McFarland USA is the best movie I’ve seen this year.
I know … I know—it’s a flick that’s only grossed $29 million. It’s a flick produced by Disney. It’s a flick that will never generate any real Oscar buzz, and has been sort of lumped in with all of the other feel-good sports flicks of recent times.
Well, I don’t care.
McFarland USA is the true story of a California-based high school cross country team that, somehow, rises from nothingness to one state title after another. It stars Kevin Costner in one of his best performances in decades, and was directed by the excellent Niki Caro. For me, though, the performance that jumped off the screen belonged to Natalia Cordova, a 32-year-old Mexican actress who played the role of “Señora Valles”—poor abused wife and mother. There’s something about Cordova that leaps from the screen; an ability to emote sans words and express emotions without having to slam the audience over the head. Just like the movie, she was terrific.
Cordova also happens to be the 197th Quaz—which is terrific, because along with being an on-the-rise American film presence, she can shed light on Derek Jeter’s retirement and rank Gary Coleman ahead of Willis Reed. One can visit Natalia’s website here, and follow her on Twitter here.
Natalia Cordova, congratulations. You’ve joined the Quaz cast …
JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Natalia, this past weekend I took the family to see McFarland USA—and we truly loved it. I’d like to hear, soup to nuts, how you landed the part. When did you first find out about it? When did you audition? What did it feel like when you were officially hired?
NATALIA CORDOVA.: Jeff, I am so happy to hear that you connected with the film. Thank you for supporting it! I had been auditioning for a couple of months in Los Angeles when my representation heard about the project and submitted me and I got the audition. I did some research on the background of the story and fell in love with it. I received a call back with the director, Niki Caro (Whale Rider, North Country) and we seemed to have a connection in the room. Three weeks later, I heard I got the part. It was an incredibly exciting moment for me as an actress, since it was the first feature film I had booked in the United States.
J.P.: How can an actor tell if the film she’s in is actually, well, good? I mean, scenes are usually shot out of sequence, there’ll be 1,001 things cut, inserted, moved around, etc. So how do you know? Or do you? And can you tell if a film is crap?
N.C.: From my perspective, I try to not judge a film as bad or good, per se. The first and most important factor is the script and whether it moves me or not. Certainly, in the case of McFarland, it did. The true story was inspirational, heartwarming and something I wanted to be a part of. It’s completely out of my control what the finished product will be. All that I can do is be at my best and give to that project what it needs from me. Nothing more and nothing else.
J.P.: Your film-and-TV resume is filled with Spanish titles … until Flight and McFarland. Which makes me wonder whether it’s hard to break out of what people expect? For example, I’m known as a sports writer. I’ve only written sports books. If I wanna do, say, an FDR bio, it might be rough. Is it the same for you? Is it hard to get attention in English-language films, even though you’ve spent much/most of your life in the U.S.?
N.C.: I think it absolutely is a difficult transition, however, I do believe wholeheartedly that an actor should be able to play at any level, work with any medium. That being said I don’t think everyone sees it that way. And there is a lot of boxing people into stereotypes being done in this industry. It’s not that it’s hard to get attention from English-speaking films as much as it’s hard making others believe you can play anything and ultimately that’s the job of an actor. To transform. To be a chameleon of some sort.
I’ve always enjoyed a hard challenge, and what attracted me most to making the jump to English-language films was two fold: the fact that it would be such an amazing challenge and also that, right now, America is creating such exciting work—both television and film. Work that is daring and obstacle-laden. To be frank, that is what I am after as an artist. To attack projects that will allow me to explore stories that I would never normally be allowed to journey through. Also, it was very interesting to attempt to root emotion into a second language, which proves to be quite scary at first when that particular tongue is not grounded in you. For me to work on my accent and be able to manipulate it so I could play a wider variety of characters was of utmost importance. People can expect one thing from you or put you in a limited box but it’s up to you to open their minds. And that is my job for now.
J.P.: So I know you were born in Mexico City, know you attended high school in North Carolina, know young grandfather is the actor Francisco Cordova. But how did this happen? Like, when did you know you wanted to act? When did you realize you were good at it?
N.C.: I started dancing when I was 4-years old. I took it very seriously until I was 16. It was dance that led me to acting. I would constantly hear from ballet directors that I was over expressing the part I was dancing. Because classical ballet can be so strict and straight I started to feel restricted in my expression. An acting teacher saw me dance once and came up to me and suggested I take acting classes and so I did. I fell in love with it immediately.
