Kuno Becker: "I'm proud to be Mexican but I'm also very tired of the violence and the corrupt system."

Mexican heartthrob Kuno Becker shoots and scores in British sports movie Goal!*
London, September 2005

You have signed up for three films. What does the Goal! trilogy mean for you in career terms?

“I didn’t sign for three films. I just signed for one. But the plan is to be part of the other two films. I think it’s going to happen, hopefully. I want to do it and they want me to do it so I’m very happy because it gives me a bigger process of creating a character and gives me a chance to put a character through so many more things than just two hours of screen time.”

What kinds of things does your character, Santiago, go through in this film, on and off the pitch?

“The most important part here is to see what happens with the people, their lives, their minds, everything. All kinds of things happen in the film. This is basically the process of him trying to get the dream -- he’s trying to achieve that goal -- and that’s basically it. Being a simple, simple guy, almost poor, from East Los Angeles, and trying to become a big football star in a big team is pretty interesting. So this is the beginning of the process when he, like, starts to try that. It’s very interesting.”

It’s a rags-to-riches story. What is interesting is that he is the kind of character we see in films going after the American Dream only in this case he has to go abroad to achieve it, because football is not big in the States.

“That’s interesting. I never thought about that but actually yeah, his family went to America to become successful, or sort of what everybody thinks of as successful, and yeah, he has to go to Europe to get that, which is very interesting. It’s ironic and it’s interesting. And you know what? That’s real, actually. Because I was actually watching the news and a lot of the illegal immigrants that are in Los Angeles, they really don’t get what they expect, and secondly it’s so hard to cross the border and it’s becoming harder and harder. It’s so tough. They die and all kinds of things happen, it’s pretty tough, so some of them are emigrating to Europe or Asia. Yeah, it’s interesting that that is sort of reflected in the film.”

What is your relationship with America? You live in LA but go back to Mexico, I believe.

“I’m based in LA but most of the time I’m working somewhere else.”

What is your relationship with the country? Earlier this year the governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, praised armed Minuteman patrols for trying to prevent illegal migrants crossing the border and told people to stop putting water in the desert for them. As someone who lives in LA, how does this make you feel?

“Oh man, it’s such a hard thing. It’s so complicated that thing about immigration and immigrants. On the one hand it’s so difficult to see people dying and don’t give them water, right? It seems criminal. And then on the other hand I understand the point of view of everyone that lives there. Everyone wants to cross there and it’s illegal. I’m an immigrant if you think about it because I’m from Mexico and I went to work in Los Angeles, or here [England], and it’s pretty hard. But I didn’t do it illegally so it’s kind of like, ‘Oh man, is it right or is it wrong?’ On the other hand, my relationship with the States right now, Mexico City, for me, is a very dangerous place. I’m proud to be Mexican but I’m also very tired of the violence and the corrupt system, and the pollution, it’s so, so hard to live there. And it’s becoming harder and harder, it’s not nice, so I couldn’t do it. On the other hand I wanted to move on to films and I was just able to work on TV in Mexico, and from time to time on a small independent film, and I would rather do it somewhere else where I can at least pay the rent. You know what I mean? So it’s pretty difficult. But at the moment my relationship with America is pretty good. I’m happy, I respect the rules, and I think it’s still a great place to live. I don’t agree with a lot of things that are happening there as in Mexico, or any other place, but I agree with a lot more. So it’s [a] normal [relationship].”

How easy was it to relate to Santiago because you come from a quite different, presumably middle class, background?

“Well, a little bit I think, I don’t know. But it’s very similar. I mean most people have a dream. Mine is acting or being able to keep working, doing films or whatever, and then his is about football. I’m not a very sporty guy. I used to play football as a kid but I’m not into that, which is interesting as an actor because I have to transform into something that I really am not. It’s similar, the situations. When I was a kid I was living in Europe for a couple of months a year because I was studying violin, that was in Salzburg, and when I was younger I was living in Germany because my grandfather was German, and they also sent me there for a couple of months. It was pretty difficult being a Mexican kid in Europe. Santiago’s a lot older than I was at that time, of course, but I kind of know that feeling so it really helped me to relate to the character a bit more.”

