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Mario Guerra: “I Have Been My Own Characters”

It’s difficult to look at Mario Guerra straight in the face; he has a strong, honest look in his eyes. He is the protagonist of some of the scenes of Cuban cinema and theater that have had the greatest impact on me. He has starred in some 30 feature lengths and a similar number of plays, and I am sure he doesn’t keep count of his participation in shorts. In addition to prizes received, he is recognized in his profession among the best (or the best) Cuban active actors. However, when one speaks with Mayito it’s like talking with someone who doesn’t finish building himself, someone who knows that he hasn’t gotten anywhere…because there’s nowhere to reach. One perceives in his entire work a profound sincerity, as if he could, with his truth, extract everything hidden in us, so to look him straight in the face one has to take a deep breath.

Where were you born?

I was born in Havana, on a Saturday, on March 5, 1960 at around 5:00 p.m. Farnot is the last name of the doctor who assisted my mother during childbirth. Chance had it that 50 years later they met again and spoke on the phone. At the time he was close to more than 90 years old, and he remembered the moment. And the thing is that I was born a day after the explosion of the ship La Coubre, that’s why he remembered it almost immediately. That’s luck, no? Not everyone can meet again with the man who assisted a mother’s childbirth. To me it seems like a literary story, 50 years later!!

When he was a child his family moved to Matanzas. From there he remembers the patio, the orange and lemon trees, going down a hill on a piece of cardboard to always end in front of the door of the only neighbor who had a TV set in the barrio. When he was three he used to participate in street dances. He liked dancing so much that he even danced the twist. He also remembers the fights between his father’s family and his mother, and among themselves, that’s why it was a relief when at six he returned to Havana with his father, mother and sister, everybody in one room, but with fewer conflicts. In the Cerro neighborhood he learned to play in the street, fell in love with a girl and because he wanted to win her over he ended up in a police station; the incident involved throwing rocks at the window of a military man in the barrio. Perhaps that’s when he suffered his first disappointment when the girl of his dreams left him for a friend, not caring about how much he had risked for her. Havana also had the movies. His father would take him a lot: the father slept and he saw the movies. Life was hard for them.

My poor mother unleashed all her fury and frustration on the person she loved most: on me, to such an extent that if today someone all of a sudden lifts a hand in front of me, I dodge as if that person were going to hit me. I don’t know how, being a child, I could realize the cause of her suffering. I never blamed her. She went through a lot and I always understood that.

Do all actors follow an acting method? Do you have one?

It’s a question I don’t like to answer. I don’t know why. I become a bit disconcerted. It seems I have some prejudice. I wasn’t able to study acting in any academy and, however, I can say that I have studied acting for a long time. My teachers have been all the persons with whom I have worked, I had them the way it turned out that I have them. In this profession, a word, an image, a phrase given to you can be a class in acting. Humberto Solás, directing me in a scene mentioned to me the word deep, “I want you to say those words in the deep,” he said. He suggested that image and the scene immediately took on the seriousness he needed. That was a class for me that lasted a few minutes. I’ve learned from many artists and I also ask a lot, I do my own research. To speak of methods it’s necessary to speak of Teachers. The first one I ran into was Stanislavski, afterwards with Grotowski, some of Meyerhold’s biomechanics, with Gloria Parrado I approached Brecht, Meisner, all of them in an incomplete way, perhaps distorted. Thus I absorbed that knowledge that generally had come from Europe and the United States. There are Vicente Revuelta, Mario Balmaseda or Víctor Varela and Flora Lauten, to give four examples.

When I think about my formation I realize that I have reinvented myself. My work or the path to build characters is my reinterpretation – on occasions not so clear – of the interpretation of others. I go out to seek knowledge, experience, by creating my own idea of things. At 57 I return searching for that part of inconsistency that my first times in theater had. And when I meditate about that I discover that everything that works for me and that I want and like, I take it, I drink from all the literature and experience which is provided by something that makes me flow. If you don’t have the sensitivity for this profession, you’ll have trouble in intensely appropriating the transcendental moments of your life, and of the simple as well as of the most common things. I observe with curiosity and I like to accumulate experience; with the years I learned to trust that and to let the body’s memory also do its job, to tune the ear to not go off key, to not work in comfort, but rather in the imbalance, to understand the oppositions. No to the stereotype! For example, why does a lawyer have to be to a clean and neat guy? Go to the limit! In the limit we find the mysterious, what is hidden inside us. What you’re going to do, do it with everything until it becomes special for you. I have learned from many and from myself. I stay alert.

If I were asked what distinguishes your performance, I would say two things: the sincerity and naturalness with which you assume the limits. How do you do it?

What makes me seek is curiosity and by seeking I can reach certain limits. When I speak of limits, in this case I refer to those where the actor travels toward a transgression of himself. To be natural, as you say, one has to be sincere and to achieve that naturalness one has to “uncover” or “undress” oneself. What I’m saying is not poetry, nor is it so easy. When you uncover or undress yourself you are transgressing your own self, it is a type of confession, not just with the word but also with actions, with thought and the entire body. It is vital for an actor to be able to get to know himself sufficiently so that he uses his entire body to create.

