Paulina Gaitan (stars as Sayra): When I read the script, I realized I had to play Sayra because she was similar to me. I related to her emotional issues, like her feelings towards her father. Sayra is sentimental but strong at the same time; she bottles things up.
She starts to feel something for Casper, and thinks she can help him and change him and give him a better life.
I am Mexican, and Cary [Joji Fukunaga] wanted a Honduran actress to play Sayra, so he offered me the role of Martha Marlene. But I said, “If I’m not Sayra, then I won’t be in this movie.”
In playing Sayra, I added a lot of me so she became very similar to me. It became not, “What would my character think?” but “What would I think if I had to go on such a long trip with my Dad by train?”
I had never traveled on a train, much less on the roof of one, so that was adrenaline; “Get on the train.” “Get off the train.” “Again!” It was cool.
Cary is very helpful because he tells you specifically what he wants. For instance, he would say “Decrease the intensity.” We didn’t improvise very much, which I preferred.
I didn’t know about how Central Americans cross the border by taking the train, and what they go through; we watched videos of it during rehearsals, including of immigrants crossing rivers.
We Mexicans complain a lot about how we are treated in the U.S., but we don’t see how we treat Central Americans, and Sin Nombre shows that.
Edgar Flores [stars as Casper, a.k.a. Willy]: Casper lives from hand to mouth. As the story goes on, he knows he has to sleep with one eye open; in any moment, in any place a shadow could appear that will slit his throat. The only good thing that he can do with his life is to help Sayra cross [into the United States]. That is the only thing. He has nothing left to lose. The only meaning life had for him was Martha Marlene, and when that is lost it doesn’t matter to him if he lives or dies.
In my life, I never, ever thought or dreamt about making a movie. And now I have made one. I have to thank God, and I’m going to get as far as he wants me to. I have discovered something that I am passionate about; playing another life that is not yours, but making it your own. That fills me with life. So now, my dream is doing my own movie.
I would have liked to do more of my own stunts, but I had to sit and watch. I only got to do one risky scene.
Kristyan Ferrer [stars as Smiley]: To play Smiley, I had to learn some of the signs, jomi, of the Mara Salvatrucha, and how they speak and move and walk. Cary helped with all that, because he did more research than I did – he visited the Mara. He told us about their tattoos and had us watch a documentary about the Mara.
The Mara Salvatrucha 13 [the group that Smiley is inducted into] is not the same as the Mara Salvatrucha 18 [the group seen in pursuit of Smiley and Sol in the barrio sequence]. They may seem like the same signs, but they are completely different.
People may be living in a community where they and their families are being threatened. So they enter the Mara because they know that if they are in it, they have protection; the Mara will look after them and their families.
To perpetuate the Mara, children are important. Smiley thinks that by entering the Mara he’ll be able to do what he pleases. He is a young boy who wants to seem older. Smiley is a regular kid, and you don’t believe that he will do what he does. But he will, he has to, to survive – like anyone in the Mara.
My most difficult scene was when he has to cry; he’s sad because he’s been hit and kicked, but he’s happy because he belongs to the Mara. So he’s feeling pain and happiness at the same time. Cary helped me make the character real and to control my emotions while performing. Playing Smiley, I had to become aggressive; he was another part of me that I thought didn’t exist.