In “Roma,” Oscar-winning writer/director Alfonso Cuarón’s most personal film of his career, Mexican actress Marina de Tavira plays Sra. Sofia, the fictionalized version of Cuarón’s own mother, who was a supportive presence in his life growing up in Mexico City. “Roma” tells the story of Cuarón’s upbringing form the perspective of the woman who helped raise him, his nanny Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio).
During an interview with me last week, de Tavira talked about why she feels Cuarón cast her for the role of Sofia and the message she hopes a film like “Roma” conveys about caretakers like Cleo.
Like Alfonso, you also grew up in Mexico City. How much of what he portrays happening in the city during that time are things that felt authentic to your own upbringing?
A lot of what was portrayed in the film was my childhood life—the movies, the streets, the music, the phones, the toys. It really took me back to my childhood. It moved a lot of things inside my heart.
What kind of conversations did you have with Alfonso about his mother and how he wanted you to portray her in this film?
We had very long conversations before we started. We talked a lot about her and her story and her biography and children. We talked about Cleo and when she entered [their family’s] life. I understood why he chose me. I could really relate to what he was talking about. It had a lot to do with my own mother’s story and my grandmother’s story and with my own story. He told me not to work from an outsider’s perspective and to trust that it was inside me. That’s how we worked together.
Did you know someone like Cleo growing up—someone who helped the family as a nanny or housekeeper or someone who helped take care of the kids?
Of course. It was part of my childhood and it is part of my life as a mother now. I didn’t have a “Cleo” that was there forever, but my mom did. She was called Nana Sosi. She took care of my mom and her sisters and she also took care of us and all the grandchildren. Right now, a woman named Guadalupe lives with me and my son. She is a woman from Vera Cruz and she is my family. My son and [Guadalupe] and I make life work every day. It’s part of our life. It’s the way we live.
Many times in the United States, women like Cleo and Guadalupe are pushed into the shadows because they are undocumented workers. In the age we’re living in right now and with this administration that is vilifying immigrants daily, do you hope a film like “Roma” will show people that many of these women are a big part of the cultural fabric of this nation?
This movie is sending the message about what we should acknowledge and what we should be grateful for. But I don’t think being grateful is enough. Being grateful means having responsibility and making changes and working in a direction where we can legally acknowledge this kind of work. We should work on their working rights and on their insurances and their schedules. They should be able to have a retirement. We should all do it. It’s about really making a change.
As a Mexican actress, how proud are you of Alfonso—someone from your home city that has found a way to break barriers and make quality films at the highest levels of Hollywood? Before Alfonso and Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu and Guillermo del Toro came around almost 20 years ago, it was a rarity. It still is.
I think he is an incredible artist. He’s crossed the border and has been successful. Right now, what I most admire about him is that he came back and did a film in his country about his people and his family and his memories. He made a film that will be seen all over the world. That is what impresses me. He is putting this story in the spotlight and we are talking about it. That’s why I am so grateful for him.
When I was watching this film at the theater, it felt epic—watching these amazing black and white images on the big screen. When you’re making a film like this, does it feel as big as it looks? Can you feel the scope of it or does it feel more intimate?
It felt totally intimate. The big part came when we saw it. Alfonso works with us in a very special way. We are never aware of the camera. It felt as if we were recreating life itself. When I saw it, I certainly understood the purpose. He made the mundane and everyday life epic. That’s something very few artists can accomplish.
The final scene on the beach is probably the best scene I saw this year of any film. I don’t want to know how it was accomplished, so don’t tell me. I just want to know what that day was like on the set and shooting something so emotional?
It was particular. We had lots of rain and wind the day before. We weren’t able to do it. When we were finally able to do it, they had to build a very huge peer that was over the sea. We knew we didn’t have a lot of chances to get it. The light was perfect. This was the moment. I had very specific indications of when to go out and when to go in. My heart was beating fast because I didn’t want to be the one that got it wrong. There’s so much going on. Even if you have a small part, you have a huge responsibility. And that’s only the technical part. On the emotional side, Alfonso knew that was going to happen. He talked about it. We let the emotions flow and they came huge.