My grandfather was an incredible actor and artist. His story is truly beautiful. He studied to be a chemist and it wasn’t until he was around his mid-30s that he started acting. He achieved great success (artistically) through an enormous amount of passion and hard work. I didn’t get to know him well because he was already suffering from Alzheimer’s disease by the time I was very young. I got to know him through his work. I know he is a big reason why I am who I am. I can constantly feel him vibrating inside me. Every single moment I get to perform or create is dedicated to him. When I was a dancer I would kneel down before entering the stage and say “Abuelo, voy contigo”, which means “Grandpa, I’m on my way to you.” It’s a line from a movie called El niño y la estrella (The boy and the star) in which he plays a loving grandfather. This is the way I chose to built my own relationship with my grandfather.
J.P.: Weird question, but why do you think we’re so enamored by actors and actresses? I mean, a firefighter walks by, or a pilot, and we barely notice. Yet someone whose job is to pretend is often mobbed by autograph hounds and fans. Why do you think that is?
N.C.: Not a weird question at all. The first reason I think would be because actors and actresses work with their faces; we constantly see those faces and get to know them so well that we can recognize anywhere. So I would assume that is largely responsible for why they are so enamored by the public. Secondly, I believe that when people watch films or TV, there is the possibility that they will immediately gain a personal relationship with an individual storyline that perhaps can be a missing puzzle piece for whatever might be going on in their lives at that moment. They empathize with the characters they watch and thereby connect with the performer. When those performers are seen in public, people tend to want to describe and be grateful for being given that gift of emotionality and association. I myself could say the same for many artists. Were I to meet them, my first instinct would be to gush about how their artistry has moved or changed me. I think it’s got to do with connection, which ultimately is, I believe, our most primal and deepest desire in life as emotional beings. To connect with each other on a deeper spiritual level, and that can only be achieved through how we make each other feel. All that said, firefighters, doctors and teachers are terrifically underpaid and should be as admired as artists who have the world’s eye. If we could ever compensate them for what they are truly worth, I would hope, that depending on the quality we give others, we would find ourselves equal on financial scale.
J.P.: In McFarland USA you play the mom of one of the runners. Your husband is abusive, and you’re the woman who sort of has to take it. How do you prepare for such a role? Is there research? Studying? And, when you’re acting, what do you think of? Are you aware you’re acting, or do you throw yourself completely into the moment?
N.C.: Research and studying is something I absolutely treasure as an essential part of being an actor. I’ve always loved learning and investigating. As a child I was incredibly curious. My all-time favorite word was (and in some ways still is) “Why.” I can confidently say I’ve annoyed the living hell out of people with my enormous desire to know every why. I’ve just always loved finding out the reasons behind anything and everything.
So to answer your questions, Yes! No matter how big or small the role, preparing, studying and researching is not only crucial to the creation of the character but something I crave like I crave few things.
As for Señora Valles of McFarland, USA. I read up on the real story as much a possible. I was not able to meet the real Señora Valles, but I felt like I knew her. I personally know women who have crossed over to the U.S. with nothing but their name. Women who have put everything they are and have in danger to find a better life, not only for themselves, but for their loved ones. I also know the strain that that constant uphill puts on a marriage and family. The poverty. The hardships. The loneliness. I have dear friends who have personally fought this fight and I could not admire and respect them more than I do. Being close to these people and hearing their stories definitely helped me not only have a deeper sense of the character but also fuel my desire to tell this story.
I don’t know how to act any other way than to throw myself completely into the moment. After all the research, and the emotional and physical studying is done (if it can ever be done), I try to not think much more and just allow this new being to drive the vehicle. I don’t like to look at takes, or judge how I look or if I did well or not. I prefer to leave that in the hands of the director. I choose not to be aware of the actor behind the character. I love to leave Natalia behind. And that I think is a big reason why I am in love with my craft. It’s a privilege to me, to be able to escape this reality and go live another. It’s an incredibly freeing sensation.
J.P.: In 2013 you played a ballerina in Flight. You list yourself as a dancer, but what goes into actually playing a ballerina?
N.C.: You ask, what goes into playing a ballerina? Well, what goes is the same amount of hard work as it takes to play anything else. I played a modern dancer in my first lead in a feature film Ventanas al mar. It was and indie film so I had to prepare on my own. I lost weight. I went back to dance class for two months. I took long walks and tried to do physical activities as the character. I went every week to a dance company and watched dancers just be. I did everything I could to immerse myself into that world and create something from it.
