In August 2010, the world was riveted by the collapse of a 121-year-old mine in Northern Chile, which trapped 33 miners 2,300 feet underground roughly three miles from the mine’s entrance for almost two months. The 33, the new film dramatizing that harrowing event, stars Antonio Banderas, Juliette Binoche, James Brolin, Rodrigo Santoro and Lou Diamond Phillips, who spoke with us about the shoot. While the making of Patricia Riggin’s claustrophobic but uplifting movie may not have subjected its actors to anywhere near the trials the real-life miners endured, it wasn’t exactly a day at the beach. Phillips let us in on the project’s steep challenges, the on-set dynamics between the actors, and its surprising resemblance to La Bamba.
You filmed most of your scenes in actual salt mines in Bogota, Colombia. Wasn’t it a lot colder than the 100-degree heat the Chilean miners suffered?
We were miserable, man. We filmed in November, December and January. It was oppressive, freezing cold, and we were in those mines for 12 to 14 hours a day. We had to play the heat, so they covered us in grime, spraying us down with gel and water so we looked sweaty. They had to pump in fresh air. We also had to take off our shirts and so we had no insulation. I lost 18 pounds in three weeks. It was an absolute ordeal.
Were these actually working mines?
Yes, and so we had to keep our hard hats unless we had special permission and dispensation. But, yes, definitely a working mine. We could actually hear things falling. I mean, constantly. It was an immersion into reality.
You play the shift supervisor responsible for taking the men down into the mine, even though you know the safety precautions aren’t the strongest. How did you get into the psychology of the character?
I put myself in the mindset of “I could lose everything,” and it reminded me of how precious life is. The real Don Lucho is an alpha male, but a non-aggressive alpha male. He was such a gift to me because he has a complex internal life and such a sense of responsibility and guilt. He was the smartest guy in the mine, someone who knew the mine inside out. He knew the odds of survival and rescue, and that knowledge added to his pessimism about their chances for survival. The real miners are proud of what they do, but that’s a rough way to make a living. Every day I thanked the universe that I was actually not a miner.
How did you and the other actors keep up morale?
Well, you’re dealing with Latinos from Spain, Colombia, Chile, Mexico and the U.S. It may sound strange, but we had an incredible time. The experience was so difficult and unique that it created a bond among the actors — a support system, a brotherhood that in many ways replicated the kind of support system and brotherhood that the real minders needed to have in order to survive. I’m talking about not only among the principal members but also the background players who filled out the rest of the 33. It was an incredibly wonderful experience to work with these international actors and become friends with people I believe will be friends all the rest of my life.
You called your real-life character the alpha male of the group. Who was the alpha male among the actors?
I have to give major props to Antonio Banderas. He was warm and magnanimous right down to the last background artist and the local crew. He was a real unifying force, incredibly open to everyone. With him, what you see is what you get. He plays a guy who became the ad hoc leader of the group of miners, someone with a huge personality who just kept rallying the troops with blind faith.
How did you react the first time you saw the movie?
I’ve seen it with audiences a couple of times. It tells the story behind the headlines and puts a human face to a story that captured the attention of one billion people around the world. On the page, this might look like a niche film. So did La Bamba. But every country in the world has a mining community, and I’ve seen people relate to the movie no matter the language or the country. It isn’t sappy. It doesn’t pander. But it’s five-hankie movie.