When actor Edgar Ramirez had a break from shooting "The Bourne Ultimatum" in London last spring, he didn't hit the English nightclubs or take a long weekend to unwind in the Cotswolds. Instead, he hopped over to Paris to observe the first round of the French national elections.
"I still have credentials to observe elections," Ramirez recounted recently over a slab of steak at an Argentine restaurant in New York. "I went to the banlieue, the very faraway voting centers, and it was really amazing the amount of people who were intending to vote."
Like many Venezuelan nationals, Ramirez knows both the fruits and perils of participatory democracy firsthand: He was in his native Caracas in 2002 and 2003, during the infamous period when President Hugo Chavez was briefly ousted in a military coup, then reinstated, then subject to a protracted and polarizing national recall referendum.
"It was one of the most terrifying and otherworldly experiences ever, to see my country falling apart, on the verge of a civil war," said Ramirez, 30, who has a degree in mass communications and got his voting-observer credentials through Dale al Voto, a Latin American Rock the Vote initiative. "And that's what happened in 2002: My country was divided in two, and one half was trying to take the other out."
And what was Ramirez, a diplomat's son who once dreamed of being the U.N. secretary-general, doing at this time of crisis? Making out with twins on national TV. In the wildly popular telenovela "Cosita Rica," Ramirez had rocketed to fame as a poor street vendor in love with two women he didn't know were twins, both played by Marisa Román.
According to Carolina Acosta-Alzuru, an associate professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Georgia, who was also in Venezuela during the recall referendum period, the on-screen romance of Ramirez and Román made them as iconic as U.S. soaperstars Luke and Laura in their early-'80s "General Hospital" heyday.
But it was the show's universal appeal, across all classes and political persuasions, that gave it more cultural, even political significance than your run-of-the-mill soapy potboiler.
" 'Cosita Rica' was on during those 11 months just before and during the referendum, and it was probably the only media product consumed by both sides," said Acosta-Alzuru. "Telenovelas are part of our daily intake in Venezuela: You eat three meals each day and watch at least one telenovela. So no matter if they were pro- or anti-Chavez, people continued watching. It was like national therapy or catharsis."
The show's success was a turning point for Ramirez, who had acted in a few independent movies but had qualms about introducing himself as an actor.
"That show actually walked hand in hand with the country through one of the most confusing periods of its contemporary history," Ramirez recalled. "It got the highest ratings of anything in the last 15 years or something, so it was totally undeniable — I couldn't not call myself an actor. Everybody knew. I was on TV."
This combination of tumult and mixed blessing seems to follow Ramirez's career. A film he shot before "Cosita Rica" but released after its success, "Punto y Raya," garnered attention during a festival run in Los Angeles. Still, it was hardly the kind of breakout international hit, à la "Amores Perros," "Y Tu Mamá También" or "City of God," that typically launches Latin American talent into world cinema.
"I visited L.A. with 'Punto y Raya' and got close to some projects, but it was precisely the lack of that big transitional movie that was always the obstacle," Ramirez conceded.
"In 'Domino,' there's almost an animal ferocity in him," says director Pete Travis, who cast Ramirez in the political thriller "Vantage Point," slated for release in February. "He has the ability to be a kick-ass bad guy but also to be very vulnerable in a way that doesn't seem melodramatic or cheesy; Edgar manages to make it seem very real."
Paul Greengrass, who directed Ramirez in "Bourne," agreed.
"The essence of Edgar's strength as an actor is that he's morally ambiguous," he said. "He could be a good guy, he could be a bad guy; he could be a good guy doing bad things or a bad guy doing good things. You just can't know. His is a face that gives nothing away yet is full of possibilities, and that's what makes him so exciting to watch."
He's not gunning to become a Latin American Jet Li, though.
" 'Action hero' would be a label that I wouldn't really relate to, not because I think it's bad but because it's not the way I approach my characters," Ramirez said with the sort of unfeigned earnestness that he brings to his roles. Sure, he's played bad guys in his three American films, but for him "the three characters are very different from each other. Their circumstances are very different, and the backgrounds from which they unleash that violence, that aggressiveness, come from totally different places."
Travis has duly noted the difference. "The honest reality is that he looks great with a gun," he said. "He's got all the right curves in all the right places. But it's internal, in a way. You can see it in his eyes."
Indeed, if he has lacked an international hit, Ramirez makes up for it with a global style. In fact, for his two latest characters, the assassin Paz in "Bourne" and the ex-paramilitary Xavier in "Vantage Point," Ramirez didn't just strive to embody moral complication but ethnic indeterminacy as well.
"There are no specifics on the nationality or ethnicity of these characters," Ramirez says. "I remember Pete Travis on 'Vantage Point' telling me, 'You could be a Special Forces agent from South Africa, from the former Yugoslavia, from Germany, from Spain, from Latin America.' "
"He can play anybody — he's got the ability to be from anywhere," Travis said.
In person, Ramirez somehow contains these multitudes. His face has the sort of severely chiseled outline a model would kill for, but it frames a disarmingly tender, boyish face and searching, even piercing eyes that can go blank or flush with feeling with alarming speed.
The result, a heady blend of invitation and threat, means he's exactly the sort of man who'd make a perfect assassin — at least in the movies.
From telenovela to tent-pole movie, this seems to be Edgar Ramirez's gift, or curse: to strive to reflect the messy, conflicted world he knows through mass-market entertainments.