The star of last year’s A Better Life, Mexican actor Demian Bichir comes from an acting family so prolific that, in 2003, Mexico’s MTV Movie Awards gave the family their own category: “Best Bichir in a Movie.” But to the majority of American audiences, he is an utter unknown. When he appeared on this year’s list of Academy Award nominees—receiving a nod for Best Actor for his role—it was an explosion out of left field. Megawatt names like Leonardo DiCaprio, Michael Fassbender and Ryan Gosling (who were all nominated in the same category at the Golden Globes and Critic’s Choice Awards) found themselves snubbed in favor of Bichir, who’s now the underdog in a race against George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Jean Dujardin and Gary Oldman. The surprise has left many with the same question on their lips—who the hell is Demian Bichir?
Bichir, 48, has been in the spotlight since the age of 14 and, to date, has a whopping 62 film credits to his name—though only a handful of those titles may sound even vaguely familiar to those living north of the Mexican border. Che, Steven Soderbergh’s 2008 portrayal of the iconic Cuban revolutionary, Che Guevara, featured Bichir as the alternately loathsome and admirable Fidel Castro. Bichir’s stint on Season 4 of Weeds as the drug lord and mayor of Tijuana, Esteban Reyes (who then married the show’s heroine, Nancy Botwin in Season 5), may also ring a few bells. But with Bichir’s body of work featuring largely Spanish titles, A Better Life comes as the actor’s big American break—and he knows it too.
“I’m overwhelmed for having my name among these incredible actors,” Bichir said about his surprise Oscar nod in a statement to Us Weekly. “This could have never happened if Chris Weitz was not the head of this film … I dedicate this nomination to those 11 million human beings who make our lives easier and better in the U.S.”
A Better Life features the actor as Carlos, one of the 11 million illegal immigrants in America that Bichir thanks in his statement. Carlos is a single father raising his rebellious, teenage son in East Los Angeles, a neighborhood rotting with drugs and gangs. Despite poverty and the constant threats of deportation, Carlos manages to scrape enough money together to buy a truck and start his own gardening business. Cruelly, however, the truck is stolen the very next day, sending Carlos and his son into a sentimental odyssey through East L.A. to try and recover their one hope at a mildly prosperous life. As Bichir put it, his tearjerker role is just the sort that actors “die” for.
“You know, when you encounter a character like this and a project like this, the first reaction is how lucky I am,” he said to USA Today. “Because this is my Hamlet. This is my King Lear. It’s a bigger-than-life character that any actor would fight for it, would die to do it.”
In an interview with Fox News Latino, Bichir explains his motivation to be part of the film was not a political one. For Bichir, the film was not only a story about immigration, but rather a narrative of the love of a father for his son. “You have this Mexican macho becoming a mother to his son, it’s very real.”
Sources elsewhere also gave the film and Bichir’s performance mostly positive reviews. The L.A. Times noted that it was Bichir’s “soulful look” that brought his character to life and Roger Ebert called the film’s performances “pitch perfect.” Not to mention the glowing review his Weeds co-star Mary-Louise Parker gave him. “His performance [in A Better Life] was almost holy,” Parker said to The New York Times. “It was beyond being just about depth. He made the film into a Greek tragedy. And he is one of the few actors I know who could make that part humane.”
Bichir, who will soon star in a Mexican stage adaptation of Swimming With Sharks, has yet to become a household name in America, unlike his Best Actor competitors. But this soon may change. Bichir is hoping the Oscar nod will persuade movie goers to see the film, which just like him, has also been largely under the radar. The Academy’s unforeseen move is being looked upon favorably by most and with outright awe by others—but as Bichir’s fellow actor Michael McKean tweeted, “Amid all the who-shouldas and why-nots, Demian Bichir’s nomination is a little miracle.”