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Fresh Air

Interview: Miriam Colon On Her Acting Career And Most Recent Film

Terry Gross, host

September 17, 2003
Copyright ©2003 Fresh Air. All rights reserved.


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest Miriam Colon is probably best known for her role in "Scarface" as Al Pacino's mother. She also co-starred in the John Sayles film "Lone Star" and Billy Bob Thorton's adaptation of "All The Pretty Horses." Earlier in her career she worked with Marlon Brando in two movies, "One-Eyed Jacks" and "The Appaloosa."

Colon grew up in Puerto Rico and moved to New York, where she founded the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre, which she still directs. Her new movie "The Blue Diner" premieres tonight on many public TV stations. It's about two generations in a Puerto Rican-American family. Colon plays a mother who doesn't speak English and can't communicate with her bilingual daughter after the daughter mysteriously loses her ability to speak Spanish.

Now early on in your career you played in a lot of TV Westerns, roles in "Gunsmoke," "The Virginian," "Bonanza," "Have Gun Will Travel," "Bronco." Did Westerns provide a lot of opportunities? Because a lot of them were set near the Mexican border, did you play a lot of Mexicans in the Westerns?

Ms. MIRIAM COLON (Actress): Oh, yes. Oh, yes. When I go to Mexico, I always have to be careful. I always have to have my passport because they think I'm Mexican. And coming back, you see, sometimes you're careless, and you don't carry your passport with you. I mean, a couple of times, I remember, when I was in "Back Roads"--that and I think in one of the John Sayles films that I think I was near a border towns, a couple of times they sort of put their eye on me and said, `You!' I said, `Who?' They say, `You. Could you step aside please?' I knew immediately that they thought I was a Mexican sneaking into the border.

GROSS: Did you have a favorite of the TV Westerns that you performed in?

Ms. COLON: I don't know. I played so many things for so many years that I don't know that I had a favorite. I do know that I would die as an Indian. I think I was Ricardo Montalban's Indian in one of them, and in another I was Ricardo Montalban's secretary, you know. Then I was Ricardo Montalban's mistress.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COLON: Many different roles, yeah.

GROSS: How was your English when you got to New York?

Ms. COLON: It was very difficult. I had a thick accent, much thicker than I have now, and it was a long process to try to eliminate the accent and to be understand. And I spent a lot of money in speech classes. Then you go for the role, and they tell you, `No, no, no, don't sound so sophisticated. She only went to the fifth grade.' So I had to go back to unlearning things that you sort of sharpened in the pronunciation.

GROSS: Have you met Mexicans who've seen your many roles as a Mexican in Westerns and thought that you were Mexican?

Ms. COLON: Yes. Yes. I remember Alendio Fernandez(ph), the legendary Mexican director. And one day he was drunk and he said, `Ah, you're more Mexican than the tequila.' You know, I was so flattered that Alendio Fernandez would say that to me. It was his way and his style of saying that I looked very Mexican. And, I don't know, I am very, very fond of the Mexican culture, and I consider it an honor.

GROSS: Now you were in two movies with Marlon Brando, both Westerns, "The Appaloosa" and "One-Eyed Jacks," which he also directed.

Ms. COLON: Yeah.

GROSS: How did he cast you in "One-Eyed Jacks"?

Ms. COLON: I don't know. I was called and told me that I had an interview for a movie called "One-Eyed Jacks" in which Brando was playing the leading role. And I was very excited. But what I didn't know when I got there was that he was not only acting in it but he was directing in it, so that the person who interviewed me was him. And I was not prepared for that. So it was such a pleasant surprise. It was a nervous surprise, you know, because there he was and very nonchalant. I said, `Hey, listen, is this suppose'--and he said, `No, no, he's directing now. He's directing now.' So I realize that there had been a discussion--I don't know, some disagreement--and he wound up directing the movie. And it was wonderful. He was wonderful with the actors. It's a great joy to work with him.

GROSS: Was there any advice he gave you that stuck with you?

