Edgar Ramirez on His Star-Making Turn in ‘Carlos’
The first of many spectacularly botched operations in Carlos, Olivier Assayas’ epic film about Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, the Venezuela-born, pro-Palestinian terrorist whose nom de guerre gives the film its title, occurs in the bathroom of a Zionist businessman in London. Carlos’ gun jams, making a hash of the assassination. This is followed closely by a misfired, rocket-propelled grenade, which swerves across the tarmac at Paris’ Orly airport, striking the wrong plane. Then Carlos and his team attack OPEC’s headquarters in Vienna, a mission that dissolves into a comedy of errors after they force 60 hostages onto a jet and bounce from airport to airport in search of political asylum. Eventually, they give up on the revolution and settle for cash.
As Carlos careens across the globe—Paris, Baghdad, Beirut, Aden, East Berlin, Budapest—his swagger and unimpeachable arrogance give shape to Assayas’ propulsive film. “His insolence is fascinating,” says Edgar Ramirez, the 33-year-old actor who embodies Carlos with the muscular precision of a big cat. “Carrying out the revolution and buying his clothes at Harrods represented no conflict for him.” Carlos the Jackal, as he came to be mythologized, ended his long and infamous career in Khartoum, where a surgery for a bulging vein in one of his testicles left him susceptible to capture by French authorities. Even as a doughy, pajama-wearing washout, Carlos remains a powerfully attractive figure on screen. “We’ve all been victims of charismatic people in our lives,” Ramirez says. “You can see the definite impact of charisma on history.”
Like Carlos, Ramirez is from Venezuela. Also like Carlos, he had an international upbringing and is a formidable polyglot—Ramirez speaks six languages, if one counts the smattering of Arabic he picked up while filming in the Middle East. As the son of a military attaché, his childhood was spent traversing the globe, attending “15 different first days of school in 13 years.” It’s fitting, then, that Carlos, Ramirez’s first big-budget production as a leading man, is also the film that’s poised to make him famous.
On a drizzly afternoon in October, the actor sits drinking a soy cappuccino at the Le Parker Meriden hotel in Manhattan. Dark in the Javier Bardem mold and surprisingly boyish, Ramirez is most handsome when he lets amusement play across his features, and he’s capable, like many Latin people, of saying “lover” without irony. He’s also intelligent, curious, and alert. While enrolled in a prestigious university in Caracas, Ramirez studied to be a political journalist, dabbling in acting on the side. “I was always attracted to the world of arts and movies, but I would be lying if I said I dreamed of being in the business. I wanted to be something different every day, which, ultimately, is the reality of being an actor.”
Education, however, soon became an obstacle to passion; it was the sting of having to pass up a major part in Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores Perros, a nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2001 Academy Awards, that persuaded Ramirez to give acting a serious shot. He took on a stable part in the beloved Venezuelan soap opera, Cosita Rica, and scored supporting roles in Hollywood films like Domino, Vantage Point, and most famously, as a Jason Bourne’s bête noir in the Bourne trilogy.
Ramirez was filming a movie in Colombia when Assayas, the French filmmaker behind Irma Vep and Summer Hours, sent him the script for Carlos. In Assayas’ estimation, finding the right Carlos was, at least initially, a process of elimination. “I needed someone who was fluent in three languages, who spoke Spanish with a Venezuelan accent, who was the right age for the part, who had the physicality of Carlos, and, hopefully, who had the talent to pull it off,” he says. “Edgar was the only logical choice.” Ramirez immediately excused himself from the set where he’d been working and flew to Paris. The connection was instant. “It was obvious that he was Carlos,” Assayas says. “I don’t think I would’ve made the film if I didn’t have a Carlos I could rely on. Edgar was more than reliable. He carried the part on his back.”
Casting the part of Carlos was one possible hitch in a minefield of possible hitches that could have—and almost did—prevent the film from being made: multi-continental sets, a cast of mostly unknowns, a big budget, a runtime of nearly six hours, a terrorist protagonist, the presence of a Finno-Ugric language. “Of course it made me nervous,” Ramirez says. “But it also seemed like such a delicious part.” No matter how satisfying the role, if the antiquarian edicts of the Cannes jury and the Academy in Hollywood are to be trusted, Carlos isn’t really a movie. The Sundance Channel picked up the “miniseries,” and an abbreviated version will show in theaters. “We’re in the middle of a huge cultural shift in terms of appreciating how movies are presented and put together,” Ramirez says. “Movies have become so conservative. Everything is produced on fear of failure.”
Since his university years, Ramirez has been actively engaged in philanthropic causes as varied as breast cancer awareness—he is the spokesman for the Breast Cancer Association in Venezuela—and Dale al Voto, an organization akin to Rock the Vote, where he was the executive director. “I think that access to media and notoriety implies a certain level of social consciousness and responsibility,” says Ramirez, who also works with Amnesty International, UNICEF, and Transparency International. “I don’t want to seem dogmatic or judgmental, but I help where I can.”
Disarmament is another cause Ramirez vigorously supports, and immersing himself in the world of Carlos—where long-haired students guilelessly say things like, “We’re international militants,” and derive erotic pleasure from hand-grenades—was a challenge. Like The Baader Meinhof Complex or Good Morning, Night before it, Carlos charts the dissolution of 60s-era idealistic militancy into mercenary terrorism, and, eventually, into bureaucratic battles waged from file cabinets. “It’s a Cold War story,” says Assayas. “It brings to light how politics and terrorism end up being one and the same thing.” Still, both Assayas and Ramirez insist that the movie is apolitical (rather, a movie “about politics”), and Ramirez approached the role accordingly, studying Carlos’ history but also identifying the facets of the character that make him human, if not entirely sympathetic. “It taught me that the most monstrous acts and the most tender gestures coexist in perfect balance,” Ramirez says. “That’s what this movie is about.”
Finishing his second coffee, Ramirez readies to leave the hotel and venture out into the rain for another press engagement. He acknowledges the existence of several upcoming projects, but he can’t talk about any of them yet. Ramirez still officially resides in Caracas—his cousin and several childhood friends are in town visiting—but he lives “out of a suitcase anyway.” The next day he’s off to Los Angeles, then back to Europe for more press engagements. “Regardless of the market, the size of the project, or the language,” he says, “I think the workplace for an actor is the world.”
Photos by Alexandra Carr.