I first discovered Edgar Ramírez and how exceptional an actor he is in Olivier Assayas’ Carlos. The almost six hour version of the mini-series that I watched in one sitting at a local independent theatre just flew by, in large part because Ramírez was so mesmerizing in his portrayal of Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (aka Carlos the Jackal), the real life Venezuelan revolutionary. Years later, when the journalist-turned-actor won critical acclaim and was nominated for a slew of awards for his performance as Gianni Versace in American Crime Story, I was thrilled that the industry had finally given Ramírez his due. Beginning tonight, Edgar Ramírez can be seen as Detective Joe Mendoza in the David E. Kelley penned, Susanne Bier helmed limited series The Undoing. I was delighted to be able to chat over Zoom video recently with Ramírez and the following is a condensed and edited version of our extensive conversation.
Can you give a little insight into your character and what makes him tick?
Edgar Ramírez: As a police officer, you really have to very inquisitive and suspicious by nature. He’s an investigative detective, a homicide detective, and especially when murder happens and in these type of social circles, everyone becomes a suspect and the case becomes complicated because of the influence of the people involved. So I was lucky enough that my partner in the show, the wonderful actor Michael Devine, he is a police officer in real life, he is a detective. He plays a detective with me, he’s my partner on the show, so I was very lucky that he not only was very generous with me in terms of giving advice about the traits and the way things should be asked and how to place the questions, and also the psychology of a detective, but he also took me to real precincts where I had the opportunity to talk to real homicide detectives in New York. I actually presented the case to them, “this is what happened and these are the people involved”, and they were throwing out theories as to who may have committed the crime. So that was very interesting, it was like a role play. We were hypothetically thinking as if it were real and I was in their office, in a precinct, and it was a game but it was serious because I could see how their minds worked, and that was interesting for me to see. Because of the impact of cinema, and especially in a city like New York, with the influence of movies from the ’70s and ’80s, we tend to have this stereotype of what a detective is like and how their demeanour is, so it was interesting to me to see that there are different types of detectives just as how there are different types of people. There’s no one way – it’s not just the guy who dresses wearing a leather jacket, it’s very diverse. So it was very interesting for me to see that and to try and find my character in them.
What drew you to this role?
ER: It was a very compelling story and beautifully written by David E. Kelley, and Susanne Bier is an amazing director whose work I have admired for many years. And working with Nicole Kidman has been a long standing dream of mine. We’ve tried to work together in the past and finally this opportunity presented itself, so it was an amazing cocktail that was difficult to refuse. It was a dream. Then the rest of cast is fantastic – Hugh Grant, Donald Sutherland, Ismael Cruz Cordova. It’s a very different, complex story with a very interesting cast, so it was a no brainer for me to participate. And I love the story! This is the type of story that reminds me of the adult drama films from the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s – murder cases where sexuality…it’s a love story gone wrong. Complicated things happen to adults, and it’s an adult drama that you don’t see very often, and those were the movies that I grew up with. So I love the feeling of the story and also how complicated it is and how contradictory each character is. There’s no character without contradiction in the show and all of those characters are well crafted. So it’s a combination of all of those things and that combination could not have been better.
Did other aspects of the script appeal to you as well?
ER: One of the most interesting aspects of New York City is the fact that life in general slaps you in the face. Everyone is on each other, everyone is exposed to each other, and you can see in this show the social clash of all the characters. The characters come from different walks of life and you see how the very rich and privileged are exposed to the less privileged people, and those are the elements of the case at the centre here. The people are connected by the murder and the crime that took place, so having New York as a backdrop is very interesting because that is a city where the rich and the poor and everyone in between are forced to co-exist. They see each other every day and there’s no way to avoid that. They’re all physically forced to be together, you can’t hide it. You can try, but it’s always hitting you in the face, as opposed to other cities where you basically don’t see poverty if you’re in the rich side of the city. In New York, the subway for example, is a huge equalizer because it crosses the entire city forcing everyone to co-exist. For me, coming from a country like Venezuela and being so aware of the social clash, it was interesting to see that. For example, my character is for sure lower middle class and had the opportunity to study and is ambitious and wants to climb the ladder, and he understands that this case is going to get complicated because rich people are involved, because it will be covered in the media, and it’s also a public opinion trial, which is so much bigger than the trial at court, so all of these elements were interesting to me and I think are very telling of the society which we live in. Although it’s a fictional story, that makes it very relatable because that’s the world that we’re living in. The case clearly gets more complicated because of the class disparity amongst the characters. Beyond the exploration of human emotions and love and sexuality and possession and anger and jealousy and betrayal and frustration, beyond the exploration of all of those feelings, this exploration of the social tapestry was very interesting for me to explore as well.
