You may recognize Rodrigo Santoro from his roles in movies like Love Actually, 300, What To Expect When You’re Expecting, and Che, among others. The Brazilian-born international talent has a range of films under his belt, from comedy to drama, action to foreign. His latest subtitled flick has the 37-year-old actor playing the part of Heleno de Freitas, a 1940s-era soccer superstar hailing from the same place, albeit during a very different time.
Heleno, which opens today in New York, Los Angeles, and Miami, is a black-and-white biopic about the thrilling yet tragic life of de Freitas. de Freitas, as portrayed in the movie, was a man of great passion—for both beautiful women and, of course, his sport—who died at the age of 39 from syphilis, which he refused to treat. de Freitas, the story goes, dubbed medicine as making men weak, so he gradually and then exponentially declined, retiring to a sanatorium far from the sandy beaches, nightclubs, and stadiums of his glory days. His self-destructive behavior—defined by an addiction to ether, estrangement from his wife and child, and a hot temper with his team—cemented de Freitas as a living myth of sorts. Perhaps this is how he earned the nickname Prince Cursed.
Santoro, on the other hand, couldn’t be farther from de Freitas when it comes to fame, fortune, and disposition. The opposite of cursed, he’s accomplished a lot and has much more to look forward to. In Heleno, we witness Santoro take command of the character in an award-caliber performance, one that is raw, yet respectful of its subject.
For the feature, Santoro dropped nearly thirty pounds in order to appear as sickly ill as de Freitas actually was when at his worst. This among other things the sunny Santoro opened up about earlier this week when I sat down with him at the Tribeca Grand Hotel, where he was cheerily upbeat and far from withering away. Read on for more, from drastic dieting to head-to-toe hair removal to why he worships the female sex even more than before.
What initially drew you to this film?
I got involved with the director [José Henrique Fonseca] at the very beginning. We just started to talk about the story, the character, the script. That’s the reason I became a producer on the film.
And how did you prepare for the role?
When we finally got financing, we hired a professional soccer player. He’s [currently] coaching [but] used to be an amazing player in the ’80s and ’90s. I always played soccer. Being Brazilian, you gotta do it. But always for fun with my friends. I wanted to go through the routine of a real soccer player. I was looking for somebody that had the same characteristics as Heleno: Heleno was known for head-striking and receiving the ball on his chest, which is something very hard for players to do. It doesn’t matter how fast the ball comes, they have the ability to “kill the ball.” So, we hired this guy. We also did research. We have photographs, a biography, and a lot of interviews. We spent almost a year interviewing people all over Brazil. 90-year-old guys that saw [Heleno] play or knew some story about him; this lady whose neighbor had an affair with him—she used to see [Heleno] come in. All these crazy stories.
And you lost a bunch of weight…
I dropped 28 pounds because we were portraying his last days. We shot the first part of the movie, the glamour and the heights of his career, and then we broke for two months. I dropped the weight, I came back, and we shot the last part.
How’d you do it? Just starve yourself?
You do starve. The diet is very strict. I do not recommend it. I had two doctors. This is the third time I went on a strict diet. This is the most extreme I’ve been on. I was eating very, very little. Just sufficient to work, because you gotta work. I felt weaker, more fragile, but my mind was clear. It was incredible. It was intense, though. It wasn’t fun.
Besides calorie restriction, what did you do?
A lot of cardio. And just discipline. That is the key. You teach your body and your body adapt[s] to that reality.
Did Heleno really eat paper?
Not paper, newspaper. From our interviews, that’s what they told us. He wanted to chew stuff. Mainly paper. That was his thing.
Is it more challenging to take on the role of someone who actually existed?
I wouldn’t say more challenging. The challenge is different. We decided to do this film because he’s such an important character in Brazilian soccer history. You have to respect that there’s an image. You cannot try to imitate that person. There’s a lot of little risks and it’s tricky. But also, you have a lot of information. If you’re playing a character that did not exist, you’re totally free to create, but there’s no reference. It’s just different.
After the entire endeavor, did you come away liking or disliking Heleno? The film itself doesn’t make him terribly likeable…
As an artist, you cannot judge the character. You have to be able to suspend judgment. I wouldn’t say I like or I dislike. I just tried to portray his humanity.
What do you think you’d be doing if not this?
I think I would be traveling the world, working at Discovery Channel. I love nature. I would do something in the wild, like a journalist or documentar[ian]. Or surfing.
Ha. What was it like working with Arnold Schwarzenegger?
It was great. He was Conan the Barbarian, he was Terminator. I was a teenager at that time. He was an icon. [On set], there was part of me being like, That’s the Terminator and he’s backing me up. He was nice, very accessible, great humor. We had a good time. I saw a cut two weeks ago and I really enjoyed it. It’s fun.
Do you have a favorite film you’ve been in?
It’s hard to choose because I believe it’s like kids. You cannot choose your favorite son. But, I was never so involved with something [as] Heleno.
So, I’m intrigued—and impressed—that you shaved and waxed your body for 300…
It’s the second time I’ve done this. Not the first time, okay? I perfected my techniques. I did not wax, because the first time I tried it—I have a deep respect for women. I already had it before, but now I worship you guys. It is very painful. It is not fun. This time we shaved everything. It was a process. I had to shave my head every day. Arms, legs, everything.
A taste of a lady’s life. Now that you’re done shaving, what are you working on?
Right now I’m working on my holidays.
Makes sense. Say, did you know you have, like, six fake twitter accounts?
Even more! I gotta tell you, I don’t have Twitter, I don’t have Facebook. But, according to my friends, there’s one [Twitter account] that is really good at portraying me.
No kidding. So, what’s your stance on our fine city?
I love New York. It’s a place that every time I’m about to come here, I get excited.
What do you do for fun while you’re here?
I just walk. That’s my favorite thing to do. It’s very simple, very basic, but I love the fact that [this city is so] condensed. It’s perfect in that way. You can do whatever you want. I love the cosmopolitan quality. I love to go to Central Park and get lost there. My favorite thing to do when it’s sunny is sit down in the grass and watch the grass grow. Things are so fast and people are moving all the time, so my favorite thing is to stop and watch it.