For some, Sonia Braga will always be the Spider Woman, from Hector Babenco’s 1985 screen adaptation of Kiss of the Spider Woman, the movie queen whose romantic stories are recounted by one man to another in a Brazilian prison cell. For others, though, she will always be the perfect screen embodiment of Brazilian author Jorge Amado’s eponymous characters from Doña Flor and Her Two Husbands, Gabriela, and Tieta of Agreste.
Now, with the release of writer-director Kleber Mendonça Filho’s magnificent Aquarius, Braga has created a new iconic image of herself, that of a “don’t fuck with me” grand dame who defends her apartment from a real estate developer hell-bent on buying her out by any means necessary. Provocatively, Braga and Mendonça Filho work in tandem to position Clara’s struggle as an act of stubbornness rather than heroism, subtly commenting on societal tensions of class and race in Brazil through the character’s behavior.
It’s tempting to see a little bit of Clara, who poignantly reflects back on her life, family, struggles, disappointments, and accomplishments throughout the film, in Braga herself. On the eve of Aquarius’s U.S. theatrical premiere, the screen legend sat down with me to discuss Clara’s resilience, her own legacy, and Brazil’s smothering of the Mendonça Filho film’s Oscar ambitions.
I think the strength of your performance in Aquarius is how controlled Clara is. It’s subtle, yet forceful.
I have to give that credit to Kleber. My life changed after I met him. I saw Neighboring Sounds, and it took me to another dimension. So, when I read the screenplay for Aquarius, I was brought back to that same dimension. When I started talking to him over Skype, I told him all my fears as an actress. When I do a movie, I want to be inside of the set and belong to all of that. It’s a work of collaborators. There’s a hierarchy on movie sets. But not with Kleber. He wanted to rehearse for three weeks and film for four. I said, “Kleber, I’m scared of rehearsals. I don’t know how to rehearse. I don’t have this capacity of a trained actor. I cannot do this.” He said, “Tranquillo. Easy, easy. Sonia, in my movies, I like to work with people who aren’t actors.” That was amazing, because he was going to work with people.
I’m not minimizing the work of actors. I do appreciate what they do. It’s amazing sometimes. But I decided to do what I do was when I went to see Five Easy Pieces and I saw Jack Nicholson talking to his father on the top of the mountain. When I saw that, I said, “I want to do that too.” I want that kind of honesty and that kind of truth—that opening of your heart, and hoping someone gets it. Kleber allowed me to get to that place.
And how did the rehearsal process go?
When I met Kleber, and we started rehearsals, I was really tense in the beginning. Little by little, I understood how he works with actors. It’s more like a conversation, and it involves timing. His films play like music, because the important thing is their sense of silence. When a composer writes the notes, the important thing isn’t how the notes are played, but the silence between them that makes the magic of the music. That’s what I think Kleber does. He gives you time to get to the next emotional place.
How do you identify with Clara? Do you see her as a queen?
A queen makes demands. The Aquarius is Clara’s cave, not her throne. Her life is different than mine. We come from different places. I come from the countryside, like Gabriela [the eponymous character from Bruno Barreto’s 1984 film starring Braga]. Clara is more academic, more educated. She has a family. I don’t. One thing we really have in common is a sense of justice, not just for others but also for yourself. I cannot see a person fighting for others but not fighting for their own rights and avoiding their own problems.
Aquarius eloquently raises uncomfortable aspects of Brazilian culture, issues of class and race and the politics of favoritism, and because of that the film has struck a nerve in Brazil. The film has been embraced by audiences, but it hasn’t been chosen to represent Brazil for the Oscar.
We spoke about this as it was happening. Some asked about Brazil “refusing” our movie. I said, “Brazil didn’t refuse our movie, they chose another one [Little Secret].” That [other film] might represent them, but it doesn’t represent me, or my taste. I haven’t seen the movie Brazil chose. But there’s a little technical problem there. They did it publicly even before going to vote [for the film]. One person in the commission went public saying he would never vote for Aquarius to be the film to represent Brazil. Three films, including Neon Bull, dropped out [of the running because of this situation]. What’s the message? We don’t want Aquarius representing Brazil. Well, it’s too late! We represented Brazil from Cannes, and we’re continuing to represent Brazil here.
Can you speak to how you’ve personally represented the country?
On a personal level, I’ve been representing Brazil for more than 30 years. Doña Flor, and Lady on the Bus, and I Love You. All this time I was good enough to represent my country, and I was invited to the White House to meet with [President Bill] Clinton and the Brazilian president, so I’ve been representing Brazil for that long. So to take that away now—what kind of democracy is that?
But then, there’s something much more serious that they raised: How many movies are chosen by countries to represent them as a foreign film? Do we know? We don’t. Are they choosing movies for their artistic qualities? Or are they choosing them for political reasons. What they said was, “[Little Secret] fits with the taste of the academy.” I haven’t seen the movie. I don’t know how they think they know the taste of the academy. Look, I belong to the academy, and Aquarius is my taste. So they cannot talk for me!
For me, you’ll always be the embodiment of Jorge Amado’s heroines. For others you’ll be the Spider Woman. But now, people will know you as Clara. People might not have expected this performance from you. Can you talk about how you see the arc or evolution of your career?
People don’t expect this performance from me because there’s this gap of almost 20 years where I haven’t been on the big screen too much. I’ve done little roles during this time, since Tieta of Agreste [in 1996]. Then I became the Hispanic mother, and sometimes the grandmother. Yes, I did an action film, The Rookie, with Clint Eastwood, and J.J. [Abrams] put me in Alias, but mostly I’m this young person who goes into a trailer and an old person when she comes out. But I’m not that person. I can’t complain about my success, and there’s more justice in this business than before, but Hispanics are still given very little shots in this business. So, for Brazil to not let us address our issues and take that away from us, right now, with the Oscars, makes me feel like it will be harder for us to get where we need to.