Already a megastar in his home country of Mexico, Bichir is making a splash — and generating Oscar talk — with his first major role on the American big screen

By Dave Karger
Updated June 24, 2011 at 04:00 AM EDT

Will Read for Work
Though he usually doesn’t have to audition for parts in Mexico, Bichir, 47, had to read for his Better Life role as gardener Carlos Galindo, an illegal immigrant and single father who fears deportation. ”For me, it wasn’t a step down,” he says. ”It’s a new adventure. Whenever there’s a great project, I’ll fight for it.”

A Teachable Moment?
Life isn’t a heavy-handed political film, but Bichir hopes people might learn from it. ”I don’t think a single member of the audience is not going to think about how we need immigration reform in this country,” he says. ”It’s not about legal or illegal — it’s about the separation of families.”

His Sexy Past
Bichir, who splits his time between Mexico and L.A., is probably best known here for slapping Mary-Louise Parker’s behind on Showtime’s Weeds. (He played her hot-tempered husband, Mayor Esteban Reyes.) ”Sometimes people come up to me and say, ‘Oh, you’re the mayor of Tijuana! Can I get a spanking too?”’ he says. His response? ”You can take a number, maybe I’ll call you later.”

Bichir will play the attorney for Salma Hayek’s cartel in Oliver Stone’s drug drama Savages.