Alfonso Cuaron on casting newcomer Yalitza Aparicio in ‘Roma’: ‘The movie wouldn’t work without her’

Alfonso Cuaron‘s “Roma” is one of the biggest Oscar contenders this year. The film played at the London Film Festival and received a warm round of applause at the press screening as the credits began to roll. The British Film Institute (BFI), which runs this festival, arranged a screen talk with the Oscar-winning director. While it did not go as planned, it was worth the wait.

Due to start at 11 AM in the BFI building on South Bank, we journalists were waiting in the lobby ready to go in by half 10. And then they told us Cuaron’s talk was delayed, possibly cancelled. You can imagine the disappointment. After an hour and a half in limbo, BFI organisers got back to us and said the talk had been rearranged due to a delayed flight – and that it would now take place in Picturehouse Cinema at 4:30 PM. Five and a half hours later and there we were, finally, in the front rows of Picturehouse screen one. A clip of “Roma” was shown, the scene of Cleo ‘playing dead,’ and then Cuaron was brought onto the stage.

The conversation with Cuaron kicked off with him discussing the casting of Yalitza Aparicio in the role of Cleo. “Firstly, I didn’t find her because she wasn’t lost. There is a tendency in Hollywood to say that this person finds this person, or discovered – like America was discovered. The whole process took over one year. I saw thousands of women, but none of them had the right quality. They felt too urban. So we had an army of casting directors search smaller and smaller villages in Mexico, but still, they were too urban. It was a few weeks to the start of filming and I didn’t have an actress. Without Cleo, the movie doesn’t work.”

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“When Yalitza walked into the room, it was a mix of relief and fear,” recalled Cuaron. “Relief, because we found the right person. But fear – what if she said no? The movie wouldn’t work. Her family were afraid that the casting call was human trafficking. They said that ‘casting is not normal.'” He paused at this point, ensuring that the entire room was listening intently to listen to his next, very important point. “The scary thing about that statement is that casting is not normal in Mexico but human trafficking is. That is the reality of Mexico.”

This was a sobering moment in an otherwise humor-filled talk, with Cuaron clearly keen to raise this important issue. He, however, didn’t dwell too long on this – conscience of not dampening the mood too much in rainy London. The conversation then turned to two key aspects of the film: the cinematography and the screenplay.

“The film was written thinking of Chivo,” Cuaron said, invoking the nickname of cinematographer Emmanual Lubezki, a regular collaborator who won back-to-back Oscars for Cuaron’s “Gravity,” and then Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu‘s “Birdman” and “The Revenant.” But, as Cuaron explained, “it turned out that this was too long a process, a shoot, and Chivo couldn’t do it. So he said I should do it.”

He went on to reveal, “this was a film that nobody had the screenplay. I gave the crew specific breakdowns but I wanted them to access their own sub-consciousness and their own memories of things rather than have preconceptions of what they were looking for. We shot in absolute chronological continuity, so it meant that the crew would know by day by day how the story was building. But, more importantly, the actors, too. I’d just explain what was going on in each scene and roughly what was needed.”

So, while Cuaron is credited as screenwriter, he says the cast shares a large portion of the credit for the film’s natural dialogue. This adds to the sense of absolute realism, of the genuineness of “Roma.” It is one of the many reasons why we are predicting that Cuaron will once again win Best Director at the Oscars.

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