Re-visiting Maria Full of Grace: a chat with Catalina Sandino Moreno and Joshua Marston, plus a few comments on the Oscar noms

catalinaSaving Grace—the Academy nominates Catalina Sandino Moreno (Photo courtesy of Cinema Seattle)

The Oscar nominations last week brought very little news of interest to the discriminating moviegoer. True, there was The Story of the Weeping Camel, out there by its lonesome, an oasis amidst the insipid Best Documentary nominees. And one could take heart at the complete shutout of such ballyhooed trash as Dogville, Garden State, and De-Lovely. Still, the dunderheads who populate the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences by and large made depressingly cautious and blandly conservative choices, ones that reflect to a great degree the depressingly cautious, blandly conservative votes cast by our nation’s absurd critics’ groups. (In other words, what could be more sickening than Clint Eastwood’s idiotic false modesty, except perhaps the preening desperation of Martin Scorsese?)

When the Academy nominates (by mistake, I’m sure) a worthwhile film, it’s usually damned by faint recognition: a single nod toward Before Sunset; a token two for The Sea Inside. Maria Full of Grace, which might well have been nominated for Best Picture, for both the direction and screenplay of Joshua Marston, for Jim Denault’s cinematography, and for Patricia Rae’s supporting performance as Carla, a Colombian immigrant living in Queens, New York, received from the Academy a sole acknowledgment, albeit a major one: for the leading actress Catalina Sandino Moreno in her first film role.

Last spring at the Seattle International Film Festival, I had the chance to speak with Marston and Sandino Moreno. The conversation below originally appeared in the August 2004 issue of Vigilance, but not online until now.

There was one section of the tape that I didn’t transcribe—due to time, column space constraints, and the intricacy of the exchange. Director and star were talking about the film’s climactic scene, wherein Carla, who has taken Maria off her doorstep and into her apartment, discovers that Maria has kept the death of Carla’s sister a secret. Home Box Office, which financed Maria Full of Grace, wanted Maria to be such a virtuous character that she would confess everything to Carla. Marston refused to compromise to that extent, and prior to shooting the re-written scene, Sandino Moreno presented on a sheet of notebook paper new dialogue of her own devising. “I still have that piece of paper,” Marston said during our afternoon in Seattle. “You do?” his leading lady asked in mild surprise. It was a sweet, tender moment—one that spoke volumes of the empathy and affection between them. — NPT

January 31, 2005

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The writer-director Joshua Marston (he’s a young 35) and actress Catalina Sandino Moreno (she’s a wise 23) have a superb debut on their hands with Maria Full of Grace. This Spanish-language film introduces us to Maria, a Colombian woman who spends her days at a so-called flower plantation (it’s more like a sweatshop) with hundreds of other workers as they remove thorns from roses. A charmer she meets at a dance lures her seductively into drug smuggling, promising her “a cool job” replete with travel opportunities. Maria becomes a drug mule, that is, she swallows large pellets of heroin to transport in her stomach, and soon, of course, she finds herself in darker, more dangerous waters than she imagined. Sandino Moreno has already won Best Actress prizes at festivals in Seattle and Berlin. It seems likely that she’ll be nominated for an Oscar for this role. When I met with her and Marston last May, I asked him how the narrative took shape.

Joshua Marston: I didn’t want to do the sort of story we’ve seen before about drug trafficking. I didn’t want to tell the story from the point of view of the cop, or the DEA agent, or the drug lord. I wanted to turn that story on its head and tell it from the point of view of the little person, the person who’s normally demonized and criminalized. That’s part of the ideology of the drug war, to render things in black and white, and to say the person who [smuggles drugs] is a bad person who needs to be put in jail, and that the solution to all this is to beef up the border and hire more customs agents and build more prison cells. The goal in humanizing the person who actually goes through this is to humanize the solution. Whether in the U.S. it’s a question of spending less money on tanks and guns and jails, and more on drug rehabilitation and drug education, or in Colombia…spending less money on guns and tanks and helicopters, and more on schools and investing more money in the economy in order to understand that the drug problem isn’t a criminal problem, it’s a social problem. And here in the United States, it’s a public health problem.

N.P. Thompson: How did you prepare for writing the script?

JM: My research was partly going to prisons and meeting people who had been arrested as drug swallowers. It was often very frustrating that there were so many compelling stories that I couldn’t necessarily get on the screen, lots of very odd details. I interviewed one guy who had to swallow the cash of his $20,000 payday in small pellets and smuggle it back. The other side of the research was day-to-day life, spending time in small towns, going to flower plantations, and trying to find someone who looked like Maria, find a way into having a conversation.

NPT: Catalina, you worked in the flower plantations for a while. How long were you…undercover? About five days or so?

Catalina Sandino Moreno: For two weeks.

NPT: What was that like?

CSM: They made Maria. Totally. My preparation for the part was to go there and be with them, work, and Maria came. It was so natural and organic to be with those people and I was one of them…that Maria just appeared.

NPT: Did anyone at the flower plantation find out that you’re an actress?

CSM: Uhn-uh. No.

JM: Although…

CSM: Although what?

JM: You were very inquisitive. You asked a lot of questions of people—

CSM: Oh, yeah!

JM: And she ultimately lost her job because she was asking so many questions and talking to so many people! Just being a good actress!

CSM: It was worth it.

JM: But no one knew she was doing research.

CSM: After two weeks, my mother was like, “You’re crazy to be there. You have to come home.” I said, “Mom, I think they’re gonna fire me. It’s OK. Just let them fire me, I’m not gonna quit.”

NPT: Acting is such a difficult path—to choose and to stay on. Was there a person or an event that made you realize—here, this is where you belong; this is what you need to do?

CSM: I was very shy when I was little, and my mother pushed me to go to an acting class. “You should go there, scream, move around, just…you know, be strong.” Thanks to my mother and that class, I love acting.

NPT: So, you’re living in New York now. How’s that been for you?

CSM: Oh, it’s great. I graduated from school in 2000, and my dream was to go to New York and study theatre. I was working to save money, then September 11 came, and my mother said, “You’re not gonna go anywhere. You stay here and study.” And then this movie came. It was destiny. I needed to go to New York. I was trying to go before and I couldn’t. And right now I’m in New York, and I love being there every single day going to classes. I’m gonna stay here and study, I’m not gonna go back to Colombia. This is my dream.

NPT: Have you worked on any plays recently?

CSM: Well, right now I’m working…with Maria.

NPT (laughing): Yeah, this is work.

CSM: I think that’s it. I think I have to take this experience. After this movie, I’m not going to do [interviews] with the next movie. So, I have to really enjoy this whole experience with Maria. I’ll take my time.

May 2004

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