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Oscar Nominee Demián Bichir Takes Flight in The Runway

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Fresh from his Oscar-nominated performance in 2011’s A Better Life, the charming Demián Bichir talks about working with director Ian Power, filming in West Cork, and checking things off his professional bucket list. Now on VOD, The Runway is a family summer treat.

By Karen Kemmerle

The Runway

Photo courtesy Tribeca Film

Searching for the perfect summer family movie? Look no further than The Runway. This charming Irish comedy from first-time director Ian Power is based on the true story of a South American pilot who crash-landed in a small town in Ireland in the 1980s. Demián Bichir stars as Ernesto, the unlucky pilot who finds himself stranded in West Cork with precious cargo in hand.

Unable to speak any English, Ernesto is at the mercy of Paco (TFF 2012 Whole Lotta Sole’s Jamie Kierans), a precious 9-year-old boy whose overactive imagination and minimal knowledge of Spanish allow him to view Ernesto as a hero. Eager to help the marooned pilot after hearing Paco’s inflated account of the mystery man, the eccentric townspeople come together to help Ernesto rebuild his plane. When Ernesto’s story receives worldwide attention and accusers from his checkered past descend on West Cork, Paco and the villagers must defend their newfound friend.

Before starting work on Robert Rodriguez’s Machete Kills, the busy Bichir took the time to chat with Tribeca about The Runway, acting alongside his brother, and taking advice from Sir Laurence Olivier.

The Runway is, in my opinion, a perfect summer movie. How did Ian Power first approach you about your role in the film?

I couldn’t agree more with you. It’s a beautiful family film. I was lucky enough to read Ian Power’s script a few years back. I was so moved that I remember writing a letter to my agent saying how beautiful the script was and how much I loved it. After my agent read the letter, he asked me if he could send it to Ian himself, and I, of course, gave him permission. After Ian read the letter, he basically said the part was mine if I wanted it.

This was Ian Power’s feature-length directorial debut. What was it like working with this young director? Did you develop a rapport?

I’ve worked with a lot of first-time directors, which I always think is very exciting. Sometimes, you make up your mind right after you meet a person. I remember meeting Ian Power when I was presenting Che and I loved the guy. We had great communication from day one and it lasted all through the shooting process. We both badly wanted the film to work, and we put everything we had into it.

So much of the movie depends on Jamie Kierans, the little boy who played Paco in his film debut. How did you approach your scenes with your young co-star?

It’s always hard to perform with children, because film acting requires a lot of concentration and is psychically demanding. You almost need to be an athlete to get a film done. You can imagine how difficult that is for a kid? It’s really, really tough, but it can be done with a great director like Ian Power who knows how to work with kids. He brought Jamie into a safe zone every day and made filming really easy. He also encouraged the rest of the cast, myself included, to take care of him. The wonderful Kerry Condon, who plays his mother in the film, was very close to Jamie, and we were all there to make sure he was having a great time and a good experience.

Demián Bichir and Kerry Condon in The Runway

Photo courtesy Tribeca Film

In this film, you also had the opportunity to act alongside your brother, Bruno Bichir, who actually plays your brother in the movie!

I can honestly tell you that making The Runway is one of the happiest moments of my life. Bruno’s not only my brother, but also one of the best actors I know. He was a big part of what made the film so beautiful for me. I remember when Ian called me about the police inspector role he had written. He told me that we needed to make these two characters closer together, so instead of just being a cop, he was going to be his brother. Lucky for us, I have two brothers -- who are both fantastic actor -- that I could recommend. So he saw Bruno’s reel and we put “the ask” out to him. It’s a small role, but vital to the story. We talked about it and he said yes.

It sounds like The Runway was really fun to make.

Yes! [laughs] I’m also friends with the great John Hurt and his wife. They were on vacation in Ireland while we were filming, and I told them to visit West Cork. The production had rented Bruno and me a house, so John and his wife stayed with us for three days, which was just incredible.

Your character is a pilot in the film, so you had the opportunity to shoot scenes in the cockpit. Were there technical challenges that you faced in shooting those sequences? How cool was that process?

