by Ximena Ojeda and Keith Widyolar
Rodrigo Santoro is a major movie star in Brazil, Latin America and the world. He got his start in Brazilian Telenovelas in the early 1990s. In South America, novelas are more popular than movies.
Rodrigo’s breakout film was 2001’s “Bicho de Sete Cabeças (Brainstorm)” by Brazilian director Laís Bodansky. A role in the blockbuster “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” launched Rodrigo’s career in Hollywood. In 2007 he played Persian emperor Xerxes in the movie “300” based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel.
We spoke with Rodrigo in New York where he is launching the Brazilian film “Heleno” in which he plays the world’s first global sports star, Heleno de Freitas, the Brazilian footballer of the 1940s.
Rodrigo A lot of women think “Heleno” is a soccer movie for guys, but “Heleno” is not a soccer movie. It’s the story of a man’s struggle to deal with his own demons, ego and fame. It’s a human story, a drama, a life story.
The movie is set in Rio de Janeiro in the 1940s when Rio was at the height of its glamour. It was a place where movie stars went to get away from it all and though it is becoming that again, the 1940s was a completely different era. Heleno was a prince in this glamorous society.
NYLC Heleno loved soccer, women and nightlife. He played and played and played until he died of syphilis after refusing treatment. You obviously have explored Heleno’s character. Why do you think he refused to be treated?
Rodrigo I think he might not have realized how serious it was. In the early stages of the disease, there are no symptoms. Later you get some rashes, but they go away. In the end it affects the brain, but by then it is too late to do anything.
At that time doctor’s did not really know how to treat this disease. He was offered experimental medicine, but the one important side effect was that it would reduce his testosterone and make him less manly. He would not accept that.
Director José Henrique Fonseca & Rodrigo Santoro at the Duplo T / Heleno Launch Party
NYLC How do you prepare for a film about a world-class athlete?
Rodrigo I trained with a professional soccer player for a couple of months. I took ballroom dance classes. I think its important to find the harmony in the movement of your body. Elegance is something that you either have or don’t have. I ate a lot of green things to drop the weight.
NYLC What is the one thing about Heleno’s character that you most relate to?
Rodrigo There is no one thing, no button you can push to enter a character. It’s a combination of things that come together and click. Maybe the one thing that I share with him is passion. He was committed to what he believed in and I am the same way. The studios asked us to change the ending, to present something less tragic, but that’s not what happened.
NYLC Beyond the obvious influence of the World Cup and the Olympics coming to Brazil, is this film part of a renaissance in Brazilian film and culture expanding out into the world?
Rodrigo 2001’s “Brainstorm” directed by Wilson Souza Neto and “Behind the Sun” directed by Walter Salles came out at the beginning of a rebirth of Brazilian culture in the world. Cinema plays an important role in that change. Brazilian films started to crossover to world audiences and gave people a different way to relate the country.
When people ask where I am from and I tell them Brazil, they always seem to answer, “Oh Brazil!” with an exclamation mark. There is a lot of interest in the country and this film shows Brazil before it became trendy to the outside world.
NYLC What are people missing when they only know the stereotypes of Brazil?
Rodrigo People always think of soccer, carnaval, samba and bossa nova, but Brazil is a huge very multicultural country. We have the longest coastline in the world filled with beautiful beaches. The North, South, East and West are all very different in character. We have lots of people with Italian, German, Japanese and African heritage. It’s a very diverse society.
Brazil is blessed with tremendous natural resources and beauty. I just took a trip to the the Amazon to ride a wave.
NYLC Really are you are surfer?
Rodrigo Yes I am actually a surfer who acts in order to pay the bills. There is a wave that is like a tsunami right in the middle of the Amazon River. The ocean tides and the force of the river interact to create this huge wave. There is a place called Bonito which looks like it was hand sculpted by God. The rivers flow with clear water and are filled with amazing fish. We are truly blessed with nature.
There is also the spirit of the people. As a people, we try to have fun no matter what. It’s an important part of the Brazilian character.
Heleno loved women and nightclubs
NYLC What’s next for you?
Rodrigo “The Last Stand” is coming in 2013 with Arnold Schwarzenegger directed by Kim Ji-woon. Then there is the continuation of “300.”
NYLC Seems like you are getting the roles of kings among men.
Rodrigo In “300,” I play a seven foot tall god king. It’s a funny story how that happened. I was acting in “Don Quixote” so I was very skinny and hairy. A producer whose work I knew called me and asked me to read for the part. I looked at the graphic novel and saw this guy who was a bald, ripped, giant.
I was sitting looking depressed in a makeup chair and the artist asked what was wrong. I told him I didn’t know how I could do this. He asked me to show him a picture, then said that after the work day, maybe he could help me out. I came back at the end of the day. He pulled out some bald caps. I said we should just forget it, but he said let’s do it for fun. I called a director friend to ask if he could help me shoot a video.
An hour later I’m bald and the makeup artist says now let’s do your eyes. I’m thinking forget it. I’m not going to walk out of here with a bald head and strange eyes. He insisted, so I found an umbrella and kind of snuck out underneath it. We shot a video that night. Two days later I got a call from the director. He said he loved the reading and I had three months to bulk up.
Sometimes it’s like a guardian angel appears to guide you. The makeup artist is VaVa Torres, one of the best makeup artists in Brazil.
Photo Rogerio Faissal
NYLC Thank you for a great story. We also know a thing or two about guardian angels. Why should people come out to see “Heleno.”
Rodrigo The main reason is that “Heleno” is a great story. I think this is the first film about Brazil in the 1940s. I hope the Brazilian community will come out to support our film. If you are a Brazilian living in the States it will, as we say, “matar a saudade” (kill or cure the longing for your home country). It’s a powerful human drama about one of the world’s first great sportsmen and shows the elegance and beauty of Brazil before it became trendy.