Onscreen, Sonia Braga is not to be trifled with. In Clint Eastwood’s “The Rookie,” she plays a fearsome henchwoman who runs through an airport terminal screaming and firing a machine gun. She spent a few episodes of “Sex and the City” as Samantha’s fiery, plate-smashing lover. And in the new “Aquarius” — which finds the Brazilian actress back in her homeland — she’s Clara, a no-nonsense 60-something who doesn’t take kindly when scheming developers try to raze her longtime apartment building, hoping to replace it a skyscraper.
In person Braga’s very different. A towering lifeforce in movies going back to her breakthrough — 1976’s “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands” — she’s a petite 5’2” in person with a seven-foot-tall personality. She hugs you. She kisses you on the cheek when you leave. She laughs. She warns you, early on, she’s not as on-point as her brilliant director, Kleber Mendonca Filho, who speaks eloquently about the many issues raised by the film: aging, feminism, class, the state of Brazil when they made the film vs. now. Braga can talk about them, too, but she’s all too happy to get distracted.
And so during my 20 minutes with Braga in an Upper West Side hotel room, she talks about the history of neckties (originally used by cowboys who couldn’t reach for their handkerchiefs to mop up sweat). She tells me about the origin of wristwatches (thought up when fellow Brazilian Antonio Santos-Dumont, also one of the possible fathers of flight, complained to his friend Louis Cartier about his irksome pocket watch). She reveals something she just learned: that “ping pong” is made of words that in Chinese both mean “noise.” We even talk about her ping pong skills.
“I used to be great when I was nine,” Braga recalls. “Then I fell in love with the best player, who was 11. But he fell in love with my girlfriend. So I quit ping pong, in the name of love.”
We talk “Aquarius,” too, of course, if not as much as we should have. In retrospect that’s odd, as it’s a great film and arguably her finest, meatiest role in almost 50 years of screen acting. It could also be argued it’s appropriate, given a film that’s heavy on digressions as well, which is about how the past lives on in the present, which forces you to think about your own long life and deep memories.