The Fierce and Elegant Actress Elpidia Carrillo
Women artists have to speak up. Yes. I do believe that. We have the weapons, the tools ...
Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez, Contributing Editor
Originally published at Herald de Paris
Published on LatinoLA: April 29, 2014
Elpidia Carrillo was born August 16, 1961 in Santa Elena, Michoac?ín, Mexico, a small mountain community where her grandfather was a landowner. When Carrillo was six years old, her father was murdered. Her brother moved the family of eight siblings to Paracuaro, where Elpidia attended school.
Perhaps her best acted role in Hollywood to date has been that of "Maria" in the 1986 movie Salvador where she played a Salvadoran acting alongside James Woods. Arguably, though, her best-known role would be as the survivor, Anna, in Predator with Arnold Schwarzenegger and a cameo in Predator 2. In American cinema, she has also worked with Johnny Depp and many other stars.
When she was 12, Carrillo's brother was also murdered, forcing her to go to work in a restaurant to support the family. Walking down the street one day, she was approached by an agent who offered a modeling contract. Carrillo debuted in film at age 16 with Deseos (1977). Several roles in Mexican movies and television series followed. Her first American film was The Border (1982), and she became well-known through her roles in Predator (1987), Salvador (1986), and for De Tripas, Corazon, which was nominated for an Academy Award. She has been featured in several television series episodes, including ER and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and has directed a 2004 short, Killer Snake. Carrillo has received a number of awards, including two Alma Awards for outstanding Supporting Actress, and has been honored for helping to improve the Latino media profile.
Carrillo is married with two children, and lives in Venice, California.
Going back to her Mexican Cinema roots she my return to the Mexican film industry is with the new film The Familia Gang it's a comedy she plays a Mafia Kingpin, and another one she just shot in El Salvador is called Relentless.
Carillo has mainly appeared in Mexican movies. Her first American movie was 1982's The Border. Other American films include Beyond the Limit (with Joaquim de Almeida), Salvador (with Juan Fernandez and Tony Plana), Let's Get Harry (with Glenn Frey and Jerry Hardin), Predator (with Bill Duke and Sonny Landham) and its' sequel Predator 2 (with Bill Paxton and Ruben Blades), The Brave (with Clarence Williams III, Luis Guzman, and Pepe Serna), and her most recent film appearance, in 2009's Mother and Child (with Annette Bening and Jimmy Smits).
Her first American TV appearance was in the 1985 mini-series Christopher Columbus. Other appearances include Midnight Caller (with Gary Cole, Jesse Borrego, and Mykelti Williamson), 21 Jump Street (with Jorge Gil, Xavier Coronel and Mario Ernesto Sanchez), ER, Law and Order, and The Mentalist.
She is currently working on editing a documentary that she shot in Michoac?ín. She is also working on opening a Film Festival in Tierra Caliente, Michoac?ín. This is to promote education and arts in communities that don't have a decent school system or even a library, Elpidia is opening a few book stores and cafeterias en las comunidades para que los jovenes tengan a donde ir a pasar el tiempo y educarse.
Herald de Paris Deputy Managing Editor Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez was enchanted to meet and interact with this mulit-national theatrical icon - a woman who had held her own opposite Hollywood's top leading men.
AC: Your life story is what great novels are made of. You grew up in a small town in Mexico and your grandfather was a landowner. What were those first few years like?
EC: The first years of my life from birth to three were also the beginning of tragedy for my family. In 1964 my father got shot and killed in one of the villages where my grandfather owned land. A few years before my father's only brother had been shot as well.
After that my mother and her ten children became workers for my grandfather's many farms, but we did not own land any more. My grandfather had taken it all from us. Most of us were still very little and my mama Maria only had three boys. The older boy was about 16, the other boy was about ten and the third boy was just a couple of months old so she was forced to place us with different relatives.
AC: Tragedy hit when you were six years old. What happened? Does the intense emotionality of that time still inform your work as an artist? If so, how?