Can you talk a little about collaborating with Nicole Kidman?
ER: It was fantastic. She’s one of the finest actresses in cinema, you know? She’s one of the most generous actors that I’ve ever worked with. She’s very intense. There’s an intensity that is also so effortless in her, and her intensity is something that has fascinated me since even before I became an actor. I’ve been acting for the past 15 years but before that I was a journalist, and I’ve always been fascinated with Nicole Kidman. She’s one of my favourite actresses of all time and to see her perform in all her glory, and to have the chance and the luck to perform in such complicated scenes with her, it was great. It was great to see her perform, to see how deep she can get and how open she is, how courageous she is in every scene – she doesn’t hold anything back. She doesn’t pull any punches and that was beautiful to see. It was a beautiful experience for me. We’re in the process of trying to find new projects to work on together so it was a great dynamic between us. With the rest of the cast too, but I have most of my scenes with Nicole, so of course my memories of my work with her are very vivid.
Does your background as a journalist penetrate into your preparation process as an actor?
ER: Definitely. I’m very inquisitive as well and I love to ask questions and to try to get not only as deep as possible, but to get at as many angles as possible into my character, and that’s what I used to do as a journalist. I don’t necessarily believe in objectivity as a value for journalism. I think what’s more important is to accept that subjectivity is what makes us human. There are many different angles and points of view, and for me as an actor, it is very important to have as many points of view that can inform me about my character as possible. For example, if I’m portraying a character that has been based on a real person such as Gianni Versace or Carlos or other characters that I’ve had the opportunity to play in my career, not only do I try to document for myself as much as possible about them about how they went down in history, but I also try to track down people who were close to them. For instance, when I was doing Gianni Versace, I was tracking down his best friend. It took me four months to gain his trust until he would open up and share, and of course I won’t reveal who he is, as a journalist I won’t reveal my source, but it was investigative work. I was tracking this guy down, finding people who were close to him so that they could put in a good word for me and tell him that I will respect his privacy. I just wanted his input so that I could compose the character. And that is something that I used to do in composing a story, as a journalist. So it definitely influences the way I have crafted my career as an actor.
Also, over time I’ve realized that maybe it’s not a coincidence, or maybe it’s an unconscious coincidence, that I’ve played so many real life characters because these are people that I would have loved to have interviewed and loved to have done a story on. There’s actually a real life person that I may play in the near future and we were having this conversation. It might be a movie based on his life, Ferran Adrià, the chef, and he said to me in our walk in Barcelona, “you were a journalist, right? now I get it. These are characters that you would have loved to have interviewed. What you do is kind of like a meta interview.” I was like “wow, now you’re analyzing me. That never really occurred to me.” In the end, I think there’s a secret dance between characters and actors, and when you’re lucky enough to choose your work, there’s certain things that you want to discover of yourself or amplify to your characters. So yes, I think there’s a relationship and an influence there.
Do you think your character, Joe Mendoza, moves the story forward because of how he assembles all the pieces of the murder mystery jigsaw?
ER: I think in a way, yes. He’s the objective eye of the show because he has no emotional connection to the people involved but, at the same time, and this is what I love about the story, is that there’s also a potential sexual tension between Mendoza and Nicole Kidman’s character. There is a fascination, there is a tension, there is a dynamic that of course is kept there, it doesn’t transcend, but maybe something happens at a fantasy level, and that makes the whole journey more interesting. It made it very interesting to me and I hope it’ll make it very interesting to the audience. I remember that one of the detectives, the real ones, when I was discussing the case with him, he said “it’s always complicated when a beautiful rich woman is involved in the case”. That complicates things because in the end, you’re still a human being, and you have to process all of those emotions. I think David E. Kelley was very smart and very sensitive to putting all of those elements into play because these are all attractive people, not just aesthetically, but on the inside they’re interesting people. It’s a fascinating palette of people and they’re all interesting. Hugh Grant’s character is infinitely interesting, Nicole’s character is interesting, Donald Sutherland’s character is interesting, and they play at a very high level of influence. And Mendoza doesn’t belong to that world so you can say there’s more objectivity coming in. But once you get into the game, then of course other energies start to arise.
The Undoing premieres tonight at 9pm ET on Crave