Braga--The Thrill From Brazil : Despite Her Sexy Image, 'Milagro' Star Stays Firmly Grounded in Reality

Sonia Braga can tell you in two words exactly what made her become an actress.

Jack Nicholson.

The year was 1972. Barely 20, Braga had read Kafka, seen the new films of Jean-Luc Godard and worked--to help support her family--in Brazilian TV soap operas. Then, in rapid succession, she saw "Easy Rider" and "Five Easy Pieces."

"When I saw 'Easy Rider,' I was really impressed by the actor who played the lawyer," she recalled, sipping tomato soup at a West Hollywood cafe. "Then I saw him again in 'Five Easy Pieces.' And I thought, who is this wonderful man, Jack Nicholson? He was so moving. When he took his father up to the mountains and talked to him about love--aaahhh!"

Braga's eyes grew misty as she relished the memory. "It touched me so deeply that I said to myself, Aha!" She snapped her fingers. "I want to do that! If that's acting, I'd like to try it."

Since then, Braga has not only become an actress, but an international sex symbol--the thrill from Brazil--largely due to the erotic charge of her performance in 1978's worldwide hit "Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands."

Now she's back on screen as one of the stars of "The Milagro Beanfield War," a film about a rural New Mexico community's battle to protect its land from a giant development company.

Eager to talk despite a long day of TV appearances and photo shoots, the lissome actress fortified herself with soup and a rare steak, followed by several cups of espresso. Lighting up a cigarette, she launched into a lively series of sagacious lectures on Brazilian politics, sex, mysticism, machismo, feminism and cinema.

These torrential monologues were slowed only by an occasional search for an apt English expression. Braga's vocabulary has improved considerably, but she still wrestles with obscure phrases and ceaselessly questioned her visitor about newly discovered lingo.

"My favorite is satellite dish-- it's a TV receiver, but you call it a dish, huh?" she wondered aloud, rolling the words on her tongue. "What can I say--your slang is so unusual!"

Paul Mazursky, who directed her in the upcoming comedy "Moon Over Parador," admired Braga's mixture of spontaneity and savvy intellect.

"She's that rare actress who's really grounded in reality," he said. "There's something unspoiled about her. I'd only seen her in roles with a wild sexuality, so you might expect someone--well, less bright. But she's smart, instinctual and always willing to help the film. She'd come by and visit with the crew even when she didn't have any scenes to do."

It's easy to see why Braga has inspired bouquets of flowery prose, especially from bedazzled male admirers. Arnold Jabor, who directed her in the film "I Love You," lauded her "silver nitrate soul." Interview magazine's Mark Ginsburg gushed: "Braga is everything good about Brazil."

And try to top "Milagro" producer-director Robert Redford, who has said: "If you put the sky, stars, moon, sun, river and earth together, you would have Sonia's mind."

Yes--at 37, Braga remains a beauty, and such a natural one that she happily posed for a newspaper photo shoot without makeup. With her impassioned opinions, inquisitive manner and seductive smile, the 5-foot-3 actress is still--as Marcello Mastroianni put it--"much woman."

You could say much the same about Ruby Archuleta, the character Braga plays in "Milagro," who runs a local body shop and leads her town's fight against the greedy developer.

"When I first read the story, it was like I already knew Ruby--she was very close to me," said Braga, holding a small, bony hand to her chest. "The script has so many connections with myself and my culture. The film is in New Mexico, but the problems these people face--people fighting for their land and for their culture--could happen anywhere.

"There is something special about people who are connected to the earth, who grow their food and make their living from the land. And what land!"

Braga waved her arms in the air. "The first day I came there, it rained. One side of the sky was totally black with clouds, but as you looked across the sky, it turned blue and a lighter blue and then, in the west, it was all red and yellow as the sun went down.

"And because of the rain, you saw not one but two rainbows. It was such a beautiful sight that I called a friend in Brazil, just so I could talk about all the lights and colors."

She beamed. "It took me forever to describe everything because I cried so much."

Braga also identified with the sly mysticism that gives "Milagro's" story line its unpredictable quirks. In its days as a Portuguese colony, Brazil was home to a large population of African slaves whose native ceremonies have been absorbed throughout the culture.

"We're a very mystical people because we have such a mixture of African culture, Indian beliefs and the Catholic religion," Braga explained. "Many of our best writers, like (novelist) Jorge Amado, capture that mystical spirit because they understand the African religion and its saints, who are so connected to the powers of the earth.

