By Helson Hernandez
HAVANA TIMES, October 28 — We interviewed the Cuban actor of film, theatre and television Manuel Romero, who will be starring in an upcoming film release on the island, one dedicated to the youth of the famous Leonardo Da Vinci. However the artist says he still doesn’t count himself among those who “have to wear hats and dark glasses.”
HT: How many years have you been acting?
MR: I’ve been working forty-one years as an actor.
HT: Tell us about your background.
MR: Actually I was born in a town that’s well known in the eastern province of Holguin, San German, because located there is the Urbano Noris Sugar Mill. In that picturesque place where there are workers, humble people, Christians (who regularly attended the St. German church), as well as some people who were once called wealthy, I spent a small part of my childhood.
I left though at the age of nine because my father — being an excellent sugar refinery administrator — was transferred. With him left me, my mother, my sister and my grandmother on my mother’s side.
We lived in more than 10 mill towns. My grandmother, “Pepa la Comadrona,” about whom I later wrote, was one of the best midwives in the whole country back then. She was recognized as such throughout the St. German area, so they say, and she’ll be remembered because she never lost a baby in childbirth, as far as we know. That was how I grew up.
I studied architectural design and surveying, but I practiced that profession for only a year because immediately, in 1970 to ‘72 more or less, I started my career as an actor.
HT: Later you were able to develop as an actor in Havana. Tell us about that period.
MR: I think I really did develop as an actor in Havana, ever since I started in the 70’s. It has been a tough profession for me, a difficult one. However I’ve continually excelled and surpassed myself; and that aim has been my constant goal.
Look, I come from what they call “the people.” I was a very prominent amateur, talented, but people always claimed that I was very professional. I trained and worked with the best and most prestigious teachers of theater in Cuba, and I owe them a tribute, people like Hubert Llamas, Herminia Sanchez, Manolo Terrace, Albio Paz, Orieta Medina, Betha Martinez, Tito Junco, Jesus Gregorio, Nelson Dor. Parrado Gloria and Carlos Pinero (with whom I learned drama) and many more, while not forgetting to recall those who directed me on TV: Erick Kauf, Manolo Cortez, Miguel Sanabria, Abel Ponce and many others.
My way of studying and interpreting the different characters on stage started to get people’s attention and give me opportunities. Therefore in 1978 I landed my first role in a television series. Though it was just a small part, from this there began to come one after another. I was in more than eleven adventure series, soap operas, police dramas, theatrical roles and children’s stories. I was also in six films that played at the cinema, in addition to being a playwright and an artistic director.
There was a period in which I was able to spend some time shooting at ISA the (Instituto Superior de Arte), learning with Flora Lawten and Herminia Sanchez. That served me well. I had worked extensively as an actor in the theater but still not enough. I had performed with groups like Extramuros, Cubana de Acero, Anaquille, Participacion Popular, Arte Popular, and with Nelson Dor. With the Rita Montaner troupe I acted along with Elena Huerta and Georgina Almanza and with Bertha Martinez in a mixed collective.
HT: You are the founder of a very important movement in the history of Cuban theatre.
MR: Right. From that experience in communities at the beginning, there came the need for further work. Created in 1995 was Los Tres Juglares, with Janet Corso and Alberto Fumero, where we performed books for children and youth, always without stopping my work as an actor in television and film. We would go anywhere, to the municipalities in the capital, schools, places for children’s recreation – wherever.
But in 1996, after a call from the director of the Teatro Mella, Deisy Estable, I was invited to give a theatre workshop (which I was already doing). Through this I founded a group for children, youth and adults. I called it “Los Juglaritos,” which is now the Compañia del Centro de Teatro de La Habana, Consejo Nacional de las Artes Escenicas.
The quality and talent of that first generation of young and adult actors and the success of the workshop were such that I was asked to put on a play. So I started reading and reading to find something appropriate for the students at that time. What I discovered was a small pamphlet on literary workshops written by Raciel Reyes, the director of Teatro Integracion; this was titled “El Geniecillo del Teatro y la Bruja Descontenta” (The Genie of Theatre and the Unhappy Witch). It had different theatrical approaches with the most famous characters of classical stories.
I liked it, so I started writing a longer text based on it that was structured mostly around drama. I titled it “Almacen de Cuentos Famosos” (A Warehouse of Famous Tales). It was great. It premiered in 1998 at the Teatro Mella thanks to the efforts of its director (Deisy Estable), parents, staff and others. Its staging turned out to be, in my modest opinion and those of others, one of the most successful children’s theater events. The audience that filled the theater never tired of seeing it. In it the actors went around jumping, running, talking and singing. There were Snow White and the seven dwarfs, Goldilocks and the three bears, Sleeping Beauty, Pinocchio and Geppetto, the Pied Piper of Hamelin and many more.
HT: One of your merits, and one that’s not sufficiently recognized, has been your work in doing theater in communities and training actors there while creating very interesting approaches in the most unlikely places for this art. Tell us about this.
