Catalina Sandino Moreno is not exactly what you'd call a household name, but given that she made her acting debut only three years ago—and got an Oscar nomination for it—she's impressive regardless. A native Colombian, Moreno was at home on the set of Love in the Time of Cholera playing Fermina's cousin Hildebranda, a strong-willed woman whose fate becomes victim to the standards of marriage she must live up to.
As an interview subject, Moreno give the impression that she's genuinely the smartest person in the room—she can answer a question with a single raised eyebrow (unfortunately that's impossible to put into a transcript) and say with great confidence that, when she's sixty, she'll look nothing like her weather-beaten character.--especially since, thanks to acting, she's given up her nasty habit of nail-biting.
What was it like being on the set with all these people from all different parts of the world playing Colombian when you’re the one major Colombian in the movie in a lead role?
I didn’t even think that they were not Colombian. Cartagena is such a beautiful place and so magical and dramatic and sexy that when you see Javier as Florentino in old age you just don’t even remember that he’s Javier or he’s from Spain. And when you see Giovanna looking very young and pretty […] I think the environment helped us a lot, just getting into character…
How much time did you spend in Colombia?
I was there for a month, believe it or not. […] it’s very hard [playing older than you are], I’ve never been sixty and never been a hundred pounds heavier so the body was a change…how you grab things when you’re from the country and when you’re from the city…is gonna change. I didn’t know that. I thought, I’m fat, I’m gonna look fat. But looking fat is not being fat. So, we had a guy that was helping us with body movement and a voice coach. We had a great group of people doing that so I spent a month there just preparing.
Had you read the book before?
I did. I did.
In English or Spanish?
In Spanish. Growing up in Colombia, you have to read Garcia Marquez. And this is one of the books that you have to read. I read it when I was in high school. Then I read it when I was in college. And then when I knew that I was gonna be in the movie, I read it again. But everything in Spanish.
What is it about the book that they call it one of the greatest love stories of the 20th century? What is it about it that is so universal…?
Well, it’s a timeless story. A timeless love story. Sometimes when you see a movie about love, romance, it’s just—the guy and girl meet…and they break up…and they’re done. This is such a looong story about love. These people like each other when they were fifteen, sixteen. And they meet up when they’re old. It’s so beautiful that finally when they’re together they’re old, because there aren’t many movies where you see old people falling in love again.
In the beginning of the film your character is having an affair--
She’s not having an affair. She wants to have an affair.
Okay, right. Letter writing and glances.
Yeah, that’s so typical of her. She’s just putting the strong face. Letters. It’s so, like, magical. She’s putting magic to her relationship which is nothing. She has nothing with this guy. She’s just pretending to have a more exciting affair—like Fermina with the love letters. [What’s] so interesting about that character is the dichotomy of trying to be someone she is not.
And at the end she’s kinda adapted to her fate. She’s got everything taken care of. How did you depict that growth? …A woman on her own.
Well, I don’t think that’s a woman on her own. I think it’s a woman very unhappy with her life. Yeah, very unhappy. Because she wanted to be with this guy and they never had anything. And suddenly the biological clock started ticking. I think the family start pushing. “You have to get married, You have to get engaged…settle down.” So that’s what she does. She has six kids…that she doesn’t love. She’s unhappy, it’s so sad. In those times you just had to do it. You had to get married and have kids. Be a mom.
How did getting an Oscar nomination change things for you?
I think it’s that a lot of people saw Maria Full of Grace, which was great thing for me because I was new…that was my first movie. But the Oscar is not gonna make you have better scripts. Because I spent three years after the Oscar nomination without work…because all the scripts, I was not right for them. And then I got Fast Food Nation, and that script I really did like. But I think that the Oscar helped people to see me in this little film.
How old were you when you started acting?
I was thirteen when I went to my first acting class, in theatre, because I was biting my nails. Some shrink told my family: “That kid is very shy, “ so they put me in theatre classes. And I was there because I was biting my hands. […] Y’know, it’s very strange how things happen. I started falling in love with acting. While I was very shy in the classroom, I was not shy at all when I was up there.
Do you still bite your nails?
