A description of the acting prowess and social relevance of ahmad Kaabour, a Lebanese songwriter with virtually no profile in the English-speaking world, might seem a little out of place at the opening of an article about a Venezuelan movie star on the cusp of international superstardom. I assure you that it’s not. “He’s very powerful,” the actor in question, Edgar Ramirez, states. “He’s one of the most powerful actors I’ve ever encountered in my life. He’s one of the most respected singer-songwriters in the Middle East: very involved with anti-imperialist struggles, like a Middle Eastern Bob Dylan or Cat Stevens, that kind of songwriter, like Atahualpa Yupanqui in Argentina. And this was one of the first times that he’d ever performed. He has an element that really intimidated me and made me feel like I was talking to my superior.”
Allowing this quote to unfurl is simply the most accurate way I can convey to you what it’s like to have a conversation with Edgar Ramirez: things constantly move from the specific—the above began with my asking about the process of learning Arabic phonetically (Ramirez was already fluent in Spanish, German, English, French, and Italian—the product of a youth spent travelling the world as the son of a military attaché)—to the constellation of people, events, and ideologies that lie beneath every thought. And the reason it’s important for me to convey to you what it’s like to talk to Edgar Ramirez isn’t because I want you to be properly appreciative of what a cultured and thoughtful and just genuinely impressive human being he is, no, it’s because an understanding of how his mind works is essential to understanding how Edgar Ramirez was able to turn his performance as Carlos (née Ilich Ramírez Sánchez), the most famous terrorist of the pre-9/11 world, into one of the great acts of humanist art in the 21st Century.
“I’m attracted to complex characters,” he says, “regardless of how much screen time they have.” The chances that you could find a working actor today who would say otherwise regarding the type of roles they would ideally be playing are slim to none, but for Ramirez this seems less like empty artistic posturing and more like the reality of how perfectly aligned his worldview is with his approach to art. A look at the four features for which Ramirez is best known in the U.S.—Domino, The Bourne Ultimatum, Che and Carlos—confirms his penchant for not just complex characters, but ones who are situated in morally and politically serious situations. “What could tie all those movies together could be politics, or a political view,” Ramirez says, before correcting himself, “or maybe more of a political take, rather than a point of view. A political awareness, or the story happens within a political context.” This distinction is crucial: speaking with Ramirez, it’s obvious that he does not think in left-right binaries, his concern is not the self-serving rhetoric of contemporary American partisan politics, but a rigorous approach to understanding how and why people function as individuals within larger systems.
It’s this conceptual commitment to working through the intricacies of a man’s actions that makes Ramirez’ portrayal of Carlos such a thing to behold. Though he famously lost and gained a small child’s worth of weight to slim down for Carlos’ youth and bulk up for his middle-age, Ramirez’ performance isn’t the sort of acting school mimesis that has become de rigueur in biopics these days. Though he spent countless hours working with a speech coach on his Arabic, he never expresses it as in the interest of being like Carlos, but rather because the terrorist used his ability to speak articulately to work his way into various terrorist dealings, and Ramirez found it important to “make it believable for every Arabic person in the world to understand what I’m saying”—it is the personal connections that must be facilitated.
In speaking with Ramirez, it’s clear that in director Olivier Assayas he’s found something of a kindred spirit, a sharp thinker who views the world through the same critical moral-political-cultural lens, one which allows him to link the shift in tone from the intro to the verse of New Order’s “Dreams Never End” to the same transference in Carlos’ mental state, starting with a storefront bombing and leading to his reveling nude in his apartment in the aftermath. “Olivier is pure zeitgeist,” says Ramirez. “He’s the reason why I made this movie. In the wrong hands, the story of Carlos could’ve been just a disaster: a black and white, small and tall, good and evil kind of movie, either they’re terrorists or they’re revolutionaries, either the angel or the devil. And with Olivier, even though I didn’t know if we would have the success that we’ve ended up having, I knew we would be doing something interesting.” This combined commitment to allowing a character to be truly, humanly ugly and stupid and selfish without ever passing judgment has resulted in some of the greatest characters in the history of cinema—Michel Simon in La chienne, John Wayne in The Searchers, almost every notable film noir protagonist—and Assayas and Ramirez don’t just avoid passing judgment on Carlos, they give him all of their love. “After the scene where he’s with his whole family and gets rejected from Libya, I went to my trailer and I cried for hours. That fucked me up. I reached something internally; it was a horrible place. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a terrorist or a corrupt banker or the most righteous guy who does everything well, it doesn’t matter where you stand in the moral range, all of these people have families, and all of these people have affection in their life.”
It shouldn’t come as any surprise then that for Ramirez the most difficult aspect of portraying Carlos was coming to terms with “the idea that certain lives are worth more than others.” The positive friction between the man and his art lies precisely in his willingness to embrace with thought and care those who stand for everything that he doesn’t.