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How Mariana Treviño tapped into the heart of grumpy old guy ‘Otto’

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Actor Mariana Treviño in a purple ensemble.
“In many of his movies, he’s making your heart feel all these emotions, and then in the second moment he makes you laugh with an easiness,” Mariana Trevino says of working with Tom Hanks. “It’s almost like a Chaplin thing to do.”
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

It’s the arrival of Marisol, a whirlwind of a pregnant mom from Mexico, that sparks a thawing of the protagonist’s Grinch-like heart in “A Man Called Otto,” starring Tom Hanks as a curmudgeonly widower who hates everyone and is ready to end his life. In Marc Forster’s new film, now in theaters, Otto’s world is entirely gray — until it’s suddenly brightened by Marisol’s energetic, fast-talking — often comedic — presence, channeled with aplomb by Mariana Treviño in her first big American production.

The Monterrey, Mexico, native, 45, entered the profession relatively late after studying contemporary dance and English literature, and is mostly known for Spanish-language plays and comedic television series. (She’s the star of the new Paramount+ show “Cecilia.”) She self-taped her bid to play Marisol while isolating in Spain in the middle of the pandemic last year, and, says Hanks, “her iPad, one-woman-show audition was so wondrously charming I was worried we wouldn’t be able to cast her.”

Their acid-and-sugar chemistry is key to the film’s tone — it’s kind of a love story between a grieving senior and the daughter he never had — and Treviño held her own against the screen legend. “Mariana cannot be thrown by anything,” says Hanks, who is also a producer on the film. “She will get around to the point of her dialogue and the beat of the scene no matter what spin or instincts are followed.”

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Over coffee on a recent December morning, Treviño talked about working with Hanks, who she considers a modern Charlie Chaplin, and the depths she found in her breakout Hollywood role.

Mariana Treviño.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

The sincere new dramedy starring Tom Hanks as a widower at the end of his rope reveals just what is missing from so many recent Hollywood studio productions.

There’s a dramatic scene late in the movie where you’re uncharacteristically upset with Otto and refuse to let him use your phone. That was the first thing you shot?

Yeah. I was really emotional. I got to the set, and everybody was busy, and they were just like, “OK, we need it because the light is going. Come on, go!” So it was really fast. And I got nervous. But then I said, “OK, I’ve done this before.” You try to go back to your own experience and say it’s the same. And even if you’re doing it in another country, the bases are the same. Tom was so marvelous and generous, because we did it a couple of times, and when we finished I told him, “Tom, I’m sorry you had to repeat the scene!” And he was like, “What are you talking about? You were great. They gave you on your first day ‘To be or not to be,’ and you did great,” and he hugged me. I’m like: “OK, I’m going to be really safe here.”

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That scene is not the norm for your character. Usually you’re much more upbeat and playfully giving him a hard time. But with that phone scene, you kind of break, you reveal yourself a little bit.

When I read it, immediately I knew the emotional richness for the actor. And we don’t do that a lot of times. With anger, we let it run its course much easier. But with our feelings of vulnerability or fear, we have learned to be much more cautious and buckled up. So yeah, that was a beautiful scene. That scene and the driving scene [where Otto teaches Marisol how to drive], the characters changed places. They say: “Now you can root for me and I root for you. And I need support too.” Those two are pivots for the characters’ closeness — without even noticing.

Actress Mariana Trevino
Mariana Treviño.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

You auditioned for this before you knew it was a Tom Hanks film. What did you relate to with this character?

I thought that it was so strong to see a man trying to hang himself, right in front of your eyes. It was inside the home of this character: You walk inside the home to the very intimate moment of despair and sadness. And it kept repeating and repeating. So I got a very emotional connection with it. Then it jumped immediately to some comedic thing. And I was like, “OK, this is very hard to do.” It’s very hard to impact you emotionally and make your own feelings of compassion come forth for humanity and then laugh. I think Tom is representative of that very particular power as an actor. In many of his movies he’s making your heart feel all these emotions, and then in the second moment he makes you laugh with an easiness. It’s almost like a Chaplin thing to do.

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When you were reading your character just on the page, how well defined was she?

The book [“A Man Called Ove”] is full of little moments and little internal dialogues and things that work only in literature. And when you put it in a screenplay, the dialogue has to contain all that underneath. … When I started doing it and we started talking with Marc, we said, “It’s cool that she brings in some Spanish,” and that we bring that world to Otto, and then have him adopt it little by little, and play with this idea that you start living in another language, as well. The candor and the warmth of the character — if there was some — was found as we were doing it, playing off what I could perceive of Tom and how he was playing Otto. He built all these walls, but there was always his vulnerability, and this sadness that he was always making show. And I love it that in Otto, somewhere inside him he realizes that the love was always stronger than the pain he endured. And that becomes his saving element in the end.

Were you modeling anyone that you’ve observed as a young mom?

Yeah, I have a sister who has four. She lives in Mexico. I’m from a northern part of Mexico. In the original novel, the character’s Iranian. But in both cultures we have this reference of very strong mothers — very strong characters. They’re very, “We go here! We go here!” And everybody follows.

Which is why she’s not intimidated by Otto.

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She’s not intimidated. And she’s not afraid of his fear.


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