If you’re not of Latin heritage, you may not know the handsome pop-singing actor Jaime Camil. With three albums and numerous stage and telenovela (Mexican soap opera) appearances, Camil, 40, is just starting to pop out of the Univision corner of North American culture by turning up on more mainstream networks (Lifetime’s “Devious Maids”) and now, on the big screen.
“Pulling Strings” is about single dad (Camil) and a culture clash. Here, it’s Americans (Laura Ramsey, Stockard Channing) discovering the “real” Mexico City. And “Strings”, from the same studio (Pantelion) that released “Instructions Not Included,” has a secret weapon — mariachi. That is Camil’s character’s profession.
We reached Jaime Federico Said Camil de Saldaña Da Gama in Los Angeles.
Q: In the States, mariachi bands are used as kind of a punch-line, a musical joke, in the movies. What about in Mexico?
Camil: People in the U.S. or other countries see a mariachi band, hear them tuning up, and they think it’s time to break out the tequila. ‘Get wasted! Hey boys, play ‘The Macarena!’ Please. Mariachis don’t do ‘La Macarena.’ It’s hilarious. ‘La Bamba,’ yes. ‘Macarena,’ no.
Mariachi IS Mexico. Look at the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, black and white films with Jorge Negrete, Agustin Lara or Maria Felix, the beautiful musical movies we used to make, you realize it’s this long and honorable musical tradition.
Q: Nobody can fall in love in Mexico without mariachis, right?
Camil: Oh, from Quinceañera (sweet fifteen) parties to serenading a woman outside her window, you want to win the heart of a lady, you have to serenade her. There’s a plaza in Mexico City — Plaza Garibaldi. On Friday on Saturday night, if you’ve had a fight with your girlfriend, you can drive by Garibaldi where mariachi bands are giving out cards. ‘I need a serenade. Come on, guys!’ They pile into your car, or follow you in their van, and they help you out. We had to show that in ‘Pulling Strings.’ A band, on the street, for hire — rescuing romance. What woman wouldn’t forgive you if you brought a band to serenade her? We had to show that part of mariachi culture.
Q: You’re not a mariachi singer. What was it like to put on ‘the uniform?’
Camil: You put on the mariachi’s suit and you feel like a superhero, empowered, like putting on Superman’s cape. You have the power to make people fall in love, to inspire, to amuse. to thrill. I feel honored to represent my country in the most iconic way a Mexican can — as a mariachi. We tried to avoid the stereotypes, this whole ‘mariachi loco,’ the music as an excuse to get drunk and go a little crazy. No, it’s a culture, a way of life.
These suits — they’re hand-tailored. They measure you in places you’d never THINK to be measured. SO MANY parts of your body. I’m wondering what the studio did with my costumes, because it is so precisely fitted for me,because who ELSE is going to wear it? Just me. I want them those suits.
Q: And the singing style, how much of an adjustment for you?
Camil: All these years I’ve been a singer, and I never realized that mariachis don’t have to shout above the music, don’t have to scream. Sometimes, all it takes is a whisper. They caress the songs. I’m a pop singer, not a mariachi. But we went old school, with this movie, and the styles are very similar.
Q: “Pulling Strings” shows us a Mexico City far removed from the dramas and thrillers set there.
Camil: Recent Mexican films dwell on the bad realities of our country. Crime, drug dealing, gun fighting, cursing bad guys. That reality exists in Mexico, especially along the border, and in other Latin American countries.
But we have a lot of other realities. It’s a very optimistic place, a colorful country where we love our happy endings as much as Hollywood does.
We show the city without the mean streets that the newscasts like to show. All that emphasis on crime is why people are afraid to come to Mexico. I look at the news, and I’M scared. But I live there, I know it’s not like that. Stockard Channing and Laura Ramsey come down to make the movie, and they’re afraid they’re going to be beheaded if they leave their hotel. Yeah, we have conflict in the border cities. But not in MY city. I worked hard to get them out and help them relax and enjoy the city. I think they did.
Q: This is kind of your introduction to Hollywood, and it is coming just as the industry is paying closer attention to the Latin market, thanks to “Instructions.” What do you hope this does for your career?
Camil: Over ten years ago, I figured out my place in the Mexican entertainment industry. I’m an actor who can sing. It’s an added value, as I see it. They don’t have to hire a singer to dub me for this movie. I’m a bargain
We are sister films with ‘Instructions Not Included.’ That movie did well in Mexico, and it is doing crazy business here in the U.S. I love the Variety headline about it — ‘Hollywood gets ‘Instructions’ from the Latino Market.’
I hope we can surf that wave, too.