“No politics.” This was the sole and unobjectionable condition that the actor specified about the interview. To reinforce this ground rule, Miravalles fixed his interviewer with an impressive stare, then broke the ice with a typical baseball phrase: “Put ’em over the plate, and I’ll swing at what looks good to me.” Tall, casual and jovial, Miravalles received his interviewer with a Hemingway-esque attitude, bare feet on the floor. Then they settled down to what the Cubans call una conversación “a piernas sueltas”—a candid, “loose-leg” conversation. (Readers unfamiliar with Miravalles and his way with an audience will want to visit the Cuban Art News Facebook page for a video clip of a standup routine he did back in the 1980s.)
Many people think that your last foray into Cuban cinema before leaving the country was Alicia en el pueblo de Maravillas (1991). But this film was followed by Mascaró (1992) and Quiéreme y verás (1993). How do you feel about returning to film here after 19 years?
I haven’t done any films in Cuba in 19 years because I don’t live in Cuba. I love Cuba, but I live in another country. Because I need to have another way of living.
This film has an outstanding story, I think—extraordinary. And I have accepted the story—the ar-gu-men-to [with emphasis]. When I say the story, I mean everything—get it? It’s a pleasure for me and a pleasure for those working here. When I meet my friends it´s as if I’d seen them yesterday or the day before, because I have never had any conflicts with anyone. Never!
I have a certain credibility here in Cuba, and seeing as I have that, if I had lived in this country—my country—and hadn´t been living abroad in a country that is not mine (which I was allowed to do for family reasons), I would have made many more films. Now that there’s an opportunity to do so, I’ve been invited to make a movie. And I take satisfaction in making it, because it is a very good movie, the story is well written, the actors are all good, and the film will be a credit to Cuban cinema.
You took a leading role in several important works of the Cuban revolutionary cinema, such as Historias de la Revolución (1960), El joven rebelde (1961), Las 12 sillas (1962), El hombre de Maisinicú (1973), Los sobrevivientes (1978)… How did you approach your characters in these films?
You build those characters, whose lives are already written: a guy with his own characteristics and experiences. The author provides me this, and I turn it into a real person. Little by little I realize that maybe this guy behaves in a way I personally don´t. But I know him, I’ve seen him, so I take on these traits, like putting on a coat. That´s how you do it in film.
You haven’t appeared in many films lately.
If you do not live in your country, it´s difficult to be cast. But for this film, there were not many actors of the necessary age. Old people in movies are just there to open the door and say, “the owner is not at home,” and close the door. Stories about older people don’t really exist. I’m not just talking about me—I´m very old, almost a century old. But many famous American actors don’t appear in films now. They finance the film productions but their faces don´t appear on screen. (laughs) Also, if I’m offered a film with a story that I think isn’t very good, I don´t do it. Here, I’ve been offered many films—I won´t specify. But if I’m not interested in a film I don´t do it, because it would cost me in prestige.
So Chijona found an actor as old as the character of this film has to be, and he invited me to come to Cuba. The first thing I said was: you have to give me the script to see if I like it. It´s not a matter of economics but the script. They gave me two drafts that were too broad for my taste, and I said no. Then they brought another version that I thought would work, and I agreed to come do it. Before this, I’d come several times to see my family, and I’ve never had the slightest trouble.
Tell us about the amusing things that have happened during your visits to Havana.
Okay, I’ll tell you one thing that was unusual. Rolando Díaz is making a long documentary in which I talk about the work I’ve done. He gave my family five tickets to the Karl Marx Theater to see the fabulous show Amigas by Lizt Alfonso. After the show he told me, “Sit there a while, we’ll wait for some of the people to leave.” When they began leaving he started to take pictures of me. At first people didn’t know who was being photographed, but they finally recognized me. And they began to make a big fuss, very emotional. People grabbed their children and pushed them to embrace me. There was a fat lady who saw me and said, “Miravalles, you are alive! Ha-ha-ha!” And I said, “Why wouldn’t I be alive? Ha-ha-ha!” I started to leave the theater and there were lots of people shouting, waving, and shaking my hand, with a lot of joy in seeing me.
I was born in El Callejón del Chorro, in Cathedral Square. I lived there until I was three or four. I went back there, to let people know that I’d been born there. More than 60 people came up to talk to me, make jokes with me—and I made jokes back. This country is in me. I’m a happy man because people here recognize my work. This has happened several times. They applaud me warmly. Every time I come here I’m happy. It’s my homeland. Wherever I live, this is my homeland.
At 89 years of age, playing this leading role in Esther must have been a challenge for you.
The fellow who wrote the script is very clever. Molina (the counterpart of Miravalles’ role) is a young man. When I was younger I picked up a Bible and memorized 15 pages. Now it takes me more work than that to memorize one page. So my dialogue in this film is not lengthy speeches. Otherwise I couldn’t have done it, because my head for that isn’t so good these days. This is a conversational dialogue, so it´s much easier to learn. But challenges? I have no challenges. What I have to see is that the script is well written, the story is interesting, that the director and cinematographer are good, to work with brilliant actresses and actors. Once all that is in place, I do my job.
Prestigious figures in the Cuban film scene who round out the cast of Esther have said they were pleased to share credit with you on this film.
That’s right. They’re all my friends. I felt the same affection when I lived here. I have no difficulties with anyone.
During the shooting, Chijona said many times that working with you made him feel as if he was working with his father, who was also very long-lived. Did you feel this?
