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Only As Good As The Memories

Raul Julia has charted an unconventional path through film and stage.
Gordon Mott
From the Print Edition:
maduro issue, Winter 93/94

(continued from page 1)

"There wasn't one big break," says Julia. "It was like a progression of things. I did one thing. People saw me. Then I'd do another thing. I got more recognized." He does admit that the Tony nomination in Two Gentlemen of Verona was a turning point early in his career, although he remembers that period more fondly for his relationship with Papp. "I am very grateful for my association with Joe Papp, and of course my friendship. We became like father and son. He saw what I could offer. He didn't look at my ethnic background or my whatever.... He's sorely missed. He was a great man with a great vision."

The Papp association must ultimately explain Julia's slow courtship with Hollywood. He denies that it had anything to do with his decisions, but at the very least, his close ties to the stage and Papp focused his time and energy. "I didn't resist [the movies], but I wasn't eager to get into them, either," says Julia. "I was [in New York]. I was happy doing theater. I was even offered some things that I didn't really feel were right for me for a lot of money, more money than I was making in the theater. Even Joe Papp, toward the end, was saying, 'Raul, I know you're committed to the theater; you're committed to the New York Shakespeare Festival, but, you know, think about doing movies, too."'

He finally took Papp's advice, and even though he still seems to prefer the stage, Julia also seems increasingly comfortable with certain aspects of film: "You work for two or three months and make enough money for two or three years." The financial independence has given him the freedom to do something during the past few years that he'd never done before: take summers off to be with his children. He has two sons, ages six and 10. He's been married to his wife Merel for 17 years. While they are "New Yorkers" most of the year, they have a house in upstate New York where Julia hides out between projects. He acknowledges that he and Merel waited to have kids and is now glad they did.

"I wasn't ready. I wouldn't have been able to ... I don't know, I just wouldn't have been as good a father as I am able to be now," Julia says with a very serious, furrowed-brow expression. "Just the fact that I've lived more, and I'm not concerned about when I am going to get my next job anymore. This business is free-lance and it's not a steady job. Younger, I would have been more preoccupied with myself."

Julia's "other" life outside of acting isn't limited to relaxation and family life or a preoccupation with himself. He's a passionate wine drinker and keeps a small wine cellar in his home stocked with some of his favorite wines: a 1982 Château Lynch-Bages, a 1976 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon, Vosne-Romaneés from the 1978 vintage and some other Burgundies, including his favorite: Burgundy from L'Enfant de Jesus vineyard and some 1974 Vega Sicilia. A 1978 Vosne-Romaneé from the '21' Club cellar provoked a disapproving mouth pucker and a quizzical look from Julia. "Is this OK?" he asks. It isn't. A second bottle, this time a Charmes-Chambertin, is quickly put on the table. "I love these wines," he says, taking a sip of the second wine. "And you can't hardly miss with these '78s."

Along with his profound love of wine, meditation and a long dalliance with Werner Erhardt have been key elements in Julia's life. Although he says he doesn't meditate daily anymore, he does pause "when I'm in the mood" to meditate. "I just don't force it," says Julia. "We tend to think of meditation in only one way. But life itself is a meditation." He also ascribes meditative qualities to cigar smoking, preferring to call it contemplation. "A cigar is wonderful contemplation. Meditation is going deeper inside yourself; but contemplation, while smoking a cigar, you are discovering things. You can be creative. Maybe it's like becoming one with the cigar. You lose yourself in it; everything fades away: your worries, your problems, your thoughts. They fade into the smoke, and the cigar and you are at peace."

Cigars have been part of Julia's life since he was 20 years old, when he was still in college and more of a cigarette smoker. "I would smoke a cigar once in a while, but mostly cigarettes. I was lucky. I just stopped smoking cigarettes and went back to cigars," says Julia. He usually smokes one to two cigars a day, with the after-dinner hour being his preferred time. His favorite is the Cuban Punch double corona, but he regularly smokes cigars from the Dominican Republic and he likes cigars from La Gloria Cubana, made in Miami. "My character, Gomez, in The Addams Family smokes La Glorias. He plays golf with them sometimes," Julia says.

Cohibas, however, deserve Julia's special praise. "The Cohibas are so good; I just can't smoke them regularly," he says, his eyes closing again, and his hand moving to his cheek. "They are so," he draws out the word and pauses, "perfect." Another pause. "You have to have the right atmosphere, really be in the right mood to really fully enjoy a Cohiba. Do you know what I'm saying?" he looks piercingly at his guest. "I mean it's such a rounded," his hands describe an arc in the air, perfect taste of tobacco that I feel, wait a minute, it's too good. Am I being fooled here? It can't just be tobacco. It's so tasty and aromatic and sweet and everything." The words start tumbling out. "It's a strong cigar, too. Whenever I feel the right occasion, the right moment, the right mood; then I'll enjoy one."

There is a certain air about Julia that suggests he is always aware of the right moment, that he is always ready to appreciate exactly where he is in life and then make the most of it. Not that he is obliged or driven to just "do the right thing." Not at all. But when he happens upon such a moment, he dons it like a mantle and wears it like a second skin for as long as it takes to explore. Such an outlook, he argues, has led to decisions to play roles like Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, in the film Romero, which is about the life of the El Salvadoran cleric assassinated by a right-wing death squad; or Valentin in Kiss of the Spider Woman, a revolutionary imprisoned on suspicion of terrorist activities. These roles changed him forever.

Kiss of the Spider Woman, by anyone's commercial assessment, would have seemed doomed to fail: a film set in Latin America about political prisoners in a single jail cell, one a homosexual and the other heterosexual. "No one knew this film would be successful," says Julia. "We set out doing an art movie. We did it just to work, and because it was a very special script. It was something I couldn't say no to. I did it for no money, no salary. We did it because we wanted to do it. I was so excited about it, I didn't even think about anything, not the language or the homosexuality, just the human values that it talks about." He did eventually make some money on the movie because he had a percentage of the profits.


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