A version of this story on Marina de Tavira and “Roma” first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.
When Marina de Tavira found herself in a movie alongside a group of fellow cast members who’d never before acted, she probably wasn’t expecting that the film would end up tying the record for the most Oscar acting nominations ever for a foreign-language film.
But Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” did just that, becoming only the second foreign-language film to score a pair of acting nominations — de Tavira for Best Supporting Actress and newcomer Yalitza Aparicio for Best Actress. In the 58 years that actors have been nominated for foreign-language performances — the first being Melina Mercouri for the 1960 Italian film “Never On Sunday” — Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s 2006 drama “Babel” is the only other movie to contain two acting nominees, with Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi both nominated for Best Supporting Actress.
“They are not just the heart of this film,” said Cuarón of his film’s two nominees, who played versions of his own mother (de Tavira) and the nanny who helped raise him (Aparicio). “If this film has connected with people, it’s because of the amazing humanity of these women.”
When Cuarón began looking for his cast, Aparicio was an aspiring schoolteacher in Oaxaca who didn’t even know what a casting call was. But in a way, she was typical of most of the cast, who were virtually all non-professionals except for de Tavira, an established actress in Mexico who has worked extensively on stage and in more than a dozen feature films.
“I think I was the only trained actress in the cast,” de Tavira said. “All the actors I worked with were acting for the first time, and what was something Alfonso and I had to work on a lot. At the beginning, it was more difficult for me than it was for them.”
To lead the non-pros through a story based on his own childhood memories, Cuarón didn’t show anyone the script, shooting in stricitly chronological order and telling his cast what they’d be doing one day at a time. “The fact that we shot in chronological order and didn’t have a script helped the other actors be natural and spontaneous,” de Tavira said. “But for a trained actor, it’s hard not to want to analyze the character’s journey.
“That was something that Alfonso worked on with me. He said, ‘You have to walk to where they are, not bring them to where you are.'”
De Tavira became close friends with Aparicio, whom she met at the end of the casting process. “We met at the last audition and there was an immediate bond,” she said. “I didn’t know that she was going to be the central character, but I just connected with her from the very beginning. She’s such a beautiful human being.”
As for the woman she was playing onscreen, de Tavira only met Cuarón’s mother, who was suffering from dementia by the time the film began shooting, once. “She came to visit the set on the day we had the children writing letters to their dad,” she said. “I didn’t know what to say to her. I only said, ‘I’m honored,’ and that was it.”
Occasionally, she said, Cuarón would give her script pages the night before, particularly if she had dialogue-heavy scenes the next day. “But I would never have the other character’s words, only mine,” she said. “And he would change them in the moment.
“And also, the other characters would always do something I didn’t expect. He would take the kids away separately and tell them things like, ‘If your mother says this, walk away.’ He wanted me to react to things that I wasn’t expecting.”
Cuarón also banned the actors from watching what they’d done. “Of course we couldn’t get near the video, even if we tried,” de Tavira said. “People would say, ‘Oh, if you could only have seen the way he shot that scene,’ but we had no idea. When I finally saw the film in Venice, I said, ‘Oh, my God, this is what he was doing.'”
Since receiving her surprise nomination, de Tavira has become open to working in the United States. “My career has been totally in Mexico,” she said, “But this country has been so welcoming to me that I’m really grateful and amazed. If there’s something I can do here, I will do it happily.”
But as for the nomination, “I’m still trying to figure out what happened,” she said. “I was watching the nominations because I expected ‘Roma’ to get nominated in some categories, but I never expected to get one myself.”
When she heard the news, she said, she had just woken her son up to get him ready for school. “I cried so hard, and he was like, ‘What’s going on?'” she said. “I told him, and he said, ‘So can I skip school?'” She laughed. “I told him no.”
To read more of TheWrap’s Down to the Wire Oscar issue, click here.