It had been a year after shooting Maria Full of Grace, and novice actress Catalina Sandino Moreno, in the middle of unforgiving New York City, was broke and more than 2000 miles away from her family and friends back in her native Bogota, Colombia. The then 20-year-old fell so hopelessly in love with New York while shooting her first feature film, an indie about a pregnant factory worker who is driven to become a human courier for drugs into the US, she spontaneously nixed her plans to return home where she’d never left. Her decision to make a life for herself in the states emerged prior to the ample buzz and slew of accolades with which Maria Full of Grace and Moreno’s performance would later be bestowed. In fact, there were no guarantees the film would even make it to theaters, but Moreno didn’t care. She was in New York and the possibilities were endless for a new actress.
But before Moreno could indulge in her romanticized New York state of mind and settle into her new immigrant life, a cold reality set in. The modest check she earned playing Maria was dwindling She was painfully lonely; missing her family and navigating the city equipped with sub-par English proved to be arduous to say the least for Moreno.
Like most expats in the Big Apple, Moreno turned to the quintessential temporary (if you’re lucky) gig to earn some cash: waitressing. She worked at an Italian restaurant taking orders, enduring rude patrons, mixing up wines and working solely for tips for two “miserable” weeks before she quit. She could have gotten on the first flight back to Bogota but turning her back on New York was never an option. She was certain good things would materialize here, Moreno reached out to her mother who sent her some extra cash and she got another job as an usher at the Public Theater.
For the six months Moreno was an usher, she kept mum about her work as an actress. When it came time to take Maria Full of Grace to Sundance, Moreno quit and was never to be seen at the Public Theater again until she returned to watch a play. This time the woman who entered the doors of the Public Theater was an Oscar nominee, to the astonishment of her former coworkers: “Girl, I saw you at the Oscars—what the hell? How come you didn’t tell us that you were in a movie?’
“I’m not the kind of person who announces those things. I’m not crying for attention… ever,”
Two brutally cold days before at the TRACE photo shoot in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Moreno exhibited the same hesitance to divulge the status of her work. When photographer Warwick Saint asked if she had any movies on the horizon, the 25-year-old shrugs her shoulders and said, “Yeah, kinda, I hope they come out.” It’s a surprising attitude when most actresses well-versed in Hollywood’s Ten Commandments of self-promotion, especially an Oscar nominee, would run down project titles as if they were reading them off a cue card—but not Moreno. Selling herself isn’t her forte, working hard is.
And there’s plenty on the horizon for Moreno
Within the span of a year, Moreno has shot five movies since her debut. “I love the whole process of making films. You know getting on the set, rehearsing, learning your lines. I enjoy so much acting and working. I will do a lot to keep at it. It’s very important that I be prepared all the time,” she offers with bright eyes.
Following all the Oscar hoopla Moreno adopted an under-the-radar profile on the big screen that lent itself to the dearth of meaty roles. She was being bombarded with the kind of sex pot characters aimed at Latina actresses that she swore shed never resign herself to playing. “It’s easy to fall into that trap, especially when you don’t have work and you suddenly get that va va voom Latina role, You take it cause you need the money, but I haven’t reached that desperation point. I don’t think I ever will. When I’m old I want to be proud of every movie I did, and I want my family to be proud too. I mean I don’t know where you are going to find a hot, sexy Latina working in the East Hamptons for a rich family. Those kind of stories are just not real.” Throughout our interview Moreno’s answers are peppered with the word real. “I mean it’s about real stories and real experiences,” she reiterates.
“I’m not worried about being seen or always working. I’m confident with what I can do. People want talent, and I can give that.”
Moreno would rather listen and observe than speak, a quality some have misconstrued as rude. “Being quiet and calm can look like I’m stupid, but I just listen very carefully I just really enjoy having a conversation with someone that I know. You can talk to people you don’t know about things that matter but not just to shoot the breeze or bullshit, It’s not my personality.” Another thing she refuses to even entertain is the matter of losing weight for a role. “I’m not sure what I would do if I was asked to do that… cry or laugh? Why should I do that? If it’s because you want me to be beautiful then no I’m happy the way I am, Imagine watching calories? How miserable and sad,” she laments. It is refreshing to hear a celebrity denounce these antiquated industry standards. The actress runs every day because she loves it, not because she’s vying for a spot on the top 10 best bodies list.
“I come from theater and everything is big and expressive. It’s strange because I feel all the different emotions that the scene requires and then when I watch it, I don’t see anything!”
