Posted on September 7, 2016 by Marlena Fitzpatrick
Aris Mejías Braves the Storm in THE VESSEL
photo by Luis Vidal
While the Zika virus supposedly massacres Puerto Rico’s population, and the massive debt apparently threatens a pseudo-political coup, a wonderful drama was filmed starring Martin Sheen and Elia Enid Cadilla: The Vessel. First-time writer-director Julio Quintana tells the story of a small Latin American village grappling with the devastating effects of a tsunami that destroyed a local school a decade before. Sheen plays a priest, Father Douglas, who alongside three other main characters (Leo, Soraya, Fidelia), helps the town overcome its harsh reality and change the path of self extinction.
The drama stars Puerto Rican actress Aris Mejías, who plays Soraya. This mysterious and reclusive widow embarks on an emotional awakening with Leo that serves as a catalyst for the town’s redemption. Mejías —considered one of Puerto Rico’s foremost performance artists— began her career as an actress in national and international film productions such as Cayo, The Caller and Che.
In light of this wonderful somewhat religious piece, I outreached to la comadre Aris, and talk about her work on this fascinating film.
Marlena Fitzpatrick: Must ask first, how was the casting process?
Aris Mejías: The casting process was unreal, the kind of thing you only see in movies. I was initially hired for a supporting role of an incredibly beautiful and poetic character named Mariela. This character had lost any desire to have children until she had a particular dream about a tsunami, which she narrates to the town priest. That dream marks a moment when she realizes she does want to conceive. It was a beautiful but painful text. I felt a deep connection to this character, as I have been dreaming of tsunamis since I was growing up in Puerto Rico. I could not believe that someone unknown to me could dream up a scenario so similar to my personal dreams. It was as if someone had read my diaries, and I somehow knew that I was meant to be in this movie. I know it sounds a bit out there, but I just knew it.
I didn’t hear from the production for a while after the audition and assumed someone else had gotten the part. Suddenly, I was called back for a reading. I had no idea I was being offered one of the leads until much later during the reading. I was speechless when they told me I was to play the character of Soraya. I remember I started crying when they told me. And then, the casting director said, “Martin is looking forward to meeting you,” and I said, “Wait, Martin who?” I got an even bigger shock when they told me that Martin Sheen was a co-star and an even bigger surprise when they said that Terrence Malick was the executive producer. I don’t even remember how I was able to walk out of the room. I couldn’t feel my knees. It was such an honor.
MF: Now what I find interesting is that the film was shot simultaneously as two different films: one in Spanish and one in English. Which version did you find more challenging?
AM: You know, what is interesting is that while I am definitely a Spanish speaker, I found such great inspiration playing around with both languages. On the one hand, Spanish is the language I first fell in love with, played, cried and felt all of life’s initial experiences in. I began acting in Spanish, so it always feels the most comfortable to me.
Nonetheless, English has been a big part of my upbringing and I feel confident about it. I’ve always been an avid reader in both languages, so I loved going from one to the other. Having the ability to play with the text in both languages allowed me to access a much wider range of emotions. I’d like to think it added depth and texture to the role.
That said, I do have an accent, but I have found that American audiences are opening up to a wider range of accents. When you work in other markets, like in Europe, Asia or South America, having a variety of accents on screen is quite normal. The U.S. is slowly catching up. This movie is part of that change. Studios will realize that bilingual actors provide more flexibility and bring valuable production tools to the table.
MF: Is the cast and crew mostly Latino?
AM: The cast is pretty much Latino! We shot in Puerto Rico and the majority of the actors are Puerto Rican. The writer and director is Cuban American, as is the main actor, the producer Marla Quintana is Colombian, Marin Sheen is of Latin descent. It felt incredibly exciting to be part of such an inclusive project, of a project that nourished Latino talent in such a big way.
MF: Now, even though the film was shot in Puerto Rico, it tells the story of a Latin American village. Which country?
AM: The script is written to evoke a Latin American village, not necessarily pinpoint a geographical town or country. In that sense, the film has that element of magical realism, reminiscent of Gabriel García Marquez, where the action takes place in a very precise and particular place that at the same time could very well be any place.
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