A panicked yelp escapes a room as the year’s most singular new film discovery nearly topples off her perch. Not from her—she steadies herself without so much as a peep—but from the reporter she insisted on seating in one of only two (firm) chairs available, offering the second to her translator. Balanced again on a wooden stool, she smiles softly. You see why a director might find her a stabilizing presence onscreen, an aura perceptible enough to pluck from obscurity to the heart of the best film of the year.
Yalitza Aparicio’s grace in the face of unforeseen circumstances is what landed her the lead role in Roma, director Alfonso Cuarón’s sweeping ode to the Mexico City of his youth and the women who raised him. It’s one of the best-reviewed films of the last decade—a “rapturous magnum opus” as intimate as it is panoramic. A work of “pure truth” that captures the sensation of memory in 60-millimeter, black-and-white visual grandeur.
Its emotional power rests largely in Aparicio’s performance—an extraordinarily tall order for any actress, yet one the 25-year-old navigates with astonishing artistry and vulnerability. As Cleo, the young Mixtec maid modeled after the caretaker Cuarón calls his “mother,” her guileless performance is the film’s empathetic, beating soul. There’s talk of an Oscar nod for Best Actress. The film is a favorite to win Best Picture. And Aparicio—who carries the picture with only natural ability; she’d had no acting training whatsoever before filming—almost never auditioned at all. “I didn’t want to,” she says now with a laugh.
Casually glam in a fitted burgundy dress and leather jacket, she recalls in Spanish how she was goaded into auditioning. She did it in her hometown of Tlaxiaco (population: 40,000) in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca only because her curious older sister, Edith, was too far along in her pregnancy to audition herself. Casting directors never stop in their town, she explains. “And I said, well, she wants to know how casting works and I have nothing to lose by trying.” Compared to Edith, who sings and is “very sociable,” Aparicio’s the introvert, she notes. “Lots of people didn’t even know she had a sister.”
She delivers that last line as neither a joke nor a draw for sympathy—rather, like it’s simply the truth. It took Cuarón a year to pinpoint that unassuming quality in the right person, scouring Mexico City, then Oaxaca and Veracruz for an indigenous woman who’d physically resemble his childhood nanny Liboria “Libo” Rodriguez and exude an energy similar to hers, too. He deemed thousands of women “too urban” for the role, even as the search narrowed from cities to towns to ever-smaller villages.
At the time, Aparicio had just completed studies to become a preschool teacher, and felt eager to begin her new career path. Cuarón, meanwhile, had only weeks left before shooting was scheduled to begin, and no lead actress for his most ambitious film to date. When a casting director brought Aparicio to his attention, “It was a mix of relief and fear,” recalled Cuarón at a London Film Festival press event. “Relief, because we found the right person. But fear—what if she said no?”
She might’ve indeed. Though she had seen Gravity, the space drama that earned Cuarón his first Oscar for Best Director (he’s a favorite to win again this year for Roma), Aparicio had never heard of him before they met. And though she was excited to learn she’d gotten the part, she also felt a “little sad” at the idea of leaving teaching behind. Still, without a terribly firm idea of how sets worked or what her life would become at the end of this project, she dove into it, embracing the unknown.
Roma might not have worked without her remarkable openness to uncertainty. Cuarón borrowed from Italian neorealists in his approach to the film, casting non-actors alongside veterans like soap opera star Marina de Tavira. He withheld scripts, feeding actors information about just one scene at a time (shot in chronological order), often omitting crucial plot points to provoke naturalistic, real-time reactions on film.
The process made Aparicio anxious, she admits, but only at first. “After a while, I realized, well, I don’t have a script for my life either. I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow and that doesn’t bother me.” Performing, she learned, “was just about responding to what was happening as we were shooting.”