What was making you feel like an outsider as a kid?

“I was in a German school when I was a kid for like almost all my life and I kind of knew the language, so there wasn’t much problem with the language. But then what was really difficult was to be like 9 years old, 10 years old, 12 years old or whatever, and being alone in Europe and so young. The loneliness is pretty hard and you don’t know how to deal with it. You just miss your family. For me it wasn’t the happiest part of my life because when you’re a kid the truth is that you cannot decide anything. Everybody tells you what to do, what you eat, what you do, what you don’t do, when you have to go to sleep, this and that, so you think to be a kid is pretty cool, but it’s not really. So I’m enjoying myself a lot more right now when I can really take the reins of my life and really make choices and make decisions. That’s really awesome.”

Was learning the violin something that accentuated the loneliness because that’s an instrument that takes a lot of time and discipline and something quite private, whereas if you’re out doing sport you’re with other people?

“Yeah, it seems the cliché loneliness thing to be playing the violin. It’s funny. But I can relate a lot to the character because of what I did as a kid.”

When did your dream switch from becoming a musician to becoming an actor?

“I was sixteen and I realised it wasn’t my decision to be a violinist. I really like violin, I really like classical music, I can read now, a couple of things, and it really helps with languages, for example, to really hear sounds and listen. But I really realised that I wanted to do something else. I wanted to transmit emotions, maybe, but I didn’t want to make a living as a violinist or as a musician. It’s a very important part of my life but I really wanted to switch to something else. I found acting really helpful as a tool to help me say what I wanted to say through my scenes or through my job. And also when I was 16 or 17 I was very scared of dying. It’s just the normal process, I guess, but I was just thinking about death and all that stuff so I think that was the main reason I really had for becoming an actor. That was the only way to really stay alive for more time.”

So you were working through things?

“Well I was just thinking, ‘OK, you know what? First of all I need to express myself and I need to say something and transmit emotions. And secondly I really don’t want to die.’ It’s a big ego thing, I think, a stupid thing. I mean I don’t think about that anymore. Well, I think about that but it’s not my motive right now. At that time I was just thinking about that and then I found acting, so that was my idea: I wanted to, like, act so that I could live more time. Which is stupid, but that’s what I was thinking, yeah. And then I fell in love with acting and that became the reason why I kept doing it. Now I cannot stop doing it because I find it beautiful and I can’t get enough of it.”

When you were learning the violin did that instil in you a kind of discipline that you have been able to apply to your new craft?

“Yeah, playing classical music when you’re a kid, it’s so tough and you learn so many things about discipline, professionalism, being on freaking time, all those things. It really helps you to listen. I didn’t know it was going to be so useful to be able to play an instrument. The violin! When you’re a kid, you say, ‘I’m never going to be able to use this in any way’, but I use it in so many ways. It’s really interesting.”

Does that kind of discipline help when you need to pick up a new skill for a movie such as this? Like you said, you hadn’t played much football.

“I played in school and from time to time but I wasn’t a professional or anything. It wasn’t my dream to become a footballer. I wasn’t even close to that so it was hard. But it also really helped me to be able to focus and train and try to understand it. When you hit a ball properly it sounds different, and that’s amazing. I don’t think many people notice that but it’s a whole different thing.”

Did you have to demonstrate a certain level of proficiency before you got the role? Did you have to prove that you had a certain level of fitness?

