Roma’s Yalitza Aparicio had never acted before. Now she’s in one of the year’s buzziest films.

The newcomer ended up as the star of Alfonso Cuarón’s most personal film.

Yalitza Aparicio was studying to become a preschool teacher when her sister encouraged her to attend a film audition. A native of Mexico’s Oaxaca region, she had never acted before. When she arrived, Aparicio had no idea what the film was about; even after she landed the role, she didn’t know all the details.

But once she looked them up, she realized it was Roma, and that its director was Alfonso Cuarón — one of the most celebrated directors not just in Mexico or Hollywood but the world. Cuarón is best known for films like Children of Men, Gravity, and Y Tu Mamá También, and now he was planning to make a personal film, shot in his native Mexico City and centered on the story of a woman named Libo, who worked for his family and helped raise him. In Roma, Aparicio would play Cleo, the character modeled on Libo herself.

Even for a seasoned actress, the role would have been a steep challenge, especially since Cuarón often did not distribute information about upcoming scenes until days or even hours before they were filmed — even for some of the movie’s most poignant moments. But Aparicio was up to the task, and she delivered a performance that has been winning praise since the film’s debut on the festival circuit.

One afternoon in November, I met up with Aparicio and a translator in a Manhattan hotel lobby to talk about how she got the role, how her family’s experiences prepared her for it, and what it was like to shoot some of the movie’s most difficult scenes.

Her answers — which often surprised me — are below.

This interview was conducted in English and Spanish, aided by a translator. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Alissa Wilkinson

What was the audition process like for you — especially since you were new to acting?

Yalitza Aparicio

It was all, of course, new to me. So I just followed my sister’s advice, who basically said, “Do everything that they ask you to do. Answer all the questions that they ask you.” I just let myself be taken along by the process.

Then there was a moment where I had to actually leave my community to go to the next series of castings, and there was a mixture of apprehension and curiosity. But because I went with my mom, I think I felt a little bit more secure.

Alissa Wilkinson

How old were you when you were doing this?

Yalitza Aparicio

About 22.

Alissa Wilkinson

And what did you think once you found out what the movie was?

Yalitza Aparicio

The only thing I knew was who the movie was about. I didn’t know what the movie was about, or what was going to happen in the movie, but I was interested because of the character. The character is a nanny and a maid. And so was my mother.

A scene from RomaNetflix
Aparicio in a scene from Roma.

Alissa Wilkinson

Did you talk to your mother about her experiences as you were thinking about playing the character?

Yalitza Aparicio

No, I actually didn’t ask my mom for any information, because I wanted her to be surprised by the film. But it is true that sometimes I would accompany her to her job, so I had some access and some experience with that.

Also, when I was a student, I myself worked as a domestic worker for a little bit of time. So I had some experience with the role.

Alissa Wilkinson

Do you feel like playing this character helped you learn anything about your mother, or other women that you had known?

Yalitza Aparicio

Yes, but not just my mother or my sister. One of the things that was also interesting to me was to watch Marina’s [de Tavira, who plays Cleo’s employer Sofia] reactions for her character, which helped me come to sort of retroactively understand some of the stories that I have heard my mother or my sister tell about things that would happen in households [they worked in].

Alissa Wilkinson

It’s very much a movie about women’s experiences, and the men are kind of on the outside. What was it like to be on set with a cast of women playing these interesting characters?

Yalitza Aparicio

My experience was mostly just being on set during the actual takes in which I was surrounded by these women. But I also thought about how much that was similar to my own experience of domestic households, in which it’s really the women taking care of the children, and women taking care of the house, and the men are absent.

Alissa Wilkinson

In a lot of the scenes, you don’t talk much. A lot of the expression is in your face and body movements. How do you go about putting yourself in the head of your character?

Yalitza Aparicio

A lot of it had to do with my own limited experience with being a domestic worker, or my mother’s experience — knowing that, for example, there’d be situations that would present themselves where, say, the mother slaps the kid and you have to stand there and watch it. But I know from my own experience that you don’t get involved. And so a lot of it was pulling from things that were already familiar.

22nd Annual Hollywood Film Awards - ShowPhoto by Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images
Yalitza Aparicio receives an award in November 2018.

Alissa Wilkinson

Two different languages are spoken in Roma. I don’t speak either of them. What was it like for you to speak them both in this movie, and what do they signify in your character’s culture?

Yalitza Aparicio

There’s Spanish, and the other language is Mixtec, which is the language that is actually spoken in my area, in my city. I’m actually not fluent in Mixtec. But Nancy [García García], who plays [Cleo’s fellow domestic worker and friend] Adela, is fluent in Mixtec, and I actually had to learn it for the film.

At first I was a little bit nervous when I learned that I had to speak Mixtec. But then I realized it was really a great opportunity to present it to the world — not just the cultural diversity of Mexico, but also the linguistic diversity of Mexico.

Alissa Wilkinson

What are the roots of Mixtec?

Yalitza Aparicio

I don’t know for sure. But what I understand is that in Oaxaca it is the language that was spoken previously by our ancestors. It’s divided into high Mixtec and low Mixtec — but this is in fact the language that we’ve inherited from the indigenous people of the area.

Alissa Wilkinson

So having to learn it for the movie was tapping back into your ancestors’ language.

Yalitza Aparicio

Yes. One of the things, for example, that happens now in modern-day Oaxaca is that people mix [Mixtec] sometimes, and hybridize it with Spanish. One of the things that I came to appreciate by having to learn it is that there is something significant and important about keeping the purity of the language, because we’re losing it.

