'Roma' Stars On Alfonso Cuarón's Mysterious Casting Process And Learning They Were In A Biographical Film [Interview]

As much as Roma, the latest from writer/director Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity, Children of Men, Y Tu Mamá También), is a barely veiled account of his childhood growing up in the middle-class neighborhood of Roma in Mexico City, in truth, it is the story of the two most important women in his life — his mother (renamed Sofia in the film and played by veteran Mexican actress Marina de Tavira) and Cleo (newcomer Yalitza Aparicio), the woman who raised him full time while also taking care of the house and his three siblings (based on a real-life woman named Libo). Easily his most personal and most intimate work to date, Roma finds Cuarón (who also shot and co-edited the film) composing a lyrical, breathtaking look at childhood, as well as the tumultuous times in the city in the early 1970s, which are sometimes only portrayed as background to the more immediate concerns of the family, which was actively being let down and broken apart by careless men.

Mexico's official selection (and leading contender) for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar at the 91st Academy Awards, the stunning black-and-white epic is filled with love and chaos, measured melodrama, a spectacular soundscape, and breathtaking performances from both lead actresses, who were cast by Cuarón using a very mysterious process that even they don't quite understand. And while one of them is a seasoned performer and the other has never acted before, both give performances that are moving and beautifully authentic.

/Film spoke to Aparicio (who spoke through a translator) and De Tavira at the recent Chicago International Film Festival to talk about working with the enigmatic Cuarón and how the realization that they were playing characters deeply important to the filmmaker changed their perception of the overall film. Considered to be one of the finest works of 2018, Roma is in select theaters now, eventually hitting more than 600 theaters worldwide (including 100 in the United States), before it debuts on Netflix on December 14.

I know there was a great deal of secrecy during many phases of Roma's production, including casting. So how did Alfonso find you both?

Yalitza: It all happened when the casting team came to the community where I lived. There has never, ever been casting in my community before, so my sister insisted that I should go because she wanted to know what casting was all about. And that's the reason I went. I didn't want to continue doing the casting process because that would have taken me outside my community, so I had to travel, and I felt scared because for all I knew, this could have been about human trafficking [laughs].

Marina: Well I work as an actress in Mexico, so I'm used to the casting process and auditions, but this one was really different—it was the longest process I've done, from the first time in to when I got the part. I think it was about four months or more. The first one I did was also different from all others because there was no scene. They only wanted me to talk about myself, give them a short biography of my life, and then I sensed that they were looking for something that was close to my reality and really going into who I was, and that relaxed me, because there's no way of getting that wrong.

I've heard that you never saw a full script ever during the making of the film. At what point did you realize that your were playing people in his life? Did that terrify or excite you when that was made clear?

Marina: We knew that pretty close to the beginning. We knew that the story came from Alfonso's memories and that it was about it his family. Yalitza can tell you more because she actually met the real Cleo.

Yalitza: Actually from the very beginning, Alfonso told me that he was going to focus on his mom Libo, and he explained that he actually had two moms: the real one and Libo. After this, he gave me the opportunity to meet Libo, but she only spoke about her story exactly to the point where the movie starts. She didn't tell me anything that was going to happen in the film, only what had happened before in her life.

Did you both only get the backstory leading up to the events in the movie?

Marina: Exactly. For me it was the same thing, but it was Alfonso who gave me the information. His mother was old and sick, so he told me her story, just to the moment where it starts. Everything that happened before, he told me and the way that Cleo entered their lives, where they had their kids, everything. Then he said, "From now on, you are going to be discovering it day by day."

Was it entirely improvised? Obviously you knew what was going to happen in each scene, but did you make up what you said?

Marina: There was nothing improvised. It's hard to explain, because he has a full script, perfectty written, and the film matches it totally. The way he did it was so that it felt improvised. He would give us the lines the same day we shot them, and in very different ways, and always individually. And he would say "You're going to say something like this. And when she says that, you do this." Then he would put it all together, and we would see what happened.

Yalitza: Sometimes he gave different instructions to all of us, since he was giving us lines individually. Sometimes I knew what I had to do but then the kids or Marina reacted unexpectedly for me, then I had to react in the moment.

Since you've never been in a film before, did you think this just the way movies were made, or did you figure out that this was not normal?

Yalitza: At the beginning, I thought this is how films were made or maybe just a strategy to do it, but I really didn't know. It was helping because I wasn't feeling any pressure to study or learn lines or to think or how to show or portray some of the reactions. But when I talked to the crew, they told me that this was absolutely new for them. They had never, ever worked like this and found it really difficult. Then I realized that this was not common, not having a script or anything else to support you ahead of shooting something.

Were you able to shoot this more or less chronologically?

Marina: Totally. And for the producers, it was crazy. They didn't have the script either and we did it chronologically, so they would arrange for a location and not know whether we were going back to it later.

Both of your characters are in very different circumstances but are abandoned by men, and it becomes a bonding thing between the two of you. Can you talk a bit about that aspect of your characters and how you two lean on each other?