EC: My brother Ramiro, the oldest of the boys, became our father figure and he felt very responsible for us all. He bought a house for us in the town of Paracuaro were my grandpa also owned land and cattle. I was a good and smart girl - my brother told me he wanted me to go to school, but I was too little to start first grade. In those years there was no pre-school in my town. He thought I would do well and he got me a false birth certificate and made me a couple of years older. He send me to school and I was about four but he made me six on paper.
Tragically, he saw me make it to the second grade because in 1968 he got shot outside the only movie theater in town. I will never forget the sounds of gun shots at night time. That Bang! Bang! Bang! That sound went with me everywhere I went.
To hear your mother cry in the middle of the night when she learns that her son has been shot is something no one can ever forget. I could hear her footsteps running, faster than she normally did, until she got to her already dead boy. All my sisters and cousins and friends came out of the movie theater and screamed, shouting to get the criminals. We hear them running in the middle of the night, hear the gallop of the horses taking the criminals away. All the way to M?®xico City where, when I turned ten, jure que vengaria la muerte de mi hermano.
After the death of my brother we were all threatened to be raped or killed. I was never so scared for my life and my sister's life as I was back then. Some of my sisters got married at a very young age in order for them to be fed and protected. My sister Marisa decide to move herself to the nearest big town of Uruapan. She found shelter with the curandera from that town and started to work in the Chinese restaurant. Another older sister also left to Mexico City and became at very young stripper.
I found myself bouncing from my grandfather's home to another older sister's home where I was abused and hardly had any food.
When I turned ten, I couldn't take it anymore and decided to leave the town. I had learned already how to use a gun and decided that I would go to Uruapan. I asked my sister Marisa that if she could take me with her. If not, I was going to leave the town anyway. I knew that if I had been able to save myself from so many dangerous situations, I would do okay for myself staying in a big town like that. She took me with her and found me a job with the Chinese man.
After a year in Uruapan earning a few pesos and working so many hours, I didn't have to keep on going to school, I became frustrated so I quit. While there I was living at La Curandera's house. Life was not looking good, but my luck changed when I noticed that a local photographer had being taking photos of me. He asked the Chinese man if he could talk to me.
AC: Just like in the movies, you were walking down the street and offered a modeling contract from an agent. Did that really happen? Weren't you skeptical?
EC: The photographer was nice but also loved women and seguramente entre mas' ni??as, mejor. I was scared but strong and the man was somehow taken aback seeing my wild and fierce eyes. He offered me good money and took me to the capital of Michoac?ín to model the outfits that the Purecha women used. I was, for the first time in my life, in contact with my real roots, I felt proud and became a good model and listener. The photographer noticed my interest and said he thought I had more talent than just being a model. He thought I could be an actress. I had no idea what he was talking about. Within a year or so I became more frustrated when I notice that the Chinese man was using me and my sister to attract men to his restaurant. My sister got married that year at 15.
AC: You went to work in a restaurant at 12. What was that like? Is this where you honed your strong work ethic?
EC: I was all alone and hungry . . . very, very hungry. But at age 12 a film director from Mexico City came and I was offered to participate in my first film, Pafnucio Santo, where I got to portray La Malinche - I had no dialog. Instead I got to sing in German Opera. I had no idea what opera was, but the pay was good so I said yes.
When I got to the set I learned that I had to take my clothes off. I was scared but there was no one taking care of me, and no one cared that I was a minor. They took off my dress in the middle of the set and told me to sing and walk sexy. The director said that the film was about a time when women didn't wear any clothing. I somehow understood. They also said, "Or else you don't get paid." He also decided that my name on his movies would be "Piya" Instead of Elpidia Carrillo.
After I finished that film I had another contract to star in a Mexican film called El Nuevo Mundo. It was my first lead role and a big production. All was good until I learned that I had to be naked in that film as well. And again I did it, since I didn't read the contract before hand. I was again forced to get undressed. By this time I worked on the movie Deceos.
They thought I had experience because the director, for the first time, took his time to sit with me and talk to me about the scene. We discussed how we will shoot it and how important my role was . . . and that I had to take my clothes off (hahaha). I understood and had decided that I liked the art of storytelling. I decided to discover more about it. I enrolled in the Bellas Arts School in Mexico City. After that I didn't stop working in M?®xico for both Mexican and European productions. I got to travel to the south of the continent. I had no plans and knew little about North America.
