Sleep Dealer's Leonor Varela says its future isn't so far off

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Leonor Varela, who plays Luz in the upcoming indie sci-fi drama Sleep Dealer, told reporters the film's futuristic trappings are not that far-fetched.

"I'm not flying in spaceships," Varela (Blade II) said in a group interview earlier this month in Beverly Hills, Calif. "I don't have superpowers. It's a very near future where things are very plausible, and the one technological thing that [is invented] is that we would have these openings to our nervous system, these nodes, as we call them, that allow us to plug in directly to our computers and interact with technology in a very specific way, or interact with one another, plugging into each other's body. It made my job easier, because I didn't have to imagine that much. It just made it very realistic, very specific and concrete."

Varela plays Luz, a woman who installs nodes in her Mexican customers' bodies so that they can jack into jobs remotely. Factories employ masses of node-equipped workers to control operations, ranging from construction to military missions, across country borders. Meanwhile, Luz uses her nodes to record memories, which she sells them to buyers online. The system even includes audio instructions directing her memories.

The following Q&A features edited excerpts of our group interview with Varela. Sleep Dealer opens in select cities on Friday.

So how long did it take to put the nodes on, and were there accidents where they fell off?

Varela: Oh yeah, all the time. "The cable's not going [in], cut. The cable's falling off the node. Wait, the node's falling off the skin." The makeup team did a great job, but it was definitely challenging, because we were experimenting as we were going, and we were realizing what would work and what wouldn't, what kind of glue would stay and what kind of little cable or clip we were using to make the cables go. Then I think what really added the dimension of the quality of what you see in the movie—because it's very realistic, the way it looks; you don't doubt it when you see it—is afterwards, Mark [Russell] did an incredible job of polishing it off with special effects and creating the polished look that it had.

What did they come to that worked for the nodes?

Varela: I believe it was eyelash glue, and then it was this sort of clip, like a sewing clip, that would go like when you close a sweater with a button, that you would plug in with the tube. So low-tech. We really shouldn't be talking about these things, not to spoil it for anybody.

What does it say about the future that Mexico can be on the leading edge of technology?

Varela: I think it was really fascinating to tell the story from that perspective. It's a new sort of science fiction. It's not told from the advanced moon space colony. It's told from Tijuana. It's told from this border town where the poor are poorer, where the rich are richer and where reality just sinks in. This technology is available even in those places. What is more, the technology is available for sweatshop labor to be exported, the same way that you call AT&T and sometimes they answer you in India. ...

It's the way it is nowadays. Global work. Global everything. Global communication. It's just expanding in that direction. So this movie anchors it in a reality, because you can relate to that. It's not a far-fetched thing that you're like, "Wait a minute. How could that be? How could it be that water would not be a right?" You just have to look around, and you see that many countries don't have water, that water is no longer a human right. You just have to look around and see that the Iraq war, drones are being used. Devices are being used in the same way as in the movie. Remote-control war.

Does it change how you prepare for the role when the focus is on ideas rather than action or special effects?

Varela: I think it's a two-tiered process. Once you read the script and you understand and relate to the world and you decide that you want to go for this and you want to do it, you have to embrace the reality of what's being presented, the reality of this new world. The second part is making it, and in the doing, you're faced with all the sewing buttons and eyelash glue that make the low-tech seem like high-tech. As an actor, I think the most important part is to fall in love in the first process and take the time to really be submersed in this world and make it yours and claim it. The second part, you just have to go with the flow, especially when you're doing independent filmmaking and low-budget independent filmmaking, where the money is really on the screen as you see it. ...

What is the most important theme in this movie to you?

Varela: There are several. It's hard to pick one. It's such a rich film in terms of the themes and the topics that are really being used to tell the story. For me, as an immigrant, I'm always fascinated by the topic of immigration and how to export labor without exporting the bodies. I thought that was just so on the money. I also, because of my own passion for the environment, have seen water become such a necessity in the world, and it's becoming a really big problem. The theme of the corporations selling water and keeping it was also really fascinating. The technology is just fascinating to me, and the way that it's used in this movie, it would be so incredible if that was the case soon, and frightening at the same time.