"In 'Milagro,' you really get the feeling that mysticism is not just a . . . ." Braga searched for the right word, ". . . a metaphor. Miracles can really happen, if the energy is there.

"I know very little about American Indians. But one thing I learned was that the Indians believe that the word, when you speak, can become a spirit-- it can have its own life."

She paused for a moment. "Just like when a script becomes a movie, right?"

Braga was born in the south of Brazil, one of seven brothers and sisters. Her father died suddenly when she was 8, leaving her mother to raise the children while running a bakery.

"I was very shy when I was little," Braga said. "After my father died, I remember being very quiet--a quiet thinker. I'd think, think, think-- always trying to find out what things were and what they meant. I must have been very romantic!"

When Braga was 14, Brazilian President Joao Goulart was overthrown by a right-wing military coup which ushered in more than 20 years of military rule. "By the time I was 17, the dictatorship had become very terrible," she recalled. "I began meeting many intellectuals who were opposed to the regime.

"That's when I started seeing a lot of movies--by Bergman, Godard, Bertolucci, Pasolini. It was a whole new universe for me."

By the early 1970s, Braga had become a Brazilian TV soap-opera regular, though she insists her early roles cast her as "ugly, neurotic little girls." Her big breakthrough was "Gabriela," a 1974 TV soap about a sensual, barefoot servant girl who marries her boss, but finds herself confined by his strait-laced upward mobility.

"Everything changed after that," Braga said with a casual shrug. "I realized I could be beautiful. I had never thought of myself as a sexy woman when I was younger."

Braga patted her cheek. "I wasn't the kind of girl who when I was little, people would ask my mother to see my baby pictures. They'd say, 'Talk about ugly!' and then go--'Whoops! Not you, Sonia!' My brothers were really cruel. They'd make jokes about me all the time. I was no beauty in their eyes!"

It's no secret that Brazilian women are worshiped for their beauty. But have they achieved equality? Braga was asked about a "60 Minutes" segment which told of a Brazilian housewife who was killed by her husband after failing to fix dinner--the report alleged that the man briefly left the country, but was never prosecuted when he returned.

"I've heard about that show--if there's a law protecting a man who kills a woman like that, I'd like to know about it. That shocked me!

"Listen, there is not absolute equality in our country. But there are lots of women who have careers--who are doctors, lawyers or in politics. That much they are allowed to do."

But do men have private social or business clubs where women are not welcome, as had been a tradition here until recently? Braga wagged a finger in the air. "If there are clubs that don't allow women, they can keep them. I wouldn't want to go there anyway!"

Though Brazil now has an elected president, Jose Sarney, recent news dispatches have portrayed Latin America's biggest country as a nation demoralized by an unnerving mixture of economic stagnation and political disarray. In recent months, cars in the city of Sao Paulo have sported bumper stickers proclaiming "Sarney for Ex-President."

"We do have hard times," Braga acknowledged. "There had been much optimism because we had elections after all the years of dictatorship. But the man we chose died before he could take office and Sarney assumed the presidency.

"We'd like to have new elections, so we put a president that we chose into power. But I don't know if there is anyone in Brazil now that I'd like to see as president.

"But I hear this wherever I go--no one's happy with their leaders." Braga raised an eyebrow. "No one in this country is so happy, right?"

She held her hand together, as if squeezing an imaginary melon. "Maybe this planet is too tight, too fragile. We are still very primitive. It wasn't so long ago that none of us even knew the Earth was round. We thought if you went too far--boom!--you'd fall off.

"Yet we're still destroying our forests and we ruin our air. It's not like we have another planet to jump to. This one is all we got."

Braga was more comfortable talking about politics and film than about herself. This reluctance was especially evident when asked why one of the cinema's leading sex symbols was still single. Braga carefully steered the conversation to other topics, even when asked directly whether she had an urge--at 37--to raise a family.

"I still feel that I have all my life to get married and have children," she retorted. "I really only think about it because people ask about it so much."

Braga swept her hand across her face. "Do you remember in '2001' when after the man touches the monolith, how he suddenly becomes an old man, but sees himself as a young man?

"That's the way I feel. When I get excited about something, I feel as if I'm 15. But when I'm tired or discouraged, I feel like I am 200." She dropped her head to one shoulder. "Like an old tree!"

Braga held out her hands, palms up. "That's the hard thing about being an actress. You play so many characters--a speech here, a speech there--that it makes you wonder. If you can feel so many ways, then what are you--all of those things or none of them at all?"

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