Catching Up With Benjamin Bratt
By Dustin Fitzharris
In Benjamin Bratt's 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 & Order's Detective Rey Curtis, perhaps Benjamin's most recognizable role.
The film's 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 haven't 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 you've 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. He's a powerful patriarch who knows how to negotiate life successfully with violence. We've 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 brother's 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 doesn't have a son who is gay. The real-life Che asked your brother, 'Why does the son have to be a fag? Can't he be a drug dealer or something?' In the end he did love the film, but how does he feel about gay people?
I'd love to speak for him, but from what I understand by the way of my brother's 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 Che's persona, he was flattered. Who wouldn't 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?
It's the perfect microcosm to explore the troubling issue that was on his mind, which is violence. It's 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. It's in our relationship to the earth. It's in our foreign policy. It's in our sportsmanship. It's in our pop culture and music. Peter's mission was to breakdown why that philosophy exists. When the catalyst of his son's 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?
It's 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, I'm 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.