Meet ‘Roma’ breakout Yalitza Aparicio, aspiring teacher turned best actress Oscar nominee

Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio, left) comforts Pepe (Marco Graf) and Sofia (Marina de Tavira) after learning devastating news.

NEW YORK – It’s a Hollywood Cinderella story.

Yalitza Aparicio was pursuing a degree in early childhood education when she accompanied her pregnant sister to a casting call for “Roma,” Netflix’s black-and-white Spanish-language drama that scored 10 Academy Awards nominations this week, including best picture. But when it came time to actually audition, her sister felt unwell and insisted that Aparicio go in her place.

“It was very strange,” the first-time actress recalls, speaking with the help of a translator. “All they did was ask me personal questions, like, ‘Have you ever fallen in love? Who are your parents? What kind of work do you do?’ I thought perhaps all castings were like this.”

After a few more callbacks and meetings with Alfonso Cuaron, the filmmaker chose Aparicio, 25, who beat out more than 3,000 women for the role of Cleo, a long-suffering indigenous maid working for a middle-class family in 1970s Mexico City. Now, the Oaxaca native is nominated alongside Glenn Close and Lady Gaga for the best actress Oscar, becoming only the second Mexican woman to be recognized in the category (after Salma Hayek for “Frida” in 2003).

When nominations were announced Tuesday morning, Aparicio called her co-stars “crying and saying, ‘This is so beautiful, this is so beautiful,’ ” recalls Marina de Tavira, a surprise supporting-actress nominee for playing Cleo’s benevolent boss, Sofia. “She’s handled all this (attention) with such serenity and joy, and knows she represents a community in Mexico that needs to be looked at.”

Although Cleo is based on Cuaron’s childhood nanny, Libo Rodriguez, the character was similarly personal to Aparicio, whose own mother worked as a maid.

“I thought it was an opportunity to pay homage to her,” she says. “(Cuaron) spoke to me a lot about Libo’s past and I realized that we came from the same background, in which you worry and struggle for economic reasons. But you always aspire for better things, particularly to help your family.”

Not only is “Roma” an exploration of class division, but an intimate character study of a woman facing life’s miseries and blessings – pregnancy, heartbreak, loss – with quiet fortitude. It’s a performance hailed as “astonishing” and “naturalistic” by The Guardian, and one which Cuaron coaxed out of Aparicio using unorthodox methods.

The director never gave his actress a script and only provided scant details about each scene to her. Aparicio didn’t know the outcome of a pivotal hospital scene before cameras started rolling, and shot it in one take with real doctors and nurses. Another fraught moment on a beach – when Cleo heroically saves children from drowning – was also done in a single take, made even more nerve-racking by the fact that Aparicio had no idea how to swim.

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