Following the Oscar success of “The Hurt Locker,” Kathryn Bigelow reteams with writer Mark Boal for "Zero Dark Thirty," which recounts the decade-long hunt for al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. Akin to films like “Zodiac,” this meticulously structured procedural features a fantastic ensemble that includes Jessica Chastain ("Tree of Life"), Joel Edgerton (“Warrior”), Jason Clarke (“Lawless”), Jennifer Ehle (“Contagion”) and James Gandolfini (“Killing Them Softly”). Edgar Ramirez, who plays an Ground Branch operative in "Zero Dark Thirty", finds himself on the opposite side of the spectrum after previosuly playing terrorist Illich Ramirez Sanchez in the TV miniseries "Carlos." I had the opportunity to speak with Ramirez when he was in town last week promoting the film.
What did you do to prepare to play this character?
Edgar Ramirez: I tried to read and research as much as possible on the topic and events that followed 9/11 and tracking of Osama bin Laden. I also tried to talk to people who might have been operating in that type of field of ground surveillance, which is what my character does. He is a ground branch officer and what he does is to try to become invisible, try to disappear. That is what they do. They try to blend in and become local in a way so it was complex because of all the restrictions we had in the making of this movie and all the confidentiality agreements. It was like a puzzle for everybody because of all of the implications in making this film, the sensitivity of the subject matter and the access the writer had with in regards to first-hand information. We could not read the whole script. We were just given different pieces of the script related to our characters. Nobody could read the whole script until very late in the process when we all got together on location where we would be handed a copy for a couple of hours and then we would have to give it back. The whole research was particular in that way because normally, what you do is you research and try to collect as much information as you can and then you pour all of that into the script, but there was no script to pour that in. It was just the scenes where you were. There was no way to connect so easily the context. It was very interesting because it was a bustle and everybody held a piece of that puzzle. We also all had huge confidence in Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal. When I finally got to read the whole script, I loved it.
Can you talk a bit about how involved Mark in making this film?
Ramirez: He was very involved. It was a huge privilege to have the writer there in case we needed to change something so we can discuss it right away with the writer. It is always very helpful and you do not get that privilege very often to get have the writer on set. For me, it was very helpful because there was always a fast changing situation all the time. New things were discovered and we had to change and reshape things as we were shooting. There are certain things that look good on paper, but for some reason, it does really work in a scene. That makes it great to have some who understands and who has an overview of the script as he can tell you what should say because everything was related to something in another place in the script. Sometimes you can improvise things and you can get stuck when you improvise. In a movie like this, which is so accurate and based on first-hand accounts, you can’t take the liberty of changing one term for the other.
How do you like the movie?
Ramirez: I love the movie. Beyond my personal involvement with the movie, it is a great and amazing thriller. I think in a way and as many people have pointed out already, I think it either creates or brings back an investigative genre. It gives the feeling of a documentary, even it is not a documentary. It has this investigative element, which make it exciting.
How close do you think the film looks in terms of how the actual events could have occurred?
Ramirez: It is hard to tell. We had versions of what happened and we had access to first-hand accounts and information, but in the end, we were recreating reality. It’s impossible to reenact or reconstruct reality because it only happened once. What you do is reinterpret or recreate it. That is what you try to do. I am familiar of this process because of “Carlos.” We also had first account information, very accurate research and navigation of facts. However, it was a work of fiction. There is no way to imitate reality because it is not imitation, it’s about recreation.
What do you think in terms of the controversy surrounding the film in regards to the depiction of torture?
Ramirez: I think the movie doesn’t pull any punches. It is a movie that navigates very hard facts. War is a tragedy. It’s not pretty and in my opinion, there are no winners. I think everybody is a victim: the one who is suffering the pain and the one who is inflicting it. For example, in the torture scene, what I really appreciate from a dramatic and human point-of-view is the fact that you don’t know is more broken: the guy who is being tortured or the guy who is torturing. You see two human beings kid of communicating through pain. There is a relationship between them. There are trapped. They are kind of sentenced and condemned to each other until something has been worked out. Regardless of the place and time, my point-of-view is that it is a very smart and honest scene because what I see is two people broken, what I see is guy who is just as broken as the guy he is trying to break. One of the things that make that scene so difficult and so disturbing for so many people is the fact that the scene doesn’t suggest who to root for.
Where were you on the day that Osama bin Laden was taken out?
Ramirez: I was in New York. I was having drinks with friends in uptown New York and then I ran immediately to Ground Zero. I said to my friend, “We need to the hell out of here and go downtown.” I went to Ground Zero and probably stayed around until 5 a.m. in the morning. Actually, I got there when the New York Police Department was closing off the perimeter because a lot of people went there. I felt it was all connected because little did I know and three months later, Kathryn was going to call me. I saw people who were happy that Osama bin Laden was killed, but there were also people saying, “We cheer for peace. We don’t cheer for death.” You can see that there were different point-of-views and angles to that event. I don’t think this movie is about death. This movie is the opposite of death. I think it doesn’t rejoice in the pain, in the death and in the killing. It goes beyond that.
How can you compared Kathryn Bigelow’s directing style compared to other directors you worked with like Steven Soderbergh, Tony Scott and Olivier Assayas?
Ramirez: Kathryn knows what she wants, but she really trusts her crew and her actors. She has a very clear sense of what she is looking for. However, she creates an environment where you feel completely free to propose and to do whatever you want, whatever you feel is needed to go through a scene. That is a very unique talent. She is very sweet and very generous. You would never imagine how relaxed and easy-going a woman directing such hard movies can be. Normally, you would think she would be strong and tough. She is tough, but she has a very nice and sweet approach. She always keeps it cool under very stressful circumstances. She held it together without losing it and she was always in a good mood. We became generous friends and I really loved working with her.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is now playing in Hialeah theatres. Click here for showtimes.