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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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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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