How ‘A Better Life’ star Demián Bichir won over Hollywood

Actor Demian Bichir leans against a blue wall.

Demián Bichir, star of Showtime’s “Let the Right One In,” feels fortunate to land big projects whether performing in Spanish or English. He has acted for Quentin Tarantino and Ridley Scott.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Demián Bichir firmly believes that being a good parent means doing whatever it takes to protect your child, setting a good example and never, ever breaking the rules.

The veteran Mexican actor shares that philosophy with Carlos Galindo, the undocumented immigrant he played in 2011’s “A Better Life.” His wrenching portrayal of the hardworking gardener struggling to make life better for himself and his defiant teenage son earned him an Oscar nomination for lead actor while also introducing him to American audiences.

But Bichir also understands that there can be exceptions to the “good parent” code — particularly if your child is a vampire.

That’s the dilemma faced by Bichir’s latest father figure, Mark Kane, in “Let the Right One In,” Showtime’s adaptation of the popular 2008 Swedish film about a frail youth who befriends his mysterious young neighbor, unaware she is a vampire.

Actors portraying father and daughter stand side by side.

In “Let the Right One In,” Demián Bichir portrays a father trying to shield a vampire daughter, played by Madison Taylor Baez, from the horrors of acquiring sustenance.

(James Minchin / Showtime)

In the series, Kane, a former New York chef, returns to Manhattan with his vampire daughter, Eleanor (Madison Taylor Baez). Kane is desperate to find a cure for his child, but in the meantime he must constantly hunt for new victims, kill them, drain their bodies of blood and bring the vital fluid home for Eleanor to consume — all without getting caught. Making that situation more difficult is his neighbor, homicide detective Naomi Cole (Anika Noni Rose) and her bullied son Isaiah Cole (Ian Foreman.)

“In ‘A Better Life,’ there’s a line I will never cross. Everything I do and say is being watched by my kid, so I better do the right thing,” said Bichir, who is also a producer of the series, premiering Oct. 7. “But ‘Let the Right One In’ shows the ultimate line-crossing that any parent would do for his kid. You have to kill in order to keep them alive. You’re not only protecting them and keeping them safe, but you’re literally feeding them.”

The portraits of the two fathers represent bookends to the last decade or so of Bichir’s impressive career, in which he’s bounced regularly between his home country and the U.S. Although he had long been among Mexico’s most highly regarded actors, “A Better Life” — along with a recurring role on Showtime’s “Weeds” — served as his calling card to Hollywood, landing him in several films including “The Hateful Eight,” “Che,” “The Nun,” “Alien: Covenant,” “The Heat” and “Godzilla vs. Kong,” as well as FX’s “The Bridge.” And his list of credits keeps growing. He just completed work in Italy with Salma Hayek on “Without Blood,” which is written, produced and directed by Angelina Jolie and based on Alessandro Baricco’s novel of the same name.

Demián Bichir in full beard, wearing a fur coat, in "The Hateful Eight."

Bichir in the 2015 Quentin Tarantino film “The Hateful Eight.”

(Andrew Cooper / the Weinstein Co.)

But “Let the Right One In” is new terrain for the actor: a leading role in a buzzworthy genre property from the network behind last year’s fall breakout “Yellowjackets.”

“I’ve been very, very blessed in many different ways,” Bichir said during a recent stop at Showtime’s West Hollywood headquarters. “When I grew up in Mexico doing theater with my family and I wanted to be an actor, I never thought of things happening like this. I never, ever dreamed of such a beautiful life.”

Clad in a black shirt and trousers, the actor was charming, upbeat and down-to-earth. At one point, he requested that everyone gathered in the large space, including publicists, journalists and others, pose for a group photo so that he could mark the occasion.

Sitting down a few minutes later, he referred to what he called his good fortune — working with top directors such as Quentin Tarantino, George Clooney and Ridley Scott and being able to find rewarding work in both Mexico and the U.S.

“I continue to do films and theater in English and Spanish because I can,” Bichir said, adding with a laugh, “Brad Pitt can’t do that. George Clooney can’t do that. Sandra Bullock — you’re beautiful, baby, but you can’t do that!”

Consider the evidence. In 2020, Bichir appeared in Netflix’s sci-fi drama “The Midnight Sky,” which starred and was directed by Clooney. The same year he appeared in the intimate Mexican drama “Danyka: Mar de Fondo,” playing a married writer who engages in a potentially dangerous flirtation with a teenage girl.

His face lit up as he recalled his first encounter with Tarantino. He was attending a party for his “The Bridge” co-star Diane Kruger, who had appeared in Tarantino’s World War II epic “Inglourious Basterds.”

“Diane, who is really good friends with Quentin, invited me over, and Quentin tells me, ‘I’ve just been through a Demián Bichir marathon over the last few weeks watching everything you’ve done. I am finishing a script right now. When it’s finished, can I send it to you?’”

Bichir paused: “It was one of those moments when you think you’re dreaming: ‘This is not happening, right?’ I’ve been through very long auditions and callbacks my entire life, and then Quentin Tarantino tells you, ‘I’ve been watching your work. Can I send you a script?’

