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.
Braga bristles at the idea that it’s about an “aging woman.” Finding out I’m mid-to-late 30s, she says, “Let me tell you something: You have no idea how young you are. You do not. It’s amazing to be 30, 40 — or now 60. When I’m 80 I’ll probably look back on being 70 and say, ‘Oh my god, I was so young.’ That’s how the conversation goes about age, I guess. You don’t have any awareness of how young you are when you’re young.”
In “Aquarius,” Clara certainly seems young. A renowned (though retired) music critic, she still keeps active, still has a sex drive, still fights when wronged.
“I like Clara,” Braga says. “I want to hang with her.”
One thing she doesn’t think Clara is is unusual. “Someone said to me today, ‘It’s so rare to see a character like this.’ And it came to me: Yes, but not in life,” Braga explains. “It’s life that’s correct. It’s the industry, it’s the filmmakers and the writers, who are avoiding to show this character. I don’t know why. They are very smart people. They can do movies about Mars, about E.T. coming from another planet. But this woman is everywhere. She’s prime ministers. She’s scientists. She’s candidates for presidency. So it’s the movies that are the exception.”
Braga was adamant about not making Clara, as her director said, “an old grandmother.” His star agreed. “What gives people youth is energy — the energy of warriors,” Braga says. “But warriors are not strong. People use the word ‘strong’ a lot for Clara. It bothers me a little bit. Because when you know your rights, you’re not strong. You just know your rights. You don’t need to be strong or brave, and Clara’s not brave. In a democracy, to fight for your rights is not to be strong. It’s to be a citizen. That’s the word for it.”
By the end of our whirlwind talk, we got off topic again: I ask her about “The Rookie.” When I say I enjoy this once-despised Eastwood joint, Braga stands up and gives me a high-five. Before I can bring up the film’s wildest scene — in which she basically has her way with a tied-up Clint Eastwood — she’s beat me to it.
“The best scene ever!” she exclaims, laughing. “The funniest thing about that movie is that the director was directing that scene with him: ‘Now, put your hands on my face, then get on my lap.’ I said, ‘You really want me to do this?’”