No. [Laughter] I don’t need to bite my nails anymore.
A number of Mexican actors are doing work in their home country but also here. Do you have interest in doing work in Colombia as well as the US?
Well, you can’t compare Mexico to Colombia. Mexico is so well developed in the film industry. Colombia, right now, is starting to develop…having new directors and new actors. And they’re fantastic. But we’re still, like, peddling. We’re still out there…they’re getting money…but I would love to go back there. Shooting in Cartagena was so much fun. To shoot a movie [in Bogota, where Moreno grew up] would be amazing. So hopefully with a good script, I will go back there.
When you saw yourself in age makeup, did you say, ‘This is what I’ll look like when I’m sixty’?
Oh, hell no! I don’t wanna look like that! No! I don’t wanna be sixty and a hundred pounds heavier. No, no no. […] When she’s old she’s let [herself] go because she’s not happy. I don’t wanna be that. I wanna be happy.
So it wasn’t frightening to see yourself....
No. It was cool. It was like dressing up.
Being the first U.S. film that's shot in Colombia in the last 2 years, did you get a lot of stares, a lot of people trying to figure out what was going on…?
Oh, no. Everybody was so excited. Cartagena was another character for the film, the extras were another one. They were so happy and they were so helpful and they were so warm. They were working with us. They were not just extras.
What are you working on next?
I’m doing Che, with Steven Soderbergh. And I’m starting to shoot the end of this month. So I’m very excited about that.
What are you looking forward to about that shoot?
To have some guns. [Laughter] Actually, I went to boot camp…and, it was very funny because I was the only girl there. And they gave me an M1. It’s a big gun and everyone gets to shoot once. And I’m like, I don’t know how to grab this thing! [...] It’s very different from what I’ve been doing. She’s [Guevara's wife] very interesting because she’s was always right next to Che. So she knows a lot of things that nobody knows. Hopefully I’ll talk to her because she’s still alive. She’s in Cuba. I have so many questions about her as the woman. It must be very hard being in an environment full of men. And her and couple of other girls were very brave and very strong and I’d love to just talk to her about that.
On this movie, did you and the cast spend a lot of time together when you weren’t shooting?
Definitely. Because nobody was ‘home.’ I was at home. But they were not. So it was nice that after shooting we went out, had dinner…we just went out…and thank God everybody’s nice. Everybody’s really really nice.
I know this book, especially in Spanish, is considered a great work of literature. Can a movie do justice to a book like that…or should it do justice to a book like that. Since the medium of film is not the same. Should the movie try to mimic the book or be it’s own piece of work?
It depends. It’s so hard to put a book onto film. And sometimes when you do that a lot of people disagree and hate it. When you read a book, your own imagination is working. [...] Your imagination is so much more full of life and colors and things, that when you see a movie like this a lot of people will appreciate it and a lot of people will hate it.
How was reading the book again knowing that you were going to be in the film compared to having read it just as a reader?
I concentrated more on my character. The way it describes Hildebranda. How she was walking, what was she thinking about. He’s so rich in his description and every single character is so rich. I went back to the book a lot of times…preparing.
What did you learn about her that you hadn’t realized before?
The first time I read the book I remember Fermina was going to her sister’s farm, but I didn’t care about her the first time. And then after I knew I was going to be her, I cared more. I noticed everything. I realized she was vibrant, sexy and funny. And she’s very rich. But before, you’re so concentrated on the love story that you don’t even care about other characters. So when I went back I found a totally different Hildebranda.
A lot of films don’t have much rehearsal time at all, I understand this one had two or three weeks. Does it help you get closer to the character or are you an actress who prefers to have a more organic experience?
I love, love, love rehearsals! Because you can make a lot of mistakes. In rehearsal, not on set. So you can do whatever you want. Mike is an actor’s director. He loves actors. And he directs so well and has an amazing sense of humor. That’s what you need in a director. He knew exactly what he was talking about. And he had read the book. If you saw Mike Newell after a scene or while we were having dinner, you’d see him right around the curb…just reading the book. He was not reading the book for work. He was reading the book because he wanted to. He wanted to get everything right.