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Interview: Benjamin Bratt and Leon Ichaso Talk Piñero

We chatted with the star and director of Piñero about its making and the tragedy of the real-life Piñero’s life.

Interview: Benjamin Bratt and Leon Ichaso Talk Piñero

Before Scared Straight there was Short Eyes, Miguel Piñero’s play about an alleged child rapist brought to justice by his fellow inmates in the now-defunct “Tombs” prison. Piñero transformed his own jail-time memories of Sing-Sing (he was incarcerated for petty theft and drug-dealing) into Off-Broadway fame. His raw, unflinching worldview was that of the displaced Latino male forced to find country and family in the streets of New York. He was the co-founder of the Nuyorican Poets Café, an ancestor of rap and the spiritual guide for a community of Latino actors trying to carve a niche for themselves in a Hollywood far from color-blind. After landing minor roles in film (Fort Apache the Bronx) and television (Miami Vice), Piñero succumbed to the very hell he courted throughout his life. Piñero died of AIDS complications on June 18, 1988 after a lifelong battle with heroin addiction.

Cuban-born Leon Ichaso’s melancholic Piñero is as uncompromising as the life it heralds. The film’s aesthetic pitch-perfectly recreates the musicality and temporal rhythm of Piñero’s poetry slamming. There’s probably too much Piñero to cover in a mere 94 minutes but Ichaso, director of the haunting Bitter Sugar, gives the spectator enough to go on. The film’s unconventional groove is sure to alienate, especially for those unfamiliar with the Nuyorican sound Piñero helped define. Actor Benjamin Bratt first came in contact with Piñero’s work as a teenager, when Showtime aired Robert M. Young’s film version of Short Eyes. Bratt’s turn as a misogynistic druggie in his brother Peter Bratt’s Follow Me Home convinced Ichaso that the actor (then starring on NBC’s “Law & Order”) had what it took to channel Piñero’s lifeblood. Indeed, Bratt is electrifying as the poet, unrecognizable below the authentic grit and heartbreaking pathos he brings to the role. Here’s hoping Oscar is better to Bratt than it was to Javier Bardem last year.

Slant Magazine spoke with Bratt and Ichaso about the life and times of the famous Nuyorican poet and the challenge of bringing the project to the screen. Miramax opens Piñero on December 14 in limited release.

Was it difficult bringing Miguel Piñero’s life to the screen?

Leon Ichaso: It’s always challenging and difficult when you have a Latino hero and, in this case, not only a Latino hero but a man who is carrying dark baggage and isn’t around anymore and not many people know. When I started introducing people to Piñero they started getting interested and everybody remembered. People started coming forward. The validation of Piñero began to happen in the process of selling him as a project. I think this guy is so interesting and his work is so contrasting to his deeds and to what you hear of him. It was important to do this movie; it was a little bit of a mission. I had to resuscitate Piñero. I always felt that when Bruce Weber made Let’s Get Lost, Chet Baker was introduced to the world. I knew he existed but he became a bigger thing and I always hoped that Piñero would enjoy that sort of “life after death” or that his work have some sort of revival.

Did you ever meet Piñero?

LI: I met Piñero in 1981, in Central Park. I was there with a fellow actor named Manny Santiago, smoking a joint. This character crawled out from under a bush, scratching: “I just fell asleep on an anthill.” He kept directing to my friend, who obviously knew him. He had bug bites all over and he held a little pad in his left hand. I remember Manny passed him the joint and then he passed it to me and I cleaned it with my shirt. He kept talking and scratching and he wore this little Polyester shirt and baby blue bellbottoms when no one wore bellbottoms. He looked horrendous and then he said, “I gotta go to the Public.” I said [lowering his voice], “Well, maybe the public bathroom, to take a shower or maybe the welfare department.” And then he walked away. He meant the Public Theater. My friend said, “That was Miguel Piñero.” That was my brief encounter.