Roma’s most powerful moments rely on Aparicio’s expressive, often silent responses as stunning twists unfold onscreen. (*Warning: Spoilers to follow—turn away and go to a movie theater if you haven’t yet seen Roma.) A wrenching scene in which Cleo gives birth to a stillborn baby girl, for instance, captures Aparicio’s real-life shock at Cleo’s misfortune. While prepping for the scene, “Alfonso just came and told me, ‘This is the moment when your baby is going to be born. We’re just in the surgery room.’ So I really thought the baby was going to be fine,” she says.
Actors rarely saw their footage on set, but Aparicio immediately grasped the scene’s impact. “When we finished shooting and I saw everyone cry, I understood that it was very moving,” she says.
When student protests erupt into deadly riots outside a furniture store where Cleo and her employer are shopping for a crib, Aparicio only realized she was standing in the middle of a recreation of the Corpus Christi massacre—the 1971 calamity in which government-trained paramilitary forces violently repressed a student movement, leaving untold numbers dead—when she looked out the window.
“That was something very impactful to me because I was a student, too,” she explains. In school, she’d sometimes been required to participate in demonstrations honoring the legacy of Tlatelolco, another authoritarian-sanctioned massacre that left hundreds of students dead in 1968. “Seeing the police surveilling students to make sure we didn’t do anything violent inspired a lot of fear,” she remembers. Watching actors in costume simulate beating students to death “was awful for me.”
In the film, the father of Cleo’s baby, Fermín, appears suddenly inside the store with the Halcones, the paramilitary force he insists leaves him no time for a child—or its mother. As his comrades beat and hound students and bodies fall to the ground, Fermín points a gun directly at Cleo. Both stand rooted to the spot, neither whispering a word. “I didn’t know he was supposed to act that day,” Aparicio says of the actor who plays Fermín, Jorge Antonio Guerrero. “So when I turned and saw him there, it was a shock. I wasn’t expecting it.”
The empathy Aparicio radiates in her performance stems from personal connections she drew to Cleo’s work, her life, and her experience meeting the real-life Libo. “The first thing Alfonso told me about Libo is that this story was going to be about his mother, because he had two mothers,” she says. “One had been the one who took care of him and raised him and was always with him.”
Aparicio never had a nanny of her own, but shared her mother with the children she looked after as a domestic houseworker—work Aparicio temporarily undertook as well to help cover the costs of school. She remembers arguing with other children over whether her mother was really theirs or hers. “She would always say, no, calm down, I’m everybody’s mom,” she recalls. “She spread her love equally.”
Inhabiting Cleo’s world expanded her appreciation of her mother’s. “You realize how important that family and that work was to her, and why she would try to make everyone comfortable despite her own problems,” Aparicio says.
Like Cleo, Aparicio’s mother speaks an indigenous Mexican language rarely heard in major films—Triqui, one of two dialects along with Mixtec that a quarter of Oaxaca can speak. “To me, that was the greatest opportunity we had with this film, to show other parts of the world that this linguistic diversity actually exists in Mexico,” Aparicio says. “It’s also an opportunity to raise awareness in our country. Lot of people are taking note of the importance of speaking and preserving these languages because unfortunately, in many places, they’re being lost.”
In the months since Roma’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival, Aparicio’s been swept around the world to promote the film, meeting “famous people I’ve only seen in films.” (When asked who she was most excited to meet, though, it isn’t an actor—it’s Guillermo del Toro, Cuarón’s longtime buddy whom she had heard of before starring in Roma.)
She’s been sure to use her budding platform to draw attention to issues near and dear to her, especially the plight of domestic workers at home and abroad. “I think there are many things that people are not aware of,” she explains. “People sometimes don’t recognize or ignore that domestic workers are human beings, too. They need benefits, they need steady salaries, and there are many bad things that happen to them.”
As for whether she’ll pursue acting professionally or go back to life as a preschool teacher, she isn’t sure. “I think I’m still very focused on what’s happening in the moment,” she says with a smile. “I haven’t really had the opportunity to think about what’s next. I know at any moment it’s going to end. But I’m happy with what’s happening right now.”