With the glut of biopics released by Hollywood lately, including blockbusters like A Beautiful Mind and Ali, it would be easy for audiences to overlook the addition of yet another. Even so, Benjamin Bratt is hopeful that moviegoers will embrace his newest movie, an independent film that follows the turbulent career of late Latino icon Miguel Pi?ero.
In Pi?ero, Bratt stars as the deeply talented but also deeply troubled title character, a Puerto Rican-born poet and playwright whose life was marked by tragic contradictions. Pi?ero’s first and most successful play, “Short Eyes,” inspired by his experience serving time in New York City’s Sing-Sing prison, won an Obie and was nominated for six Tony awards. But the playwright continued to lead a reckless lifestyle, plagued by drug addiction, homelessness and further jail time, until his premature death in 1988.
“Even in the face of his success, both critical and financial, he did not change his approach to life,” Bratt said in a recent interview with The Hatchet. “He lived life on his own terms. Ultimately, that’s what defines him as a tragic figure.”
While rival film A Beautiful Mind has elicited criticism for ignoring the more sordid details in the true life story of its main character, mathematician John Nash, Pi?ero takes a decidedly more direct approach. The film holds back nothing as it openly explores the drug use and homosexual liaisons that colored Pi?ero’s life.
“That’s one thing that really excited me about this project. That (writer and director Leon Ichaso) wanted to take an unflinching look at this rather influential man who, without this film, would ultimately fall through the cracks,” Bratt said. “He recognized that in telling his story as accurately as he could, in all of its dimension, all of its darkness and craziness, that perhaps there would be a resurgence of interest in his work.”
Bratt was also drawn to the role because of the unique voice it offered, portraying the story of a Latino immigrant who drew his inspiration as a writer from his distinct “Nuyorican” – New York and Puerto Rican – heritage.
“Here you have a man who felt a sense of marginalization culturally from a very early age,” Bratt said. “He grew up on the streets, in an environment where there was prostitution and hustling and drug abuse and poverty and illiteracy and all the great social taboos that we as a society like to turn a blind eye to. But those became on a level his comfort zones. He wrote about those things, he embraced them, and in so doing created a fresh, new exciting voice.”
With the dream of inspiring more fresh voices, Bratt has joined his writer-director brother Peter to form a production company to give an outlet to other minority filmmakers.
“The fact of the matter is, whether you’re from Asian culture or from Latin culture or Native American culture or African American culture or any other culture on the American spectrum, there are valuable stories and histories that need to be told that haven’t really been explored yet,” Bratt said. “As an artist, there are great opportunities to be mined there. It’s all about access though and to date Hollywood doesn’t recognize those stories as valid because they don’t see any money in it. But I think that’s changing slowly.”
As for the future of his own career, Bratt has less defined plans.
“I have no specific agenda other than to continue to do good work,” he said, explaining that he prefers to remain open to working on projects in a variety of genres. “I had a great time working on Miss Congeniality, which is a fairly silly movie. It’s quite a leap from Pi?ero.”
He doesn’t limit himself to the big screen either, as some television actors turned movie stars are prone to do. Bratt established his career playing Detective Rey Curtis on NBC’s “Law & Order.”
“I still also believe that there is a lot of good work being done on television. Television was very good to me, so I’m not opposed to going back to that either.”
In addition to Pi?ero, many of Bratt’s other recent projects have been produced by smaller, independent film companies, a departure from his past work in more notable studio films such as Demolition Man and Traffic . He recently co-produced with his brother an award-winning independent feature, Follow Me Home. He also co-stars in another upcoming independent film, The Last Producer, with Burt Reynolds and Lauren Holly.
“I feel like there is a kind of renegade element to independent filmmaking that I thrive on,” Bratt said. “I’ve always felt that I do my best work under pressure. Add to the normal pressure that exists in the filmmaking process – the fact that you have no money or you don’t have a permit or you’re running out of light and there’s no food to eat – and … it sometimes helps inform your work. It certainly did with Pi?ero.”
While it was one of his smaller roles in recent years, Bratt recognizes his work as Juan Obregon in Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic as one of his more rewarding acting experiences to date.
“I didn’t realize at the time how much of an impression Juan Obregon was going to make,” Bratt said. “It wasn’t until I actually saw the film that I realized that throughout the entire movie, the film builds up this expectation of who Juan Obregon is and what kind of impression he’ll make and that he better fill the shoes when we finally meet him.”
Despite his aversion to career planning, Bratt does hope to work with Soderbergh again in the future.
“Steven Soderbergh is one of the best American filmmakers alive,” he said. “He’s just a tremendous filmmaker and an amazing storyteller. Unfortunately, I just didn’t have enough time with him. I’d serve coffee on his set if he asked me to at this point.”