He’s been a clean-shaven cop (”Law & Order,” ”Miss Congeniality”) and a scruffy tough guy (”Traffic,” ”Follow Me Home”). And now Benjamin Bratt is earning Oscar buzz for a role that renders him practically unrecognizable. He plays the title role in ”Pinero,” the biopic about the heroin-addicted New York playwright/poet Miguel Pinero who found sudden literary fame with his 1974 play, ”Short Eyes.” Bratt, 38, recently spoke with EW.com (joined by ”Pinero” director Leon Ichaso) about being mistaken for a homeless man and why good looks don’t make you famous. Oh — and then there’s the one topic that literally leaves him speechless…
What kind of research did you do to play a heroin addict?
I slept on the same bench Pinero slept on in Tompkins Square Park. No, the first thing I did was to immerse myself in his work. Also, I lost 17 pounds for the role and even though we finished a year ago, I can’t seem to get the last 7 pounds back. I’ve got my mom calling me every day saying, ”I saw you on TV, dear; you look thin.” I also grew my hair long, and let my beard and mustache grow. For the first time in my life, I was passed up by New York City cabs, ironically, by guys who look just like me.
I heard that someone thought you were homeless and handed you a quarter when you were waiting to shoot a scene.
Yeah, we were down in the West Village outside St. Vincent’s Hospital.
ICHASO: And there was also the homeless man who got close to him for camaraderie. Remember, with the broken arm? He was going to walk you to the soup line.
Did you consider other actors for the role of Pinero before Ben?
ICHASO: Yeah, I offered the role to John Leguizamo because he has that performance background. But he fell out because of different scheduling reasons, personal reasons, whatever. And there were a few names that were floating around, and one of them was Benjamin. I felt he could do Pinero after I saw him play an alcoholic in the film ”Follow Me Home,” directed by his brother.
I have to say I agreed with Ichaso’s reservations at first. Pinero was 5’5”, and I stand at 6’3”. He was a lot hairier than I am. As men, he and I couldn’t be more opposite.
ICHASO: Rita Moreno, who plays Pinero’s mother, was another one who said, ”Benjamin Bratt? He’s so clean. That’s wrong.” And I said, no, it’ll be fine, I’ll take care of him.