Demian Bichir refers to it as "the theater connection," and it sure can lead an actor to some intriguingly unexpected places. Like scaling the summit of the Mexican box office, staring into the mirror and seeing Fidel Castro or spanking Mary-Louise Parker, Bichir's partner in crime and, lately, passion on Showtime's "Weeds." ¶ Whenever Bichir meets another actor who cut his or her teeth in the theater, "we all go crazy about it," says the fiercely handsome Mexico City-born performer, who will make his U.S. stage debut tonight at the Geffen Playhouse. He's costarring with Shannon Cochran in the two-character drama "By the Waters of Babylon" by Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Schenkkan about an unlikely Austin, Texas, encounter between a Cuban novelist transformed by fate into an immigrant gardener and a withdrawn academic widow. He's also prominently on screen this fall as Castro in Steven Soderbergh's Che Guevara diptych, "The Argentine" and "Guerrilla." ¶ In the theater, Bichir continues, "there is a link that connects, because once you've been on the stage your life cannot be the same, as an audience or an actor." ¶ Certainly Bichir's life hasn't been the same since he hooked his first acting job in a Mexican telenovela at age 14. Born into a family of well-known thespians, he quickly began landing film and television roles between theater stints with his family. Among his roles was Alan Strang, the boy with the equine-erotic fixation in "Equus," in a cast that included Patricia Bernal (Gael's mom) as Alan's would-be lover, Jill.
"We grew up going from town to town, square by square, plaza por plaza, in Mexico City, touring with my parents," he says, slipping easily between English and Spanish. "That's magic, when you give that to a child. Once you step into a stage being a kid, as we did, my brothers and I, you're there for good."
Bichir spent the ensuing years honing his craft with some of the hemisphere's top avant-garde artists, including the Mexican director-playwright Sabina Berman, while also tackling the classics (Shakespeare, Strindberg). He scored his breakout movie role in "Sexo, pudor y lagrimas" (Sex, Shame and Tears), a war-of-the-sexes ensemble comedy that is one of Mexico's all-time highest-grossing films.
Easily typecast as a Latin Lothario, Bichir is one of those actors who seems so naturally blessed with leading-man assets that his skill and extensive role preparation can be overlooked. Few "Weeds" fans likely were familiar with his laboriously acquired stage technique before he was hired as the strongman Tijuana mayor, Esteban Reyes, opposite Parker's soccer mom turned pot-dealer Nancy Botwin.
But at least one person apparently sensed a kindred theatrical spirit when she met Bichir: Parker.
"Mary-Louise, she can be intimidating in many ways, because she's beautiful, because she's such a great actress, and also because she's serious and she's pretty focused," says Bichir.
He recalls meeting Parker his first day on set and hitting it off as soon as they started talking about theater, where Parker also works regularly. Their mutual stage affinity helped foment a powerful on-screen chemistry that was sealed in the episode in which Esteban takes Nancy over his knee and paddles her to show who's boss.
"My fan mail went to the skies when that happened," Bichir says, laughing. "There is a list of women who want to be spanked by me now!"
But according to Bichir it was Parker who supplied the steadying hand when they had to enact a "pretty steamy" love-making scene.
"In every film I'm in it's like I'm always naked or making love to beautiful women," Bichir says. "I have some friends that say, 'Oh, man, I wish I were youuuu!' And I say, 'Oh, man . . . if you knew how hard that is. . . . ' I'm always anxious and nervous about it.
"But Mary-Louise made everything so easy and so nice, and she was so generous with me. Everything ran smooth because of her."
Uh-oh, not again . . .
Bichir's aptitude for making fleshly theatrical connections should serve him well in "By the Waters of Babylon," which, warns the Geffen's website, contains "nudity, adult content and strobe lighting effects." Playwright Schenkkan and director Richard Seyd believe they've found the right man for the job.
"We knew that this would be a difficult role to cast," says Seyd. "Robert has written very challenging material. It is not easy for the actors to take the journey."
Schenkkan, whose dark satire "Lewis and Clark Reach the Euphrates" premiered at the Mark Taper Forum in December 2005, describes Bichir as a "very charismatic individual, very good-looking."
"There's a sweetness about him, very warm, but also a lot of depth. The man has bass range as well as the top notes."
Schenkkan calls his play "a hard-won love story" in which the Cuba-America cultural gulf that initially separates the characters is mirrored in the perceptual chasm between men and women. "We talk about magical realism as a literary style," he says. "What is more magical than falling in love?"
Bichir describes his character in the play, Arturo, as "a lonely soul, wandering around in search of healing. He's Hamlet, he's Odysseus, he's Orpheus. He's an angel and a demon."
It should be an interesting transition from Esteban Reyes and Fidel Castro, another mythical, multifaceted, larger-than-life personage. As a Mexican, Bichir says, he grew up learning many details about the Cuban revolution and its leaders' legendary exploits. Yet he was taken aback when Soderbergh called at 5 a.m. to offer him the role of El Commandante.
"I hung up the phone, I went to the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror, and I said, 'Well, I put myself on tape for any character, but I never thought of Fidel,' " he recalls. "And then I started realizing why. And I said, 'I don't believe this guy [Soderbergh]. What an eye. What an eye!' I mean, he saw Fidel in my face even before I did."
Asked what he spotted when he saw Bichir on tape, Soderbergh didn't hesitate.
"First of all a willingness to do it, and that's not as glib as it sounds, because the main component of his [Castro's] personality is confidence, and that's hard to fake," Soderbergh says. "I felt he could sell [being] the person in the room who takes up a lot of oxygen."
Taking up oxygen and shaking up perceptions seem to be leitmotifs for Bichir's busy fall. He appreciates the frankness of "Weeds," that it "talks about taboo kind of things" in "such an open and honest and crude and direct way."
"It's a show against hypocrisy," he says.
Similarly, as a Mexican actor now living in Los Angeles, he seeks to challenge some of the stereotypes that rise up between the two cultures like coils of razor wire.
"I've always thought, speaking about immigration, I've always thought that there shouldn't be frontiers in the world," he says. "But the only real thing that does not have limit or a frontier or a borderline, it's art. Art is the only really free thing that flows around the world freely."
'By the Waters of Babylon'
Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 4 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 7.
Price: $40 to $74
Contact: (310) 208-5454