Marina de Tavira pulled off a surprise Best Supporting Actress nomination at the Oscars for her performance as Sofia in “Roma” after getting overlooked with just about every other awards group. Her nomination is part of what allowed “Roma” to tie “The Favourite” for the most Oscar nominations of any 2018 film, at 10.
De Tavira recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing editor Zach Laws about hearing of that surprise Oscar nomination, what it was like to work with director Alfonso Cuaron, and how “Roma” has connected with so many people. Watch the exclusive webchat above and read the complete interview transcript below.
Gold Derby: Marina, I think the name that everyone was most surprised to hear on Oscar nomination morning was yours. What did you think when you heard your name announced as a nominee for Best Supporting Actress for “Roma”?
Marina de Tavira: I think I was the most surprised of all. I was not expecting it at all. I was expecting, or hoping, that “Roma” could get some nominations in other categories but I really was not expecting one for me. The first thing I can say is that I am really, really grateful because I think that Sofia is a character that you have to look at. She doesn’t pop out immediately the first time you see the film. She’s really not on the surface, even though I really think she goes through a really powerful, emotional journey, but it’s subtle. I’m grateful that they took the time to look at her.
GD: Yeah, and you talk about the character of Sofia. Tell us just a little bit about how you first became involved and what Alfonso told you about this character. From what I understand, he didn’t really give out a script for this to too many people.
MDT: No, he did not give us a script. We had a long conversation of who Sofia was, or to say it better, who Cristina was, his mother. He talked a lot about her, about where their kids were born, what was going on in their marriage, when Libo, which is the real Cleo, entered their lives, how their relationship was, but then he stopped right at the moment where day one of the film starts. Then, from then on, it was really just about surrendering yourself to what he would say day by day and trusting that the character was within you and that somehow we understood it and giving your emotions to the character and trusting every step of the way Alfonso.
GD: So when Alfonso tells you, “You’re playing my mother in this movie,” does that put any kind of extra pressure on you? What did you think about that?
MDT: I really wasn’t thinking that it was his mother, because that really wouldn’t help at all. I immediately felt that I could really relate to the character because of my own memories, because of who I was, because of what I had been through in my life as a daughter and then as a woman and as a mother. That thought that it was Alfonso’s mother, I kept it always away because that really wouldn’t help. I tried all the time to listen to every single word that Alfonso would say, to absorb it all. I was mostly quiet when he spoke with me, just trying to absorb everything I could sense of the way he talked about what he wanted me to embrace for Sofia’s emotional journey.
GD: It’s such an interesting relationship between you and Cleo, the character played by Yalitza Aparicio. Can you talk a bit about that dynamic between the two of them?
MDT: It’s really, really interesting. I always think that I don’t even have the word to describe that relationship because it has so many layers. In the first half, they are employer-employee. There’s a job relationship that involves money and she works for her, but at the same time, she is the silent witness of all her sorrow. She’s always there, and that’s why when Sofia is overwhelmed with pain, she throws at her all her frustration and at the same time they share the most important thing in life for a woman, that is her children. She trusts her with her children and at some point of the film, she realizes that she’s the real accomplice in life, whom she will share motherhood with and she also realizes what she as a mother has been going through. Because sometimes we know things but we don’t know them with capital letters in a very conscious way, and I think that’s what Sofia really understands at the end in the beach scene, for example. Who is the real woman that is gonna be there for her and for her children and what she has gone through as a woman and as a mother also?
GD: Their relationship ends up changing just because of circumstances that happen to Sofia with her husband and the father of her children. Talk a little bit about that dynamic and how that affects Sofia.
MDT: I think Sofia, and Alfonso and I really worked through this, is going through a lot of pain, but she really can’t show it because she has to be the strong one for her children. When she shows what she’s going through it’s because she just can’t get hold of it anymore. It’s sort of an accident and it goes out with such rage and such strength, but all the time she’s mostly holding it, and Alfonso was really interested in that I will never have it in the surface. Sometimes I would have lots of emotions come to me, and then he would say, “No, no, no. Go to your room, to the character’s room, and cry it all out, throw it all out and come back and I want you to hold it down. It has to be down always, because Sofia won’t allow herself to show her children all the pain that she’s going through.”
GD: Right, and one of the great qualities of this movie is that information about what’s going on in your life, what’s going on with your husband, we get that information in a very subtle kind of way. We get little snatches of information and we have to, as an audience, put the pieces together in our own mind. “Oh, okay. That’s what’s going on here.” That’s a really great quality of the movie that we have to work for it.
MDT: Yes, in fact, there are lots of things that I know, like, for example, the first scene where they’re having lunch, she just comes back from work, I know and she knows that her husband is leaving and that something is going on with another woman. But those things, only the characters know it, but then if you see it again and you focus, you see, “Oh, now I understand why she’s behaving like that.”
GD: Considering that you never got a full script, tell us a little bit about the day to day, showing up. How did that work?
