The range of roles an actor plays, especially a fine character actor like Raul Julia, is always bemusing, sometimes amazing, to contemplate.
Julia has perhaps most famously been a prisoner confined to a cell with a flamboyant gay (in "Kiss of the Spider Woman"). He has with equal intensity been a murderous hairdresser (in "The Morning After"), a corrupt drug-enforcement official ("Tequila Sunrise"), the schemer behind the dictator's throne ("Moon Over Parador") and Macheath (in a forthcoming film version of "The Threepenny Opera").
Now he is the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador in "Romero," the ambitious and precedent-creating feature film produced by Father Ellwood Kieser and financed in part by the Paulist order.
Despite the auspices, Julia insisted during a recent brief visit to Los Angeles: "It's important to make clear this is not a Catholic film. It's about a human being who grew. The archbishop evolved from an ordinary and quite timid person to a great popular hero.
"But he could have been a rabbi during World War II, fighting the Nazis, or a Tibetan monk against the Chinese. The purpose is to show the way a human being can reach the heights of humanity, and how one man can make a difference."
The assassination of Archbishop Romero had previously been dramatized in Oliver Stone's "Salvador," and "Romero" from its different angle of attack captures much the same sense of a society collapsing in a blood bath of government-sanctioned butchery.
In lieu of James Woods' cynical and exploitative journalist being changed as he experiences the appalling violations of human rights, "Romero" offers Julia as the bookish priest undergoing a quite similar conversion as he is forced to confront what is happening in the country he loves.
"It's the ideal for an actor," Julia says, "to be able to show that growth, the movements and the emotions, the mountains and the valleys. These days, we seem to have in the movies either unrealistic superheroes or bums who end up in jail. Here you have a man who was not a superhero but who did things far beyond his own small personal self."
The events of "Romero," Julia says, took place within political and religious circumstances. But he insists again, "It's not a film about politics or religion and it doesn't urge a fight for a particular cause, except for the cause of humanity, seen at its best, as you see it at its worst."
Julia, 49 and Puerto Rico-born, was on track to become a lawyer.
"My family thought it was a way to economic security, and so did I," he says. But even as he was finishing his pre-law studies, he changed course.
"I looked inside myself and said, what did I really like to do best? And that was to act. And so I decided that that was what I was going to do, no matter what. Forget the economic insecurity."
Julia finished his degree at the University of Puerto Rico and went to New York, where he still lives.
Work came quickly, in television and in a long and ongoing association with Joe Papp and his Public Theatre productions of Shakespeare. Julia has acted in "Othello," "Macbeth," "Titus Andronicus," "Hamlet," "Two Gentlemen of Verona," "As You Like It" and "King Lear."
Doing "Romero" has not specifically changed his life, Julia says, but it has deepened his awareness of the conditions amid which the archbishop lived and died.
"I knew about Romero; how could you not? He was outspoken on the violations of civil rights in El Salvador. And I remember the outrage, the fury I felt when I heard of the assassination. That someone could walk into a church while the archbishop was saying Mass and murder him! And the man who did it is still walking around free today. It said something about the state of the nation."
One of the other things he learned from doing the role, Julia says, is that the archbishop was a flawed human being. "The saints are flawed. It makes them closer to us. To me a saint is someone who has become 100% human. The more human, the more saintly."
In death, Julia realized during the making of the film, Romero has been the pre-eminent symbol of the struggle for human rights in Central America. "It takes a lot of bravery, but there are many people inspired to carry on with his kind of commitment."
Playing a real rather than a fictional character is always a special and sometimes uncomfortable assignment for an actor, more than ever when the character has, as Romero has, the popular status of a saint and martyr.
"My largest concern," Julia says, "was to do him in such a way that it was not an insult to the people who knew him and revere him. I wanted to do justice to him in the eyes of those who loved him."
The film, which opens Friday, has now been seen by some of the archbishop's friends and the first responses, Julia says, are reassuring and relieving. An Episcopal priest who heads a civil rights commission in El Salvador and knew Romero for years told Julia, "You've got him." The present archbishop saw the film and said it had his blessing.
"What better satisfaction for me," says Julia, "than the approval of his friends, just the fact that they're not insulted."