doubt his ability to make people laugh and his own future, he decides to follow a different path, seeking out a fixed address and a steady girlfriend. He literally runs away from the circus to join society.

The low-budget, $3 million film was a big hit in Brazil, reaching about 1.5 million people raking in $7 million at the box office. The movie has no U.S. distribution yet, but will be screened at the American Film Market in Santa Monica on Thursday, Nov. 1.

The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Mello about what inspired him to make the film and his expectations for the future after the Oscar nod.

The Hollywood Reporter: What inspired you to write the film? Why a movie about a circus?

Selton Mello: It was a desire to talk about identity, what our role is in the world, what we have chosen to do with our lives. It was the beauty and, at the same time, the weight of our destiny. I chose to talk about this dilemma, which are absolutely universal, throughout the perspective of a clown.

So it’s not a film about a circus. It’s within a circus’ atmosphere, the film is told from the perspective of a clown -- but the drama is something that embraces everyone. Everybody can identify with the character, because in reality, the film tells the story of a clown who thinks that he is not funny any more and for him it doesn’t make that much sense to keep doing what he has been doing all his life: being a clown. So my character is unhappy, dissatisfied and questioning his choices. During the film, he starts to rethink about it, and understanding that it’s a beautiful thing to express his natural ability and talent.

THR: So you think that many people can identify with the film?

Mello: It’s a film that moved many people, because everyone can identify with this situation. An example: I received a letter from a physician, who was moved by the story because he is a physician, his father and grandpa are also physicians, and when he watched the movie he questioned himself and his career’s choices. He was unsure if he was doing that because of the family’s tradition or because he really loved it.

STORY: Brazil Sends 'The Clown' to Foreign Oscar Race

THR: Have you ever thought about telling the story through another perspective, or you have always thought about telling it through the clown’s perspective?

Mello: No, since the beginning I wanted to tell the story through the perspective of a clown. I guess it’s also a tribute to my profession as an actor. Among other things, the movie is also a tribute to the greatness of art, the beauty of bringing fun, emotion to the audiences, that’s a noble thing. So deep down, the film is a tribute to the art.

THR: How did you cast it the actors, since you play the leading role? I heard you wanted [Brazilian stars] Wagner Moura or Rodrigo Santoro to play your character.

Mello: I thought about not playing the part, because I had already written and I was going to direct, so I thought it was going to be too much on my plate. But Santoro and Wagner couldn’t do it due to other projects that they were involvedin. So both of them encouraged me to play the part. They said, "Man, you have to do it, because you know the character so well and there won’t be anybody else better than you to play this role.” So I embraced and it was an adventure to manage all the tasks.

THR: Have you thought about casting actor Paulo Jose to co-star with you since the beginning?

Mello: Paulo Jose was a suggestion from our production company’s Vania Catani. He is a legend of the Brazilian cinema. He has done huge contribution to the cinema, playing many important characters like in Macunaima, O Padre e a Moca, Todas as Mulheres do Mundo. He is an icon, especially from the ‘60s, and 70s, even though he has been always active. In a way, I represent the new generation of actors. It was a great way to connect two generations together. Another interesting fact is that both of us never had worked together and never had portrayed a clown before, so it was a unique experience for both of us and I think it was a successful match.

THR: How does it feel personally to have been chosen to represent Brazil in the Oscar’s foreign category?

Mello: It’s a huge responsibility and an honor to represent the country. So I am feeling like a soccer player wearing the yellow shirt to play in the World Cup. I am wearing the shirt now. So it’s a big responsibility and at the same time it’s hard because there are 71 films for only five spots. However, I believe in the film, because is a film that goes straight to your heart and that’s why I think it’s powerful. I also have been reading about the other films that are nominated for the Oscar and many of them have big budgets. The Clown cost about $3 million, it’s nothing compared to others.

THR: Also, it’s a different movie compared to other Brazilian movies that international audiences are used to, like Elite Squad and City of God.

Mello: Yes, that’s the interesting part, I think that this can draw attention because there is an expectation that Brazilian movies will always have this caricature including slums, violence, and gunshot or about poverty, carnival, Rio de Janeiro. This film doesn’t have anything to do with that. It’s a sweet tale, what people call a “feel-good movie.” It’s a movie that it’s good for your soul, and it gets to the audience in a magic way because of its simplicity.

STORY: Brazilian Actor Wagner Moura on Playing Fellini: 'I Need to Work on My Italian Accent'

THR: What does this nomination mean to the Brazilian cinema industry?

Mello: That would be a huge achievement for our industry. Also, we can’t deny that we are experiencing many changes in our country. Brazil is in evidence, the economy is strong and we are increasingly exporting our talents in arts, music and cinema. For example, actor Rodrigo Santoro, Jose Padilha now directing Robocop, Daniel Rezende also worked for Terrence Malick, so the attention to Brazilian artists has been growing lately. We will also have the World Cup, the Olympics in the next couple years. So maybe this attention is another good reason for the film to be chosen.

THR: The Clown has been receiving many awards in Brazil. Did you expect that?

Mello: I didn’t expect it, but we never know exactly how it will turn out. However, I wanted to make a movie that could have a potential audience. Our box office reached about $7 million. So it was considered a successful film commercially since our budget was less than $3 million. But it’s an art film, aesthetically refined, that leaves room for reflection. Many commercial films are just commercial films. So The Clown could put these two categories together: commercial and art.

THR: Are you negotiating any distribution in the U.S.?

Mello: Yes, we are negotiating distribution in countries like Argentina, Uruguay, and of couse we want to distribute in the U.S. I think that now that we are representing Brazil to be the Oscar contender, it will open more doors, including the AFM, which might help us out.

THR: Do you have plans to expand you directorial career internationally, like Jose Padilha, Walter Salles, Fernando Meirelles, Afonso Poyart, etc.?

Mello: Sure, in my case it’s even crazier, because I have a double interest, not only as director but also as an actor. I have a manager in Los Angeles, but I don’t have an agent yet. So we want to take advantage of this moment and see if I can close a deal with an agency.

THR: What are you working on now?

Mello: I just finished directing the Brazilian version of the series In Treatment (Sessao de Terapia) for the cable network GNT. For next year, I have a film being developed called Soundtrack, which I will star alongside musician Seu Jorge – who also starred in City of God. Two Brazilians will direct, but the language spoken will be English.