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How ‘The Clown’ Auteur Turned Career Doubt Into an Oscar Contender

"The Clown" auteur Selton Mello had existential worries about his acting career — so he made a movie

Three decades spent in any profession may seed some existential doubts. Especially 30 years performing as an actor.

Getty ImagesSo when "The Clown" auteur Selton Mello felt pangs of uncertainty about his career, he transformed them into a film he wrote, directed and starred in.

"Sometimes you have this kind of thinking, like, should I continue what I'm doing or try something else?" Mello told the audience at TheWrap's screening series Tuesday night at the Landmark Theatre. "I chose a clown because it's a tribute to my art. That's the point."

"The Clown," Brazil's Oscar entry for Best Foreign Film, follows Benjamim, a clown who travels the Brazilian countryside performing alongside his father in a circus. Disenchanted with his life on the road and longing for a lover, he leaves behind his caravan of carnies for a settled, if briefly held, desk job.

That departure from the circus ring revitalizes his love of red-nosed buffoonery.

"When you feel like, now I know everything, then you're dead," Mello told TheWrap's editor-in-chief Sharon Waxman who moderated a Q & A after the screening. "I want to continue doing my art the way that I think."

Indeed, he said it was not easy wearing different hats — and costumes — on set.

He recalled meeting the young actor who played a bit role as the son of a mayor in the film. Mello recommended that the boy cut his long hair to better suit the character.

Imitating the boy, he wagged his finger from side-to-side. "No," he said.

Later, the actor complained to his mother that he wanted to meet Mello.

"He said 'I waited around here for hours, I want to meet the director,'" Mello recalled. The boy's mother said the man insisting on the haircut was the director. "'You mean the clown? The director's that clown?'"

Mello said the cast and crew were amused watching him wander the set in his jester's garb, making the meticulous technical adjustments a director must.Getty Images

"For those around me, it was totally weird," he said, laughing. "It's a clown walking around saying, 'O.K., let's change this lens. Move this camera closer.'"

To the surprise of the audience members who know the tribulations of filmmaking, producer Vânia Catani said the $2.4 million movie was easy to make in a country so invigorated by a soaring economy.

"It wasn't hard to do this film because we're living in a very prosperous time in Brazil right now," she said in Portuguese through a translator.

Mello said "The Clown" serves as a departure from the drug-ridden favela slums infamously depicted in "City of God." 

"We live in a country that I'm very proud to be here representing," Mello said in slightly-accented English. "It's an opportunity to show another side of our soul. Another thinking about the same country."