Do directors sometimes tell you just to be yourself? I asked Alejo Sauras, Spanish film and TV actor. I was writing about actors portraying themselves onscreen and off and thinking about the burdens of stardom when it occurred to me that I could interview my friend Alejo. Without hesitation, he answered, “No, never! Be yourself, no! Don’t be yourself.” He pointed to the table. “Be this one on the paper!”
Oh! I thought. There goes my central idea. All my interview questions had been built around the ironic notion of actors playing themselves, the meta idea of self-reflective acting. Well, I told myself, carry on with the interview, and later I will find a way to fit the pieces together. Watch me now as I try.
(Alejo at Wiggy-Okie at the House of Fish.)
Have you ever had to play Alejo Sauras on a project, I asked, for example in a cameo? “No.” Okay, but if you had to act as yourself, how would you do it? “I wouldn’t know. I wouldn’t know how to do it. I think I am the person who has seen me the fewest times. Any other person has had the time to watch me more than me, so I definitely wouldn’t know how to do it. Every time I have seen myself on a project, I am pretending to be another person. I’m acting as another person, so that’s not me.”
What about when you appear in public? Do you feel you need to act in a certain way to create and maintain the image of Alejo Sauras? “That’s hard, actually. I don’t like it. Most artists don’t like it.” Why not? “I like acting. I like being myself when I don’t have to behave myself.” In other words, he doesn’t like to appear in public as himself; he prefers to appear in character. Not only that, but it is easier to “be himself” when he does not have to project an image, when he does not have to act in a certain way, to behave himself.
Does your agent ever tell you how to act at public events, such as the Goyas (the academy awards of Spain)? “No, but I think when you have to go to these kind of places, you should do just what you have to do and nothing else.” In other words, for public appearances, Alejo suggests actors keep their statements and actions to a minimum. The less you do and say, the less you expose yourself.
Speaking of actors in general, he admits, “Actually, we are very shy. It’s a kind of shyness. When I am working and I have to say something, all the cast have to laugh. I don’t feel shy because I know they are going to laugh. They are going to laugh at whatever I say, so it doesn’t matter. I don’t feel shy because it is not me; it’s my character.
“But when I am being myself, if I do something bad, they will laugh and they will laugh at me because I am not acting. So, it seems to be a small difference, but it’s a very big difference. If I am walking on a stage, working, and I fall down, I don’t care.” If this happens, his character falls, not Alejo. But if he is appearing in public as himself and the presenter announces, “Alejo Sauras! Hello!” And he crashes onto the stage, there will be no excuse. “No, no!” Alejo insisted, shaking his head. “That’s very bad.”
The characters he plays can make mistakes, but Alejo, the star, cannot. When actors are acting, they can excuse their behavior as the actions of the character, but when playing themselves, they must be more cautious. In other words, it’s far less stressful for actors to play anyone except themselves.
What if the role one is very different from oneself? Alejo’s first major role was as Santi, a young gay man, in Al Salir de Clase. Before Santi, gay characters had appeared on Spanish television, but they were all comic roles. Santi was the first serious gay role. I asked Alejo if it was difficult for him to play a gay man, or if anyone, like his parents, had discouraged him from accepting the role.
He told me he was very proud of Santi and never had any problems with his family, friends or anyone on the street. In fact, he has received many, many letters (enough to fill several shoe boxes) from gay people, especially young gay people, who say that the character of Santi helped them to come to terms with their own homosexuality. Alejo’s fictional role has actually helped many people become themselves in the real world.
“It made me feel really, really proud that I was doing something useful.” In fact, four years after he played Santi, Spain legalized gay marriage. “Sometimes I think that maybe I added my own small grain of sand to make that mountain.” The right to marry in Spain may have come sooner because of Alejo Sauras.
After the interview, I began to wonder, do directors really tell actors to be themselves or had I just made that up? In my roles in underground theater in San Francisco, no one ever told me to be myself. Nevertheless, I got cast recently as a case worker in a short film about a paralyzed veteran from the Iraq war. When I asked about the role, the writer and director, my coworker Mark Knego, told me, “I just want you to be yourself.” Then he added, “With modifications.” Mark usually sees me at work, where I perform the role of a responsible teacher. So, when he told me I was to be myself, he must have meant my public persona. But he doesn’t want me to play the teacher straight up, he wants “modifications.” In other words, he wants me to act.
A humble and generous guy, Alejo showed enthusiasm for my small project, as much enthusiasm as if I had told him I had been cast in a major film. And he laughed when I told him the director wanted me to be myself. Soon after our interview, Alejo was given the same advice. He was discussing his upcoming role in Fenómenos with his agent. Since he hasn’t received much information about the role, he was wondering how he should go about preparing. Ironically, his agent answered, “Alejo! Do as always. Just be yourself!”
Being yourself is never easy, not even for an actor. It takes a lifetime to discover what it means to be yourself. And once you have discovered it, it’s usually time for the curtain call. So, be yourself when you can, but don’t be afraid to play many different roles in your life. Actually, it is easier to be yourself when you are pretending to be someone else. You don’t have the stress of maintaining an image. You don’t have to behave.
(Read the first part of this interview Alejo Sauras on Being Famous in Spain. Read more about actors playing themselves in the post Actors Playing Themselves.)