“Actually that was a big part of the whole thing. First of all I did a couple of auditions and I read for the part a couple of times and they went, ‘OK, we know you can act, but playing football is a whole different thing. Now you’re going to have to do a test, a football trial, so you’re going to go to Newcastle for two weeks to train and then after those two weeks we’re going to be able to see if you make it or not.’ They really wanted me to almost become a professional footballer player, which obviously is not going to happen. I did it the best I could. What I had in mind is I really wanted to do as much as I could. In the end I did it so hard that I broke my ankles. So the day of the trial I couldn’t even walk. It was tricky because it was like, ‘What now?’ A couple of the guys were disappointed and I was like, ‘I cannot run. I cannot even walk’, so it didn’t happen. When it was over, they were kind of unhappy. I noticed that, they didn’t tell me. When I was about to leave I came back and I said, ‘You know what? I’ve been here for two weeks training so hard, why don’t you let me show you what I learned in terms of skills and all that stuff, not tricks, and try to get the ball from you and show you what I learned’. Then I got the job. It was pretty tough. I mean my body’s not used to it. My body’s not used to playing football. So I did improve a lot from my level of football.”

You must have felt like Santiago in the scene where he is pushed in the mud all the time and told that there will be no second chance?

“Yeah, it was exactly the same! So I really related to the character and I know how he felt, and it’s pretty hard because you want that. For me as an actor this role was great because it’s one of the only chances to be something you’re not. Most people, most directors and most producers and casting directors, they want to see a guy who is the character, which is not the point. They don’t see an actor that can become something different. They want to see the character, which is not the idea. You have to find somebody to become that character which is a whole different thing. I wanted that chance to become somebody else.”

That is the potentially limiting factor of working somewhere like Hollywood, isn’t it? That they do want to put people into boxes.

“And that leads you to so many bad things. You have to start from the beginning. If you don’t do that it’s because you don’t love the craft. If you’re not looking for the good characters or the good scenes, or you’re more into the magazines or the money or something, you get it and then it’s not enough, or it’s actually not very nice. So everybody gets angry and they don’t like it, and they’re a pain in the ass with the people. Then they don’t enjoy their scenes and the result is people don’t enjoy the scenes either, it’s such a fucked up thing. So it’s better to be honest and say, ‘I really like this and if not I’d better do what I like’. Because that’s one of the main problems we have in this world. If you don’t do what you like, you’re going to be a freaking problem. You’re not going to do it right. You’re not going to be on time. You’re going to have a long face. It’s a pain in the ass. I enjoy it. Honestly, the whole thing around the job, it’s a pain in the ass for me but I do it because I love my job and being on the set. And being on the set gives me everything else. But I hate the popularity. Nothing personal, but I hate all the interviews and all that stuff; I do it because of my job, which is what I like.”

Is that why you wanted to move out of soaps, not just because of the need for more complex roles but because of the celebrity factor that comes with that? You’re hugely well known in Mexico, I read.

“Yeah, I would be still in Mexico City doing television and I wouldn’t care about anything else because they pay very well. They’re just a TV industry. There’s a small film industry which is growing, slowly, but they make great things from time to time. But it’s not enough to make a living out of it. It’s very difficult, right. Theatre is also pretty small. You can find great things but it’s also not enough to make a living out of it. So if you really want to get into your job and do something interesting that you enjoy, you have to do either films or theatre, and you cannot do that in Mexico and make a living, so you have to really go somewhere else, like the US, Europe or wherever.”

When you look at someone like Gael Garcia Bernal, he has worked in all different countries. Is that the kind of career you’d like?

“I don’t have any specific goals. I don’t want to go to some country or certain countries and do a film. I don’t know what’s going to happen. You make so many plans and then something else happens. My goal is to keep working and trying to find good characters, and that’s all I want to do.”

So wherever the work comes from, you’re prepared to go?

“Wherever good work comes from, hopefully. Right? There’s times where you say, ‘You know what? Right now I will do anything because I don’t have any fucking money.’ But most times you really want to choose and you really want to do something that you like. I did one film like two years ago which is like the worst thing in the world, a very small, three-week film that I really regret, and I’m never going to do it again, and hopefully nobody is going to see it. Then I understood and I remembered how I felt when I wasn’t working doing what I loved.”

