'A Better Life' Star Demian Bichir's 30-Year Journey to the Oscars

2012-05 FEA Demian Bichir P
Jerod Harris/Getty for The Wrap

The surprise best actor contender for "A Better Life" beat out Fassbender and DiCaprio for a nomination, leaving many wondering, "Who is Demian Bichir?"

The surprise best actor contender beat out Michael Fassbender and Leonardo DiCaprio for a nomination, leaving many wondering, "Who is Demian Bichir?"

This article appeared in the February 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

It seems Demian Bichir has gotten pretty damn good at turning fantasies into reality. Take his four-year odyssey to bring a Spanish-language stage adaptation of the 1995 Kevin Spacey black comedy Swimming With Sharks to a theater in Mexico City. Then there was waking up Jan. 24 to learn his too-good-to-be-true early-morning hallucinations of an Oscar nomination were not induced by the flu fever that had taken over his body the night before. And, most thrilling, was his successful willing of the world's most beautiful couple to his table at the SAG Awards on Jan. 29 for an accolades-laden conversation about his role as beleaguered immigrant gardener Carlos Galindo in A Better Life.

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"I saw Brad and Angie walking toward me," says Bichir, 48, who attended the fete in support of his nom for best actor in a motion picture (he lost to Jean Dujardin of The Artist). "I told my girlfriend -- as a joke -- 'They're obviously trying to find me.' And they were! They were really, really nice and said how moved they were by the film. If someone had told me a year ago, 'This will be your life,' I would have laughed out loud."

Unlike his U.S.-born peers, whose sound bites can be as choreographed as the scripts that pay their bills, Bichir emotes without apology. In even the briefest conversation, he drops the word "beautiful" a dozen times -- he uses it to describe things he loves, from avocados to his 8-month-old daughter, Gala -- and peppers descriptions with "very, very" and "really, really." It's easy to assume he's simply wanting for words; after all, English isn't the Mexico-born actor's first language. But those around Bichir know better: The 30-year acting veteran is simply sobre la luna.

Only the third Latino ever nominated for a best actor Oscar (he follows Puerto Rico's Jose Ferrer and fellow Mexican Anthony Quinn), Bichir, now an American citizen, has infused a low-key Oscar race not only with a potential spoiler (THR's June 15 review of Better Life predicted "this little gem...may even pick up a nomination") but also with the thrill of surprise -- one that, for Bichir, was a long time coming.

He grew up in a family of performers (his father ran a theater; his mother and two brothers are actors) and began acting as a teenager, slogging through auditions in New York and L.A. in the '80s. After a turn in the gritty 1994 drama Hasta Morir, for which he won an Ariel, Mexico's version of an Oscar, he emerged a movie star back home. During the past decade, Bichir has logged a slew of memorable Hollywood roles, including a scary-suave turn as Tijuana Mayor Esteban Reyes on Showtime's Weeds, as Fidel Castro in Steven Soderbergh's two-part epic Che and as a drug-cartel attorney in Oliver Stone's forthcoming drama Savages. But Bichir's celebrity in America wasn't cemented until Oscar-nom morning, when he beat out the likes of A-lister Leonardo DiCaprio (J. Edgar) and art house gods Michael Fassbender (Shame) and Ryan Gosling (Drive, The Ides of March) for a coveted slot among Oscar's leading men.

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Ask Bichir how it feels, and you get more of the humility those who have worked with him say is his signature. "There is so much more Latino talent, all over the world, that aren't known," he says. "Hopefully someday others will get their chance, too."

It was Bichir's earnest journeyman approach to acting that Better Life director Chris Weitz says made casting him a no-brainer. "It was ridiculously easy," says Weitz, who noticed Bichir in Che when the director was prepping to helm the Twilight installment New Moon. "I got the script for Better Life, then known as The Gardener, and I thought, 'I know the perfect guy for this.' His Oscar nomination made the front page of most of the Spanish-language newspapers. That made me want to cry."

The effects of Better Life on Bichir's countrymen were profound even during filming around Los Angeles, when the actor rarely removed his gardener's garb. "Some guys recognized me and said: 'Oh no, Demian. Hard times, eh?' I said: 'No, no. I'm just researching a role, I promise!' " he says lightheartedly, while in the same breath recognizing the greater social impact of the film's message. "I have many Anglo friends who've said their whole view on immigration changed from watching this film," says Bichir. "To know I've given a voice to 11 million people … it's very, very meaningful."

The cascade of kudos following his Indie Spirit, SAG and Oscar noms for the small film (since its June 24 release, Better Life has grossed barely $1.8 million) has made at least one of Bichir's dreams-come-true a bit tricky: Opening night in Mexico City for Sharks, in which he portrays the evil Hollywood executive Spacey immortalized in the film, is Feb. 8, smack in the middle of Oscar festivities.

But he welcomes the PR boost. "We gave a preview last week, and there were standing ovations," says Bichir, who now splits his time between Mexico and California. "They shouted, 'Good luck at the Oscars!' That felt great."

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Between the awards circuit, juggling offers for film and TV -- "a few things are coming in," he says coyly -- and staying in touch via video and photos with his daughter, who lives with his ex in Madrid, Bichir is savoring the moment. Having his parents around for the "thrill" has made the attention that much sweeter. "Not in their wildest dreams could they imagine this kid who could never sit still could become all this," he says.

The Oscar Nominees Luncheon on Feb. 6 also has Bichir giddy: "If I have a chance to say hi to Woody Allen and Gary Oldman and tell them I love them, that will be a good day."