Omar Leyva Bardo Interview Conversation

This, I promise, will be the most atypical interview you’ll ever read. Why? Because I just try to get Omar to talk to you directly, so I just wanted to toss him some softballs, and see what he would do with them. And crushed it he did, just like always. If you are unaware, Omar and I started chatting after his movie, Windfall, and really haven’t stopped since. During that conversation he hinted at a new movie coming our way from Alejandro G. Iñárritu that he was apart of. And ever since, I’ve been dying to get my hands on it. And it didn’t disappoint. And without further ado, the Omar Leyva Bardo Interview Conversation.

THiNC: You have to finally, FINALLY, tell me all about it. Working in this movie. This part! For example, was that border security checkpoint a set? Or was it filmed at LAX? Has to be a set. There’s no way that they would have let you film there.

Yes, I can finally tell you more about Bardo. To answer your first question, we shot it in Mexico City on a specially built set. It was so large and full of hundreds of extras, that it felt like being back at LAX. I believe that they were planning on shooting on location at some point in the long production cycle of this project.

I auditioned via self-tape, ironically before they became the norm during the pandemic. I didn’t know much about the film, or who was behind it, until I was asked to meet with Alejandro in what became a sort of meet-and-work session. Once I knew that this would be Iñárritu’s homecoming because he hadn’t made a film there since “Amores Perros,” I was elated. The film was titled “Limbo” at the time, and on the day when I was to sign my contract, the COVID-19 shutdown started, and it truly was stuck in limbo for a while! This opportunity to work with a director I admire would have to wait. The dates kept changing over the next year, and my wife and I decided to have our second child. Eventually, the final shooting dates landed EXACTLY on our baby’s due date. You can’t make that up. Imagine the stress and conflicting thoughts. It was hard for everyone in mid-2021, especially regarding hospitals and travel. I’ll say that it took a miracle that seems to have stemmed from some last-minute delays in production. Still, I was able to welcome our healthy baby and, with the help of some trusted loved ones, leave for Mexico City to finally take part in this film that I felt in my bones I had to work on.

Many of the most important moments in my life and career have been marked with high drama. Now that you have seen the film, you will understand that my own birth in Mexico City, my immigrant journey, the path I took creatively, and what drives me, all meet perfectly in that scene filled with layers of conflicts, contradictions, and magical realism. I can relate to the various themes in the film, even down to the fever dream of flying.

THiNC: This role of yours seemed really important to the story to me. No?

Yes, from the beginning, just based on the text, the subject matter, and from working with Alejandro, I could tell that this moment had some special meaning to the film because of the symbolism and the idea of questioning someone’s “home.” There is a popular belief by many immigrants, founded on similarly shared experiences, that gatekeepers or some people in roles of authority sometimes abuse their power and that oftentimes it is even more intense by those we may regard as “our own.” We could probably dig up all sorts of reasons for this, but needless to say, these issues can be found in politics, policing, the workplace, etc. I came to find out that this exact scenario happened to Alejandro’s wife and that she arrived home crying from that encounter. He has also lived through similar treatment as he’s relied on an 01 visa for the decades he’s lived in California. I admire how he was able to bring that into the film in such a symbolic and poignant way. My character had to represent all of those experiences and I have spoken with people who have been triggered by the scene and have said, “That happened to me.” This epic film has so many incredible scenes and visuals, but that scene is the one that Netflix uses for its preview when you scroll by the film on the platform. That blows my mind, but it shows that we got it right! As an actor, we always say we’d play a small role in any film by our favorite director, and I got to do just that, I did it to the best of my abilities, and I helped him in a small way to achieve part of this special film. I will always remember that he said it was a pleasure working with me. I mean, I think I’m a humble person, so that has to be what a humble brag is, right?! LOL

THiNC: Silverio seems like he is something of a stand in for… no? Seems pretty much an autobiographical (if fantastical) delving into Iñárritu’s life. Maybe his feelings for his birthplace, and the guilt of calling Los Angeles his home. Do you have thoughts on that side of the film (I mean, I bet you do – you came to Los Angeles at six, no?)

Yes, Silverios is definitely his stand-in, and what a great one he found in Daniel Jimenez CachoI think that Autobiografantastical could be a new term for films like Bardo. You can quote me on that! :)

I have many thoughts on the immigrant inner turmoil, and I often delve into my own life and think about where I came from and how I came to be where I am now. He believes that when you emigrate that “you die a little,” and this film is about various transitions; the one to death being the ultimate one. He has also said that you become more Mexican when you leave. I don’t know if that’s true, but you definitely always long for some sort of embrace from your homeland. I recently watched the second season of The White Lotus, and three male generations of an Italian American family travel to Italy in search of a “homecoming” fantasy. I never forgot the day my father and I were traveling to our family’s village, and he stopped on the side of the road, got out, looked at the pueblo in the distance, and said, “Why did I leave? I had everything here.” Yet, he was all in on the American dream and gave up love, friends, his village, and everything for it. I didn’t even meet him until I came here when I was almost eight-years-old. I did get to speak to Alejandro about having been brought here to Los Angeles at that age and how the culture shock erased my childhood memories, he shared that he forgot his childhood as well and that he didn’t have pictures to reconstruct it. I have that same issue.

