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Only As Good As The Memories

Raul Julia has charted an unconventional path through film and stage.
| By Gordon Mott | From Maduro Issue, Winter 93/94

His eyes close, his chin lifts and his head tilts back ever so slightly as a grin slowly raises the corners of his mouth. "A cigar is as good as memories that you have when you smoked it," says Raul Julia, his melodious actor's baritone drawing out each word. Eyes still closed, he runs his hands across his slicked-back, black hair, then raises them deliberately, palms open and pointed toward the ceiling, as if in supplication, as he recalls one of the those special moments: "Whenever I smoke a Punch double corona now, I remember sitting in a hammock in Boy Scout camp, after a full day of participating with my son in the camp, taking an hour break, smoking the double corona and looking up at the trees and the sky. It's not just the actual taste, it's what's behind it in your mind." His eyes--the feeling, the emotion, the smile, always come from Julia's eyes--slowly open, and he smiles broadly. A happy man.

These are heady days for Julia. After a 25-year career of critically acclaimed roles on Broadway and in major films, the 49-year-old actor has tapped into Hollywood's big bucks and its star-making machine with The Addams Family, a re-creation of the 1960s television series. The movie stunned the film industry in 1991 with $100 million in box-office receipts in the United States. The sequel, Addams Family Values, is due out this November, and no one is expecting any less, least of all Julia.

"I don't mind a megahit," says Julia of the original Addams Family movie, "I'm grateful that it was, but nobody knew that it was going to be such a huge success." There is a quick litany of reasons why he decided to take the part of the patriarch in the first place, each explanation an attempt to undo an impression that he'd made the decision for money, not love. It was a comedy. There was the chance to work with Angelica Huston and Christopher Lloyd--"a brilliant actress" and a "brilliant actor." And his character, Gomez, gave him the opportunity to be "as theatrical as I want to be ... he sings, he dances, he sword fights. I've always wanted to do those swashbuckling things. It's one of the reasons I became an actor, to do those things, and I get to do them as Gomez."

The film's basic premise--a dark comedy about the zany Addams Family--attracted Julia to the script. "It is very unusual. It's a very well-delineated character by Charles Addams, a very sophisticated idea about these people who enjoy the gore and the darkness and the dark side of life. They love being depressed. They enjoy everything that regular people hate."

The "dark side" description of the film is just countercultural enough to fit comfortably within Julia's roster of other film and stage credits that run the gamut from The Eyes of Laura Mars and Presumed Innocent to Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Man of La Mancha. Although he's not ready to pigeonhole himself as a strong-minded iconoclast, throughout his career he has made more decisions from the heart than his pocketbook.

"Oh yeah, if I had made those decisions, I might have had a lot of money today. But I don't know if my career would be where it is. There's a lot of stuff just out there for exploitation, especially now with the video market. People will rent anything, I mean, 'Virgin Island Massacre,' 'Starving Sandwich Island,'" he says with a laugh. "Of course, I don't wait for the perfect script, but that comes along once in awhile, and you get a jewel like Kiss of the Spider Woman or The Penitent, or even Presumed Innocent."

Julia left his native Puerto Rico in the mid-1960s and came to New York with the single-minded purpose of becoming a professional actor. It wasn't a starry-eyed teenage quest or some last-minute happenstance created by being discovered by a director in a laundromat. From his first year in grade school, Julia knew he wasn't going to study law or medicine in the tradition of his upper-middle class family. "Instead of acting in court, I decided to act onstage," says Julia. But there was already some expression of independence in Julia's family. His father, who became an engineer, pursued a business idea--pizza--that he thought of while studying in the United States. He introduced the fast food to the Caribbean island and ran a restaurant called the Chicken Inn. And no one discouraged Julia's affinity for acting.

"I remember I was like five or six years old; I played the devil. That was my first role," he says, a sly grin breaking out this time. "I came onstage and I sort of like let go and started having a fit. You know, 'ooohhh' and rolling all over the stage. My parents thought, 'Oh, my God, what's wrong with him? He's possessed or something.' All of a sudden, I stood up and started saying my lines. From then on, that was it. I knew there was something special about the theater for me ... something beyond the regular reality, something that I could get into and transcend and become something other than myself."

