The Chilean actor and writer talks disco dancing, politics and his new film “Tony Manero”

The dance film has enjoyed something of a renaissance over the last few years and one would not be surprised to see Saturday Night Fever retold for a new generation. If this is what you expect from Chilean film Tony Manero, you will be surprised but not disappointed. Although the film shows the power that dance has to transform somebody, this is a far cry from the likes of Step Up. Tony Manero is a pitch black tale of obsession set against the backdrop of Chile in 1978 under the dictatorship of General Pinochet. The film centres on Raul – a man in his fifties who longs to be someone else; specifically Tony Manero, the disco dancing hero played by John Travolta in the seventies classic. In a crumbling café in downtown Santiago, he performs a tribute to his hero, while fantasising of finding escape and stardom through the world of showbiz. Raul turns to murder, theft and betrayal in the single-minded pursuit of this fantasy. Blackly comic at times, but also shocking and tragic, the film is anchored by a stunning performance from Alfredo Castro.

The Chilean star found time in his whistle stop trip to Ireland to talk to about disco dancing, politics and the Tony Manero – the American hero.

Q:What was it that drew you specifically to Saturday Night Fever as the?

Because it was released at that time, 1977 in Chile. We had very strong censorship; films and music and whatever, by Pinochet. So they only allowed two American films, musical films to get in. So everybody was dancing disco and watching these films.

How did you find working with choreography, was it something that was new to you?
I enjoyed it very much. But no it was not really new to me. When I was young I used to dance a lot; dance classes at drama school and by myself. And it was not that difficult to get the whole feeling. For the dance scene, we had a real audience. These people were very poor people, lower middle class – they just came in, nobody told them. Just that “somebody’s coming to dance, just applaud if you like it.” And that is the scene you see in the film. And I did two steps wrong! But everyone was happy and enjoying it very much – it was real.


Q:Why do you think Raul is so attracted to Tony Manero as a character?
Tony Manero is sort of an “American Hero.” Because he is an outsider in America – Italian American, there are some links there because Raul is an outsider in the third world and from the beginning you can realise that this is a tragedy of a man in his fifties.


Q:Raul is a murderer and a thief – how did you find playing a man like that, was there anything you could empathise with in the character?
Everything. I enjoyed it very much. There is no way for an actor to judge a character and if I look back to the roots of this man he’s just a result of his society. And as I say, he is not a working class man or middle class man, he is just an outsider without any expectations of life. So if the dictatorship and the main head of the government can kill hundreds of people…can’t he? I feel sympathy for him. He is just such an animal.


Q:As opposed to some of the other characters, who work in the resistance against Pinochet, Raul seems to have political allegiances one way or another. Was this important?
This man is anti-ethic. He has no ethics at all, no morals at all. That’s why I say he doesn’t belong to a social class. He is just a man that feels and reacts like an animal – he’s hungry he eats, he wants to have sex he has sex, he wants to kill he kills.


Q:The camera follows Raul almost at all times – and sometimes uncomfortably closely. How did you find this aspect of filming?
Terrifying! This is my second film so I am not used to it. We used handheld cameras and I was not used to them being so close. For the first two days, it was terrifying but then I got used to it – because I had to. I forgot the camera but I still felt it always as a witness that makes me feel very fragile. But this helped with the character. I think he’s not a very tough guy. He is weak, a coward – except when he dances. Then he has self-confidence.

Q:Do you think it’s important for countries like Chile, who have a difficult and bloody political history to address it in film?
The way Pablo (Larain, director) did, I think was very, very good. He belongs to a generation who didn’t live through that time – he was two or three years old. But these young directors can tell the story of the country. I think this is very important, not to forget. It is still there and we are all products of that era.

Q:Is this something that is coming through in Chilean cinema at the moment?
Yes, there are four or five new, young directors. There have been several films about the dictatorship. The older generation of directors go straight to the point; of the military, the tortures, the people who went missing but the young directors have another view. So that’s why the films show the environment and the atmosphere of the terror of living at that time.

What’s next for you? A return to the stage or would you like to continue working in film?
I would like to do both. We are just working on another script with Pablo and the same team. There is a good infrastructure for cinema in Chile now. We have a Minister and some money – not as much as we want but it’s enough!

Words: Linda O’Brien



Tony Manero” is in Irish cinemas now.