Oscars 2019: Roma, Yalitza Aparicio and the fascinating history of non-professional actors

Amateur hour: a stunning performance by high-school teacher Yalitza Aparicio has earned her a Best Actress nomination at the 2019 Academy Awards. EPA-EFE/Mario Guzman

The surprise nomination of non-professional indigenous woman Yalitza Aparicio for this year’s best actress Oscar for her role as a domestic servant in Alfonso Cuarón’s critically acclaimed Roma has been greeted as a “fairytale”.

Aparicio was training to be a teacher when she reluctantly went to an audition where Cuarón was immediately struck by her. Her presence and her similarity to his own childhood maid – on whom the film is based – secured her the role.

Propelled into the spotlight by her role, she has become the first indigenous woman to grace the cover of Mexican Vogue. She also endeared herself to her growing social media following by uploading to Twitter a video of her sobbing reaction to news of her nomination.

If Aparicio wins, she will be the first indigenous Latina Oscar winner and will join the small number of non-professional actors to win an Oscar in recent times. This number includes Anna Paquin for her role in The Piano (1993) and Haing S Ngor, a former doctor from Cambodia, who won the 1985 best supporting actor Oscar for his role in Roland Joffe’s The Killing Fields, in which his own traumatic experiences informed his outstanding performance as a local journalist.

In the same year as acclaimed indie hits such as Chloé Zhao’s The Rider, in which Brady Jandreau played a version of himself as an injured rodeo rider, and Crystal Moselle’s Skate Kitchen, featured an all-girl skate collective from New York, it seems that authenticity in casting and performance is all the rage.

But Aparicio also stands out as being typical of the non-professional’s experience throughout cinema history. Her “journey” from naïve provincial girl to the red carpet hits many familiar notes. Interviews emphasise how little she understood of cinema, and how she had never heard of Cuarón and feared the job offer might be a trafficking scam.

Authenticity

Aparicio’s unpolished and untrained authenticity is sharply juxtaposed with the glamorous world in which she now finds herself. Part of the non-professional’s effect is to throw into relief the extraordinariness of stars, as well as their proficiency, understood as a product of years of training and dedication to their craft. Aparicio’s novelty, spontaneity, and natural appearance are all singled out as antithetical to the professionalism of her co-star, experienced stage actress Marina De Tavira, who has also been nominated for an Oscar.

Her story mirrors the “discovery” of Barkhad Abdi, the untrained Somali-American who played a memorable co-lead to Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips. It also recalls the children recruited by Danny Boyle from the Mumbai slums for global hit Slumdog Millionaire.

In the latter case, ethical concerns around the effects of sudden fame on vulnerable children were recognised by Boyle. He set up a trust fund for them, though this didn’t prevent allegations that the father of one of the girls tried to sell her to capitalise on her fame.

Power imbalance

The non-professional child actor came to prominence in post-WWII Italian neorealism, which specialised in taking performers from the streets. Vittorio De Sica’s Oscar-winning 1948 classic Bicycle Thieves was particularly celebrated for its non-actors, chosen for their faces and bodies rather than any acting talent.

Lamberto Maggiorani, who played the tragic father, lost his factory job after the film and struggled to find work as an actor; he repeatedly begged De Sica to help him out. Meanwhile, nine-year-old Enzo Staiola made several further films and retired at the age of 15. However, accounts of his treatment on set , which included De Sica publicly humiliating him to make him cry, match other testimonies of neorealist directors extracting performances from non-professionals by insulting and even beating them.

This power differential, always implicit in the actor-director relationship, is obviously exacerbated when the actor is inexperienced and has no manager to guide them through the film industry. While Aparicio and Cuarón’s on-set relationship seems to have been affectionate, one anecdote about the film’s shooting is somewhat disturbing. In a central, traumatic scene for her character Cleo, Cuarón admitted that he deliberately withheld from Aparicio what would happen. Her anguished reaction is genuine – and presumably she could not be trusted to generate that response otherwise.

Aparicio has declared that she would like to continue to act, though she admits that Roma may be a one-off. French film critic André Bazin wrote of neorealist actors that the non-professional can be used only once because their effect can never be replicated. But non-professionals have gone on to career success – Paquin, obviously, as well as Sasha Lane, discovered by Andrea Arnold for her film American Honey, is continuing to work. So is Abdi, though in low-profile parts. Others, like the kids of Slumdog Millionaire, have returned to their old lives.

In all the press talk and interviews with Cuarón and Aparicio, one thing is never mentioned: pay. While one presumes that she received a fair salary for the part, non-professionals generally come cheap because it’s often assumed that part of the reward is the experience itself, the fairytale story. But when the magic finishes and the closing credits roll, they all too often find themselves alone.