MDT: There were some days when I would get the lines the night before, three days I think that happened, when there’s long dialogues but they would never be complete. I would never have the words of the other character there, only mine. They were always lacking some important information that Alfonso would give us at the very moment to memorize right there. He just wanted us to have the skeleton of the scene, just to not have memory problems at the very moment, but mostly we would arrive on set not knowing what we were gonna do and when we there, he had already done all his cinematographer work with standings, so we wouldn’t have to rehearse because he didn’t want us to be mechanic about anything. He would know exactly what the camera was gonna do. He would never tell us that. We were never supposed to be aware of the camera. He would give us the lines. He would explain what was going on. He would always talk individually to each actor, never together. Then he would just put it together and see what would happen.
There’s some scenes we did like 64 times and there’s others that we only did three times. It was never regular. He would know if he had the scene and he would say, “We’ll stop here. I have it,” or not. If we kept on going and going, he would always change things and the other characters would always do something unexpected, like stand up and leave or the kid would throw the glass on the table or say something that I wasn’t expecting so that we could react at the very moment in a spontaneous way but also I knew as an actress I had to get to the end of the scene and to the dialogue he had given me. There was a very small space in between of improv, which is not really improv but it’s reacting to the unexpected.
GD: From what I understand you guys pretty much shot this movie in continuity, meaning you shot the first scene on the first day and the last scene on the last day. Did that help in creating an arc for this character?
MDT: Totally. This is what we all do. When we read a script, that’s what we study, the arc of the character and we don’t know if we’re gonna do the last scene on the third day of shooting and so we need to really know where the character is at every moment because that’s how movies are done, but here, we had the opportunity to really go through it day by day so when we got to the end, it was really getting there in a natural way. Sometimes, for me, I’ve done films when I get to the end, I do the end at the third week and then at the end I will say, “Oh my god. If I had known before all the emotional journey of my character, maybe I wouldn’t have done the end like that, or maybe I would.” But here, there was not such a work, no intellectual work, not a preconceiving a scene or imagining even how you would solve it. It was really surrendering to the scene day by day.
GD: I remember hearing him talk about one scene in particular. I forget which one it was but basically you’re having some kind of confrontation with your child where you’re trying to get him to do something and he told you, “All right, you’re gonna tell him ‘Go to bed’ or something,” and then he goes and tells the kid, “You’re not gonna go to bed,” and then change up the scene the next moment or something like that. Is there a moment from the set that really sticks with you where that kind of spontaneity helped create a moment that you weren’t expecting?
MDT: There are quite a few. For example, I think what Alfonso’s talking about is the scene where Sofia asks the children to write a letter.
GD: Yes, yes, thank you.
MDT: That scene we did 64 times and every time it was different. That I think in the one that’s finally in the film, the kid just stood up and walked away. He had told me that that relationship between that particular son which is the oldest is complex because he looks like his father, his name is the same as the father and he’s really mad with his mom because he thinks that she is the one to blame because Dad is not home. Also, Sofia has the same feeling. He would build the relationship and say contradictory information to each character so when we were together there, that would pop out. When he stood up, all my rage came, like, “Don’t! You sit down immediately!” That has all the other information that he had given me about how that relationship is at that moment.
GD: Thank you for picking that scene. My brain is just starting to work and it flew right out of mind. The awards run-up for this movie has been really spectacular. You guys premiere at Venice, you get all this buzz and now you’re the most nominated film of the year tied with “The Favourite,” 10 nominations. Were you surprised by the overwhelming recognition for this movie?
MDT: Yes, I was. I could sense it was beautiful when we were doing it. I could see that it came from a very deep place in Alfonso’s heart and also being the talented director he is, and that he was doing everything, the cinematography, producing, writing, I could really relate to it, but I didn’t know if I could relate to it because it also matched with my memories with my country. For me, it was really special but I didn’t know if it was gonna be that special for the audience, if they were gonna think it was local or black and white, slow, Spanish. Suddenly, from Venice, that standing ovation that was so long and then Telluride and all the film festivals, suddenly people would approach us, talk about their lives, talk about the women that brought them up, cried about their memories. Then is when I realized this is a film that really connects with people in a very remote place of their lives. That’s why I think it’s so special, because we were all children and we all lost something at one point of our lives when we were children and we all have someone to say thank you to.
GD: Yeah, I think one of the extraordinary qualities of this movie is that even though it’s very specific in its time and its place and its experiences, it feels so universal. Anybody can watch it and see their own mother or their own childhood or in the case of Cleo, that person who was not related to their family directly but had an incredible impact on their family and on their lives, so I think that’s a beautiful quality of this movie.
MDT: Yes, and I think it was about time that someone would turn around and look to these incredible women that are in so many lives and that have made a real difference. They have not been acknowledged how they should.
GD: Marina, thank you so much. Congratulations again on the Academy Award nomination. I hope you enjoy the ceremony.
MDT: I’m sure I will. For me, it’s a dream come true. A dream I didn’t even dare to dream.