“I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ and then I said, ‘If there’s a role for me, can I read for you?’ He said, ‘No, no, no. If you like it, it’s yours.’ That was that.”

A black-and-white image of Demián Bichir

“This show is the best example of how lucky I am,” Bichir says of “Let the Right One In.”

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

The script was “The Hateful Eight.” He later learned that the “Pulp Fiction” filmmaker had been looking for a Mexican actor to play an outlaw named Bob. His friend writer-director Robert Rodriguez had recommended Bichir, calling him “the best Mexican actor you can find.”

Quipped Bichir: “I’ve been sending Robert a bottle of tequila every week since.”

Kruger also lavished praise on Bichir.

“Demián was one of the main reasons I wanted to do the series,” Kruger said about “The Bridge,” which paired the performers as detectives from opposite sides of the U.S.-Mexico border who are forced to work together to catch a serial killer.

“I felt his work, both in Spanish and English, had been very strong,” she said. “We met and just had an instant connection. He’s very proud of his heritage, who he is as a person and an actor, and I feel that really comes through in his work.”

Robin Wright sought out Bichir for her 2021 directorial debut, “Land,” in which she plays a stricken woman who moves to a remote cabin to escape human contact, only to meet near-death from the ravages of nature. Bichir plays a hunter who discovers her and helps her heal, physically and emotionally, even though he is dealing with his own trauma.

“He read the script — never thought he would do it — and said he’d love to meet with me,” Wright said. “He came to my house, and the minute he walked in, I felt like I had met my long-lost brother. We just ran into each other’s arms. I just loved him instantly. The soul of that man is so beautiful.”

She added, “When we were shooting on a mountaintop in Canada, we had a relationship that just felt old-soul. To me, he is the movie. If I did not have him in that part, it would not have been as moving and thoughtful and soulful.”

Working with top Hollywood talent is worlds away from Bichir’s beginnings in Mexico City. He was born into a show business family — his father is a theater director, and his mother and brothers are actors. He was a member of the National Theatre Company for seven years, performing in productions of works by Shakespeare and Eugene O’Neill.

Demián Bichir, right, and José Julián as father and son in the 2011 film "A Better Life."

Demián Bichir, right, and José Julián as father and son in the 2011 film “A Better Life.”

(Merrick Morton / Summit Entertainment)

“A Better Life” was a “game-changer” for his career. But the film was a box office failure when it was first released.

“We thought the 12 million undocumented people living here would go to see it, but the truth is they don’t go to see those films,” he said. “When they go to the movies, they want to escape that reality.” But he said more people have caught up with it in the years since (it’s currently streaming on Peacock), and he has high hopes that the film, and its subject matter, will gain momentum: “That’s the only way this industry will make more movies like this.”

As for “Let the Right One In,” Bichir counts himself a fan of the original — which also spawned a 2010 American film remake, “Let Me In” — and jumped at the chance when he was offered the role on the series.

“This show is the best example of how lucky I am, and for that I will be forever grateful,” he said. “It’s one of the most powerful roles I’ve ever played. It has such power — it’s Hamlet, it’s Richard III, it’s Quixote from Cervantes.”

The drama is also likely to provoke strong reactions — pro and con — not only about the dramatic story, but also about the decision to shift the setting from the icy starkness of Stockholm to the heat of Manhattan, and to explore new themes through the father/daughter lens.

The show’s creator and showrunner, Andrew Hinderaker, described the series as a tale of addiction: “In this case, it’s a creature, a child who is simultaneously not a child, who is addicted to blood. This is about the devastation that addiction brings to everyone around them.”

Hinderaker said the Mark Kane character has to show “the brutal and emotional toll” his mission takes on him and “simultaneously preserve his humanity and his love for his child. He makes us believes that despite all the darkness he’s been living in, he’s been able to protect her and her humanity and, to a degree, some semblance of her childhood.”

He added, “That is extraordinarily difficult to have that range. I honestly can’t imagine any other actor who can pull off those dimensions.”

Bichir called “Let the Right One In” “a love story between a father and a daughter. This will impact anyone who has been a son, daughter, mother or father. It shows how far you will go to keep your kids safe.”

As for the murders that Kane is forced to carry out, Bichir understands his character’s motivation. “The only reason my character decides to kill in order to feed his daughter is that I don’t want her to do it. The only other way she can survive is for her to go out into the night, hunt and get fed. I can’t allow her to do that. I will become a killer and assassin first before my kid needs to do that.”

And even though “Let the Right One In” is grounded in the horror/thriller genre, he feels the subject matter also resonates with the harrowing plight of undocumented immigrants in this country.

“It breaks my heart when I see pictures of my fellow countrymen and their children who are crossing the border and end up dying in the desert,” he said. “Many of those photos are fathers holding their kids who are dead, drowned or exhausted by the heat. But they’re always together and holding each other.”

Bichir plans to keep engaging in projects that are meaningful and rewarding. One of his goals is to write and tell the story of a child who didn’t speak any English but got a career in English as an actor.

“The child grew up in Mexico in the theater and winds up sharing the stage with Brad Pitt and George Clooney, and having the best directors appreciate him and invite him to play with them.”

He flashed a wide smile: “That’s a good story.”

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