Ghetto fabulous: Why Seu Jorge will never forget life (and death) in the favela
Sunday 18 May 2008
Jorge Mário da Silva doesn't do mornings. And though it's 3pm in São Paulo, the Brazilian actor and musician – otherwise known as Seu Jorge ("Mr Jorge") – is only just coming round. But between yawns, he's enthusing about his forthcoming trip to London. "I love playing abroad," he says. "I've got lots of friends in London. Also, the shows are earlier over there. I played in Rio last week and I got on stage at one in the morning!"
Six years after he hit the silver screen as Knockout Ned in the Oscar-nominated Brazilian favela drama City of God, Jorge is still having trouble taking in the magnitude of his success. "So many people dream about leaving the country to travel around the world singing in their own language, with people enjoying it," he says. "It's cool."
I lose count of the number of times Jorge talks about dreams throughout our interview, – his own, and those of the people he grew up with in a favela in Belford Roxo, Rio de Janeiro state, where he was born nearly 38 years ago.
After his teenage brother was killed by the police, he spent his youth drifting on and off the streets, and it seemed he was going the way of so many of Rio's young men – into a life of crime, poverty and addiction. Now he's a successful artist and family man, does he feel lucky? "Yes, because the more I work, the luckier I become!" he laughs. "But I was lucky to appear in City of God, because it let me do other things – like my music. Although it's not my music. Music doesn't belong to anyone; it belongs to the people."
Despite his hippyish ideology and relaxed demeanour, Seu Jorge is not afraid of working hard. Of all the brilliant young actors who appeared in City of God – most of whom lived in favelas themselves – he is one of the few to have achieved worldwide recognition. In 2004, the British journalist Jason Burke travelled to Rio de Janeiro to find out what happened to the film's stars, and found that its leading man, Alexandre Rodrigues, couldn't even afford his bus fares. "Do you know Rio de Janeiro?" Jorge asks me. Yes, I say, I was born there. "Wonderful. So imagine you were born in a favela in Rio with poor parents and you're 17, black, 6ft tall, you're not studying and you can't get a job. Every time the police come, you're instantly suspected of some crime."
City of God was no mere fluke for Jorge, who had already acquired a reputation as a samba-funk musician in his home country – in 1998, he released an album with his band Farofa Carioca, titled Moro no Brasil (I Live in Brazil) – and as an actor (he'd spent several years in a musical theatre company). "In fact, I was lucky to meet a Finnish film director called Mika Kaurismäki," he says. "I appeared in his documentary about Brazilian music, which he named Moro no Brazil after my album. That's how I got into the film industry, and I haven't stopped since."
Most notably, he has since appeared in the acclaimed Brazilian art-house film House of Sand and Wes Anderson's surreal sea comedy The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, as the crew member with a fondness for singing David Bowie songs in Portuguese. Jorge's samba-inflected renditions of "Rebel Rebel" and "Changes" were so well loved that he released them as an album, while his first hit record, Cru (Raw), showed he was more than capable of writing his own material. And thus, the world cottoned on to the fact that Jorge was more than just the handsome bus driver of City of God. "After that film, I worked out it was better not to be one thing or the other," he says. "It's better to be like an old Hollywood star, like Fred Astaire or Frank Sinatra, who danced, sang, acted. You shouldn't have limitations."
And just like an old Hollywood star, he is the consummate interviewee – charming, talkative, funny and clever, as he chats freely about everything from his difficult upbringing to his three young daughters, his mother and – his favourite subject – Brazil.
Ask him about his new film, the British prison-break thriller The Escapist, in which he stars alongside Brian Cox and Joseph Fiennes, and he is hazily enthusiastic: "It was wonderful to make. It's about an old man who escapes from prison. I help him to escape."
Ask him why he loves Brazil, and he fires off a list, his voice dreamy with affection. "I love the samba, the football, the food, the women, the landscape, the fruit, the people..." Has he ever, like so many other Brazilians, considered leaving? "Of course, but it's very difficult to leave and immerse yourself in a different culture. Plus, Brazil is still the greatest country in the world. In the future, you're all going to want to live here. You're going to be like, I'm done with The Independent on Sunday; I'm going to work at the Folha de São Paulo, the best newspaper in the world."
But Jorge isn't blind to Brazil's problems. "When I was a boy, I couldn't have imagined I would end up being an actor. Brazilian culture doesn't really permit us to dream. We're all too involved in the reality of our lives. It was very hard growing up in a favela in Rio, and Brazil has this terrible history of slavery. So to have any kind of success as a black person, it's a huge honour. Not just for me, but for everyone in my community."
I ask if his family are proud of his success, and he is ambivalent – philosophical, even. "My family just want to know if I'm happy, if I'm eating and sleeping, if I'm going to quit smoking. Of course they're proud of what I've done, but if I had become a stonemason, they would have been proud too."
In many ways, Jorge is a natural successor to the musician and politician Gilberto Gil: not only because he takes musical cues from the Tropicália legend, but because his articulacy and passion for Brazil – its cons as well as its pros – mark him as more than just another entertainer. While the 65-year-old Gil winds down and prepares to give up his post as Brazil's Minister of Culture, Jorge has only just begun. But one gets the feeling that, whatever else he achieves, he will never forget he is Jorge Mário da Silva from Belford Roxo.
Seu Jorge plays the Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 (0871 663 2500), on Wednesday. 'The Escapist' (15) is out on 20 June
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