The Mexican film star Eduardo VerÃ¡stegui tells Anna Arco that discovering the emptiness of fame led him to his life's true calling.
LONDON (UK Catholic Herald) - Perhaps it is appropriate that I meet Eduardo VerÃ¡stegui on the steps of Westminster Cathedral. The Mexican actor/producer is late for the interview because he's been at the other end of town outside an abortion clinic and wants to go to Mass before he gets on the plane back to Los Angeles. Just as he was becoming a rising star on the Latino scene in Hollywood, starring in films like Chasing Papi and featuring in a Jennifer Lopez music video, VerÃ¡stegui had a radical conversion and has since become an important figure in the pro-life movement. He's just been to Walsingham for the Youth 2000 prayer festival where he addressed over 1,000 young people.
After Mass we settle in Starbucks. It's easy to see why People magazine once counted him among "the hottest 50 Latinos". Under black eyebrows and hair, his deep blue eyes are startling but surprisingly calm. He carries his good looks with easy grace, dressed in chinos and loafers. At the same time it's conceivable that the string which peeps out from under his blue jumper might just belong to a scapular.
Born in a small town in northern Mexico to a farming family, the eldest of four, VerÃ¡stegui says he was raised a Catholic but was lukewarm about his faith.
"I thought, I'm not a saint but I'm not a criminal, I'm a good person, I'm not perfect but God loves me and I love him," he says: "My Catholic faith was not the centre of my life, not because I didn't want it to be but because I just didn't know my faith enough. You can't love what you don't know."
From Xicotencal he went to law school in the same province of Tamaulipas, to please his father, but dropped out because he wasn't passionate about it. Aged 18, and against his parents' wishes, he moved to Mexico City to pursue his dream of being an actor and singer. He took modelling jobs, started studying acting and a year later he joined a boy band, Kairo. They were pretty big - like a Mexican version of *NSYNC - and for the next three-and-a-half years he toured across Latin America with the band.
He still felt restless, so he thought he'd try to break into the soap-opera market, but, he says, "it was still not enough". So the ambitious young actor moved to Miami, "the capital of Latino culture and music", to return to singing, but this time on his own. His big break came on a flight between Miami and Los Angeles where he met Christian Kaplan, a casting director for 20th Century Fox in Hollywood. He invited VerÃ¡stegui to take part in an audition.
"It was my biggest dream since I was a boy in Xicotencal, my home town, that one day I would go to Hollywood and make a movie. Finally I was so close to achieving the dream, but I told him that I didn't speak English," he says. His new acquaintance urged him to memorise the text and audition regardless. He got the part, moved to LA and immersed himself in the language. While on set Jennifer Lopez picked VerÃ¡stegui to star as her gipsy lover in a music video. It was followed by the lead role in Chasing Papi (which had mixed reviews). Finally, it seemed, VerÃ¡stegui had made it. Ten years of working hard were beginning to pay off. He hired a team of managers, agents, lawyers.
"After all that I was very confused because I realised that all the things that I had achieved, that I thought were going to bring me happiness, didn't. I felt I had everything in my life, but then on the other side, in my heart, I had nothing. I was very empty and very confused and very lost. Something was missing in my life and I didn't know what it was. So I wanted to do something more meaningful in my career. I was looking for the truth in the wrong places," he says.
The entertainment industry had entranced him and he was caught up "in the dictatorship of relativism that the Pope talks about". He says that he believed there was no such thing as one truth and that everybody had their own truth.
Hiring his English teacher changed his life. Not only did she teach him English, but also, as a devout Catholic, started teaching him about his faith. She drew him out with questions. Noticing that he wore a rosary around his neck - for decoration - she asked if he was Catholic. For six months she grilled him with questions: What are you doing with your life? Where are you going? Who is guiding you?
"She gave me English classes and she was also evangelising me in a very subtle sort of way," says VerÃ¡stegui. She also challenged him to start questioning Latino stereotypes in the American media.
"From the 1940s onwards Latinos have been portrayed in a negative light in Hollywood. They are the drug dealers, the banditos, the drunkards, the unfaithful husbands, the prostitutes etc etc. And if you are good-looking, you are the Don Juan, the Casanova, the Latin lover. That's all you get. Since I started my career, I was cast as a sex symbol, the Latin lover, reduced to an object."
VerÃ¡stegui felt there were not enough heroes in film, especially not Latino ones - men of virtue, fathers, husbands, saints. He wanted to be a saint in the mould put forward by Pope John Paul II, a light in the darkness. After his conversion, the life that surrounded him, the films that he had made, seemed largely immoral and he realised it was almost impossible to be a practising Catholic in Hollywood.
Ready to serve God, he prepared to go to Brazil and work with the indigenous people in the Amazon. He went to tell his priest and was surprised when the latter was not as enthusiastic about the project as he was. The priest told him to stay in Hollywood because he was needed there.
VerÃ¡stegui vowed to God only to ever work on projects which reflected his beliefs and for four years, having started to taste fame and success, he was just another out-of-work actor. He was struggling to pay the rent from month to month, but he says he was happy, going through a process of purification.
"I realised that I wasn't born to be a movie star or an actor or a lawyer. I was born to know and to love and to serve Jesus Christ," he says. He explains that he went through a lot of tears, guilt, and grief after his first Confession. "It broke my heart to realise that I was offending God with the talents he gave me."
Later, things were going rather badly in worldly terms when VerÃ¡stegui received a call from his priest, who told him to come to Rome. At the time, the actor was out of money and told his confessor that he could probably not afford to come. But providence and the priest intervened and VerÃ¡stegui met Pope John Paul II.
In 2005 he set up the Guadalupe Foundation, a charity which helps pregnant women to keep their babies, provides housing for the poorest in Mexico and works towards improving the perception of Latinos in the diaspora.
Together with some like-minded friends he started Metanoia Films, a production company which set out to make films with positive messages. Their first film, Bella, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2006, deals with a young girl in desperate circumstances considering an abortion. It unexpectedly won a People's Choice Award and great acclaim.
At the moment, Metanoia is putting together a fund of $100 million in order to invest in between five and seven new films. They will be diverse, VerÃ¡stegui says, but "all with the same heart and soul, with the potential to change the culture of death to a culture of life". By December they hope to have three scripts ready, one of which is going to be a life of Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
VerÃ¡stegui's coffee is cold, because he's spoken so much, so eagerly and earnestly that he has barely had a chance to drink it. As we wrap up the interview, the people at the next table ask where he's from._When I say that he's from Mexico, they say: "He should be a film star, he's ever so handsome. Is he a film star?" They catch his eye and he gives them a big smile. They are delighted.
He tells them about Bella, and how he plans to bring it to Britain. They promise to look out for it. He has clearly just made their day. Then, it's time for him to go. He's got a flight to catch back to LA and he's already spoken for too long.
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