It's hard enough trying to land a leading role in your film debut. Now imagine auditioning for your first film role, to be played mostly in a language you don't speak. You might say Mexican actor Pilar Padilla was an unlikely choice to play the lead in Ken Loach's powerful, recently released film on the Los Angeles Justice for Janitors movement, Bread and Roses. Yet it seems Padilla's solid technique—based on years of doing independent theatre in Mexico—and her clear-eyed earnestness translated across the language barrier.
Padilla plays Maya, a young woman who is smuggled across the border by "coyotes," men who charge immigrants thousands of dollars for safe, undetected passage. After landing a night job cleaning offices in Downtown Los Angeles, Maya encounters the charismatic, mischievous union organizer Sam (Adrien Brody) and eventually bands together with him and her co-workers as they fight management for fair pay and treatment.
When Loach originally held improv-style auditions in Mexico City, Padilla was rejected. "I couldn't speak a word," admitted Padilla, now able to comfortably carry on entire interviews in English. "Then they asked if I could return the next day just to help them audition other girls. I said, 'Well, sure,' because this is a great director, and I wanted to be along with him in this process. I helped audition maybe 10 actresses. Later that night, they proposed to me, 'If you can learn English in two months, maybe we could work together.' I said 'Well, yes. I'll try.'" She didn't have the part yet, but after she raced through a month-long crash course in English at a San Francisco language school, Loach felt Padilla was ready and took her on.
In a recent interview with Back Stage West, Padilla talked about the complicated experience of acting in a foreign language.
"You have to take the foreign language not as a handicap but as an integral part of your character," said Padilla. Because of Loach's improvisation-based filmmaking style, Padilla could not rely on line memorization to carry her through her performance. "With a project like this, even your thoughts have to be in English because you are constantly trying to find the words to communicate with others." As it turned out, Padilla found that this technique allowed her to develop a character she understood intimately and honestly—more so than she would have if she had been given a script and forced to understand foreign phrasings and expressions that didn't yet make sense to her on a deep level.
In some cases, Padilla explained, writer Paul Laverty would give her only one line and ask her to improvise the rest of the scene. "Sometimes I didn't know anything about the future of the scene," said Padilla, "or the future of the characters beyond that scene, so I had to really truthfully believe in that moment in time, to listen and allow myself to feel real things. I couldn't think too much about it. I let go, and the performance happened."
The calm, easy tone she takes when discussing her approach to her work may have something to do with her years of training. Born in Mexico City, she began acting in high school workshops. "Then," recalled Padilla, "when I had to choose what to do with my life, I said to my mother, 'I do want to go to the university, but I am going to study acting.' She was like, 'Can you do that at a university?' And I said, 'Yes, sure.' She didn't sleep for about three days. Finally she said, 'OK. I was expecting something like this from you anyway.'"
After studying theatre as a major at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico, Padilla worked with the Mexican classical theatre company Corral, doing tours mostly of Spanish plays, while appearing in the occasional soap opera.
Since Bread and Roses, she has completed her second film—one that also places politics in the forefront. Along with Salma Hayek and Edward James Olmos, Padilla stars in Mariano Barroso's soon-to-be-released In the Time of Butterflies, the true story of the three Mirabal sisters who, in 1960, were murdered for their part in an underground plot to overthrow the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic.
Padilla explained that these political themes in her first films are just a "great coincidence."
"I think, for an actor, it's great to have these kinds of scripts," said Padilla. "It's great for me to play strong Latin-American women, so I am glad. But trust me, I would love to do anything else, as well."
At the moment, she's in rehearsal for the Mexican national theatre company's international tour of Pedro Calderón de la Barca's El Medico De Su Honra, a co-production with a number of Mexican cultural institutes, which is expected to tour the United States and Spain in the near future.