MR: I have trained generations of children, youth and adults, many of them who are today excellent actors and art instructors. I realized this beautiful work in unexpected places and sites in the provinces of Holguin and Las Tunas; as well as in Pilon, in the Sierra Maestra Mountains. Currently I have my own headquarters at the Mexico Movie Theater, in the Canal neighborhood of Cerro municipality, a neighborhood of great social importance par excellence – as is the work performed there.
I’ve taught art instructors, cultural promoters and amateurs in remote places, and all of this fills me with great satisfaction because what I learned I taught to many generations. It’s my greatest reward.
HT: What was the Manuel Romero’s first film for the cinema?
MR: La Gran Rebelion, directed by Jorge Fuentes.
HT: And the most recent? – which we know might be one of the most decisive in your career.
MR: “Vinci” by Eduardo del Llano. Undoubtedly this is the most decisive in my career. This is where I play the most important role in my life as an actor, Luigi, a notorious murderer in a dungeon during the Renaissance. The film was shot in the Cabaña Fortress, here in Havana, and will be released next month, in November.
It was a great experience working with Eduardo del Llano, he directs like one should direct actors, and he demands what should be demanded out of them. He would ask for something and you would have to dig down and find it. He would let you improvise based on a logically rigorous investigation of what had to do with the great Leonardo Da Vinci.
It’s a wonderful script centered on a part of “Vinci’s” life when he was 24 and taken prisoner in a dungeon, where he was thrown in with two filthy thugs of that time – can you imagine? Working with us were Carlos Gonzalvo (the beloved comedy character who plays “Dr. Mente Pollo” on TV), Fernando Echevarria, Eduardo del Llano himself and Robert Vines.
My character had a complex psychology. I couldn’t be remiss even for a moment, but everything was fascinating. It was everything I wanted. I studied the role thoroughly and I knew that I finally had the great role that one is always waiting for. This opened the door to two more films this year; they’ve yet to premiere but hopefully they will next year. The work was in collaboration with other actors who Edward found and who created an incredible atmosphere.
Then too, the personnel were excellent; there was the art director, Carlos Urdanivia; the cameraman and director of photography, Raul Perez Ureta; the soundtrack engineer, the Argentinean Osvaldo Montes; in addition to makeup artists, costume designers, the production crew, drivers – everyone complemented that distinguished flavor that proclaims a work of art.
HT: Usually Cuban cinema has stories related to reality or the history of the island, but in this one you’re seen breaking that old tradition. What are your thoughts on this?
MR: It’s a sensible approach backed by an excellent script. Undoubtedly it came out well and these kinds of stories should be told. Cubans will be able to see their artists engaged in an argument that’s seldom or rarely seen concerning a universally known theme, the great Da Vinci. Why shouldn’t Cubans be able to know this historical stage of the painter?
We hope that people in other countries will also enjoy it. It involves expressing this need for the hope of freedom, from the experience that you get from situations. It explores the utility and functions of art in society, and the sense that beauty has for ordinary people, as was expressed by Llano himself. It’s a challenge for Cuban actors to play these roles in the story but it’s good that we do because we develop more and we get put to the test. These films should be made.
HT: Exactly when will we be able to see the film here on the island?
MR: The premiere is in November and it will also compete in the New Latin American Film Festival in December.
HT: You have directed your own theatrical company for several years. What place does the “Los Juglaritos” occupy your life?
MR: I have run the Juglaritos Theatre Company since 1996. It’s part of my life, I dedicate as much time as possible when I have nothing to do as an actor, although in some works of my group I also perform some of the roles. As the director I write all the works that are staged. Plus I’m immersed in that madness that undoubtedly goes along with maintaining a facility that was obtained in already-poor condition. This means taking on those tasks associated with creating a space worthy of theatrical presentations, its renovation, the construction of the stage, finding seats, and so on.
It’s hard and exhausting, but it’s beautiful. Here in my workshops we teach youngsters from eight to sixteen, in addition to young people and adults, of whom many are social welfare cases. They are not only taught the art of acting and theater history, but also social behavior, cultural information – they become educated.
The people in the neighborhood, in the community, they come to our productions. We also go around to all the other theaters of the capital. What we do is cultural extension. I never stop working, I’m always creating, and that’s the most important.
At least I know I’ve created this space for the Canal neighborhood. People can enjoy a good staging where previously they couldn’t. I’ve been here since 2005. The beauty would be that other eyes could look this way and definitely see that things are better. Thanks to the director of
Centro de Teatro Ibis Tapanes we have achieved something in our efforts to advance, but much more is needed.
HT: What are the immediate desires and current complications facing Manuel Romero?
MR: Immediate desires: to realize myself as an actor and have other things I still haven’t been able to have. Current complications: having wasted time and not gaining the recognition of those who still wear hats and dark glasses.