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Interview: Finding the Hidden Face of Your Character

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Actors and boxers should have one thing in common, according to Édgar Ramírez. “There’s a part that should stay in the shadows that you shouldn’t overstay.”

The mysterious alchemy of the two art forms recently fueled the actor for his starring role as Panamanian boxing legend Roberto Durán in “Hands of Stone.” And for the first time in his two decades as an actor, Ramírez allowed the unknown to guide him, resisting his usual cerebral approach to a man so defined by his physicality.

“I learned how to fight [first],” he says of going to Panama to train with fighters from the period in which Durán was competing. “I focused on feeling the struggle, the pain that a boxer has to go through, and then I worked on the mannerisms, the traits of his personality. That’s what this character asked me for…. This character is very different for me, very different.”

Picking up on the tumultuous streets of the Central American country at the height of protests over U.S. control of the Panama Canal, “Hands of Stone” traces Durán’s humble beginnings, from street fights as a child to facing off against Sugar Ray Leonard and infamously leaving the ring midbout, allegedly declaring, “No más.”

“What drew me to the character is that Roberto Durán is the son of an American soldier—a Marine—stationed in Panama and a humble Panamanian mother, and he was abandoned,” explains Ramírez. “He felt abandoned by his father who came from a country that’s occupying his country. He fights, and it’s almost like every time he gets in the ring it’s an emancipation. It’s like he’s bringing his pride in his country into the ring. That parallel situation going on between personal pride and national pride, the search for self-identity and national identity, I find very interesting…. He’s more than a boxer, he’s a mythological figure for his country. Because somehow he has been able to embody the identity of all Panamanians.”

Sitting in the Smith in Manhattan’s Flatiron District on an August afternoon, Ramírez admits this psychoanalysis of Durán’s motives only comes now that he’s distanced himself from the role.

The film itself, however, dives deep into the psychological mind games of boxing, showing how brutal strength can only get one so far. In one scene, Durán’s coach Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro) combs his hair back after an intense round. It gives the illusion of being untouchable, he explains later. The scene represents a departure from the usual boxing films that focus more on training.

Written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz and co-starring Usher Raymond as Sugar Ray Leonard, Reg E. Cathey as Don King, and De Niro, the film premiered at Cannes. Durán cried when he saw it. “It’s on camera so he cannot deny it,” says Ramírez, laughing.

The two became close during filming, with the boxer available for advice without becoming overbearing. But, thankfully, he never gave Ramírez everything, says the actor.

“There was a secret about himself that in a way he never revealed to me,” he says, “and I think that by not doing it, he revealed so much more for me to build the character. Actually, I loved it. He would open the gates sometimes and give himself and then boom, doors shut.”

Bringing a Latino figure like Durán to the movie mainstream was a draw for the Venezuelan actor, who recognizes the scarcity of films about Latin American heroes, athletic or otherwise, despite their domination in sports like boxing for so long. The other draw? How this specific Latino identified with his country.

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