At times I repeat a phrase so much that I forget I know it, then when I say it it’s as if it were the first time, I think it’s a question of instinct, which is more visceral. This has to do with what you call natural. The same goes for actions. You can repeat them over and over again until you no longer think them and the process of “psychologizing” disappears. It’s about observing and observing oneself, of using one’s own instinct and do what one has to do, with everything. If the actor is not willing or doesn’t find the way to confess on stage and this goes for everything in his life, then he is lying to the audience and they perhaps realize it. Art needs from the essential.

Talk to me about theater…

Theater is a unique event; the place where I hide and at the same time reveal myself. It gives me that possibility. The place where I have been increasingly getting to know myself more, and where, at least for some time, one can isolate oneself from the disaster and chaos that on occasions life is and use that view, which is allowed for you from there. Theater has a singular nobility. You end up making a work of art, a work of art that each night will be unique and unrepeatable, out of your own crisis and contradictions, and that has to do with the risk that attracts the creator so much.

Time and the work processes is what attract me the most about theater. I can go every day to research, to search for what I want to find. I have spent years in a process without having been able to reach a conclusion, not even premier the play and I never felt frustrated. I’m not ashamed of saying that I’m more interested in the process than in the very function. The moment of going on stage is frequently compared to the gladiator who went out on the ring, and yes, the image is very correct. The actor is at the edge of an abysm and will want to save himself. All those who have gone through that know that I’m not saying poetry; these sensations of danger are real. Theater is a mysterious island.

Being an actor in Cuba today. Challenges and rewards…

Being an actor is a challenge, at any period of time and in any place in the world, not because it is the world’s most important profession but rather because in itself it contains a high dose of masochism. Based on my personal experience, which is from where I can speak more specifically, theater is challenge, crisis. Living in Cuba is a challenge, so is being an actor in Cuba. I, like many, am a survivor. I have been in theater for years, undernourished, despairing, badly dressed, isolated, misinformed, wandering between some talent and the mediocrity in power, between love and betrayal, between cowardliness and fear. Do you want something more defiant? In that relationship I probably am also guilty, victimizer. I believe that without crisis theater would stop being what it is, that place where one confesses, where one “spits out” what one thinks. Heiner Müller said “an actor dies every day,” I believe I understand him. Theater needs enemies to exist. A creator’s greatest challenge is to confront those enemies which are not always persons. The biggest reward I get out of this profession every day is knowledge. Theater is beautiful, and trying to unravel it, even more beautiful! The applauses, the recognition, the admirers, the prizes, that’s something else.

Are you superstitious?

Yes. I think it comes from fear. Fear of death, fear of not being able to achieve something. As a child I had the custom of counting up to a certain number to reach a place and if I didn’t do it on the previewed number it meant I wouldn’t achieve the objective. Another proof was holding my breath until I got to the place. Being superstitious must also be something cultural, something that one sees and learns while growing up.

I’m going to tell you about a very personal experience. That morning we had buried Cuban actor Tito Junco, a person who represents a great deal for me and whom a greatly love. It was Sunday and at 5 in the evening I had a theater function. The lights go out, the music before the start of the show is heard, and once I said the first words of that monologue I started feeling a “presence” that accompanied me for the hour I was on stage. After the applauses I said a few words and dedicated the function to Tito. When I left the stage, on the way to the dressing room, I unexpectedly started crying like a baby. I loved Tito like a father. I owe a great deal to him. A great person. At my mother’s home I have a last photo of him taken before he died, at its side there’s a glass of water. I think he is always with me and that he protects me. Ever since that Sunday, every time I’m going out on stage, just before that I speak to him.

It makes me want to continue listening to Mario Guerra. I know it’s going to be difficult to edit this interview, I wouldn’t want to obviate anything, I wouldn’t want to deprive anyone of that sensation of discovery, of learning, of questioning.

What moves you?

When I discover something in the middle of work in the theater.

What discourages you?

Neither laziness, nor slackness, nor apathy can make me collapse, as much as realizing I have been lied to.

If you were told to make a wish…

I would prefer that you not ask me that.

What concerns you the most?

Everything. Ignorance and fear, disease, death, castration, power, crime, when I tell a lie, when I am lied to, everything. I can’t believe one can be an actor if one is not concerned about everything. Is that right? Well, now I’m concerned.

What do you still have to do?

A film with Bergman [he laughs].

What bothers you?

That my intelligence be made fun of.

What music do you listen to?

I listen to everything that feels like good music. Jazz sounds sensational to me.

What do you read?

Everything that’s good, including a good interview.

Mario Guerra

Caricato Prize (2000) for the best supporting performance in theater, in “Los siervos” (Teatro de la Luna)

Caricato Prize (2002) for the best male performance in theater, in “El enano en la botella” (Teatro de la Luna)

Prize for the best male performance (2006), in the National Theater Festival in Camagüey, for “Delirio habanero” (Teatro de la Luna)

UNEAC Villanueva Prize (2006), in the National Theater Festival in Camagüey, for “Delirio habanero” (Teatro de la Luna)

UNEAC Tomás Gutiérrez Alea Performance Prize (2009) for the film Ciudad en rojo

New York Association of Entertainment Reporters Prize for best male performance, for the character of “Bárbaro” in “Delirio habanaero” (2011)

UNEAC Tomás Gutiérrez Alea Performance Prize (2014) for the films Boccacerías Habaneras, Casting, Afuera and Náufrago


One of the two Cuban films in competition in the 39th International New Latin American Film Festival (December 8-17, 2017), is Sergio & Serguéi by Cuban director Ernesto Daranas, in which Mario Guerra is starring.