I can’t speak to whether he felt any guilt in calling Los Angeles his home, but he has said that after traveling all over the world and being away from Mexico for so long, he has found that his homeland is simply family, wherever they are. I can relate to that. I had no real choice in being brought to live here, but this is where my father was living, and I did want to meet him. My grandmother was my family when I lived in our village, and as it turned out, I had no choice when my father sold that abandoned house and when he decided that she should be buried here right next to his plot. Today they are both buried side by side. Now that I have my little family, we grappled with some of the issues raised in the film because we come from two different worlds, but our kids will grow up having to weave their own identities and how the world sees them.

What’s more Kansan than “There’s no place like home?” Well, that’s where my wife is from, but she always wanted to leave, and somehow we found each other. She wanted a destination wedding, and we got married in the heart of Mexico and are raising a family in the land where dreamers chased gold, and dreams are made into films. By the way, it turns out that my wife’s grandfather once worked painting backdrops in Hollywood!

Well, like Lorenzo screams in our scene, “We’re all American.”

You asked if I had thoughts on the subject matter. These are just a few.

THiNC: So your part is the role of a border agent, you bust Silverio’s chops about calling it his home. I’ve tried to do a little research – and an O-1 visa is for individuals with extraordinary abilities and achievements. And his kids have O-3 visas which are for dependents of O-1’s. Got it. But your character – the LAX official – is calling Silverio out, saying that this isn’t his home, etc. First walk me through the part and the role. Because we see the daughter speak to you in Spanish and at first you say that you don’t understand, but then – I think (and I’ve watched it 5 times so I think I get it) you answer her question after she speaks to you in Spanish. So, this is a conflict between this character, who is obviously Mexican-American, maybe a native… okay. But regardless, is upset that this man is calling it his home when he’s “only” an O-1 visa. Then tell me about your own story and this role, and the connection. You came to L.A. 

Yes, I think that Alejandro wanted the agent character to represent that side of the coin where at the very least, it is conceivable that the man is of a native origin, perhaps Mexican-American himself. Alejandro has spoken about how he sort of lives with these characters in his mind for so long that he knows when he finds the right actor for the role. He says he finds it in the eyes, and that explains why when I met him, he brought his camera within inches of my eyes. I think he chose me from my self-tape but wanted to meet and understand my background and see if I could give him what he needed. I’m glad we had that opportunity because I don’t often play these deplorable characters, and I understood the assignment. I had to give him an inner conflict that made him act that way.

I don’t want to give a specific background to this character. However, I gave myself one because it is better to know that various life-paths and experiences drive one to get to that level of aggression, passive or otherwise. Does he speak Spanish? I think that whether you believe he does or not, at the very least, he understands what he’s being told. When Silverio first tries to speak Spanish to him, he could have just said he didn’t understand Spanish, but he chose to say, “We speak English here, sir.” He’s absolutely been on the receiving end of some discrimination himself, and he’s constructed a defense mechanism that results in finding comfort in a colder behavior that doesn’t even include giving people eye contact. Alejandro wanted the whole scene to be acted that way, and I have to say that it wasn’t easy at first because, in general, you want to play to the other characters and perhaps even use intimidation with your stare. Not doing this allowed for a different approach to each beat and delivery. There is only one moment where he raises his eyes; when Camila asks if he’s afraid they may realize he’s Mexican. Here is yet another subject where we could spend a lot of time digging, and I often do, to find the wrinkles, but for the sake of this scene, I’ll say that these incidents are common, these characters are real, with the traumas of their history, much of what the film as a whole touches on.

“Say you are sorry,” Silverio repeatedly screams while being dragged away by blond-wigged officers of another era. Those are quite some layers and a request for something that we rarely get.

THiNC: I think your part of the film is sort of the nexus of the whole point of the film. Silverio is a very successful Mexican filmmaker. Slices of Mexico are being purchased by Amazon – we hear that in the news. We see how the United States has randomly declared war on Mexico and have murdered and taken what they wanted throughout various points of the history of the two countries. And even more so, we watch as Silverio is used by people in the United States for their own benefit, but they ignore him when they don’t want anything. 