Ms. COLON: Well, there was no script. I mean, the interview, he just more or less threw a few questions at me, and he tried his Spanish on me. And I spoke in Spanish to him. And then he said, `We don't have a script at this moment, but let's do a little improvisation.' He loves improvisation. And I was very much at ease with improvisation. I've, you know, trained in good schools, in the Actors Studio and many other places, and doing improvisations is one of the elementary things that you have to do, improvise. And so he said, you know, `We're going to pretend that we are meeting now, and you don't want to admit that you know me. But I know that I know you.' And we started from there, you know, with kind of a flirt and her obscuring that they had met on an occasion before.

I had no idea what direction we were going to go, but it went into just a simple improvisation of this young girl meeting this man, and I guess it was in a bar. And they were flirting a little bit and sort of not revealing right then and there what they knew about each other. It was very nice, and he gave me the role.

GROSS: Describe your part in the movie.

Ms. COLON: My part is a young bar girl that works in this--I guess it was like a tavern with hotel rooms upstairs, like you see in the Western, and that's what it was.

GROSS: Do you have a favorite scene?

Ms. COLON: Well, I guess I loved the entire--my role in "One-Eyed Jacks" is very small. I just play this bar girl, and he flirts with me at the beginning. Then I have a scene with Karl Malden. But "One-Eyed Jacks," the film itself--and they made so much fun of Brando. They made so much petty discussions. It was so much chitchat going on, laughing and commenting, `How could he be directing?' You know? And then when he went over the budget that--at that time I think it was like $6 million--my God, he had gone over $6 million; it was the talk of the town. I said, `Does that really matter?' What came out was a beautiful, beautiful Western.

GROSS: Why don't we hear your first scene in "One-Eyed Jacks"? And this is the scene with you and Marlon Brando. You play a young woman who works in a saloon with a hotel on top, and he's just coming to town into your saloon.

(Soundbite of "One-Eyed Jacks")

Ms. COLON: (As Red) Chico. Chico, you remember me?

Mr. MARLON BRANDO: (As Chico) Sure do. How you been, Red?

Ms. COLON: (As Red) ...(Unintelligible). How about you?

Mr. BRANDO: (As Chico) I'm all right.

Ms. COLON: (As Red) What are you doing here?

Mr. BRANDO: (As Chico) Just killing time.

Ms. COLON: (As Red) It's five or six years since I've seen you. I hear you got in some bad trouble.

Mr. BRANDO: (As Chico) Mm, little bit.

Ms. COLON: (As Red) Mm. That's bad. Hey, what happened to your friend?

Mr. BRANDO: (As Chico) Well, I don't know. I kind of lost track of him. When's the last time you seen him?

Ms. COLON: (As Red) Well, not since you was here the last time with Jude. You remember when the Rileys(ph) came and killed that guy. My Chihuahua. Maybe he run back over the border.

Mr. BRANDO: (As Chico) Yeah.

GROSS: That's a scene from "One-Eyed Jacks" with Marlon Brando and my guest Miriam Colon. Her new movie, "The Blue Diner," premieres tonight on many public TV stations. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Miriam Colon. She founded the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre company in New York. Her films include "One-Eyed Jacks," "Scarface," "Lone Star" and "All The Pretty Horses." Her new movie, "The Blue Diner," premieres on many public TV stations tonight.

Do you ever turn on the TV and surprise yourself by seeing yourself on TV in an old television or a movie that's being shown?

Ms. COLON: That happened this week. I was...

GROSS: What was it?

Ms. COLON: This was my husband; I had to ask him. He says he was home, and he turned on one channel and there was I in one old, old movie. He turned to another channel, and there was I in the second film that I had done. The same night an hour later he turned another channel, and I was in, you know, an old television show. He says, `You're everywhere.' So I said, `Oh, well, that's good.' Maybe I'm leaving the impression that I'm all over the face of this nation when actually it's just showing old films.

GROSS: You're now starring in "The Blue Diner." What does that role mean to you professionally?

Ms. COLON: It's a good role. It's a woman that is very simple, that is hardworking, that has a sense of honor and dedication. She cares for her daughter, and she's very vigilant about what that daughter is going through, what is she getting involved, you know, like all mothers. In a way this woman reminds me very much of my own mother, whom I lost about three years ago; may she rest in peace.

GROSS: What about this character reminded you of your mother?

Ms. COLON: Because my mother was this hardworking, she and I would fight sometimes. My mother maybe went to the sixth or the seventh grade, but she had a wisdom in herself, a kindness, a humanity that really determined my life. I had such admiration for her, and I was so sorry that she had to work so hard. But such dignity and pride, she was the best image I had. I wish I could be like her.