AC: From 1977 until 1982 you worked on many TV and film projects in Mexico. What were those experiences like? What was your lifestyle like at the time?
EC: In 1977 at the age of 17, I got chosen by Tony Richardson to star in The Border with Jack Nicholson. I didn't speak a word of English and had no idea who Nicholson was, but I was again taken by surprise. Before I knew it I was in Hollywood, had a work visa and was living in Tony Richardson's home laughing my ass off at Nicholson's jokes. I remember that it was the first time I ever felt secure and safe. I understood that I had rights as a teenager and as an artist. I got an agent, an assistant, a driver, money to eat, tickets to Disney, etc.
After I did The Border I kept on working in other great films and didn't think too much about doing TV. I thought that I was made to just work in films, and I only did a couple here and there when a friend or someone that knew me offered me the roles. I did eventually started taking various TV roles in the USA and Mexico and I still do.
AC: In 1979 you starred (along with James Woods) in Oliver Stones' Salvador. How did you land that role and how was it working with Oliver Stone? What did he teach you?
EC: Yes. I felt so connected and I felt such need for fighting for people's rights. I looked up to Oliver at that moment as if he was my hero. I was able to see the mistakes he was making in showing Latino culture, like he did with me, acostada en la hamaca, desnuda, con el bebe llorando, y mi hermanito fumando mota y al gringo ensima de mi, valiendole madres todo. Yes we fought and argued about not getting naked and well, he won.
AC: In what way is Mexican cinema different from the US?
EC: I saw the difference in Mexican film only in terms of money. I mean the US is bigger in many different ways but in terms of stories, I think Mexico tiene mejores y mas historias de importancia. I think son menos comerciales y tienen mas contenido. I believe that we have so many stories to tell, so many.
AC: Is it difficult for Latinas to find roles?
EC: It is hard as a woman, Latina or no Latina. Here in Hollywood it is hard to find good roles for women.
AC: How did/does fame effect you as an artist?
EC: I don't see myself as someone famous. I wish! The fame is bringing me money to support my children and the opportunity to work giving back to my gente. ?íQue venga! I think that generosity is a very important tool for an artist. I think that we women artists have to speak up. Yes. I do believe that. We have the weapons, the tools: our bodies, musical instruments, paint brushes, pencil and paper, cameras, and tons of stories.
AC: What about age?
EC: Yes! age affects! Hahaha! But I don't see that I should or would stop working as I get older, you know?
AC: Does an artist have any obligation to be a role model?
EC: Yes I feel that I should be careful what I do as an artist. Latina artists have not been portrayed in Hollywood in a positive light. I think there are hardly any roles for Latino women to begin with.
AC: Tell us about working with Rodrigo Garcia.
EC: I had the fortune to work with Rodrigo Garcia a couple of times - he is one of the directors that I have been more challenged with. With Rodrigo I learned about acting and writing and shooting my entire scene with no editing! I think he has a unique way of telling stories about women. I was so happy when he gave the role in Nine Lives - I got an ALMA award and a couple of other awards in Europe for it. I also had the luck to work with Ken Loach in Bread and Roses. I learned so much about acting, writing, producing, generosity, compassion, team work, story, photography and improvisation.
AC: What did you learn from your Predator experience while working with Arnold?
EC: The only thing I learned from making Predator was to be able to survive among a bunch of horny, macho, stupid, muscle men. I am very proud of that.
AC: What are some of the things you would like to do?
EC: I would like to go back and work in Mexico and anywhere else in Latino America. My goal is to be able to bring productions to most of Latino America countries. In that way I could establish small production houses and be able to make films, documentaries and shorts. I would be able to give my "Elpidia Carrillo Workshops" (Arts and film making).
AC: What are you working on right now?
EC: I am now working on editing a documentary that I shot in Michoac?ín. I am also working on opening a Film Festival in Tierra Caliente, Michoac?ín. This is to promote education and arts in communities that don't have a good school system and/or don't even have a library. I am also opening a few book stores and cafeterias en las comunidades para que los jovenes tengan a donde ir a pasar el tiempo y educarse.
Edited by Susan Aceves
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