Alissa Wilkinson

There are also all these political events going on in the background of this film. Did you need to do any reading about them? Or was that history very familiar for you? And did you see any parallels between the film’s ’70s setting and present-day Mexico?

Yalitza Aparicio

Yes, I was familiar with these events because in the schools that I went to we always learned about these things. We talk about these things. These are things that my community is aware of.

And yes — it still is going on now. Think about just the disappearance of students in Ayotzinapa [in 2014] — it’s very recent. So I was quite actually, at some level, even surprised to see that Alfonso was interested in bringing this into the film and talking about it.

Alissa Wilkinson

What was it like to work with Alfonso, especially as a first-time actor?

Yalitza Aparicio

It was of course a huge and amazing experience. At first, I had no idea who he was. But then once I looked it up, and I learned a little bit more about who he was, I realized he was this great master of the cinema. I really gave myself over to whatever he wanted — whatever instructions, whatever he had to share, however he wanted to guide me — because I felt like it was an opportunity to learn something every day.

Cuarón directing Aparicio in Roma.Netflix
Cuarón directing Aparicio in Roma.

Alissa Wilkinson

During production, I understand that you only found out what scenes you were shooting next a day or two ahead of time. Did you find that difficult or freeing as you were trying to learn the character of Cleo?

Yalitza Aparicio

Sometimes there were things that I would only learn the day of the shooting. Sometimes only while we were already on set! There were a couple of things that I had to learn a couple of days before, partly because I had to learn the language. I had to learn the Mixtec. It was an interesting experience to sort of be evolving alongside of the character as she was presented to me.

Warning: The next two questions contain spoilers for one of the film’s major plot points. If you’d like to skip them, scroll to the next image and continue reading after it.

Alissa Wilkinson

There are some very challenging scenes in Roma — including one in which your character gives birth.

Can you talk about filming that scene in particular?

Yalitza Aparicio

So, I didn’t actually know anything after waiting around all day for them to set up the scene. I finally got on set and all Alfonso said to me was, “Okay. We’re ready. You’re now going to give birth.” I’ve never shot a scene like that, but I was expecting some baby to pop up at some point somewhere.

It all happened for me in real time. The people who he actually hired to be the doctors and nurses and all those are actual doctors and nurses. Of course, I’ve never given birth, so I don’t know if it really felt real, but for me it seemed very real. And so then once the baby was born I was still expecting for them to announce that they had been able to revive it. [The baby is stillborn.]

Alissa Wilkinson

Wow. So how did that affect you emotionally?

Yalitza Aparicio

It really hit me hard, because I was inhabiting my character and I was not expecting that news. My first reaction as myself was to try to distance myself from it and imagine that it was fiction. But at the same time I couldn’t because on the one hand I had met Libo, the woman who Cleo is based on, and I wanted for her not to have gone through this experience.

My sister had also recently had a difficult birth so it made me think about her experience. Furthermore, it made me think about the experience so many other women have had, and it just really broke my heart. It was very difficult.

Yalitza Aparicio stars in RomaNetflix
Aparicio in Roma.

Alissa Wilkinson

There is another scene that is very emotional near the end of the film, where the children are playing at the beach and Cleo goes into the water to save two of them from almost drowning.

Yalitza Aparicio

So, I was there, standing at the beach. Of course Alfonso had checked with me, and of course the producers checked with me to see if I was okay with the scene, and I had said yes. But where I’m from, there is no ocean.

So suddenly I found myself in front of that ocean and those huge waves and I was very, very afraid. And people have told me that shows in the film. [chuckles]

Once I was faced with having to actually follow through the scene, then I thought of mothers and their children and how much mothers have this instinct to save their children above anything — or at least they want to believe that this is the mother’s instinct. And so I tapped into that feeling and that instinct to get me to jump in the water to rescue the kids.

Alissa Wilkinson

Yes, it definitely shows!

Roma’s had a busy festival season, and there’s been a lot of awards buzz for it. What’s that experience been like for you?

56th New York Film Festival - ‘Roma’ PremiereNicholas Hunt/Getty Images for Netflix
Aparicio with co-stars Marina De Tavira and Nancy Garcia at the New York premiere of Roma in October 2018.

Yalitza Aparicio

I think I learned a lot of things from the film. And of course I’ve also met a lot of people through this process. But I also have particularly enjoyed meeting people who confront the film from different angles, because it kind of serves up all these different themes and these different points of access, and I’ve realized that different people also bring their own experiences to the film and take something from it.

Alissa Wilkinson

What was it like watching Roma for yourself the first time?

Yalitza Aparicio

At first it was a very strange experience to see myself and to hear myself. I’ve never been someone who is very given to have a lot of photographs or videos taken, so it was a very strange experience.

But then, as the movie progressed, I actually just let myself give myself over to the character to the point where I even forgot it was me on screen, and I just enjoyed the film.

Alissa Wilkinson

Have you seen it more than once? If so, has it your response to it changed over time?

Yalitza Aparicio

Yes, as I’ve seen the film more times, what I start to notice are more details that were lost to me on the first viewing, things that are sort of in the backdrop of the shots. And I have also found humorous moments in the film that I didn’t quite capture the first time that I saw it.

Alissa Wilkinson

Has your family seen the film? What did they think?

Yalitza Aparicio

Only my mom and my dad have seen it. My mom liked it very much. She was very nervous in certain scenes, like the scene on the beach. But the rest of my family has yet to see it. They’re waiting anxiously.

Roma opens in select theaters in Los Angeles, New York, and Mexico on November 21 and will gradually roll out in the US and abroad in the weeks following. It also premieres on Netflix on December 14.