A Talk With Eduardo Verástegui
Don’t Bother Preparing Questions

“If you want to make God laugh,” says Jose in the opening voiceover of Bella, “tell Him your plans.”

Eduardo Verástegui has a most improbable story. The son of sugar cane farmers in Xicotencatl, a village in northern Mexico, he left for Mexico City at 18 with a head full of ideas about becoming a superstar entertainer.

His dreams mostly came true.

In the space of about ten years, he had toured with the Mexican pop-music group Kairo, starred in five Mexican soap operas, been voted as one of the “50 Most Beautiful People” in People En Español, and appeared in a music video with Jennifer Lopez.

Most recently, he produced (and starred as Jose in) Bella, a small film which earned the Grand Prize from the Heartland Film Festival; the People’s Choice Award at the 2007 Toronto Film Festival; Best Picture and Best Actor Awards at the 2008 MovieGuide Awards; and was named one of the Top 10 Most Redeeming Films of 2007 by CT Movies. The Indie filma quiet drama about a man who stands by a virtual stranger when her life starts falling apartearned nearly $8 million during its theatrical run and has an impressive 96% positive rating from the Rotten Tomatoes Community.

Eduardo Verastegui as Jose in Bella

Somehow, we missed it when it played in Seattle.

But on Tuesday, May 6, it’s being released on DVD. A couple of weeks ago, I managed to screen the movie and, courtesy of a national publicist, talk on the phone for fifteen minutes with Verástegui. I was very impressed by the film and all of the performances, and was even more impressed after talking with Verástegui.

How are you?

Eduardo Verástegui: Good. I’m here in New York, just back from Mexico a few days ago. We’re going to be launching Bella there next week, and the DVD is coming out here in a couple of weeks. So, working hard, man.

Yeah, I can imagine. Hey, one of the lines you have early in the movie is, “I hate interviews; I’m not a speaker.” Does that feel like an autobiographical statement for you?

EV: No, no, no. What I don’t like sometimes is a speech, speaking in public, you know. I’m a little shy. But interviews are a great opportunity to speak—knowing that the media are interested, and that the media are reaching young people. We have this tendency and inclination to imitate or copy what we see on film or television, and what we read in magazines or interviews, Internet, music, radio, et cetera. So if that’s the case, I have to see this as an opportunity—even though this may not be the part that I enjoy the most, because as an actor I more enjoy the creative side: building the character and script development and producing—to say a few words of hope, so when people read those interviews they will be influenced in a positive way. Because I, myself, when I was a teenager, all these things that I did—many of them—I was influenced by the magazines I was reading and the TV shows I was watching, and the movies I was watching. And now that I look back, I think, “My gosh! I can’t believe I was influenced by this person’s interview!” I was imitating everything that people were saying in that interview; and they were not good things, you know?

Can you remember any really positive examples that you heard back in those formative days?

EV: I don’t know; let me think. Uh, let’s see. When I was a teenager, I think everything was bad. I don’t know. Maybe the people who were supporting charities, and celebrities who were using their talents to make a difference, were able to influence you. But I’d say it was probably 99% bad things I was reading. And with the celebrities, it was just all about the fame and the pleasure, and it’s very easy—if you’re a young guy and you don’t have a spiritual foundation—to let the media tell you how to live in a way that contradicts what my faith was teaching me. You know, you slip into the mentality of “everybody’s doing this, everybody’s doing that”—so you lose perspective on what is good and what is bad, and everything becomes relative. You’re seduced by the whole environment of superficiality, and vanity, and ego—all the things that can seduce you and destroy you.

So I was seduced by that for many years, until six years ago when I realized that the lifestyle I was living wasn’t fulfilling. I felt empty; I realized that I became an actor and studied acting for very superficial reasons: fame, money, pleasure, success. But that definition of success was wrong for me, as well. So I realized that I was using my talents in a selfish way. And I decided—because I met a person, the English teacher that I hired in Los Angeles; she was the one who not only taught me English but changed my life in a way—I was looking for something deeper in my life. I didn’t know what it was; it felt like I was in a big labyrinth without faith, trying to find the exit. But I couldn’t; and she came in that moment and started asking me the right questions, like: What is the purpose of life? How are you using your talents? What kind of a message do you want to our society? Are you assuming the responsibility that you have to assume as an actor? How are you picking your projects? Who is guiding your life? Things like that, you know, until one day I decided I was wrong and my life needed to change.

And that’s when I realized that I was, in a way, worsening our society by the projects I was involved with—by the lifestyle I was leading. And that’s when I went to my knees and asked God to forgive me. He broke my heart when I realized that I was offending God with the talents that He gave me, and instead of using them to serve Him and serve others, I was using them to serve myself. And that’s when everything changed. I was 28, and I promised Him—I made a promise to God that I would never again use my talents in anything that would offend Him or offend my faith, my family, my Latino culture. Because at the same time, I realized that Latinos have been stereotyped in a very negative way in the media, with the bandido, the criminal, the thief, drug dealer, gang member—and if you are good looking, you are the Latin Lover, a womanizer. I think it’s very sad because that negative stereotype was exactly the way I was living.

But whatever you are doing is a manifestation of who you really are. You can judge the tree by its fruit, and whatever you speak comes from your heart. So that’s when I made the promise: I repented and asked God to forgive me; and He not only forgave me, but gave me a new heart and made me a new man. I started a new life.

And that’s when I realized that, as an actor, it’s very hard to fulfill that promise because you don’t have the power to control the message in the movie or TV show. Everything is already there, and you just have to go there and submit yourself to the script. So the only way that you— Well, not the only way, but it’s easier if you become the producer, because then you have the power to control the message. And I found this desire in my heart, this ambition, to open a production company so that we can produce films that have the potential to not only entertain but to make a difference and highlight human dignity.

Very few times in the Latino community do you have the opportunity of portraying heroes—but not heroes like Superman or Spider-man, but everyday people like the man who is honest, and faithful to his wife, loyal to his friends, and willing to sacrifice everything to help his family: a man of character, a man of faith, a man of integrity, a real hero. The everyday hero. And women as well. We see them being reduced to objects. It’s ridiculous. My mother is not an object; my grandmother, my sisters, my aunt: they are not objects. They are the heart of the family. They are full of wisdom. They are smart; they are beautiful.

So that’s when I found this desire in my heart: I only want to be involved in projects that will have the power to touch people’s hearts, and won’t ask people to compromise themselves in order to express their values or tell the story they need to tell. So we opened this company called Metanoia Films.

That’s great. Say, you know there’s a key scene in Bella when Jose takes Nina to sit in the car, and tells her the story about what happened to him in his past. And it seemed like that was a great metaphor: where he has already invested himself in her life, and so he has earned the right to tell her that story—whereas if Manny or someone else had come from the outside of her life and tried to lecture her, they wouldn’t have the moral authority to tell her anything. And it sounds kind of like that’s what you’re talking about doing with Metanoia: to try to earn the right to tell these stories to people.

EV: Well, this is the thing. It’s tough for me because I’m coming from a life where I was immersed in superficiality; and I always use the analogy of— Have you ever seen the greyhound races?

Yes.

EV: You know, they’re chasing this fake rabbit. And every once in a while, one of these dogs—the one who is very fast—catches and bites the rabbit. And that dog is hurt. He bleeds; sometimes they break their jaws and teeth. And they’re suffering; they’re in pain. And that dog will never race again in its life, because he realizes he was chasing a lie. But the sad part is that the other dogs end up chasing that rabbit forever.