GROSS: Is it fair to say, though, lately you've been playing mothers who are more conservative and strict than their children, I mean, you know, who are from a culture that is more conservative and strict than the culture their children are growing up in?

Ms. COLON: Yeah. And I just relish--I guess that's why the people loved so much what I did in "Scarface." This was another woman--in fact, I enjoyed...

GROSS: Describe your role in that.

Ms. COLON: Oh, the mother was my mother. The mother in "Scarface" is my mother, so that's another instance in which I just swam into it. It was like a tailor-made dress that was made for me: the mother that also works very hard; that is very stern; that has standards in her house; the fact that she is poor and they may not have an automobile, that they may not have a nice house, that they may live in the outskirts of the city cannot under any circumstances be used to try to put them down or to be disrespectful to the them. And this is what she did to the character played by Pacino. The thing of honor, the stern--well, she's the only one that defied him, told him, `Get the hell out of here,' that didn't wind up with her head cut off. I love characters like that, and I think I can play them very well. And that's also great because I have such sympathy for those women.

GROSS: Do you have a favorite scene from "Scarface" that you're in?

Ms. COLON: The scene with Pacino where I'm watching him coming to introduce himself into our life again. And I know that he's pushing drugs, and I know that we may be poor, but we are not in the drug world. And I know that those suits cannot be bought from working in a factory or something like that. So I think I instinctly know. But what is worse is his insinuating himself into my kitchen, into my house, into the relationship with my daughter, which is all I have left, is very dangerous. And that's why I throw him out. And everything I said would happen happened. He destroyed her.

GROSS: OK. This is Miriam Colon in a scene from "Scarface" with Al Pacino.

(Soundbite of "Scarface")

Ms. COLON: (As Mama Montana) You know, all we hear about in the papers is animals like you and the killings. It's Cubans like you who are giving a bad name to our people, people who come here and work hard and make a name for themselves, people who send their children to school, pay their taxes...

Ms. MARY ELIZABETH: (As Gina) Mama, Mama, please, please, what do you say? That's your son.

Ms. COLON: (As Mama Montana) Son? I wish I had one. He's a bum. He was a bum then, and he's a bum now. Who do you think you are, hm? We haven't heard a word from you in five years ...(unintelligible). You're still going to show up here and throw some money around and think you can get my respect? You think you can buy me with jewelry?

Mr. AL PACINO: (As Tony Montana) Oh, Mama, no.

Ms. COLON: (As Mama Montana) You think you can come into my house with your hotshot clothes and your gay manners and make fun of us?

Mr. PACINO: (As Tony Montana) Mama, you don't know what you're talking about.

Ms. COLON: (As Mama Montana) No, that's not the way I am, Antonio.

Mr. PACINO: (As Tony Montana) OK.

Ms. COLON: (As Mama Montana) That is not the way I raised Gina to be. You are not going to destroy her. I don't need your money. Gutless. I work for my living.

GROSS: That's Miriam Colon in a scene from "Scarface."

Do people recognize you a lot from that role?

Ms. COLON: Oh, yes.

GROSS: "Scarface" is such a cult film now. I mean, it has such a following.

Ms. COLON: Oh, yes. You know what? Youngsters. I've had the weirdest, the weirdest, all true, episodes in the subway platform.

GROSS: Yeah?

Ms. COLON: It's happened not twice, not four times, at least a half a dozen times. They're staring, and I say, `Oh. Oh, my God, they're coming in my direction. What are they here for? Are they going to push me off the platform or something, or are they going to take my ring or something?' And then it turns out that they come close and they say, `Mama Montana?' I say, `Si, I'm Mama Montana.' They say, `Yeah!' They have done this scene for me saying my lines and his lines. They have memorized the entire scene. But I've seen kids that I know they don't have any money, and they told me, `Oh, I own that film.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Miriam Colon, thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. COLON: Well, thank you for inviting me.

GROSS: Miriam Colon stars in the new movie "The Blue Diner." It premieres tonight on many public TV stations. Her other movies include "One-Eyed Jacks," "Scarface," "All The Pretty Horses" and "Lone Star." Here's music from the soundtrack of "Lone Star."

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