You directed episodes of Miami Vice. Did you ever encounter Piñero on the set?

LI: When I worked on “Vice” I remember odd things would happen, a whole brouhaha or something. “Piñero got into the wardrobe department last night. 100 pairs of shoes have disappeared.” You always heard those kinds of stories. I remember the poetry slams but I didn’t know his work as much as I got to know it once I decided to make the movie.

Ben, how did you research the role of Piñero?

Benjamin Bratt: My primary concern was to not do an impersonation of the man. I wanted to capture the essence of who he was. The first thing I did was pour over everything he had ever written, everything I could get my hands on. His poetry and the plays are so fraught with the things that aggravated and influenced him and ultimately made his life successful. He took this form and infused it with an urban, Latin lifeblood that had never been used in poetry before. He was remarkable as a writer in terms of never really self-editing himself or censoring himself. He wrote about all the taboos the typical American society widely avoids: incest, sexual abuse, poverty, incarceration, drug addiction. The next thing, of course, was to talk to his surviving family members and his best friend Miguel Algarin. He gave me tremendous personal insight in terms of how to approach [Piñero]. He said, “Do me a favor. It would be so easy to portray Miguel Piñero as a kind of chucking and jiving urban street urchin, jazzy poet. Don’t do it. He had a remarkable feminine side he was in touch with. In fact, Mikey was an elegant intellectual.”

Can you talk about Piñero’s relationship to Algarin?

BB: [Algarin] said to me that they were like a married couple without the sex. It was extremely important for us to get his blessing in terms of my participation in the project. One of my first meetings with him was to go with Ichaso to his apartment—which he still has in the Lower East Side—and chat with him a little bit and feel him out and, rather than ask him directly, just wait for him to offer it up. We were there for about 45 minutes. At one point he went to the bookshelf, from which he took an old rusty coffee can and set it down on the counter. As he began to peel the top back he started a Yuruba poem, an incantation of song. He said: “Now it’s time to meet Mikey.” He pulled the top off and in the can were Mikey’s ashes. He took from the can a pinch of the ashes and took my palms and put the ashes in my palms, closed my hands and said very referentially, “Yes, you have my blessing. But if you fuck this up I will kill you.” The tone of that whole experience—the reverence bounced with the frankness of the street—gave true coloration to how this guy operated.

As a Latino actor how important was it for you to play a man of color?

BB: The one thing that I find aggravating as a man of color, but in particular as a man descended of Latino culture, is that I try to avoid labels. On a national level there is a tendency to portray Latino culture as a monolithic entity, which is a really inaccurate way of seeing ourselves. There is as much diversity and uniqueness within the Latino culture as there is in any other kind of American culture. That said, there is a kind of cultural DNA that is imprinted on us that informs a kind of feeling for community, whether it’s the language or how we see family. On the one level I can relate to Mikey [and] the tremendous respect and love he has for his mother. I think that really comes through in the film. There is also that sense of not being a part of the establishment, of being culturally marginalized. In Mikey’s case, you have a young man ripped away from his country at the age of 7. His father leaves when he gets to New York. In a certain sense, he finds both [country and family] in the streets. Fortunately for me, my early life was very different, there seemed to be more cohesiveness, the glue that kept my family together seemed to be stronger than his. In approaching his poetry, I could empathize with his plight enough to hear that feeling of displacement that drove him. I can identify with that.

Can you talk a little bit about the film’s fractured structure?

LI: It was written like that: frenetic, staccato and jazzy. I wanted to come close to the rhythm and to the life and confusion of Piñero himself and that whole lifestyle and, I guess, also the way you read the poetry, the jazzytry [sic] of it. It was a very conscious decision. It was even more confusing on paper, a little bit jumpier. You had to be linear here and there once in a while but it was an unusual structure for a man without a structure, one that suited him. It would have been dangerous to make [the film] a little too pretty. I think the fact that [it] has a little bit of that grit and disorder allows you to get into him a little more.

