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Benjamin Bratt Wasn't Prepared for What His 'DMZ' Character Would Become

Benjamin Bratt breaks down Parco Delgado's psychology, background, and family, and working with Ava DuVernay on 'DMZ.'
by Derek Lawrence — 
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Benjamin Bratt in 'DMZ'

HBO Max

Warning: The following contains spoilers for DMZ, . Read at your own risk!

Benjamin Bratt is no stranger to the comic book world. The Emmy-nominated actor has starred in superhero films from both DC and Marvel (Catwoman and Doctor Strange, respectively). But he has found an even more human story within the dystopian tale DMZ.

Hailing from executive producer and director Ava DuVernay and showrunner Roberto Patino, HBO Max's four-episode limited series adapts Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli's DC comic series, in which a second Civil War has broken out in the United States, turning Manhattan into a demilitarized zone, a.k.a. the titular DMZ.

Set in the near future, the story begins with New York City medic Alma Ortega aka Zee (Rosario Dawson) attempting to sneak into the DMZ in hopes of finding the son she was separated from years earlier. But once inside, she realizes that he's not the same boy she last saw: Skel (Freddy Miyares) is now the intimidating enforcer for his father, Parco Delgado (Bratt), the charismatic leader of the Spanish Harlem Kings who is seeking to become to the island's governor.

"We received the pilot script and I thought, 'Oh, this is going to be a big, fun kick-ass genre piece, and I'm going to be the mustache-twirling villain of the thing,'" Bratt tells Metacritic with a laugh. "And when I got the subsequent three episodes after we shot the pilot, the filming of which ended as the pandemic began, I was really quite shocked. No longer was Parco going to be this charming, bigger than life menace of the DMZ, he was damn near bordering on sociopathy. It terrified me to think that I had to play a guy who was so emotionally manipulative and seemingly callous in his pursuit of power."

Here, Bratt talks to Metacritic about adjusting to Parco's development, being drawn to DuVernay, and the family dynamic at the center of a world-changing dystopian drama.

What was it about DMZ that made you want to sign on?

Ava DuVernay. She's someone I have a great admiration for, not only as an artist, but for the mission behind her work, which is to illuminate stories of people of color and put them front and center to a degree that has not come to pass in years past. She very smartly sees that her main objective is to entertain people, but she's using her platform of power to advance stories for those of us who have been marginalized for so long. The industry is finally catching up to a more accurate reflection of what really exists in our society and has always existed in our society, that we are an immigrant culture of many diverse stories and backgrounds, and all of us have a story to tell — and DMZ certainly reflects that in the makeup of its main characters. That's what really excited me about it; it was a story that really shined a spotlight on those marginalized communities in a way that you seldom see in such a big-ticket franchise scenario.

What was your relationship to the source material? Did you seek it out ahead of filming?

I didn't really have a familiarity with the graphic novel, nor did I choose to read it when I got the script for the pilot. There's this provocative premise, the idea of America having gone through a second Civil War and the island of Manhattan, the most coveted piece of real estate in the country, essentially declared a neutral territory, a demilitarized zone that was being fought over by the two warring factions, the United States of America and the Free States of America. That's a huge canvas to paint on, but what Roberto chose to do is was to narrow the aperture down considerably and focus on what matters in any good story, and that's the human story — the relationships that exist and continue to try to survive within a set of circumstances that tests a person's resolved to survive, to endure, to maintain their humanity. I thought that was a fascinating take on it and I wanted to be a part of it.

When it came time to portray Parco, was there one thing specifically you latched onto in the process of developing and tapping into him?

Four or five days after reading the script, I finally had the courage to call Roberto and I shared with him my trepidation — that I didn't really want to play this person. I told him I didn't really understand what I had signed up for. He countered by giving me his take on it, and that changed the whole thing for me, which was that Parco is very much a Shakespearean figure — a tragic protagonist, not unlike Macbeth or Richard the Third — a man who is so overcome in his pursuit of power, so blinded to the actions he takes to achieve it, that he doesn't realize until the very end that, he has lost everything he cares about. For Parco, those three things are his son, his community, and his home.

After Roberto calmed you down a bit and reeled you back in, what did you do to prepare for this new version of Parco?

Roberto gave me a book written by the author C.J. Chivers, a former Army veteran and war correspondent. In the book, it focuses on various soldiers and their experience in war in the Middle East. My takeaway was that Parco started off as a soldier on the street, he used to run with the Spanish Harlem Kings as a kid, learned that might makes right and that was codified in the military. It's the same approach to attaining what you want, using force, aggression and violence to achieve your goals. So when we find Parco in the DMZ and he sees a power vacuum, he says he's a man of the people, he says he wants an opportunity to create a seat at the table for his community and his people, but what are the methodologies he uses to achieve that? He goes back to the situation that he learned when he was a young man and that was reinforced in the military — and he doesn't even realize it. That gave me a new way in and made me realize Parco's not a sociopath. He's merely a product of his environment and the notion of achievement of success is really predicated on the use of violence and aggression over others. To me, that became very fascinating and, ultimately, very sad. So, in my effort to create this character, I wanted him to be charismatic and magnetic and a real physical menace, but I also wanted to explore the softer sides of him, the human sides of him that are demonstrated in his interactions with his son, with his past loves, and with his community.

Late in the first episode it's revealed that Parco and Alma share a son and a tug of war ensues between them over his allegiance. Did that twist allow you to view this as more of a story about family than just this giant dystopian epic?

Yeah, at the end of the day, I think what we're really looking at is a family saga. It struck me that the circumstances under which we came together to make this thing was done under far less dire circumstances but still ones that were restrictive in nature. We were in the midst of a pandemic when we made the subsequent three episodes, and where we went, our visitations home, how we interacted on set, where we could socialize or not, that was our life, and it was not normal or reflective of what we had known. So I think in hindsight these external limitations really informed the work. Under those circumstances, we all really sought each other out within that small circle that was thrust upon us, that limited scope of where we could go, what we could do. I noticed right away — and really this was led by Rosario — that every actor that showed up was so incredibly invested in telling the best story we could. I think it was Walter Murch who said that a film is never finished, it escapes. And I see this as a four-hour film. Yes, more time could have been spent, more money could have been spent, some genre lovers might say, "There could have been more world building." There are lots of things that could have been done differently, but one thing I know could not have been improved on is the performances that Ava and [director] Ernest Dickerson pulled out of their actors. And a lot of credit has to go to what Roberto wrote, because he wrote something very human. But equal credit must go to each respective performer who showed up and put their heart and soul on the line to tell a very human story.

Get to know Benjamin Bratt:
Other notable TV series Bratt has been a part of include Homicide: Life on the Street (Metascore: 95), Modern Family (87), Law & Order (69), Private Practice (45), and Star (42).