I wasn’t able to confirm the full impact of the scene until the premiere at the AFI Film Festival. My best friend is a filmmaker, and I trust his opinion; he thought the scene was a pivotal part of the film and in Silverio’s journey. It felt poetic, and the magical realism fulfilled all my hopes for what it could be. Watching the rhythm start with the passengers stepping in unison, seeing the soldiers take Silverio away, and feeling like I was adding an obstacle and a moment of resistance to the main character left me wondering about so many possibilities for the rest of the film. Of course, it exceeded my expectations. And yes, on top of that, it pulls no punches with the points it tries to make and how history carries on for generations, as seen when Silverio’s kids also open up.

THiNC: It’s got to be a very complicated film to both watch, and to have been a part of. No? 

Absolutely. And not just for obvious reasons. As I explained, the issue of having to consider missing my daughter’s birth during a pandemic added to the long haul. I’m not sure about the cast, but I did hear that almost the entire production team that made it was not there at the beginning. Watching the film made me grapple with a lot of my own experiences. I value my roots and have always been one to think about my mortality; in my culture, we are always sort of celebrating and dancing despite our passionate feelings about death. The memories that we trust, and the ones that we craft, take on dream form all the time. There was a time when Mexico was just a Bardoesque mix of dreams and memories for me. The first time I returned to my old village as an adult, I ran out to walk the central park and to look for my school to see if what I sort of remembered was real or not. Alejandro told me that since I was about 8, I had already had a strong foundation in Mexico, and that’s why I retained my Spanish so well. I was also young enough to learn English and to eventually fall into the creative path that took me to the stage and then to work on film and television, and hey, one day, all that brought me to have all the tools needed to return to work on Bardo.

I’d love to know what other parts of the film impacted you the most. My wife could hardly keep her eyes on the screen as she cried during the beach family scene. It’s hard not to enjoy the big dance sequence and the bathroom scene with his father.

The film takes on so many issues, and one significant one is the number of people who have gone missing in Mexico. We are often captivated by stories of disappearances because they leave so much emptiness behind, questions, regrets, pain, and lack of closure or justice. That scene where Silverio speaks to the lady who first falls is chilling. That’s one of the best-written sequences because of how much it explores and comments on with a few lines. There’s the priest who walks away, the woman saying that he’s better off not knowing what’s wrong with her, and the way the passersby almost blame the missing for still somehow being present. Migration also makes people sort of disappear, and that’s one aspect that’s not always considered when there are large numbers of people leaving their homes. They sometimes leave families as my father did, and towns lose many productive community members. I often think about my grandmother when we left to join my father in California. She was an admired elder, the finest cook who carried the most authentic recipes in her head because she never learned to read or write but had the most wisdom of anyone I’ve met, someone who sacrificed the most for others, and one day she was also gone from the village that had seen so many, mostly young people leave. I also disappeared. Alejandro argues that you can’t ever really go back, and indeed there is truth in that. But people worldwide move away, and there is also an argument that you must move to grow to share a part of yourself. I like to believe that I honor my grandmother by contributing in whatever way I can in the same way she gave of herself for her family. Sure, we can stay still, and we can play it safe as the pandemic demanded of us, but there are good things to spread around the globe; there is a need for exploration, and we’ll always have those “handful of truths” that we make for ourselves. My father may have questioned why he left, just like Iñárritu may be doing in Bardo, but he’s also fighting to have a right to belong and a place to call home. I think he and my father would still make the same choices if they had to do it all over again. As humans, we need to explore, be social, to seek what seems missing at any given point in our lives, and we need to keep evolving and being better at it.

This film turned into quite a long trek (now a substantial part of my full journey), but I can’t imagine how much Iñárritu went through all these years to make this monumental part of his body of work, then to have the pandemic thrown into the mix. I find it fascinating that Alejandro has said that you don’t see Mexico City in Amores Perros and that some prominent people at Cannes in 2000 were upset because they felt it didn’t represent Mexico. After all, there were no recognizable monuments. He joked that he wasn’t a cultural ambassador and that only a city native would recognize the city. Well, that surely changed with Bardo, and this time he shot at some of the most important locations in the city and even threw in some hidden spots. He earned the right to make this film and then made something that will only bring him more deserved praise. 

THiNC: My only other q I’m curious about is what are you working on? Anything in the can or on the horizon? Can we help you with anything? Push anything? Omar for President t-shirts? Anything?? Hahah. 

Here I could never be president, even if I wanted the job. However, my six-year-old daughter has shown interest in the job. I wish she already had an example of a woman in that position in the U.S. The last president with an immigrant father and a mother from Kansas was a fine one.

I don’t have any current acting projects to plug, but I look forward to seeing how Bardo does during this awards season. I want to carve out some time for my writing and am as inspired as ever to tackle one project in particular that is very personal with the kind of message that I hope could do some good. Of course, my most important role as a family man is ongoing, and sleep is ever so elusive. But it’s gratifying trying to be a good father. It’s a new year, so let’s see what worthwhile acting roles come my way. I hope we all have the kind of year we need!

Edited by: CY