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Edgar Ramírez Gets To Know “Carlos”

Edgar Ramírez Gets To Know “Carlos” (photo)

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Edgar Ramírez surprised me. At the beginning of our interview, I asked him what the most challenging aspect was of playing Ilich Ramírez Sánchez — a.k.a. the infamous terrorist Carlos the Jackal — in director Olivier Assayas new three-part, five-and-a-half hour mini-series “Carlos.” Given the massive scale of this project, I figured he would have no shortage of logistical problems to choose from: speaking in five different languages for the role, shooting in half a dozen countries, recreating massive terrorist operations including bombings and airplane hijackings on a less-than-blockbuster budget, or gaining a De Niro-esque amount of weight to portray the Carlos of his later years.

Ramírez mentioned none of those things. Instead, the most difficult part for him was wrapping his head around the character’s morality: his masochism, misogyny, and especially, his willingness to kill people for a political cause. “For me,” he said, “no ideological or political conviction would justify the sacrifice of a human life.  For me, the value of life is absolute, with no concessions.  It’s not negotiable.  But for this character, and a lot of the characters in this movie, it’s different.  You can negotiate with life.  And there’s sort of a taxonomy of the value of life: some lives are worth less and some lives are worth more.  And I had to struggle with that idea.”

Ramírez’s answer speaks to his approach to the character and to Assayas’ approach to the film as a whole, which is not to valorize or criminalize Carlos, but to try to understand what motivates a person like him to take the actions he took. Their success at getting under the man’s skin, unlocking his secrets, is what makes “Carlos” such a fascinating movie (or miniseries; though Ramírez calls them both “movies”). After talking about those challenges, I asked Ramírez about the trend toward longer biopics, why putting on weight for a role is less fun than it sounds, and what it felt like to get a letter from the real Carlos.

How did you get involved in the project?

The script was sent to me. The first thing I thought was “A script about Carlos the Jackal?  Oh my God.”  Although I didn’t know much about him, I know that this type of character in the wrong hands could be a disaster, a caricature about “The Jackal,” especially with the prior presence of this character in movies.  And then when I found out it was Olivier Assayas behind it, I read the script and I loved it.

I saw the five and a half hour mini-series version of “Carlos.” But there’s also a two and a half hour “theatrical version.” Do you have a preference between the two?

No, I think they’re just two different movies.  And both are interesting and I think that both stand on their own.  After seven months of work and all of energy invested in the movie, I hope that people, if they have the chance, look at the whole tryptic. But the movie version’s great!  I mean, both are movies.  But one is super-long and the other is just long.  [laughs]

The most common complaint about biopics is that they take the entire scope of a life and cram “the greatest hits” into 100 minutes. But between “Carlos,” and “Mesrine” and “Che,” which you also appeared in, there seems to be this trend emerging of longer, more thorough biographical films. Do you think it’s a coincidence or is it a reaction to that sort of criticism?

I’m not really sure.  One the one hand, I think it is a bit of a coincidence.  On the other hand, to talk about a character like Che or a character like Carlos, you have to talk about a time in history.  You can’t just talk about the character, you need to somehow go deeper into the historical and political context these characters lived in.  And that requires time. 

The thing that particularly interested me about Carlos was the fact that this terrorist’s life, and the journey he went on, was like the journey of a great artist, or director, or actor–

Or rock star.

Or rock star, exactly. He begins as this man who’s doing these things out of passion and a need to express himself, and at a certain point it becomes about the money and the power.

I think that’s why the movie speaks so directly to so many people. It’s a very universal story about the struggle between idealism and individualism, between the will to change the world and the obsession for fame, recognition and a place in history. And all of that laced with power, fear, money, drugs, alcohol, sex, love, which are all elements that speak to all of us.

So I was reading a story about the real Carlos writing a letter about the film. Did he write it to you or to Olivier?

He wrote a letter to me. 

Did you receive it personally?

It was published in one of the most widely read newspapers in France on the day of the premiere at Cannes.

What was that like?  In the movie, we see Carlos writing letters, making phone calls.  Typically, these are not communications you want to be on the receiving end of.

It didn’t catch us by surprise.  We knew that he would react.  And he did it in the most narcissistic and spectacular way possible. And after portraying this character, I thought “That is something that this character would have done.” Which I respect! We’re telling a story that is based on the events of his life.  But it was never intended to be a biography.  Some of these events are proven, some of these events are loosely proven, and so forth.  And of course, for a guy with such strong opinions, you had to expect him to come out and say something.

You undergo such an amazing physical transformation to portray Carlos aging and gaining weight. And I’m sure you get a lot of questions about how you did it. But isn’t that obvious? You eat a lot of crap and stop exercising. It seems easy.

Yeah, it is very easy.  But it’s not as fun as you would think. Because when you’re forced to do things, it’s not fun anymore.  You have to eat all the time.  And sometimes you just really pray for a light salad.  And I couldn’t have a salad.

So perversely, this is like a great dieting secret.  Force feed yourself until you hate food.

Of course.  And that’s why the extra weight I put on for the film, I lost really quickly.  It didn’t last as long as I thought it would.  Up until the last like six kilos [about 13 pounds], which were harder to lose.

I guess you can’t wear a beret out in public anymore.

Actually, we took a charter plane back from the Telluride Film Festival. And I was one of the last people to get on the plane. And when I was walking to my seat, everyone looked really scared. It was a funny moment. So I said, “Okay, we’re about land in Algiers, you all need to lower your window shades!”

“Carlos” premieres tonight at 9pm on Sundance Channel, and opens in both five-and-a-half and two-and-a-half hour versions in theaters on Friday.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.