Although his father was disappointed that Julia wouldn't be staying in Puerto Rico to take over the business, both his parents backed his move to New York. "They actually supported me economically for a year. But then I made the mistake of telling them, 'I don't need you anymore.' I was making $500 a week playing in Bye-Bye Birdie at the Dallas state fair and I'm saying to myself, 'I'm set.' Boy was I sorry." His father took him seriously, and that was the end of the money. But it also was the end of the work for a time. Back in New York, Julia borrowed from his roommate when he was broke. "Sometimes we used to eat once a day ... chicken backs. You could buy four chicken backs for a quarter." But he never resorted to the usual starving actor's pursuit of waiting tables. Instead, he taught Spanish, sold magazine subscriptions and even took a course to sell pens for a major department store. Finally his persistence paid off.

The Cuban Thing brought the young Julia to the Broadway stage in 1968. The first of his four Tony nominations resulted from his portrayal of Proteus in Two Gentlemen of Verona in 1972. His three other Tony nominations were in 1975 for Where's Charley?, for his role in impresario Joseph Papp's production of Three Penny Opera in 1976 and Nine, a 1982 Broadway production. His many stage credits also include Mack the Knife, Dracula, Betrayal, Design for Living and Arms and the Man. In addition, he took the stage in more than a dozen productions at the New York Shakespeare Festival, through which the actor forged a close bond with Papp.

"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.

Romero also was as much a labor of love as a commercial venture for Julia. "I have a very deep care for Latin America, and, of course, for what was going on in El Salvador," says Julia. "I have felt outrage. I have felt anger. And, I have felt helpless... [Romero ] was an incredible opportunity for me. I couldn't say no to that. The challenge, a scary challenge, because I had to interpret a man too many people knew."

In a role that Julia himself describes as his favorite, he becomes on-screen the pious archbishop who tried for years to separate his pulpit from the country's political battles, but then stepped forward, despite the tremendous risk, as an outspoken champion for justice and human rights. For those who knew the archbishop, Julia's portrayal is indelibly intertwined with the real man.

"I read his diaries; he used to speak into a tape recorder every day. I read his bios. I read his homilies," says Julia with an unmistakable intensity in his voice. "It was a very profound experience, getting in touch with that part of us, in all of us human beings, that is committed beyond yourself to the point of giving everything you have, including your life, for other people, for your fellow man.

"Thank God for the theater," Julia continues, lapsing into a reference to the stage to describe the film Romero. "Thank God for this experience through which you can actually experience it."

It would be easy to take a jab at an actor if he professed to find greater meaning in dramatic roles, but never ventured into the real world with his insights. Julia, however, goes beyond the stage and screen with his convictions. He is a spokesperson for the Hunger Project, a nonprofit organization with the goal to eliminate global hunger by the year 2000. "You know that for the first time in history, we have the means, the knowledge, the agricultural know-how and the economic resources to end hunger," says Julia. "The whole point of the Hunger Project is to generate the popular and political will through education to achieve that goal."

Julia also gives his time and name to a variety of special-interest groups, such as Youth at Risk, which helps educate the young about AIDS, and several Latin American human-rights organizations. He also devotes time to some Hispanic organizations including La Raza and Nosotros.

The interview is over. Julia strides out of the dining room at the '21' Club, bending his six-foot two-inch frame a bit to shake hands with the waiters and the lady behind the cigar counter. He's headed for a photography session in one of the restaurant's sitting rooms, a woodpaneled area filled with overstuffed leather chairs and Frederic Remington paintings that exudes an air of a turn-of-the-century men's club.

The actor in Julia takes over.

With the help of his assistant of 11 years, Susan Wright, he checks his carefully combed hair, straightens his elegant paisley tie, brushes his forest-green-plaid sports jacket and smooths his khaki pants. There is the remnant of a Partagas Series D in his hand, but he gives it up without complaint for a Hoyo de Monterrey double Corona. The monologue begins.

Holding the lighted cigar and posing for the photographer, Julia barks out in his best huckster voice: "Why pay $100 on a therapy session when you can spend $25 on a cigar? Whatever it is will come back; so what, smoke another one." He laughs at his own joke and quickly keeps the monologue going. "A cigar-a-day keeps the doctor away."

His voice shifts back to its normal baritone. "I even smoke in bed. Imagine smoking a cigar in bed, reading a book. Next to your bed, there's a cigar table with a special cigar ashtray, and your wife is reading a book on how to save the environment." Suddenly, he's into a fantasy. "I'm reading Tolstoy, in Russian, translating it as I go along." Just as suddenly, he's back in the moment. "Merel, she loves cigar smoke."

And then his head tilts back again, and contemplating the smoke rising toward the ceiling, he's lost in what will surely become another pleasing memory of a great smoke.

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