J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
N.C.: I don’t have just one. I value immensely every time I get to do what I love to do most. Those are the highs. The moments I get to work on what gives me flight next to people that are as passionate as I am about this endeavor. The lows are the opposite of that. The low moments are when I have to do all that that is required of an actor and has nothing to do with creating or acting. But I am aware that that’s the price we pay for flying.
J.P.: What’s the difference between great acting and so-so acting? Like, what makes someone like Meryl Streep different than 99 percent of folks out there? And do you have that? Do you aspire to have that? Is it attainable?
N.C.: I think the difference between anything being great or not has a lot to do with the eye of the beholder. We all have different tastes. But I do believe very strongly in quality. I think we can sense quality when it’s in front of us. And the majority of the time its because of the way we feel in its presence. I can also tell you that hard work has a lot to do with something achieving its best.
Speaking about Meryl Streep, I remember hearing a story Julia Roberts told in an interview about working with Meryl Streep. She said it was a privilege to watch Meryl work so hard to be great and that that was of great comfort. Look, I am not a believer that we are all created equal in abilities and talents. But I do believe in hard work and the payoff of it. Do I aspire to be Meryl or anyone else for that matter? No. They are unique beings never to be repeated again. Do I aspire to work as hard as her? Yes. And with that hard work accomplish as much as her? I certainly hope so.
I also believe we have to stop defining success in a general manner and start defining our own success on an individual level. What is the definition of your own success? And when you find that answer, make certain to work very hard to accomplish that individual definition of success.
J.P.: What’s the worst auditioning story of your career?
N.C.: Auditioning is an art on its own. Embarrassment is definitely a given when it comes to auditions. I’ve been embarrassed plenty of times. But I have to say that it’s not embarrassment or making a fool of yourself that’s the most painful. That’s just part of playing the game. The worst for me is when I find the other side of the room trying to fit me into a box or stereotype. When I witness a lack of imagination and an abundance of close mindedness or fear of risk.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH NATALIA CORDOVA:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Patricia Arquette, Willis Reed, Napa, Old Navy sweatshirts, your left big toe, Xbox 360, Gary Coleman, MSNBC, Kraft American singles: Left big toe, Patricia Arquette, Napa, Gary Coleman, Willis Reed, Kraft American singles, Old Navy sweatshirts, MSNBC, Xbox 360,
• You played Olga in the TV series Bienes raices. Three memories from the experience?: 1. Working with director Javier Solar for the second time. I’ve worked with him three times. He gave me my first job (Simuladores) upon arriving in Mexico City after CAL-ARTS; 2. The story between my character and her mother. Personally it was very moving to me; 3. Waiting for hours in a motor home listening to Joni Mitchell’s “Both sides, now”.
• Five greatest actresses of your lifetime?: “Greatest” is a big word. There are soooooo many. I’ll name the first five bad-ass women actors who come to my head: 1. Emma Thompson; 2. Cate Blanchett; 3. Frances McDormand; 4. Naomi Watts; 5. Viola Davis.
• You’re married to Brian Buckley, the musician. How did he propose?: He proposed in the most personal, intimate and magical way a man could ever propose to me. That’s when I knew I was with the man who best knew me.
• What does it feel like to see yourself in a movie for the first time?: It’s a thousand emotions all coming at you at once. It’s a feeling that is nerve-racking, surreal, incredibly weird, lovely, passionate, prideful and above all a feeling of gratitude for being able to do what you feel you are meant to do.
• Why do so many people seem to dislike beets?: Because they taste like dirt or soil and we have grown accustomed to preferring the taste of plastic or cans than that of our earth? I really don’t know. I love beets.
• The world needs to know—what does Kevin Costner smell like?: Didn’t get close enough to really get a good whiff, but if he smells as he looks I am guessing it’s pretty good.
• Do you think Derek Jeter will reconsider his retirement?: I have absolutely no idea. I know nothing about baseball. But I grew up with the biggest NFL fan (my older brother). So next time ask me about football.
• The Cable Guy is my all-time favorite movie. Thoughts?: Too weird for a lot of people. Perfectly fun and odd and delicious for me. Love that film.
• What’s the nicest thing someone has ever said to you?: “I see you!”