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Jorge Perugorría: I’m always ready to collaborate with our cinema.

Latin American film icon Jorge Perugorría returns to the big screen this month as the villain in the Panamanian film Kimura, which will open simultaneously in Panama, Costa Rica, and Guatemala on May 4th before hitting theaters throughout the Caribbean. We took advantage of his presence at the International Film Festival of Panama to have a chat about this new project and look back at some of the highlights in his career.

By Roberto Quintero
Photos: Roberto Quintero,  Tiempo Real

Cuban Jorge Perugorría is without a doubt one of Latin America’s great actors. He began in the theater in 1984 and made the leap to the big screen in the 90s, achieving worldwide fame and notoriety with his first feature film, Fresa y chocolate, co-directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío. Perrugorría played an educated, skeptical young homosexual who falls in love with a doctrine-spouting heterosexual communist full of prejudices. Since then he has starred in some forty films in Cuba and abroad, and has become the island’s best-known actor internationally. Perugorría is also a director and documentary filmmaker and has lately begun indulging his passion for the visual arts, earning recognition as a painter and sculptor.

Perugorría recently attended the International Film Festival of Panama to present Kimura, a martial arts drama directed by Panamanian Aldo Rey Valderrama. The film tells the story of Armando Carrera (Nick Romano), a former fighter with a tragic past, who returns to Panama seeking forgiveness from his brother Alejandro (Robin Durán) and is forced back into the ring in search of redemption. The Cuban actor plays the antagonist, Manfredo Ferreira, a sports promoter involved in drug trafficking and illegal betting. The film will be in theaters this month in Panama, Costa Rica, and Guatemala before moving on to the Caribbean and Latin America.

Let’s talk first about Kimura. How did you become involved in this Panamanian production? 

For some time now there’s been a strong relationship between the films being made in Panama and Cuba. In fact, many Cuban technicians and producers have worked on Panamanian projects. A producer named Lourdes, who works a lot here, contacted me in Havana and showed me the script and I found both the character and the project very interesting. I’m always ready to collaborate with our cinema –Latin American, Central American cinema– and especially with young people who are trying to make films in Latin America. I later learned that the director and the cinematographer had studied at the film school in San Antonio de los Baños (Cuba) and we realized we had friends in common and, well, you know how it goes… It was a very beautiful and enriching experience.

What did you like about the Manfredo Ferreira character?

He’s interesting. I read the script and liked him, and I thought I could get something out of the character. I started to look for little things that could enrich him, playing with the character to create something more ambiguous, so he wasn’t just a bad guy. For example, I had some gold teeth made in Cuba and brought them with me, because although the guy is a businessman and reeks of money, he had to have some kind of past. And the gold teeth hint at his marginal past.

Did the fact that he was a villain influence your decision to take the role? 

Yes, there was something intriguing about playing the bad guy, but I worked hard to construct the human being behind that. My career has been mostly auteur films, but many young people in Latin America now want to make genre films, which is perfectly valid. They have auteur training but want to make films that speak to wider audiences and communicate through generational interests. These young people are interested in a kind of cinema that couldn’t be made previously, because Latin American cinema was so focused on socially committed issues, on having a political discourse and portraying our reality.

Do you like the idea of Latin American filmmakers no longer having to pay those dues?

I do. These things that happen, they happen for a reason. Young people are interested in a new cinema, their own cinema. Which doesn’t mean that everyone has to make the same kind of films. I believe in diversity, with room for all kinds of experiences. If a young kid wants to make an auteur film, a more personal, more existential film, he should do it. If he wants to make a zombie movie or an action film, he should do it, if he has the means. And if he wants to make a political, committed film, he should do that too. The important thing is diversity, and then moviegoers can decide what they want to consume. This diversity already exists; that’s how things work in the film industries in the US and Europe. It’s just that it used to be difficult, in Latin American anyway, to think of the cinema as an industry.

You started out as a stage actor. What were your early years like, before you began making films? 

I discovered the theater and fell in love with it. I began as a student, then went from amateur to professional. I spent nearly ten years of my life doing theater, working with many different groups. I’m also a founding member, along with Carlos Díaz, of the Teatro del Público, one of Cuba’s most important theater companies.

My first shot at cinema was Fresa y chocolate. I was an actor who, until then, had only done theater, and suddenly, after this movie, all the doors to the world of film –at home and abroad– were open to me. That’s how my film career began. In fact, I’ve never returned to the theater. And I remember saying, “I’m going to make this film because the theater will always be there,” and I’ve now spent more than twenty-five years making movies and haven’t gone back to theater.

How old were you when you made Fresa y chocolate?

I was twenty-seven years old.

Do you remember what it was like for you at that age, to participate in a film that ended up being iconic, not only for Cuba but for all of Latin America? 

I remember two things: First, that while we were making the movie, we felt it was a necessary film, that it addressed issues that had been taboo in Cuba for many years, such as tolerance and respect for differences. And that it was important not just for us, but for all Cubans. What really surprised us, even Titón and Tabio, the directors, was the way the film took off internationally. It caused an incredible stir everywhere. It won in Berlin, it was nominated for an Oscar… You never imagine those things will happen. And suddenly, with my very first experience, I realized how much influence a film can have, and the importance of film as art. A film can’t change a country, can’t change a person, but it can make you think, it can shake you up and make people reflect. So I understood the power of film from my first experience. And I discovered that this was the kind of film I wanted to make. From then on, this has been my path, and I’ve tried to stick to it: supporting auteur films that are intelligent and committed.

Are subjects like those in Fresa y chocolate and Guantanamera still being explored in Cuban cinema? Are films still being made that question what is happening in the country? 

They’re still out there. In fact, Cuban cinema is still quite important to Cuban audiences. Because people sometimes go to the movies in search of complex and profound subjects that they can’t see on television or in the press, stories that reflect their lives. Cuban cinema has always been committed to showing reality and the young directors have kept this up. But there are also directors who want to make other kinds of films, and that’s what we’ve been talking about. But even a zombie film like Juan de los Muertos, deep down, is talking about Cuban reality. Even in a film like that, because it’s something that has been very marked in Cuban cinema.