A striking woman with a sharp, steady gaze, Catalina Sandino Moreno has an old-fashioned talent for stirring up trouble. During preparations for her starring role in Joshua Marston’s “Maria Full of Grace,” the 23-year-old Colombian actress received a sharp lesson on the limits of social intervention.
“I worked at a flower plantation, like Maria does in the movie,” Moreno explains. “The other workers didn’t like me at first. They started warming up to me and talking to me. I started asking them about insurance, about working conditions, about overtime. After two weeks at the plantation, I got fired. They said I was asking too many questions,” she says.
That drive, nerve and openness underline Moreno’s attention-commanding performance in the film. At the start of the year, she was an unknown. After the triumphant showings of the Spanish-language feature at festivals in Sundance and Berlin, Moreno is poised for a different standing as a new breakout performer. At Sundance, the movie earned the audience dramatic prize. At Berlin, Moreno shared the Silver Bear prize for best actress with Oscar winner Charlize Theron.
Financed by HBO Pictures and released by Fine Line, the movie opened nationally last month. Moreno plays a 17-year-old village girl who participates in a New York drug smuggling operation to break free of her dead-end existence. The movie’s second half is set in the heavily Colombian emigre populated Queens neighborhood of Jackson Heights and follows the girl’s struggle to evade the police and the drug operatives.
“I have this need to know how things work,” Moreno says. “In the movie, Maria doesn’t know about being a drug courier, so I didn’t talk to drug mules or people who carried drugs over the border. I was very much like Maria. She’s a survivor. They threw me into Jackson Heights, and I had never been to New York before. I was in the same position. It was easy for me to feel lost, because I was lost. We were both aliens, and everything felt more natural and more true,” she says.
With her natural look and excellent command of English, Moreno is loaded with possibility. Now living in New York, she signed with the William Morris Agency and is considering new projects. “I have to close the cycle. I want to have my head in this one thing. Right now, I’m just thinking about the opening of the movie,” Moreno says.