For Edgar Ramirez, challenge of playing Carlos the Jackal was making him human

The three-part mini-series chronicles the life of Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, better known as Carlos the Jackal, one of the most-wanted terrorists in the nation from the mid-1970s to the early-1990s. "Carlos" premieres Oct. 11 at 9 p.m. ET on the Sundance Channel.
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 11, 2010

NEW YORK -- The question for Edgar Ramirez -- polyglot, all-around smart guy, possibly the best actor you've never heard of -- isn't just how you humanize a vicious, amoral terrorist but why.

Ramirez portrays the title character in "Carlos," a sprawling, 5 1/2 -hour movie-cum-miniseries that debuts with the first of three parts Monday night on cable's Sundance Channel. Told in a half-dozen languages and set in dozens of countries, the film is a meticulously researched, though broadly dramatized, story of Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, a.k.a. "Carlos the Jackal," the Marxist revolutionary who visited much mayhem on Western Europe and the Middle East during the 1970s and '80s.

Carlos was an international pariah -- a kidnapper and killer who was convicted of murdering two French policemen. In his heyday, he claimed responsibility for car and train bombings, attempted assassinations and two unsuccessful grenade assaults on Israeli commercial jets. His most infamous attack -- the storming of an OPEC ministers' meeting in 1975 -- left three more dead. Until Osama bin Laden came along, Carlos was the leading brand name in blood-soaked terror.

But perhaps that's just our little value judgment.

As portrayed commandingly by Ramirez (no relation to the original, though both share a family name and country of birth, Venezuela), evil is just one part of the picture. In Ramirez's skillful depiction, Carlos becomes a complex, multi-dimensional human being. He's vain, hotheaded, philosophical, brutish, charming and charismatic. He's even an irresistible ladies' man.

Yes, a sexy terrorist.

Ramirez, thoughtful and soft-spoken, doesn't find this odd or jarring. "He's a human being at the end," he says with an accent lightly dusted with his native Spanish. The actor is sitting at a table in a deserted backroom of a posh New York restaurant. It's a gray, cold day in midtown Manhattan. The washed-out colors almost suggest the faded stock on which "Carlos" was shot, as if the whole town were part of some 1970s blandscape.

"He had a life, a family," Ramirez continues. "I'm sure they wouldn't call him a murderer. They would have a very different opinion. They would say he was a freedom fighter, that he [went] from revolutionary theory to military action, that his motivations were right and he took part in an attempt to change the world."

Yes, but . . .

"That's what makes the character so fascinating," he says, "that for some people he is a murderer, an assassin, a terrorist, and for others he was a freedom fighter, a revolutionary and an idealist."

Yes, but . . . but what's Ramirez's own opinion?

"My opinion is he is a little bit of everything," he replies. "What we try to do with the movie is what lies between or among all those labels. Many of those labels are so extreme that something interesting may have existed around or between [them]. We focused on trying to explore the human side of this character. . . . What really caught my attention with this character was his complexity, how the most monstrous acts and most tender gestures can coexist in a person's behavior."

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