Roma star Yalitza Aparicio: ‘Social class, gender, race, skin color, socio-economic background – these things don’t determine who you can get to become’

Photo by Carlos Somonte

His most intimate project to date, Roma marks director Alfonso Cuarón’s eighth directorial outing after 2013’s cutting-edge Gravity. Successfully streaming on Netflix since last December, the neorealist drama is a semi-autobiographical account of Cuarón’s childhood in Mexico City. 

Without doubt, Roma’s biggest indulgence is the breakout performance of first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo, a housekeeper coping with personal and political turmoil. In casting the titular role, Cuarón embarked on an exhaustive hunt throughout Mexico to find a real domestic worker whom closely resembled Libo Rodríguez, the housekeeper who raised him. After a year of lackluster auditions, Cuarón was ready to throw in the towel when a certain 24-year-old schoolteacher from rural Oaxaca auditioned. Cuarón immediately knew he had found his Cleo. However, his battle wasn’t over, Aparicio had decided that she was not interested in the role, so there were another several weeks of convincing until she finally said yes. And the rest is Oscar-making history.

5-months post Oscar-frenzy, Aparicio has not only landed a coveted spot on Time Magazine’s 100 most influential list, but also received the key to Panama City. iAWW had a chat with the star; revisiting her inner actress through the life-changing Roma.

What was your childhood dream?

To be a professor. I dreamt of being the perfect teacher who was beloved by all the children.

That’s great! At iAWW teaching is one of our favourite professions too. Did your family allow you the freedom to explore your own path? Were there any obstacles you had to face because of your gender?

My family always supported my continuing studies and my wish to reach my goals, so in that respect, I think the obstacles came instead from my social context and from having to deal with different ideological mindsets.

Which female figure has been your biggest source of inspiration?

My mother; the strength she has always demonstrated is something that inspires me. I strive to be just like her.

Roma is your first film, in fact, you have never acted before. After completing your degree in early childhood education, you planned a career in pre-school teaching. How did you cross paths with Alfonso Cuarón? 

I was still enrolled in my final year of school when I accompanied my oldest sister to a casting call. This occurred at the cultural center in Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca (Case de la Cultura). At the time, my sister had a delicate health condition and we were concerned about the type of movements they might ask of her during the audition. Though I was not interested, I auditioned in order to tell her what the process was like. So, it was very accidental. As it turned out, the casting only consisted of a few personal questions and a couple of photographs. It was during the second call-back that I first met Alfonso. We had a long conversation that was meant for us to learn about each other. It was actually this meeting which ultimately convinced me to be a part of the project.   

Interestingly, Cuarón never gave you a bound script before or during the production of Roma; you were pretty much in the dark. How did you prepare for your portrayal of Cleo? Did you get any pointers from Liboria “Libo” Rodríguez, the real-life Cleo?

Before the shoot began, I had the great honor of speaking with Libo and Alfonso separately. In these conversations, they each shared many of the same details about Libo’s past; what her relationship with the family was like and how much she esteemed them. Alfonso chose only to share the backstory. He wanted each of us to bring a little of ourselves to the characters. He did not want our interpretations to be influenced by words on a page. Though initially this was intriguing, little by little I tried to embrace my character. I reacted to events as Cleo might have, as she discovered them for the very first time. 

How did the sequential shooting schedule help you?

The chronological order in which the film was shot allowed me to get immersed in the story, enabling me to access my own memories, which helped me better inhabit my character. Once Alfonso called “action”, I would forget I was myself and I became only Cleo; in the midst of performing her daily chores. The linear shooting schedule definitely helped me remain in character throughout the duration of the shoot.

What was the most challenging aspect of acting? 

Knowing I was surrounded by a lot of people was nerve-racking. Initially, it was challenging to completely tune everyone out and focus only on the scene at hand. My fears were further heightened by the fact that I was in front of a camera. Eventually, I did learn to disconnect from my surroundings and connect myself to the character’s world. So much so, that once the film wrapped, it took me a while to let go of Cleo and become Yalitza again.

Alfonso Cuarón and Yalitza Aparicio on the set of ROMA. Photo: Carlos Somonte 

Did you get any acting tips from your co-star Marina de Tavira?

Yes. Marina comes from a strong theatre tradition. Her career has largely developed on the Mexican stage. She taught me various techniques to stay calm before entering the set. She was amazing throughout the shoot. Honestly, I couldn’t have asked for a better co-star.

What was it like working with a director who was also the cinematographer?

Since it’s the first film that I have performed in, I couldn’t really describe it in technical terms. I just know that he is an incredible director who looked after every minute detail during each take. Every frame of Roma is stunning. That’s all him, it’s Alfonso’s magnificent vision.

Your real-life bestie, Nancy García García, plays Cleo’s friend in the film. How did Nancy become a part of the project?

Nancy boarded the film once I had already been given the news that I would play Cleo. During that time, I was asked if I had friends who spoke Mixtec. Nancy speaks and writes fluently in Mixtec, so I gave her photographs and information to the producers. In turn, she was invited to test for the role. I was keeping my fingers and toes crossed the whole time and luckily it worked out.

Roma is a semi-autobiographical take on Cuarón’s upbringing in Mexico City. How did the film give you an opportunity to honour your own mother?

When Alfonso told me that Roma would be a very personal story, based on Libo, it was then that I realised this was an opportunity for me to not only embody Alfonso’s memories, but also pay homage to my mother. Like Libo, my mother is also a domestic worker who has taken care of many children. Just hearing Alfonso talk about his childhood made me appreciate his determination of wanting to tell this particular story. I knew before production started that Roma would be a beautiful film. 

Roma began streaming on Netflix last December and is available to watch globally, how exciting is this for you?

I am thrilled. I think it is truly wonderful that platforms like Netflix are breaking diversity barriers with content that transcends culture, language and geography. 

With your poignant and effortless portrayal of Cleo, you have become the first indigenous woman ever to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. Do you feel you are breaking stereotypes? Do you feel a sense of responsibility on your shoulders?

I feel very proud that I’ve had this opportunity to show the diversity that exists within Mexico; to be able to show the world that we can set aside certain preconceptions and realize that everyone can reach whatever dream they wish. Social class, gender, race, skin color, socio-economic background – these things don’t determine who you can get to become. Yes, of course I feel a sense of responsibility, but not just because of the success that Roma has had; I knew from the very first day on set that I was carrying a huge responsibility in playing Libo. Roma, is not just Libo’s story or my mother’s story, it’s the story of so many people.

Marco Graf, Daniela Demesa, Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Diego Cortina Autrey and Carlos Peralta in ROMA. Photo: Carlos Somonte. 

by JSK

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