 It was like a dream come true. I wanted to be a pilot when I was kid [laughs]. As soon as I jumped into the cockpit, it was like my fantasies had come true because the set was so well made. The technical difficulties were that you had to pretend the aircraft was moving, but that’s part of the fun. You do that when you’re a kid. Like Laurence Olivier used to say, “You have to observe the way kids play, because they play serious games and they believe every part of it.” That’s exactly what happens when you step into these types of situations as an actor.

One of my favorite parts of the film is when the townspeople go to the IRA to try and obtain aviation fuel. The only way they can motivate the IRA to cooperate is by passing you off as one of Che Guevera’s relatives. Did the actors indulge in much improv in this scene or was the dialogue mostly from the page?

[laughs] You know, when I read that part in the script, I had to laugh to myself at the thought that Che had entered my career once again. It was crazy. It’s a great scene as scripted, so we followed the page. At that point in the film, the concept actually makes a lot of sense, and the scene came out pretty good.

Have you had a chance to see the film with an audience yet?

I had a chance to see it in front of 800 kids at the Rome Film Festival with Ian. We just couldn’t believe the reaction. It was amazing. We had a Q&A with the kids afterwards and it was fantastic; they all got to ask questions.

Questions like...

“Are you a real pilot?” [laughs] That day I was. 

Demián Bichir in The Runway

Photo courtesy Tribeca Film

As families watch The Runway together, what do you hope they take away from the film?

I'd like them to walk away feeling good! [laughs] Feeling hopeful and grateful to have friends and be loved. I want them to carry Ian Power's beautiful film away with them.

Speaking of Ian Power, in the past few years, you have worked with Steven Soderbergh, Oliver Stone, and the incredibly underrated Chris Weitz. Can you talk about your experiences working with these well-known American directors? In what ways were they different and similar?

You know, names on my bucket list keep getting checked off. I’m just hoping for the rest of the guys on my list to give me a call [laughs]. I’ve been just too lucky. Without a doubt, one of the greatest directors I have ever encountered is Chris Weitz. My point here is that you dream of working with these guys and playing a substantial character in their films, and when opportunities like that come along, you must take advantage of the whole experience. I worked every day, all day with Chris Weitz in A Better Life, and that made the whole journey so much more intense and beautiful.

What about Steven Soderbergh in Che?

I had a smaller part in that film, but I had a chance to become familiar with Steven Soderbergh’s work and benefit from his experience. Still, I want to make another movie with him, because I enjoyed the intense shooting process. He moves really fast and he’s the strictest director I have ever worked with. He does not need to say a word—he has everyone’s attention at all times. Also, whenever actors like an experience, they want more. I certainly want to do it again.

Your leading role in A Better Life garnered you an Oscar nomination. How has your life been changed by that honor? What factors will go into your decision about your next project?

Some things never change. Ever since I can remember, I’ve said no to so many projects because they don’t have what I need or what I’m looking for. Sometimes you don’t find the right script, sometimes the character is not right, sometimes the director is not right, sometimes the cast is not amazing. I love football [soccer], but I want to play with great players when I play. Sometimes you just have to say no to a project because all the other variables just aren’t in place. I’ve always been like that.

We all get offers we have to say no to, but when you get offers from directors like Robert Rodriguez and William Friedkin, you say yes. I’ll be working with those guys this year. That’s beautiful, and these opportunities are coming because of projects like A Better Life. The funny thing about Savages, though, is that I got a call from Oliver even before A Better Life was released, because he had seen work I had done in the past. That was a huge honor and gave me an amazing feeling. Hopefully, the calls from these wonderful directors that I have always dreamed of working with keep coming in.

It’s really exciting that you are going to be in Machete Kills. I don’t know if you can talk about the movie, but can you at least describe the character you are playing?

It’s pretty great. All I know is what’s on the IMDB -- I’m playing Mendez the Madman. Robert Rodriquez is putting the final touches on the character as we speak. I’m really looking forward to seeing the script. I can tell you right now that it’s going to be crazy ride with Robert and the great Danny Trejo. I can’t wait to for this amazing project to start.

The Runway is available on nationwide VOD, iTunes, Amazon, and VUDU starting July 18. If you're in Phoenix, the family film opens July 20 at the Shea 14

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