When Marina de Tavira was approached to star in Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, the role of Sofia — a woman trying to keep her family together as her marriage crumbles and finding unlikely support in her housekeeper Cleo — was something that felt innately close to her own life.
“I can relate to Sofia as a daughter and as a mother myself, and I know exactly what she’s going through, I’ve been there, I’ve lived it,” de Tavira tells EW, adding that her own mother had to deal with a broken marriage. “That’s why I think it’s really moving for me to be able to represent all these women who go through this, like my mum, so many women.”
When the Oscar nominations were announced last month, not only did Roma land a leading 10 nominations and tie with The Favourite, de Tavira was also a surprise inclusion in the coveted best supporting actress category, ousting favorites such as Emily Blunt (A Quiet Place) and Claire Foy (First Man). She’s up against Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk), Amy Adams (Vice), and Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone (both for The Favourite) at Sunday’s Academy Awards.
EW spoke to de Tavira about the power of Roma, forming a fast friendship with Yalitza Aparicio (Cleo), and how the kids in the film unknowingly foreshadowed the film’s journey to the Oscars.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What did you enjoy about playing Sofia?
MARINA de TAVIRA: I think Sofia is a very complex character; you can’t read her just at one glance. She’s going through such a painful process in her life that she throws all her frustration into Cleo, who is a silent witness to her sorrow. But there comes a moment when she realizes that she is going to be the only true accomplice in her life to raise her children, she’s really going to share motherhood, and I think that’s what she understands at the end of the film. But throughout the film, she goes through an emotional process acknowledging that she has to take the wheel of her life and really stand up by herself, but she’s going through something she never imagined and for that time, in the 1970s, for a woman to face divorce in middle-class society was a really heavy burden to carry because they were (pointed) at, and also her children. I know because my mum went through something similar in the ’80s and it was really alike, so that’s what I really worked with, that kind of pressure; and through the film, she’s at a very complex moment in her life, so I think she really changes and that’s what I like about her.
I do love her journey because she does go through an incredible arc. She has these surprisingly comedic moments as well, such as when she tries to drive her husband’s big car into the small garage, crashing it in the process. What did those moments add to her story?
The story between Sofia and the car, that really means something. That car is a big car, she hates it, it’s really big, and it won’t fit in the garage; it means the social aspiration of having more than they have, being like their friends in the hacienda, being richer. So he has a big car that won’t fit and that car is like the patriarch, so when she crashes it by accident, but then she realizes it and goes more and more and really enjoys it because that means she’s starting to be free. That’s the moment when we really see her alone, when she goes up those stairs at night. I think it’s really heart-breaking, but it’s the moment when she’s going to start changing. And when she buys the new car that fits perfectly, she’s really accepting the change in her life and saying, “Okay, I have to drive through my life in my own way.”
Alfonso said he filmed this in an unconventional way, not giving his actors the full script — did that scare you or did you enjoy it?
I was never scared by the fact that we didn’t have script — when he told me that, it didn’t scare me. But what was difficult for me at the beginning was that I was the only trained actress on set, so that was the most difficult part at the beginning because actors have a different way of approaching acting than first-time actors do; they do it more naturally, more spontaneous, without any rational analysis of the situation or the character’s journey, but as actors, we do that as a major [thing]. So I had to stop doing that and get in the same acting tone they all had. So that was the difficult part. But not having the script actually was a blessing, it was beautiful, it was never a problem, in fact it really helped to do this, to just not try to preconceive anything but to just try and live it and surrender to Alfonso’s words and the game that he would propose everyday. So we were just like an open book, and embracing the character’s journey in a really natural way; that’s real life — we don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. We may know what we’re going to do, but the day always surprises us, life always surprises us. It was really a blessing for acting.
What does Alfonso bring so uniquely to his stories?
I think he really opened his chest and put his heart out for us to see it, and the fact that he chose Cleo to be the character through which we see the story, I think that was an incredible choice, because she was the woman, the real one that was in his life always since he was born. She was always there. So for him, she was something he took for granted. But now, as a man, he asks himself what was her life like, and then really puts his shoes — he changes to the point of his own childhood — so I think that’s really beautiful and moving because it’s really trying to open up a relationship that’s been there, that’s a lost relationship from life, and really analyze it.
You and Yalitza, your characters have a close and complicated relationship. How was it working with the first-time actress and what did she embody in her role as Cleo?
She’s the heart of the film and she was the heart of the filming process. She entered this process with an open heart, not questioning anything and flowing through it with an incredible, natural acting nature. It was really amazing to see, and she is an incredible human being. I really love her now — she’s become one of the most important persons in my life because she’s beautiful, and she really embraced the character in a beautiful way and she gave me security. It’s something that’s complex to understand but she also says that she also felt the same thing while I was there because she thought that I had acted before, but we never really talked about acting; she was Cleo, she was the character, and for a first-time actress, she was good.
What surprised you about the relationship between Cleo and Sofia?
That’s a relationship that I haven’t yet found words yet to describe it because it’s really complex; it’s not just one thing like an employee and employer relationship, or family, because it’s not family but it is, but there’s also the affection between them. She’s in her life. I don’t have the words yet and that’s what’s so incredible to discover because I myself grew up with that kind of relationship and have one in my life now, so it was really interesting to understand it from within that character, that complexity and that impossibility of really having the definition of what it is, but it’s strong and powerful and really important and beautiful, but also questionable, and there’s things we really need to change. Too many things! But I could really relate to it. I think Alfonso did it perfectly, the way that she throws at her with anger but then she embraces her — that’s the kind of complexity, so I think he did that incredibly, really understanding his mother and that kind of life.
What does the Oscars recognition mean? Why is Roma connecting so deeply with people?
I really never imagined it. The children used to joke with Alfonso — because he has won the Oscar for Gravity — the children would constantly joke with him saying, “Alfonso, are we going to the Oscars?,” and Alfonso would say “Of course not, this is a black and white film in Spanish” — he would say that to the children. So right now, that this is happening … it’s been amazing. I think it’s magical because [the story] is so personal that it became universal, and that’s one of its treasures — people relate to it no matter if it’s Mexico and if it’s the 1970s. It’s childhood and childhood scars, and we all have one of those; we were all children, and we all lost something in the way of life of becoming adults — we all look back and cherish the people that brought us up.
You’re already a prolific actress in Mexico, but are there new things coming your way with Roma getting the attention that it is?
I’m a stage actress here in Mexico, so right now I’m working on a play that I had left but had started before all of this started — it’s by David Hare called Skylight, and that’s what I’m doing now. But yeah, I’ve been receiving thrilling proposals that I never imagined that I would get, so hopefully I will keep working. I don’t know how to do anything else, so I’ll keep on acting in theater, television, and movies and hope for a beautiful project like Roma, but I don’t think I’ll get one like that again.
Roma is available to stream on Netflix.