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Louis Gossett Jr. And Sergio Navarretta Find Connection In 'The Cuban'

NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro speaks to actor Louis Gossett, Jr. and director Sergio Navarretta about their movie, The Cuban, in which an Afghan refugee helps a Cuban musician with Alzheimer's.

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Transcript:

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The film "The Cuban" is about many things - memory, aging, loss and love. But at its core, it is about connection.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CUBAN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Welcome. Welcome. Christina, I'm so glad you came.

ANA GOLJA: (As Mina) To Cuba.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) To Cuba.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Louis Gossett Jr. plays an aging Cuban musician in a nursing home. An Afghan refugee doctor in training slowly brings him back to life as she uncovers his past playing music with the greats while finding her own voice away from the demands of her family. We're joined now by Louis Gossett Jr. and director Sergio Navarretta.

Welcome to you both.

LOUIS GOSSETT JR: Thank you.

SERGIO NAVARRETTA: Thanks for having us, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Louis, this is a story about aging, in part about how, for some, aging sort of strips away their story, their history. You barely speak in this movie, but you are able to transmit so much. What did you want to evoke? How did you approach this?

GOSSETT: Well, I got into it the way you do any job and stuff. And then you start getting attracted and pulled into the story, what you have to demand from yourselves. As you say, wasn't a whole lot of lines. And so then it got deeper, and I realized that this is something that had to be said about getting and breaking down Alzheimer's and different diseases that old people have.

And I then start to think about my great-grandmother who - when she passed away, she was about 117 years old. She didn't speak much either. But things that she did for us were ancient - the yams to heal rheumatic fever. She bought yams and cooked them and put them in a sock - didn't say a word. And then she put it in. And my temperature went to 103 and 96.7 in six hours.

So you don't see that in an old-age hospital. So it gives you an idea of saying maybe there are other ways to cure diseases. Maybe we've got to go back to our roots. And the roots of Cuba and the roots of Africa and the roots of other places - they might have had the answer to this stuff. And maybe we use a combination of both.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, because in this film, your character gets sort of pulled back from the twilight of Alzheimer's, of memories and confusion. This film is also about this ability to make a connection, bringing people back by using, in your case in this film, music - right? - you know, the very thing that gave you life.

GOSSETT: By way of pleasant sounds. Sometimes you bring somebody back with a massage if you put your spirit in your hand. Sometimes it's a word. Sometimes it's a smell - as you try to smell, as you try the food if you remember.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sergio, one of the things that works really well in this film is that this is a story about loss in its many forms. The other character, as we've mentioned, is Ana Golja, who plays a young Afghan refugee who is training to be a doctor. And she and her family have lost something, too, right?

NAVARRETTA: Yes. I mean, I think what we wanted to communicate through that character is really the plight of the immigrant, the immigrant experience. I think that's ultimately the universal truth that brings the Mina character and Luis, who are, I mean, decades apart in age and culturally, at least on the surface, seemingly different. But then they come together through the common love of music.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Louis - I mean, the music in this, as a Cuban myself, really resonated. I mean, you say you grew up listening to this music, speaking Spanish. Do you play an instrument?

GOSSETT: I play guitar. The little trivia - little certain trivia information - the very first song that was sung in Woodstock by Richie Havens...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Wow.

GOSSETT: ...Called "Handsome Johnny" is a song I wrote for him.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you really are (speaking Spanish) like in the film (laughter).

GOSSETT: (Speaking Spanish).

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sergio, did you know this?

NAVARRETTA: Somewhere when we were doing the research and Alessandra was writing the script, I found this beautiful photo of Lou holding a guitar. It was from the late 1960s. It really became inspiration for everyone. So yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Louis, I'd like to touch briefly on your very long career. One of your first film roles was "A Raisin In The Sun." You were in "Roots." And you were in the "Watchmen," which has just gotten a slew of Emmy nominations, including one for you. So congratulations. Racial justice has always been an enormously important part of your career and part of the roles that you have chosen. There is a reckoning now happening. Where are we now in that fight, do you think?

GOSSETT: I think we're in a fight now that is out in the open. There's a lot of carnage on the highway toward this particular kind of freedom. And Black lives do matter. But when they get that - to that position, they have to remember to go back, once again, to their roots because we all are not going to make it unless we get together around the table of diversity. We answer to a mutual survival. And look at this - the charities of all of us that were working together - me and Sergio and Ana - right there, three different cultures to come up with this wonderful experience. And that's not by accident. That's on purpose.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm wondering if you feel closer now than we have been before to finally seeing the equality that you and others have fought so hard for.

GOSSETT: I see it in elements of our young. I have a wonderful relationship with young people that (unintelligible). So there's an energy that we give out on each age. And when we fulfill that energy, we seem to come to life. We just seem to think and act what is most important. I love it that we're going in the right direction.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is a question to you both, finally. We are in the middle of a pandemic. And nursing homes have been a place where so many of our elderly have died. I couldn't help but think about that watching this film and how much history we've lost. This film was made before the onset of COVID. But is there a message here about how we treat the elders in our community?

GOSSETT: Absolutely. I'm an elder myself. The elders have the important information to pass on to the next generation, like my great-grandmother. There's such value in the mind and the heart of the elder.

NAVARRETTA: I absolutely agree with that. And I think we should reignite the curiosity. And if a film can do that, I mean, that's enormous. And, you know, we want to know that our role is more than just selling overpriced popcorn. We hope that it will move people emotionally and ultimately ignite some kind of conversation in people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Louis Gossett Jr. and Sergio Navarretta talking about their film "The Cuban."

Thank you both very much.

GOSSETT: Thank you so much.

NAVARRETTA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.