In the biopic “Cantinflas,” Mexican actress Gabriela de la Garza plays Russian ballerina Olga Ivanova, the sister-in-law of Mario Moreno (AKA Cantinflas), a Mexican comedic actor who broke into the entertainment industry in the 1930s and rose to fame over the next four decades. Cantinflas is portrayed in the film by Spanish actor Óscar Jaenada (“The Losers”). The film, which was México’s official submission for the upcoming Academy Awards, follows Cantinflas from his humbling beginnings performing in traveling tent shows to the biggest role of his career in the 1956 adventure comedy “Around the World in 80 Days,” which won five Academy Awards including Best Picture.
During our interview, de la Garza and I talked about how she was able to land the role of Olga and explained who she turned to when she realized information on Olga was extremely limited during her research.
“Cantinflas” was released on DVD and Blu-ray Dec. 2.
How did you get involved with this project?
Well, this is my second time working with [director] Sebastian del Amo. I worked with him on his first movie, “El fantastic mundo de Juan Orol.” He actually called me and told me about this project a long time ago. When I found out it was going to finally happen, I recorded myself and sent it to the producers. That’s how I got the part.
What was your experience getting to portray someone like Olga Ivanova?
It was a joyful experience. I had a chance to work with a Russian dialect coach for the accent. Even though she doesn’t have a thick accent, I had to practice it. I also had to practice dancing. Sharing the set with Óscar [Jaenada] and the rest of the actors was great.
Not only was Olga a dancer, she was a comedian, too, right?
Yes, I would consider her one of the most important comedians in Mexican history. I knew this film was going to be an important one in the Mexican industry, so I definitely wanted to be part of it.
How much of Cantinflas’ history did you already know? I’m assuming you grew up watching him.
Yes, of course. Everyone in México knows about Cantinflas. I grew up with his movies and his TV series that you could see on Sunday mornings. My grandfather (Manuel Tames) was an actor in the Golden Film Era in México. He was a very well known comedian. Something that was challenging was that we didn’t have a lot of information on Olga. If you Google her or look for information in magazines or books, you won’t find anything on her.
You’re right. I tried doing some online research on Olga prior to this interview and didn’t find much. Were you finally able to find any information on her to help with your role?
Well, we found a photograph of Mario and Valentina and that’s how we knew what she looked like. Even though my grandfather died a long time ago, my grandmother, who is still alive, had a good memory and told me stories and anecdotes about Olga.
Wait, your grandmother actually knew Olga?
Yes, she knew her. She had been to parties at Cantinflas’ house in Acapulco. My grandmother told me she was a very kind and dedicated woman. She even told me about her accent. That was a very cool experience for me to have all that information from my grandmother.
How old is your grandmother now?
She is 97.
I’m guessing she must’ve been pretty excited when you told her you were going to be in a film about Cantinflas, right?
You can’t even imagine. She has all these photographs and all these old letters from Cantinflas to my grandfather. She showed me everything. It was a good experience for her, too, because she had a chance to remember all these stories.
What was it like watching Óscar transform into Cantinflas during the making of the movie?
Everything was inspiring with Óscar. He is a professional. Playing Cantinflas was a very big challenge. Cantinflas has this very specific accent. Not anyone can do it. Watching him on the set and realizing that he was becoming Cantinflas was really amazing. He gained everybody’s respect. I really admire and learned a lot from him.