Sure. I’m the right age to be his dad. But when I’m working, I don’t think about our ages, neither mine nor his. (laughs) My only concern is the character´s age, right? Chijona is a clever person. He’s also very kind. He knows what he wants, and what he wants is right. So I followed his lead.
What are you hoping for from Esther en alguna parte?
I hope the movie is successful. But it’s up to the public to say so. That is, if the public doesn’t think so… we’ll take it emotionally. “¡Coño, nos salió mal este pastel!” (“Damn, this cake went wrong [in the baking]!”) Of course, the film has an interesting plot. But audiences don´t go to see interesting plots. They go to see a movie that’s entertaining, and maybe they’ll say, “What the hell are these two old men doing here?” (laughs) And they may be right. So we’ll succeed or not. But it’s a movie with good values. Let’s see how it goes.
Playing a lead in a film at your age—could this be a Guinness record?
Sure, it´s a Guinness record. I didn´t check it out, but I don’t know any other 89-year-old actor playing a leading role in a film.
Will Reynaldo Miravalles continue acting?
It is not easy. Cinema, as I mentioned, is not for old people. And if there is an older character, he’s there for just a bit. Stories in almost every film are written for young people, not for the old. I think an opportunity like this one is not common. After all, I’m going to be ninety.
Many artists are remembered for work that they themselves don´t consider their best. In your case, it’s clear that the characters you’re remembered for most are the peasant Melesio—very popular in Cuban television—and Cheito León in El hombre de Maisinicú. Do you agree with that? When it comes to your work, does the public’s taste match yours?
All the characters I’v played are my children. And I love them all, no matter where I am. The public chooses the characters and stories. There are others that are also good, and are welcome. Not everything has to be highly successful. I think these are good roles, and others as well—for instance, my character in Las 12 sillas. Each has its importance, its value, but there are some that are more popular. In Miami, I’ll be in my car or walking around and people will shout: “Melesio!” Every day! There are many Cubans in Miami who’ve seen that TV show.
How does it feel to know that many Cubans living in Cuba and abroad consider you one of the greatest Cuban actors of all time?
I don’t think I’m better than anyone. Maybe I’ve been luckier than some. I was able to take part in films directed by excellent and knowledgeable directors, and there are others who couldn´t. But there are other actors who have the same strengths I do.
Tell us about the family you have in Cuba, which also functions as a kind of office for you here.
They love me as part of the family. People here are quiet, calm. My two daughters are here, my grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I have a big family. In the U.S. I have a son and a granddaughter. And many grandchildren here. (laughs)
What can you tell us about Nena, a person with a close eye on you, who has been very kind to us during this interview, even though she’s not entirely in good health?
Nena is my wife. We’ve been married 50 years. We get along well. We have our conflicts, but we’re husband and wife. And friends. She is absolutely essential in my life.
Besides acting, what other things you enjoy doing?
When I don´t have work as an actor, I enjoy making little handmade tonterías. I´ve made necklaces. I made that lamp over there. Many things like that. I do them for pleasure. For a while I made necklaces like crazy. What a quantity of them! I won’t give you one because you won´t wear it. They’re for women, right? (laughs)
Your relationship with art didn´t begin with acting, but with painting. Why didn’t you continue with it?
Because I couldn´t. I was young and I loved to draw. When I was 17 I enrolled in the school of painting, on Reina and Gervasio Streets, and studied there at night for two years. But for the next two years, the school was located on Dragones Street and the course was taught during the day. And during the day I had to sell the little things that I’d made, in order to survive and help my mom. So I couldn’t continue my studies. I got together a little money, about a hundred pesos, with a partner, and between us we bought a tiny café with nothing in it, back in San Rafael street. We began by selling milk, little by little.
After a year there, I met a guy who did radio in Cadena Azul, but only two or three lines here and there, and he earned very little. I gave him free café con leche, because he had no money. One day I asked him about his job and said, “I am an artist!” I said, “Damn, that´s nice!!! You know, I like that.” I liked everything related to art. Then another guy formed a radio group and he said, “Do you wanna join us?” I said, “You bet!” They gave me a paper, with a few lines for me, and I made three programs that were broadcast. They didn’t last long, but I’d made three programs. And I said, “Damn, I wanted to be an actor, chico!”
There was a famous radio actress, Enriqueta Sierra, who gave classes. Not to many people, but she accepted me and this one girl. But after 20 or 25 days, she got sick and told us she could no longer give classes. I was very sad but she sent me to another lady who had a group of radio actors. I started working there in Cadena Azul, down in the Prado. I was paid nothing. Nothing, nothing! I did two shows every day. I continued learning. I still had to sell coffee. I lived on the Prado in a small apartment that cost three pesos. I ran out of money. I ran out of everything! I did not work at all! I started going to the station to sit there from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., just to learn. Every day—to learn from people. And so I did, little by little, bit by bit, until I developed as an actor.
My desire to learn never diminished, which is the most important thing. If you want to be a professional you must try hard until you get there. I started from zero, until I achieved some recognition. My advice to young people, those who want to get somewhere, is: don’t be too proud, don´t try to be more intellectual than anyone. Maybe at first you won’t make much money, but you’ll gradually improve. I got there. And as long as I continue … I read scripts, I do the project if I want, and if not I give it back. At first I accepted everything. Everything, everything. But I learned. Now, I think first.
I’ll ask the usual last question: How would you like to be remembered?
As people want to remember me. Let them say what they think. More than that, no. After I die, the wave is over! (laughs)