As was probably the case with actors Robert Downey, Jr. for his lead role the 1992 biopic “Chaplin” and Jim Carrey for his portrayal of comedian Andy Kaufman in 1999’s “Man on the Moon,” Spanish actor Óscar Jaenada was faced with two distinct roles in his new film “Cantinflas.”
“It was a huge double challenge because there are two characters in this one role,” Jaenada, 39, told me during an interview earlier this month. “On one side was Cantinflas. On the other side was Mario Moreno. It was tough because I had to look at the characters differently.”
In the film, Jaenada portrays Mexican comedian Mario Moreno, who had an extremely successful career in the film industry for nearly 40 years playing his alter ego known as Cantinflas. During this time, Moreno starred in 25 films as Cantinflas, including “El circo,” “Sube y baja” and “Puerta, joven.” In the films where his character had another name (for example, he played the character Passepartout in the Oscar-winning 1956 film “Around the World in 80 Days”), Moreno was billed as Cantinflas.
During our interview, Jaenada, who has starred in such recent American movies as “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” and “The Losers,” talked about what he did to prepare for such an iconic role and revealed what question he would like to ask Cantinflas if he were alive today.
What type of research did you do for this role?
For Cantinflas, I had a lot of photos. I saw a lot of his movies. I also hired a dance teacher and a Cantinflas impersonator. But the bigger challenge was portraying Mario Moreno. He was a really secretive man. I had to meet people who were in his circle. I had to ask a lot of questions. I wanted to show the way Mario was alive and the way he conveyed the uniqueness of Cantinflas.
Since you are of Spanish descent and Mario was Mexican, have you gotten any backlash for that, especially since Mario was so popular in Mexico?
Yeah, it was tough. In Mexico, some people were like, “Who is this Spaniard asking so many questions about Mario Moreno?” But I am an actor. There are many examples of this, like when Demián Bichir played Fidel Castro [in “Che”] and Gael García Bernal played Che Guevara [in “The Motorcycle Diaries”]. It doesn’t matter. It’s a production. You don’t have to be from Mexico to play a Mexican. I didn’t let it bother me. I just concentrated on my two characters.
I agree with you completely. We’re actually going to see Gael García Bernal play an Iranian/Canadian journalist in a movie later this year, so it happens all the time. I don’t think people should make such a big deal about it.
Yeah, I mean, Daniel Day-Lewis is English and he won the Oscar for playing [Abraham] Lincoln [in “Lincoln”]. It’s a challenge, but we are all actors. That’s our job.
Does playing someone who was as beloved as Cantinflas put added pressure on you to get it right? I’m sure there will be people watching your every move.
Yeah, but we all put the work in for this movie. I was in Mexico for six months and we all worked 14-hour days sometimes to get it just right. It feels like a responsibility for me to let people know who Cantinflas and Mario Moreno were.
Talk about the decision to work with an impersonator for the role of Cantinflas and why you felt doing this wouldn’t turn your performance into an impersonation.
Well, Cantinflas is so present in the minds of people in Mexico and Latin America, so the challenge of the character was the imitation. Everybody knows who Cantinflas was. Everybody knows how Cantinflas moved. I worked with a lot of people to get that right.
Mario Moreno, of course, passed away in 1993. If you had the opportunity to ask him a question, what would you have liked to know?
I would’ve asked him if it was an artistic decision or a business decision to play Cantinflas for such a long time. As an actor, I know what can happen when you are typecast. I’d really like to know if playing Cantinflas was his decision as an artist.
Would you be able to do what Mario did and play the same character for your entire career? I mean, even today, you really can’t look at someone like actor Paul Reubens in anything he does and not see Pee Wee Herman, right?
You know, I have done more than 30 movies and every time I remove myself from my body and let the character take over. But when I finish with the movie, I am finished with that character. I think it would be difficult to do what Mario did all those years.
With the recent passing of Robin Williams, something a lot of people are realizing is that many comedians have a dark side to them that we rarely see. Did you find that true with Cantinflas?
Yes, of course. It’s the sadness of the comedian. Robin Williams dedicated his life to make others laugh, but he didn’t laugh at home. He was a really sad guy. I think that sadness comes with being a comedian. I think a lot of comedians are very serious people. Mario Moreno was, absolutely, a serious person.