The first time I watched “Roma,” I had no idea it contained a familiar face. The second time, I knew, so I watched more closely to be sure to catch his scene. The third time, after I knew I was going to call Michel Jourdain Jr. to talk to him about the film, I watched it without English subtitles.
The next day, I thanked him for all giving me a reason to watch it three times.
“Roma” is cinematic art, and it’s likely to win the Oscar for best picture Sunday night during the 91st Academy Awards. In the middle of the film is a scene involving the most unlikely of actors, a racer who just happened to become an actor and doesn’t expect to be one again.
“It’s a question I get asked a lot now, but it’s not something I plan to pursue,” Jourdain said. “I think it’s important to never say never, but I don’t see any big director coming to me and asking me to make a movie. I’m not an actor. It would be cool to work with somebody good and to hope and to learn, but I don’t see it happening.”
Jourdain, a native of Mexico City, is well known in racing circles. He competed for nine years in open-wheel racing, including two Indianapolis 500s (he's shown here at Indy in 2013). In 2003, he won Champ Car World Series races at Montreal’s Circuit Gilles Villeneuve and The Milwaukee Mile. Racing for Bobby Rahal’s team, Jourdain finished third in the final standings that season, trailing only champion Paul Tracy and runner-up Bruno Junqueira.
Jourdain, 42, has an extensive NASCAR resume as well, with 26 races in the Xfinity Series and seven races in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series on his resume. The past two seasons, Jourdain has competed in the NASCAR Peak Mexico Series.
He’s raced with the best, and now he’s acted with the best. The first half of that statement was planned. The second half was not.
“It’s something that I never thought possible,” Jourdain said of “Roma.” “I never thought something like this would happen. I never thought about applying to a movie. It just happened. At the beginning, I didn’t know what to do. It's not like I’m an actor. It never crossed my mind.”
Here's how it happened. Jourdain’s 12-year-old son, Marco, took part in an open audition in Mexico City for the film. Marco was asked to return for a second round of auditioning, but his mother couldn’t accompany him, so she asked Michel to step in. He did. Once there, he was asked to read for a part and was cast.
“A lot of the kids in the movie are kids from my son’s school,” Jourdain explained. “A lot of kids applied, including my son. His mom took him to the first casting, and they asked him to come back. She couldn’t take him, so she asked me. When I was there, they asked me to come in and test. I didn’t know what to do, but my son said, ‘Please, Dad.’ They asked me to come back again, and I ended up being in it.”
For Jourdain, the experience was something like getting signed by the Yankees without swinging a bat. The film's director, Alfonso Cuarón, won the best director Oscar for 2013’s “Gravity” and is the force behind acclaimed films like 2006’s “Children of Men,” 2001’s “Y Tu Mamá También” and 2004’s “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.”
“I am not responsible for the quality of the film,” Jourdain joked. “As you saw, my character is not very important, but I am very proud to be part of it. For Mexican history in movies, it’s amazing. I’m proud of it, and I can tell you from the casting to the photography, the lighting and the costumes, everything is done by Mexican people and filmed in Mexico.”
A semi-autobiographical work, “Roma” follows an upper-middle class family in the early 1970s and its maid, Cleo, played by Yalitza Aparicio. Cuarón grew up in the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City, and he sought non-professional actors from the area to add to the film’s authenticity. Jourdain’s character doesn’t have much screen time, but he’s memorable in the role. That and the fact that Cuarón was writer, director and cinematographer on the film, convinced Jourdain to take a chance.
“I knew it was not going to be a whatever movie,” Jourdain said. “I knew he was going to make a movie. I knew it would be quality, but it exceeded my expectations. People may like it or not or understand it or not, but there is an important message behind it. The quality of the movie is, I think, one of the best in the history of cinematography.”
That’s not an overstatement. Filmed originally in color and converted to black and white in post-production to give it the desired look, “Roma” is visually breathtaking, immaculately detailed and told with heartbreaking grace and humanity.
“Once I realized what it was, I knew it would be a fantastic opportunity to be part of a great movie and watch Alfonso Cuarón work,” Jourdain said. “I was amazed at how professional he was. In my career, I’ve worked with and raced with some of the best in the world. I’ve never been in a movie before, so I can’t compare Cuarón to others, but I can see why his movies are nominated and why he wins so many awards. His attention to detail is amazing.”
If you haven’t seen “Roma,” do. Watch it three times. If you relied on English subtitles the first two times, watch it again without them. You’ll see a different film. It’s that good. It’s moving, inspiring, uncomfortable at times and entirely authentic. It’s a human story, one to which all can relate.
While you’re watching it, look for a racer-turned-actor who never imagined he’d be a part of something like this. It’s a fitting sidebar in a beautifully told story.