Bogotano actor Mauricio Puentes could hardly have asked for a higher profile big screen debut. As the star of new film “Roa,” his world premiere at the Cartagena International Film Festival was attended by no less than Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and a host of other stars, including actor Harvey Keitel and screenwriter Paul Schrader.

For the heretofore largely unknown actor of stage, small film and television roles, the debut marked a major shift. Puentes mentioned breathlessly how his schedule for the Festival went from a mostly relaxed vacation with his filmmaker wife, who is also debuting a short film this week in Cartagena, to a non-stop series of interviews, screenings and events.

Puentes managed to snag for his first starring role the part of Juan Roa Sierra, the controversial figure accused of assassinating prominent politician and presidential candidate Jorge Eliecer Gaitán in 1948. It’s a complex role to be sure, humanizing a figure often turned into a monster, given that his actions led to one of Colombia’s darkest moments when the ‘Bogotazo’ riots destroyed much of historical Bogotá.

This powerfully emotional element attracted Puentes to the role for the chance to help chronicle an often-overlooked but overwhelmingly pivotal moment in the nation’s history from the perspective of a conflicted human being. “I like emotional cinema. The public has the opportunity to really get into each individual’s life. They don’t have to see the whole story, but each moment can have an impact,” said Puentes.

There were plenty of challenges in getting the part as well, particularly for an unknown actor playing a starring role in a challenging and potentially controversial film.

“Andi Baiz is a friend of mine and he saw my style as an actor and told me to read the book, which I looked at and liked the story,” said Puentes on the process of being selected to play Roa. “Afterwards I went to the casting, and Andy was very sincere, saying that he wasn’t sure if I was right and asking me to be a sparring partner for the other actors auditioning.”

While Baiz considered a number of actors for the crucial role, even adjusting elements of the story for different personalities, none seemed to capture his attention quite as much as Puentes.

“He changed the script a little bit to fit different actors,” noted Puentes, who also mentioned that John Leguizamo was the first choice to play El Flaco, a pivotal character in the film. Scheduling conflicts forced Baez to go with a lesser-known actor.

For Puentes and Baiz, another challenge was the significant age difference between the actor and Roa. “I’m much older than my character. He’s 28 and I’m 40,” said Puentes. “But Baiz decided to take the risk.”

Ultimately, age makes little difference to the story, which Puentes claims is universal. “His is the story of any man. I think audiences can feel and have felt every emotion that Juan feels,” he said.

 

In the video, Mauricio Puentes discusses what it was like as a Bogotano to deal with a topic as emotionally and historically charged as the Bogotazo.