As I enter Benjamin Bratt's hotel suite to interview him about his incredible metamorphosis into haunted 1970s junkie-poet-playwright Miguel Pinero, the local publicist for the film -- entitled "Pinero" -- introduces me to the actor and he almost leaps out of his chair.
"You're Rob Blackwelder?" he smiles with some kind of strange excitement in his eyes.
"Uhhhh, yes...," I reply hesitantly, finding myself caught off guard and unexpectedly nervous around a movie star for the first time since my college newspaper days.
"I've got something for you," Bratt says, crossing the room and giving me a big hug.
"Yikes!" I'm thinking. "What the heck is going on here?"
Bratt lets go, takes a step back and says, "That's from Leon Ichaso" -- the director of "Pinero" -- "He said to tell you that you got it, man. You got it! You got everything we were trying to do with this movie."
Wow! Well, that's never happened before.
Ichaso, it seems, had discovered my review of the film online ("He's a real big internet surfer," Bratt explains) and had been telling his star about it for three weeks.
"He read it to me -- hit me with the highlights last night," my new friend tells me as we sit down on opposite sides of a small table next to his window overlooking San Francisco, Bratt's home town. "I called because he wanted to know -- in true surrogate papa form -- the day's responsibilities regarding the film. I told him I was going to be meeting with you and he goes [affecting a Cuban accent], 'Ben! I told you! This is the one who wrote that review!' From memory he knew this. And so he said last night, 'You must promise you will give him a hug!'"
Bratt doled out hugs last night as well -- at a screening of "Pinero" attended by his family. "It was emotionally overwhelming because it was the first time my mother, my sisters, my brother (he's one of five kids) and my extended family had a chance to see the movie."
They probably had a hard time recognizing their Benjamin because he completely disappears inside this performance, which is generating some well-deserved Oscar buzz. Miguel Pinero was a Puerto Rican poet and playwright from the streets of the Bronx. He became popular with Manhattan culture vultures in the late 1970s and early 1980s after his prison-written, prison-based play "Short Eyes" won an Obie, was nominated for a Tony and was made into a movie, in which Pinero co-starred. He made a comfortable living writing for stage, film and TV -- but he never left his life of hard drugs and petty crime behind him.
In "Pinero" Bratt belts out delicious jazz-riff dialogue and carries himself with an unwashed cool that resurrects his character's broken soul vividly and distinctly. In fact it's hard to imagine that the svelte, handsome, clean-cut actor sitting before me is the same guy I saw on screen, living in the back of a van in a heroin haze when he wasn't being toasted by uptown intellectuals. And apparently, it was hard for Bratt to imagine as well.
|Q: I understand you were reluctant to take this part at first. Why?|
A: Well, the reluctance came out of a real fear of failing. But (at the time) I pointed to some very lame excuses for not wanting to take it. One was -- and this was a ridiculous reason to use -- that I was so physically different from Miguel Pinero, that I was of Peruvian descent while he was of Puerto Rican descent. Ultimately, all (those) issues held no importance. When I really stopped to look at it, (the role) presented the very thing I've always longed for -- not only as a man but also as an artist -- and that was a challenge.
To date, professionally I'd never been given such a great challenge, and I couldn't get it out of my mind after I read the script that Leon wrote. I was blown away by it. I was knocked out. Even when I felt I wasn't right for it, I still wanted to meet him and tell him how great I thought it was, and that's rare. I went to that meeting explaining to him why I was wrong -- again all ridiculous reasons. He didn't agree or disagree at the time. I learned much later, after I got the job, that he [chuckling] completely agreed with me!
|Q: [Laughs.] You're kidding!|
A: His notion was that I was too clean cut, too this, too that -- mainly because he hadn't been given the chance to see what my capabilities as a performer were. It wasn't until he got ahold of a film my brother and I produced together called "Follow Me Home" -- which was in competition at the '96 Sundance Film Festival and won the audience award here in the San Francisco International Film Festival -- a film in which I had a very rare occasion to transform, to be someone completely different from myself, in how I would conduct myself. It was after seeing that I think he realized there was possibility. So we began to talk again.
