Carlos's charismatic dgar Ramrez
After playing a legendary terrorist, this Venezuelan actor is about to blow up.
Tue Oct 12 2010
There's a moment a third of the way into Carlos—French director Olivier Assayas's mammoth, five-and-half-hour biopic on international bogeyman "Carlos the Jackal"—in which the titular subject is prepping his pice de rsistance. The year is 1975, and the man formerly known as Ilich Ramrez Snchez is about to storm the OPEC headquarters in Vienna and take dozens of high-ranking oil ministers hostage. Though he's already made a name for himself, this next act will put him on the front page of every newspaper. Clad in the fashionable revolutionary uniform of the day (sunglasses, beret, black leather coat, goatee), the terrorist boards a bus and strikes a pose. He looks every bit like a celebrity ready to step into a bigger, brighter spotlight.
"People have brought up that particular scene to me more than once," says dgar Ramrez, faintly smiling. The 33-year-old actor who plays Carlos over an extended time frame—starting from his beginnings with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in the early '70s to his 1994 capture in North Africa—is well aware of how the moment crystalizes a certain sense of mythmaking. "We never wanted to glamorize him, certainly, but that shot is a great example of how Carlos was trying on a persona: Che Guevara meets Mick Jagger!" He starts laughing, loud enough for several New York Film Festival volunteers who are milling about in Alice Tully Hall's upstairs lounge to surreptitiously peer over in his direction. "Olivier and I would joke about the rock-star comparisons a lot: Carlos had groupies, he had drugs, he was on tour, going from country to country in planes. I mean, the planes were hijacked and full of hostages, but..."
Whether people will now view this controversial icon of Me-Decade radical chic as a misguided Marxist, an extreme rebel without a concrete cause, or an apolitical a-hole who liked to bed women and blow up cafs remains to be seen. ("Hopefully, if I've done my job right," says Ramrez, "they'll realize he was all of those things and more.") It's indisputable, however, that the Venezuelan character actor delivers what is most certainly a star-making performance. Having honed his scene-stealing skills with supporting performances in Domino, Vantage Point and The Bourne Ultimatum, Ramrez shoulders the burden of a demanding lead role that spans decades (the shoot involved almost a dozen locations and lasted seven months), as well as investing the real-life criminal with righteousness, rage and humanity.
Even more shocking, however, is the manner in which the Caracas-born actor's background helped give him a leg up. An Army-brat upbringing enabled him to learn French, German, English and Italian as well as his native tongue; it's as if Ramrez had been secretly preparing to play the part for ages. "It's the kind of miracle that you don't get very often as director," says Olivier Assayas. "I needed someone who was fluent in several languages, who spoke Spanish with a Latin American accent, who had the same build, who could play several ages convincingly and who would be more of a collaborator than your typical actor. Edgar was essentially No. 1—on a list of one!" Like the French auteur, Ramrez's past directors praise the performer's ability to add something unique to the mix. "Shooting any movie is difficult," says Bourne Ultimatum filmmaker Paul Greengrass, via e-mail. "Making a Bourne movie, however, is an entirely different level of stress. Edgar not only showed grace under pressure, he meticulously prepared an inner life for a brief-but-key part [he played the lone assassin Paz] that suddenly pays off in the film's climax. It was only a matter of time before he took a role that put him front and center."
So Ramrez has officially arrived; beyond being "the Carlos guy," what's his next step? He shrugs. "I mean, if this leads to other exciting, challenging, crazy projects, then great," the actor says. "But I didn't want to play the role to become a 'movie star.' I wanted to work with a filmmaker I always admired, to help figure out a guy who was a huge contradiction. These kind of movies come around once every ten years or so; you can't let them turn you into an adrenaline junkie. Who knows if I'll ever top this?"