It’s that serene beauty and apparent humility that piqued actor, director and author Ethan Hawke’s interest in casting Moreno in the upcoming adaptation of his first semi-autobiographical novel, The Hottest State.
“Ethan told me he saw me in Berlin [at the annual film festival] when I went there with Maria. He saw me but I didn’t see him. After a long time, we met at the Oscars briefly. After a few months I went to see Hurly Burly [Hawk starred in the off-Broadway production in 2005]. Ethan and I were always crossing paths. My agent called me to tell me that he just wrote a script that he wants me to read.”
The love story, also directed by Hawke, between a Texas actor and a New York songstress is a departure from the heavier material to which Moreno has been accustomed. Not to mention this will be her very first nude scene. “I personally don’t like love stories. I think they are cheesy and they are always the same. They fall in love, break up and get back together. Life is not like that, but I read the script, and it was very sweet. I saw Sarah as a real person I can relate to and I want to show I can do more than just dramas.”
After reading the book Moreno realized that Sarah was initially written as a white woman. This detail drew her even more to the part. “I was very impressed he looked beyond my dark eyes, skin and hair. He just wanted an actress that could play the part. I wish all directors were like that.”
Although her sojourn into love stories was unexpectedly gratifying, humanizing the issue of immigration continues to be a passion for Moreno. In Richard Linklater”s Fast Food Nation, she plays an undocumented worker in a meatpacking plant. In Paris, Je T’aime, a series of short films about love in the city of lights, Moreno stars in Walter Salles’ segment as an immigrant mother forced to leave her child behind and work as an au pair far a wealthy family. In Corazon de La Tierra (Heart of The Earth), she delves into the tension between the English and local Spanish workers in an Andalusia mining town.
“I think part of the responsibility of being an actress, Latina and Colombian is to break the stereotypes from your country and culture.”
Growing up in Bogota was light years away from the immigrant tales she recounts in her body of work. She was raised in a middle class neighborhood where drug mules are far and few. Her mother is a pathologist and father a veterinarian. Both Moreno and her brother were educated at the bilingual British school where her love of theater surfaced at the age of 13. She was studying advertising in college when she auditioned tor her first role. Moreno never yearned to come to the US: she had everything she wanted and needed in Colombia.
And when the time came to travel to New York to work on Maria Full of Grace Moreno’s journey proved much less grueling than the scenarios she’s played out on film. “My story is one in a million. I can’t say I crossed the border or traveled with pellets, but I now know how crazy this whole immigration [process] can be. I have friends who have gone through the process I had HBO help me through the whole process, so it was easy.”
Ironically the hardest thing Moreno faced was the ample independence being away from her family presented. “I went to the doctor with my mother. I went to school with her. Did my groceries with my brother. I was never alone, and then I got here. In Colombia, you can be 30 and still live with your parents. They’re not like it’s time to go.” Lately Moreno is not so lonely in the city. The 25-year-old married David Elwell, a film lighting technician, on April 2006 in Colombia. Any attempts made at finding out more about Elwell are quickly halted—in a most polite way—but in any case halted all the same. She otters vaguely: “He’s adorable and he’s great. He works behind the scenes in film and I met him on the set of Maria.” She credits Elwell and her family with bringing her back to earth when the perks of fame get overwhelming.
“I’ll call my mom and say, ‘Oh, my god you won’t believe who I met or these shoes I got’ She doesn’t care, she’s like are you prepared for your job? I need that and I love her for it.”
While Moreno insists on keeping a level head, there’s always room for some fun, at least that’s what she is learning. For the photo shoot the TRACE team assembled a rack of dresses from flirty Erin Featherston, sexy Zac Posen and then there’s that plastic bustier from Dolce & Gabbana. “Three years ago I wouldn’t wear it, but now I am more comfortable. I feel it’s okay to dress up, put crazy makeup on or put your hair all crazy.”
The photo shoot turns out to be more a study in method acting than a series of glam shots. “I am going to shoot you like an actress… very cinematic,” explains Saint to Moreno, That’s music to her ears since posing and acting like a model is far from appealing to the introverted Moreno.
She shifts from curious to happy and angry with every click of Saint’s camera. When I tell her the photos look divine and how impressive it is to see her effortlessly morph from one emotion to the next, she smiles politely and adds, “I bet you I won’t see that in the pictures.” She takes one last sip of her tea and remembers, ‘You see what I mean? I have to stop being so critical.” And with another seamless shift she adds, “but you have to keep challenging yourself.”
Photographed by Warwick Saint