|Q: This must have felt great after (years of) playing FBI guys and astronauts. I mean, I'm sure you get to have some fun with that. But something like this, something that's a real challenge, must be incredibly satisfying after doing stock characters for much of your career to date.|
A: [Nods enthusiastically.] To the point where the joy that came from it has made me spoiled. The joy and excitement and the pride that comes from working on a project like this is tempered with the sad reality that this kind of opportunity may never present itself to me again. But that would be all right. I really feel like that's what makes a great movie, and I think this is a great movie.
Certainly (it's) a challenging film. Cinephiles, people who love film, will dig it. The way the story's told in a completely non-linear fashion makes it challenging and interesting to watch. Even if you don't necessarily get the narrative and how it's laid out before you, you can't help but be moved by it because you absorb the emotion of the film.
That was purposeful on the part of the director, I think, to create a kind of abstraction. Even today he says he's not quite sure if it's just a film -- and that's not pretentious really. It's just he feels it has aspects of a poem or a song or even an abstract painting. Jumping from black-and-white to color and back again, mixing up the chronology of the film, sometimes without explanation. It gives you a kind of insight into what Mikey's life might have been like -- you know, chaotic and kinetic and frenetic. Confusing at times. Complicated. Even absurdist. There are moments in the movie that just seem so damn outrageous they can't possibly have taken place.
|Q: Like the night he and a friend mugged two hookers for their fake fur coats and wore them to a premiere.|
A: Yeah! That actually happened. That's what makes the man so fascinating, and unfortunately that becomes his particular personal tragedy. Those elements in his life -- the underbelly, the poverty, the drug abuse, the petty crime, the incarceration, deviancies of one form or another -- he embraced them. He used them to fuel his work, which is what made him a fresh voice. But as is said in the movie, he had to keep doing bad to keep writing good, because he sells trouble. And even with that kind of self-awareness, he couldn't get away from it, and that's what ultimately did him in. It's sad.
|Q: It is. It is. It's one of those burn bright, burn briefly things.|
A: That's right. And I can't really see Mikey Pinero in a 12-step program!
|Q: [Laughs.] So tell me something. You got so deep inside the character that it never registered with me during the film that I was watching Benjamin Bratt...|
|Q: ...but how deep did Pinero get inside of you? Were you taking him home with you...?|
[Bratt bristles slightly at the concept.]
|Q: ...or is that not your style?|
A: Well, that particular notion has always read like bulls**t to me, that "I was so into the character that he lived with me for months afterwards." I never quite bought that. That said, I had an experience that felt something close to that. The fact of the matter is, when you take on a role of this dimension, and you are going to be presented with the challenge of playing someone who actually existed and is still fresh in (people's) memories and (you) want to pay him the respect he deserves, you'd better succeed -- because if you don't, you're gonna live with it and you're gonna hear about it.
So the research that went into it was day in, day out. I began to eat, sleep and drink Pinero and his work to a point where I would walk around the streets of New York, you know, in the kind of garb he would wear, trying to walk in the style he would walk in, trying to retrace his steps. There was a particular bench he slept on in Tompkins Square Park, and I'd go down there and try to absorb -- whatever. I'm not a very New Age-y type person, and yet I believe in spirit and in the presence of spirit, and I found myself calling upon his spirit to "give me a hand, help me out, help me do you justice."
The one occasion where I truly felt like, "OK, he's in me now," was about two weeks before we started filming. It was at night, I'd just got done watching him in "Fort Apache: The Bronx" for the fourth or fifth time. It's a film in which there's a scene in a hospital where he and a buddy had taken some doctors and nurses hostages in a drug deal that went sour. In it he's holding a gun, holding these people hostage. That night when I went to bed, I had this nightmare in which Pinero was holding me hostage...