Ever since Bitter Sugar there is this element of nostalgia in your films, this notion of looking back at the past.

LI: Well, I really don’t have an explanation for that except that there’s melancholy for stuff that is gone and that Piñero is not around us anymore. These characters—like those in Bitter Sugar—are in the fringes and, to me, are more interesting. I did a character in my first film, El Super, who lived a totally marginal lifestyle. It was a Cuban guy. People would say: “Cubans are so successful, why did you pick this loser?” To me they’re more interesting—they’re more human. They have more human qualities that I happen to like. I go around life and I don’t look at the flowers. I look at the bum on the sidewalk. The things that grab my attention are always depressing. I’ve never really understood that.

What about in Piñero?

LI: I happen to feel that [Piñero] was a romantic character and there was something about his love for land that was very wonderful, the way he held Puerto Rico, that elusive homeland in the foreground of his thoughts and writing. For all of us who are uprooted and thrown into this city, to keep a semblance of that is always so dignified. That would make it perhaps a bit nostalgic for me because people like that don’t seem to be around anymore.

Do you think the East Village of Piñero’s time is much different than the East Village of today?

LI: Totally. Before it was an ethnic neighborhood. It was split between the Ukrainians and Puerto Ricans. All the bars that were hosting bands like the New York Dolls were owned by Russian immigrants. I had an apartment on 3rd Street between B and C. It was $60 a month in 1969. In 1972 I got out of it because it was set on fire by some junkies. It was a different world. It belonged to someone. Then the Euro trash began to come in, in the 80s—82, 83. Alphabet City was made into that movie [1984’s Alphabet City] and already the place was a little hipper. It began to change, like New York. People began to be moved out. Neighborhoods somehow stopped being neighborhoods. There are still pockets in the Lower East Side where you find that there are roots. Today you go to Avenue A and you see rows of limousines.

Were there any problems recreating the era?

LI: The problem was the cars. There are SUVs everywhere and we didn’t have money to have cars from the 70s so we had to avoid a lot of the sidewalk. We painted a mural outside the Nuyurican Poets Café. We did a few little things that our budget would allow. The original Café used to be on 6th street. This one is on 3rd street. We tried to look for those places that haven’t changed very much, like the rooftops or the Café itself. We did shoot the spreading of [Pinero’s] ashes in the same place where it happened. A lot of it brought attention to the old-timers in the neighborhood. “I was here. Mikey did that.” That was nice. Then there was the day Miguel’s family came to the shooting of the spreading of the ashes and they saw [Benjamin] and it was like seeing a ghost. That was very flattering for Ben. That was a very important point when we saw Miguel’s sister crying and touching him like he was a ghost.

What’s your take on Piñero’s poetry, Ben?

BB: There’s this joy and certainly an electric energy that comes from the poetry even if it’s hard-hitting and the subject matter oftentimes covered in darkness. That comes because of its organic form. Poetry, by nature, has an inherent musicality to it. For that very reason he’s known as a kind of precursor to rap. Certainly his legacy transformed the downtown New York scene and his influence is still being felt today, most especially in the form of the Nuyorican Poets Café, which is very much alive and part of the downtown community for young artists, particularly young artists of color.

What do you think Piñero’s influence and legacy will be?

LI: For a while Luis Guzmán was going to play Algarin. Guzman became an actor because of Miguel Piñero, who sent him to a job one day. “Go see so-and-so, they’re looking for real Latinos.” That is something Miguel did: pulling out these Latin characters and breaking the stereotypes. At the time, maybe that was too difficult for people to look at because if you get used to a certain Indian that Hollywood sells you maybe when you see the real Indian you say, “That guy doesn’t look like an Indian.” And Miguel did that with his own work and his own gang of actors he groomed to send to people like Bonnie Timmerman, who discovered some of these guys. Tito Goya was an excellent actor, Miguel was an excellent actor. They were street theater. They knew how it had to be.

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