In person, Edgar Ramirez has a soft but solemn quality. Bathed in the sunlight shining into the top floor suite of the Soho Beach House in Miami Beach one recent afternoon, his eyes are an iridescent gray. A well-manicured beard of stubble coats his baby-cheeked face, framed by a thick, wavy head of russet locks. He cannot help but pound on the wood table with a slack, hooked index finger to emphasize key statements regarding his small but critical role in Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar-nominated jigsaw puzzle of a film, Zero Dark Thirty.
The Venezuelan-born actor plays a CIA operative simply named "Larry from Ground Branch" in the film. His character provides the final link in finding Osama bin Laden's courier in Abbottabad, Pakistan, who ultimately leads the CIA to bin Laden's compound in the outskirts of the city.
Ramirez in a scene in Zero Dark Thirty
Based on research on the hunt for the al-Qaeda leader wanted for the attacks on Sept. 11, Ramirez did not become part of Zero Dark Thirty until after the news of bin Laden's death. Ramirez said he remembers the news of bin Laden's demise at the hands of Seal Team 6 because he was near Ground Zero when it broke. "I was having drinks with friends in uptown New York, and then I ran immediately to Ground Zero. I said to my friends, 'We need to get the hell out of here and go to downtown,' so I went to Ground Zero, stayed there until probably 5 a.m."
Though mainstream media defined the celebrations on the street with chants of "USA! USA!" Ramirez, educated in journalism and fueled by dreams of following his father into a career as a diplomat, makes a point to note that he noticed something else. "There were also people saying, 'We cheer for peace. We don't cheer for death.' So you can see that there were different opinions and point of views and angles to that event."
This sensitive awareness about the gray areas of life also informs Ramirez' take on the notorious scenes of torture that take up much of the film's first 20 minutes. "In the torture scene," Ramirez says, "what I really appreciate from a dramatic and from a human point of view is that you don't know who's more broken: the guy who's being tortured," he says tapping the table, "or the guy who's torturing. You see two human beings kind of like communicating through pain ... Regardless of the CIA implications and regardless of the American politics and regardless of American journalists, etcetera, if we isolate that scene from the reality of what we're discussing here, regardless of the historic facts, from a dramatic point of view, it is a very, smart and honest scene. What I find so smart about this movie ... is that facts are presented in a very direct and unprejudiced way, and it's for the viewer to interpret. The opinion is not being processed and given to you, because I think we all have very personal relationships to what happened on 9/11 and the events that occurred after in the whole tracking and hunting of Osama bin Laden."
Zero Dark Thirty's official trailer
Ramirez says it was only three months after he experienced New York's reaction to the news that Bigelow called him to offer him the role of Larry. Having worked on films by such top-notch action directors like the late Tony Scott (Domino) and Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum), he says Bigelow brought a special, cool, but sensitive approach to the set. "It's interesting because Kathryn knows very well what she wants, but she really trusts her crew and her actors. She has a very clear sense of what she's looking for. However, she creates an environment where you feel completely free to propose and to do whatever you want, whatever you feel is needed to go through a scene, and that is a very unique talent: to know exactly where to take the boat while making everybody feel free."
Though having won both the Best Picture and Director Oscars in 2010 for her last film, The Hurt Locker, Bigelow is not in the running for this year's director award. However, the film's female star, Jessica Chastain, made it into the actress category. Ramirez says of her, "She's one of the most talented and committed actresses I've ever worked with ... It was a real privilege to work with her. She's just very honest. She commits very intimately to her characters, and it's a treat to work with her."
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Though the film ends with the famous raid on bin Laden's hideout, its final statement is far from gung ho. Instead, the film ends with Chastain's character, Maya, in a solitary and intimate moment of powerful introspection. Without getting specific, Ramirez sums up the film's final and all-encompassing note perceptively: "I think that this movie is not a movie about death. I think that this movie is the opposite of death. I think that it doesn't rejoice in the pain in the death, of the killing ... it goes beyond that."
Zero Dark Thirty opens wide in theaters across South Florida today.
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @indieethos.