A: I was sitting on a couch and he was pacing back and forth like a panther, giving me this ominous look, this threatening look. He didn't have a gun or a knife in his hand, but I knew well enough in the context of the dream to not move and to not try to get out of there. I woke up from that a little bit startled and surprised, but ultimately feeling a kind of relief and a sense that he was a part of me so I could relax.
That was really the only time that's really happened for me. Although when I was walking the streets of New York, I was still living with the physical manifestations of Miguel Pinero -- and some were refreshing. I was able to enjoy a level of anonymity that I haven't had in years and years. I could walk around the streets of New York and observe people instead of being the observed, as has been the case in the last few years. The other thing was [he laughs a little under his breath] that I found myself being passed up by taxi drivers who looked just like me for the first time ever in my life!
A: In terms of what that reflects about our society, it was dismaying. But it was ultimately pleasing in that it proved I was naturally unrecognizable.
|Q: That you'd successfully achieved the proper level of scruff!|
A: That's right.
|Q: So...have you ever slept in the back of a van?|
A: Oh, many times. Sure, sure. Does car camping count?
|Q: That's one of those "how closely do you identify with the character" questions, you know. [Laughing.]|
A: Well, it's interesting because while we're at polar opposite ends of the spectrum to how we approached our respective lives, there are certain aspects to his life and environment I can identify with -- certainly culturally as well as artistically. That said, (when I was) a young boy, my mother was actively involved in the American Indian movement, and we traveled all over the Northwest and the Southwest to different pow-wows and Indian rights functions. So depending on what kind of car we had at the time, I was sleeping in it.
|Q: And weren't you on Alcatraz with your mom when the Indian movement occupied the island?|
A: That's right.
|Q: How old were you then?|
|Q: That must have been interesting.|
A: To say the least!
|Q: Were you actively aware what was going on around you?|
A: You know, as a 5-year-old you don't really get a grasp of what the political implications are. You see it for what it is, which was the most adventuresome, most interesting playground imaginable. I mean, Oh wow! A real-life jail cell to play in! And play we did. But certainly I think through subtle osmosis I had -- certainly in hindsight now -- an awareness of what it was all about.
|Q: You got the gist of it even at that young age.|
A: But it certainly wasn't as dramatic as people might envision it to be. It wasn't like there were rounds of guarding the barracks or standing by the blockades.
|Q: In between the group making its issues known, it was probably making day-to-day life work as much as possible.|
A: And work it did. It was interesting because that was a very socially, politically active time anyway. But from my memory, it seemed to me to be a functioning little village or town. You had people in the kitchen taking care of the food. Other people were bringing the resources onto the island. There were two existing buildings that were apartment complexes -- two towers actually -- that had been housing units for the staff of the prison. Those have since been torn down, but at the time (of the occupation) everyone even had their own apartment, by squatter's right. I even spent the night in the lighthouse tower a couple times.
|Q: On the subject of San Francisco, are you living here now?|
A: Part time. Part time in New York. New York has effectively become my home, although as of this early fall I've been spending more time here, mainly because I've been unemployed.
|Q: And your family is here, right?|
A: All of them.
|Q: Before we run out of time, let's return to "Pinero." Was it difficult at all to maintain Mikey's sort of manic, stream-of-consciousness energy while making the film, with takes starting and stopping? Was that feeling difficult to manifest for each take and each scene over the course of the film?|
A: That's a good question because normally you show up and when the red light turns on, you get into character, and when they say "action!" you go. Then when they say "cut," you come back to being who you are. That's a normal working experience for me. But in this particular process, it was all together different. I lost 20 pounds to play the role. (I) even smoked between takes, off-camera. It wasn't a conscious decision, but in hindsight I realize I stayed closer to being in character most of the time than I have in any other situation. And I think it was necessary. It was the first time as an actor I had a chance to shoulder the responsibility to carry a film -- and that responsibility was great, so I didn't show up to f**k around. I came to do good work and I came prepared. And the guidance of Leon Ichaso provided me with invaluable riches in terms of perspective and a true understanding of the subject matter. I'm quite proud of what we created together.