In Benjamin Bratts new film, La Mission, written and directed by his brother, Peter Bratt, Benjamin plays Che Riva, the classic alpha male with a violent streak whose life is destroyed when he discovers his teenage son, Jes, is gay. The character is a world away from Law & Orders Detective Rey Curtis, perhaps Benjamins most recognizable role.
The films title refers to the Mission district of San Francisco where the Bratts grew up. Filmed in 26 days in the Mission, Benjamin says the story is important because although coming out stories have been told repeatedly, they are often neglected within the African-American and Latino communities. Not only did the setting hit home for Benjamin, the characters did too. His role was based upon an actual man, named Che, whom the Bratts knew while growing up. They also have a gay cousin whose father disowned him after learning about his sexuality and then he was the victim of a hate crime. Proving that art imitates life, the Bratt brothers, much like Jes, have a strained relationship with their father. In fact, they havent spoken since 1985.
We caught up with Bratt to chat about La Mission, his wife, Talisa Soto, and his thoughts on how equal rights should be defined.
Out: You say this has been the most challenging role youve ever had. Why is that?
Benjamin Bratt: The thing that drew me to it was its complexity. What I found the most compelling about playing someone like this is my brother, the author of this story and the architect of the character, created an archetype that was immediately recognizable; not only someone who lives in the Latino community, but to society in general.
How would you describe Che Rivera?
He is really cut from the same cloth as Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood, Marlon Brando, and Al Pacino from Scarface. Hes a powerful patriarch who knows how to negotiate life successfully with violence. Weve been socialized to respect and revere guys like that. What we found interesting as filmmakers is to really peel back the layers on a character like this and discover what really compels this person.
What does compel him?
What was your process for creating this character?
Unlike other jobs, I was fortunate to be involved in the development of the story. My brothers writing process is very solitary and almost mysterious. He wants to get the whole thing done before he shows me the script. It was about two years of development before we actually started preproduction. So, I had an intimate knowledge of some of the greater themes he was trying to explore through the character, one of which was violence.
The mold for Che was a real-life person named Che, who is a few years older than you and your brother. Everyone in the Mission looks up to him -- the main difference is he is a single father of two children and doesnt have a son who is gay. The real-life Che asked your brother, Why does the son have to be a fag? Cant he be a drug dealer or something? In the end he did love the film, but how does he feel about gay people?
Id love to speak for him, but from what I understand by the way of my brothers explanation is when my brother first approached the real-life Che with the idea that he wanted to create at the center of his story a lead character based on Ches persona, he was flattered. Who wouldnt be? Then he started breaking down the qualities of the character and was given the first draft of the script to read. When it came to the part where it was revealed that he was to have a gay son, he was alarmed.
Why did your brother use a storyline involving a gay teen?
Its the perfect microcosm to explore the troubling issue that was on his mind, which is violence. Its really an exploration of an ethos that we as a culture and the greater society live by. In examining how we as a society define power, we typically define it as dominion over someone or over something. Its in our relationship to the earth. Its in our foreign policy. Its in our sportsmanship. Its in our pop culture and music. Peters mission was to breakdown why that philosophy exists. When the catalyst of his sons sexual orientation is revealed to him, Che is forced to go on an inward journey that will hopefully lead him to a place of spiritual awakening.
How do you define power?
Its right in line with what the themes in the film are. The greatest form of power is transformational power, which really means spiritual transformation.
You have a 4-year-old son, Mateo. If he comes to you in the future and says, Dad, Im gay. How would you respond?
My position has always been this: As long as my children are being good to themselves and good to others, I will support them in anything they do.
Is it hard for those in the Latino community to come out?
Often times when you talk to queers of color and especially young queers of color or kids who are questioning, its very easy to see that its often times doubly hard to come out. Not only do they suffer being ostracized from their immediate family, but also their culture, which is really your identity. When they try to find solace in the greater gay community, which for the most part is a white community, they often encounter subtle or not so subtle forms of racism within that community. So, they tend to flow in kind of no mans land, which leads to statistically higher rates of risky behavior. What that says to me is that its a very hard road, and I dont ever want my children to suffer. Im not equating being gay to suffering, but I always want my children to be supported. Thats all that matters to me and my wife.
Speaking of your wife, who plays Ana in La Mission, you two have been married eight years. What is the key to your marriage?
We have a profound respect and love for one and other. I was surprised to find someone with an old-fashioned perspective. Why it works so well is our priorities are perfectly aligned. For us, work at the end of the day is not the thing that means the most. What means the most to us is having peace and harmony within our home. We focus on our children and our extended family members.
Is it true you first met her 20 years ago at an audition?
Yeah, it was about 1991.
When you first saw her, what did you think?
If you couldve been in that room -- shes otherworldly, man. First of all, she was at the height of her modeling career. She walked into the room, and I had never seen anyone or anything so beautiful. What I discovered decades later in getting to know her through working on a film called Piero together, whatever obvious exterior beauty that existed, there was a much greater beauty in the form of her heart and soul. It was kind of a first for me to get involved with someone who was a friend first. I got to see how she operated with other people. I got to know her before we activated on the physical draw.
An African-American friend of your brother told him that a lot of African-Americans dont like to refer to gay rights as a civil rights issue because that means something very specific to them. They see it as an equal rights issue. Where do you stand?
The semantics -- I think when the argument is a more complex animal, people like to play word games and cloud what the ultimate issue is. For me the ultimate issue is we are all the same. We are all created equally under the eyes of God. Its the letter of the law that says we have the same rights. If you really focus on that fact, it really provides the answer to all the semantic bullshit that gets played out. Its like all the talking heads on both sides of the issue are overlooking the obvious point. If we are a Christian society and if we are a society that follows the letter of the law, its spelled out clearly for everyone to see.
What is the letter of the law?
We are all the same.
To learn more about La Mission and where its playing, visit the film's official website.