Marina: When Cleo tells Sofia she's pregnant and that she can't find the father, it's the same moment when Sofia has to tell her kids that their father isn't coming home for Christmas. There's a moment of silence where Sofia is thinking "We are left alone by men for being mothers." And that's what she tells Cleo when she's a little bit drunk, and I think that's the situation for a lot of women, and there are lots of women who are heads of families that bring up children by themselves. Somehow it happens in way that the children are of the moms, belong to them, and we really think we have the strength when the father isn't a presence in their lives.

Yalitza: This is a very tough but real situation that many women face. The abandonment, like in the case of Sofia, her children area abandoned when they are still little, while Cleo, she's still pregnant when she is abandoned. Men just leave. As Marina said, Sofia tells Cleo, "No matter what they tell you, we are always alone." When we were shooting the scene, I remember it made me cry because I started thinking that no matter what society says or what your friends tell you, these women have to move on, struggle and do whatever it takes to solve the problems of their families and overcome any situation. And if the men leave, it's even more so. They have to get together, stick together and overcome everything to bring their families up and out of it.

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I want to ask about the scene in the ocean at the end. Can you really not swim, and was that fear of drowning real?

Yalitza: [laughs] Yes, it's true. I don't know how to swim, so the fear was real. And at first I told him I could hold my breath, but when I saw the waves and looking at the huge ocean, that was true fear. The fact that they told me ahead of time that I would have to go in the water made me feel even more fear. But once we started shooting—and the children knew how to swim—I bought the whole thing because I thought they were drowning. I lost sight of their little heads, and that made me really feel a lot of fear. But that's where my mother's instincts took over. Mothers will do whatever to save their children, even risking their own lives, so that happened to me.

Did you always know the film was going to be in black & white?

Marina: That we did know from the very beginning also. It was one of the few things we didn't have to think about. We knew it was like that but it didn't interfere with any of the work. But for me, when I saw it, I loved it. I'm a nostalgic person. Even though Alfonso never said this was a nostalgic, black-and-white film, because it was done with modern technology, for me, I do remember the first photographs of my childhood album, so I knew it was from the beginning.

It's the color of memory.

Marina: Exactly.

Yalitza: It surprised me a lot. I remember the crew was always taking care to have the right contrast, and when they spoke about it, I didn't understand a thing. But when I saw the film, I understood the reason. The idea was to show all the details. Even when we were shooting, sometimes our clothes were a weird combination of color, but it turned out that it turned out to be incredible on the screen.

Were the things about the story that didn't make sense while you were doing them that were made clearer when you saw the finished film?

Marina: We didn't get to see any of the footage. He was very strict about it, and if by chance we were walking by where the video screens were, he would yell "Don't let them see!" [laughs] He was preventing us from being influenced by anything we might have seen. For me, I didn't know what Cleo's journey was at all. I only knew mine. So when I saw the film for the first time, I was like "Wow!" I knew who the guy was and what he told her when she confronted him because she tells me in the story, but for me, it was about discovering Cleo.

Yalitza: As we never knew what he was doing with the cameras and lights, I didn't really know what was going on. I never expected a camera was going to follow all of my moves, and that was surprising when I saw it for the first time. Or maybe I understood why Alfonzo told me to walk slower here or faster here or you turn the lights up here, and it wasn't until I watched the film that I understood the whole thing.

Did this experience spark an interest in acting for you?

Yalitza: Yes, I liked it really, but I don't know if I'll continue doing it. First, I'd have to study because I don't know if any other director would be willing to risk working with non-actors or work with people who are not trained. We'll see. I don't know if other directors are like Alfonzo.

There's one image that repeats throughout the film of a plane going by overhead. Did Alfonso every explain what that was about?

Marina: He would never explain any metaphor or anything. But I've heard him say that the image starts as a reflection in water on the ground, and by the end we see it in the sky. I really don't know what that means [laughs]. In Mexico City, the airport is right inside the city, so we're constantly dealing with airplanes. It could have just been the sound that he remembers being constantly there.

For both of you, how did this experience change your life?

Marina: I'm mostly a theater actress. I come from a theater background and come from a family that has worked in theater for generations. I've always seen myself as a theater actress and I love the theater. But this was amazing, and I never thought I'd do a film that would travel all around the world and would deliver such a significant meaning to the world in terms of what it talks about. It talks about Mexico, it talks about the difficulty of a non-privileged community that has to really struggle and is having lots of problem. For me, it means a lot to be in a film that's talking about these things.

Yalitza: My life has changed completely. I'm visiting places I never thought I would visit, and I've bene very fortunate to have met a lot of people who have told us how touching the film has been for them. To me, it's really beautiful to find out that they like it. Also, I think it's great that, though the film, the world gets to see things about Mexico and how it is. Unfortunately, there are many things about Mexico that have not changed, and problems that are portrayed in the film, people ask us if they are fiction, and I have to answer, sadly, that they aren't. They are things that are still happening in Mexico.

Best of luck with this. It was wonderful to meet you both.

Martina: Thank you very much.