As a child, "Heleno" actor Rodrigo Santoro's grandfather recounted tales of Heleno de Freitas, the storied soccer star whose career spun out of control.
So as he depicted the playboy in the film, which follows the arc of de Freitas from stardom to a syphilis-induced death at 39 in 1959 in a sanatorium, he told an audience Monday night at the Landmark Theatre that he felt a sense of duty resurrecting the Brazilian athlete once dubbed "Prince Cursed."
"One of the biggest reasons that we decided to do this movie is because he was lost in time," Santoro told film critic Alonso Duralde at TheWrap's annual Award Screening Series. "The story is just so controversial; he was so important at the birth of soccer in Brazil."
The movie flashes back and forth between de Freitas in his prime — when he was a local sex symbol in Rio de Janeiro — and in his fast deterioration in a rural sanatorium. Santoro spent months researching his character — little video footage exists of him — and he interviewed de Freitas's only son. His granddaughter offered her services as a makeup designer.
"Definitely the guy left his mark, researching around Rio," the actor, who appeared in "Lost" and "300." "It's a tragic story, it's not the most commercial film."
Financing the film proved difficult. After two years of courting investors, Santoro, who also produced "Heleno," faced pressure from studio executives who questioned shooting the tragedy in black-and-white.
"'Can't we do part of it in color?' 'Can we change the ending,'" Santoro recalled. "It's a little tricky. Like, 'OK, great. Let's just think about that.' So, no."
Santoro said the crew filmed the latter half of the character's life last so the actor had time to starve himself skinny.
"We started just doing the good part, the fun part, but I started to drop weight," he said. "I basically starved myself and lost all the weight that I needed."
Santoro admitted that de Freitas was not a particularly likeable character — he is sex-craven chain-smoker, violent and addicted to huffing ether. But the actor defended de Freitas when an audience member suggested that the soccer scion, who grew up wealthy, had little reason to be depressed and self-destructive.
"A lot of wealthy people have a lot of pain, this is from deep, deep inside," he said. "In his case the self destruction things as coming from a lot of pain he felt that he wasn't understood by people, he felt alone, just loneliness."
For the record: An earlier verison of this post had a headline saying "Heleno" was Brazil's Oscar entry. The country's Oscar entry is "The Clown."