Tough act as Moreno's method aims to shatter stereotypes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 March, 2007, 12:00am

Catalina Sandino Moreno says she doesn't know what the American dream is - but she's living it. 'People are always talking about the American dream, but I don't quite know what that means,' says the Colombian actress who shot to fame in the indie hit Maria Full of Grace. 'I came to America, and the country just opened up to me. I went to Sundance with Maria, and that became the start of an amazing journey. It's been great. So, perhaps that's what they're talking about.'

America didn't open up to Moreno for no reason. She may be only 25, but she's already an accomplished actress. Moreno's debut role as a drug mule in Maria Full of Grace marked her out as a natural performer, and she received an Oscar nomination. She impresses again as an illegal immigrant trying to maintain some dignity in Richard Linklater's Fast Food Nation.

'I think I was born to act,' Moreno says. 'But I've no idea how I do it - I don't have a method. I just make sure that I know why my characters do what they do. Everything they do has to be triggered by something.' She laughs. 'I think I've just discovered that I do actually have a method after all - and that's quite exciting!'

In Fast Food Nation, Moreno plays a hard-pressed Mexican illegal immigrant who works in a disgustingly bloody meat-processing plant. It's a tough social-realist film, and Moreno puts in a delicately human performance. 'I don't like to play people who are just nice,' she says. 'She's a complex person who's always trying to help her boyfriend and her sister. She's in survival mode, and she has to do what she needs to survive.'

Thankfully, Moreno says, she's good at tuning out after 'cut' has been called on the set. Her characters' problems never keep her awake at night. 'I always try to make sure they don't intrude into my real life,' she says. 'You're never going to see me acting like them. I'm me, and I can totally break off from the role. I'm playing a part, I turn it off, and that's where it ends.'

But she does admit that being an immigrant has helped her performances. Moreno was born in Bogota, in Colombia, where she studied acting. She was spotted by a casting agent who recommended her for Maria Full of Grace. That film's success led to a career in the US. Recently married to an American, she now lives in New York City.

'I'm an immigrant to the US,' she says. 'I come from a different background to the girls I play. But I can relate to how awful and hard and frustrating it can be not to have money and to have to struggle. I did a lot of things, as I was in survival mode, although my situation wasn't as bad as theirs. But I can totally relate to these people, as they're coming here to get the American dream.'

The Oscar nomination led to a lot of job offers, but little of it was right for her, Moreno says. 'I got sent lots of scripts. But because I'm a Latino, they all wanted me to take my clothes off. They think that's the Latino stereotype - you have to take your clothes off, or be a drug addict or a drug runner. But I feel responsible as an actress and person to portray myself and what I represent in a positive way.'

That's why she was happy to take the role in last year's portmanteau homage to the French capital, Paris, Je T'Aime, she says. Moreno acts in Loin du 16eme, a segment directed by Brazilian director Walter Salles. It's almost a dialogue-free part as a young working-class woman who has to leave her own baby in a day-care centre before commuting across the city to an upscale townhouse to work as a nanny.

In her latest project, Moreno plays Hildebranda Sanchez in a big screen adaptation of Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez's magic-realist classic Love in the Time of Cholera. 'The film really captures the spirit of the novel,' she says. 'I'm a Colombian, and they're shooting in Cartagena, in Colombia, where the story is set. The magic of the book is how warm, how beautiful, how soft is Cartagena and these characters. I think it's going to work well on film.

'Hildebranda Sanchez is wild and crazy,' she says. 'She shows her legs, and she's always flirting. It was a nice change, as my characters are always a bit serious. I got to let go and have fun - lots of it.'