Learn her name. Yalitza Aparicio is someone you’ll be hearing throughout the awards season. Her performance in Roma is a standout, a revelation of a debut as the indomitable housemaid, Cleo.
Speaking to Aparicio at the Middleburg Film Festival, Aparicio tells me she had no idea who Cuaron was when she went to the audition. She thought it might be a scam for human trafficking. A recently graduated pre-school teacher before she was cast, Aparicio had never acted before.
Aparicio plans to learn to speak English but for our chat we spoke via a translator.
***This interview contains spoilers about Roma! ***
Did you know who Alfonso Cuaron was?
At first, I didn’t know anything about him. I didn’t have a clue who he was so, I started looking up pictures of who he was. I found some but when I met him he didn’t look anything like those photos so I didn’t even recognize him.
It was only during shooting that I got to know him and see him in action.
Once you knew who he was, did you seek out his films?
No, not before meeting him.
What were you doing before Roma?
I graduated in August to be a pre-school teacher and in September, I ended up working on Roma.
You talked about your audition process last night and how you thought it was a human trafficking scheme. What happened?
The casting was done in my own neighborhood Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca. It happened because my sister said that she was going to audition but then she didn’t. She insisted that I do it. She was actually pregnant back then and didn’t think they were looking for a heavily pregnant woman.
It was a long process, it took a long process before they asked me to go to Oaxaca but it was scary because they never told us who the director was going to be, nor the name of the movie. They just told us the name of the production company and so we thought it could be human trafficking.
Cleo is so personal to Cuaron. What did he tell you about who she was?
Before the shoot, he told me the story of Cleo. He only told me we’d be discovering who she was as the film goes on. He said it was going to be a story about his mom because he had two moms and he wanted everyone to know about her.
Did you meet Libo?
I did. I also got to meet his mother. She came to the set the day we were shooting the scene where the mother tells the kids that their dad is not coming home. She came to the set with Libo who inspired Cleo’s story. That was my only opportunity to meet his mother but I got to meet her.
I enjoyed watching the chemistry you had with the children. It just seemed so natural watching you interact. Had you spent much time with them beforehand?
I only saw them once before we started shooting. It was only when we were together learning about who the family was and who they were going to be. During shooting, we had a lot of spare time so we’d get to know each other better. The kids would tell me how they were doing in school or how it felt to be on set.
Let’s talk about the birth scene because you said he didn’t tell you what was going to happen?
In that scene when the baby was meant to be born, I had walked in before because we were doing some blocking scenes. He didn’t say anything, the crew didn’t say anything. I only realized what was happening when we were shooting.
So much of the power of your performance is based in the silence observation. How did that challenge you?
I think we lived each scene as if it were my own life. We didn’t have a script. So, that scene where the mother hits the kid, I knew I shouldn’t intervene. Even though I felt the pain, I knew I had to respect the mother’s space.
How much did you identify with playing Cleo?
I felt that at all times I could relate to her and that I was paying tribute to my own mother because she is also a domestic worker and a nanny. I felt my character was a mix of both my mother and my sister.
We don’t see these characters or the service industry workers portrayed in a many films and when we do, it’s often an incomplete picture. That’s why this is such a beautiful tribute to second mothers and housekeepers.
I felt the same way. I was so happy that Alfonso had looked at these people as they are, in real life and he perfectly portrayed them as they are. A lot of people have help in their homes, but they totally forget that they are human beings outside of the house and that they have their own lives. It’s forgotten that they exist outside of that world. In these houses, when they’re working, they hide everything that they’re going through in order to be there, support the family, and to even be accomplices in what these families are going through.
What message do you want people to take from watching this film especially in 2018, in Trump’s America, when so much hate is being put on immigrants?
I would love people to value each other as people and as humans. I would love for us to not make any judgments based on race, socio-economic levels, or gender. I’d love for us to realize that these people who leave their own homes, many times, go through very difficult situations so what they do is never valued. That’s what I’d like people to do.
Can you describe your experience shooting Roma?
It was an incredible experience and I felt I was learning every step of the way. I was learning so much about the film process. I learned about the drivers, the caterers. I learned to give importance to the film credits. I used to stand up and leave during the credits. I now stay because I realized how important these people are to the film.
I also realized that working on a film is team work.
What’s your first memory of watching a film?
There was this film by Pedro Infante called Los tres Garcías (The Three Garcías). It was shot in black and white. I enjoyed the relationship between the characters who were playing cousins.