What was the film?

“Hopefully you’re never going to see it, man. I shot it in Miami.”

You also worked in Kazakhstan recently, on a film called Nomad.

“Yeah, that one was wonderful. I did that one before Goal! That was incredible. We were shooting in Kazakhstan for like six months in total and it was great. It was an big independent film, this wonderful Russian director, great DP, and great crew. It was pretty difficult, hard conditions, independent, but it was awesome. It looks beautiful. I don’t now if somebody’s going to see it some time. They’re trying to find distribution. I’ve done six films so far and I don’t know if someone’s going to see them one day because it’s so difficult with independent films. I think this one is the first one they’re going to see which I’ve done.”

How did you get the role in Goal!? Did they come to you? Was it through your agent?

“Well they told me about the audition and my agent sent me to the audition, and I met Mike [Jeffries, the producer], I met Danny [Cannon, the director], we had a meeting, we talked about the script. The first thing was I read the script, I loved it, and then I met them, I read for them and then I read for them again, and then the football began. So I had the trial and it was crazy. It was stressful, also. You know, just the weight of not knowing and then it’s like you’re going to be training and you’re not quite there, but they’re not sure about you because they’re not sure you’re going to be able to play football. That was very stressing because I really wanted to get the part and wanted to do by best. It’s pretty hard, man.”

Did it bring a lifestyle change in the sense that you weren’t only having to act but also achieve a certain level of fitness in order to be convincing as a professional sportsman?

“I do exercise form time to time, but not much. I go to the gym from time to time. I started riding horses when I was three years old so I do a sport, but not much to do with football. I played in school and stuff but I’m not like a sporty guy that plays a sport every day and stuff.”

What do your parents do?

“We’re not an actors family or anything. My mom is a psychologist. We’re a pretty normal family. I have one brother and one sister; I’m the youngest. They’re not in the business.”

Can we talk a bit about the representation of Latino and Hispanic characters in American films? I was talking to John Leguizamo in Cannes and he said that you get certain stereotypes because the people who make the movies live in their gated communities and they only see them in terms of the people who work for them, so you only get a certain section represented on screen. I wonder how you feel about that because you come from a very different background to Santiago, who is breaking out of the barrio in East LA.

“It’s a little bit of ignorance, I think. Yeah. Beverly Hills is not the whole world, right? It’s nice but you really have to really think about it and there’s so many different levels and so many different kinds of Latinos and Mexicans, South Americans, oh man, so many different things. America’s a whole thing, there’s not one country. Those kinds of things, if you really think about it, they’re a little bit ignorant. There’s not much that I can do but say it. And when I do an interview and somebody asks, well just say what I think. And that’s what I think. I think it’s because of the ignorance of some people but there are others that really kind of know. We have more and more Latinos in Los Angeles, we are more and more, so at the end of the day, they’re going to have to learn I think [laughs].”

But another film you’ve done, English as a Second Language, also shows a
character coming from a similar background to Santiago.

“Yeah but it’s a bit hard. At the beginning of a career you make choices but you’re sort of limited. I mean you cannot say, ‘Okay, you know what? I’m going to play an Italian now because I can do an accent’ or whatever. Everybody sees you as a Latino and that’s it. Period. You know, in a way that’s who you are, but then maybe you can do something else, right? But it’s pretty hard to make a choice when you’re starting so that’s what I was saying. Sometimes you have to do what you think is good, not the worst thing in the world, but you have to really start. It’s interesting because there are so many stories happening about Latinos in Los Angeles, so many stories about crossing the borders, so many stories about a guy from East Los Angeles that makes it or whatever, but it’s also true. It’s happening so much that people have to tell those stories. Maybe we’re part of it and we’ll do it."
*Goal! 2 is released in the UK on February 9, 2007.
© Stephen Applebaum, 2006

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