Art & Design

“I was very ambitious. Then I lived my years in Hollywood”

Cristina D’Agostino

By Cristina D’Agostino15 juillet 2021

During his stay in Switzerland, the actor tells how his approach to the artistic world and his few Swiss qualities enabled him to grow and last in Hollywood, where he settled ten years ago.

Carlos Leal, a Swiss-born singer and actor, has now been living in the United States for ten years (DR)

A singer, actor and now a photographer, Carlos Leal has never stopped spreading his artistic wings to new territories of expression for the past 30 years. Today established for good in Hollywood, the actor is an exception among the Swiss artistic landscape. Ambitious, determined, he constantly refuses to be put in a box. With Switzerland lacking the ideal scale of role models, he created his own. Well known by the west of Switzerland for having chosen early on the hip-hop movement as his on-stage language with his band Sens Unik, his success transcended borders and found respect among his peers. He then left Switzerland for Paris and met McSolaar, as well as other voices of the rap world back then. Exploring an acting career, he takes classes and discovers a new passion. His career will not stop. Let’s meet with an actor for whom art has become the story of a lifetime.

You stopped in Switzerland after many months of restriction. You just finished a film. Can you tell us about it?

Yes, I was in Europe, in Berlin, for the shoot of the series Blackout, which was inspired by a bestseller. I am co-starring alongside the German super star Moritz Bleibtreu. It will air before the end of the year. It’s the story of a former hacker suspected to have created a complete blackout in Europe. I play the role of a cop from Europol who helps find the real criminal. As I wasn’t far from Switzerland, I accepted a first feature film by a young Spanish director, the very talented Joan Marc Zapata. The shoot happened in Luzern. I could not resist the wish to go back to my hometown, Lausanne. My roots are there, my old friends, my parents.

Carlos Leal on the set of the film Color of Heaven by director Joan Marc Zapata in Lucerne (DR)

How has the pandemic impacted your career lately?

When the US was going through its worst with Covid, I was shooting in Berlin and when the situation started to calm down in America, I started season 2 ofThe L World, Generation Q. We just finished shooting mid-May. I then carried on with a movie (NDLR Father Stu) including Mark Wahlberg and Mel Gibson end of May, so I must say I was very lucky despite lockdowns.

What character will you be playing?

Carlos Leal plays a priest in the film by American actor and director Mark Wahlberg (DR)

I play the role of a priest. I cannot say too much about it, but he is crucial to the story. It was a fantastic experience. Mark Wahlberg produced and starred in the film, and I got along with him very well. He also started his career in rap, under the pseudonym Marky Mark (e.d. in the group Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, from 1991 to 1993) during the same time as Sens Unik. He’s from the streets, he is humble, self-made. Regarding Mel Gibson, he is an incredible actor, who comes back to the forefront after having been cast aside. The US have this rare quality of granting second chances after difficult times. The last news of 2021 will be the launch of a film shot two years ago with Al Pacino The American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally. I play a scene with him.

How did you feel during the Trump years?

It was very hard. Even more so because my wife and I had chosen to come to the States ten years ago, when the country was going through a wave of optimism after the Obama election.

Had you put your anti-Americanism aside back then?

I have never put my anti-Americanism aside, and still today it is very difficult for me to separate my life, my children, my work in America and the former rapper I am, who has a skeptical approach about politics and American culture. But I don’t undermine it. The four Trump years revealed a part of the US including many of its people that had been ignored and in the shadows for a long time. We can’t just ignore that. They are white citizens from the America heartland, who believed in the Eldorado. With Trump, the atmosphere became ever more unstable, day after day. Suspicion and fear were omnipresent. Rage and hatred were unleashed. But it was important to reveal these frustrations and to understand that they exist. Today, I think Joe Biden is the person that is needed to embody a transition.

Was it difficult to find your place in this America, in Hollywood?

Motion pictures and entertainment have only one purpose: to create art and forge a critical discourse. The first season of the show The L World is no exception. It was born as a response to Trump sexism and male chauvinism.

Has this period unleashed you artistically?

Yes, this pandemic made me grow mentally. And as I cannot fathom the idea of not creating, the refusal of being stuck led me to photography. I didn’t expect it. I bought a Fuji digital camera with a Russian optical. I had already practiced it as an afficionado. I always enjoyed photographing things that inspired me, to build my characters or to write songs. Photography is a witness of this artistic inspiration. I love this medium. So, when Photo Schweiz contacted me, I was very proud.

One of Carlos Leal's photos from the photo series We Own The Night and exhibited at Photo Schweiz (Carlos Leal)

Evidently success comes to you quite easily...

Mmh easily…let’s not get carried away. There are many setbacks in this job. But I no longer seek success. I was very ambitious. Then I lived my years in Hollywood. An artist is a victim of others falling in and out of love with them. And I am tired of this feeling. With photography, I just want to enjoy myself. Maybe unconsciously I find tools to free myself from being dependent.

Carlos Leal's photo series We Own The Night was shot in the deserted streets of Los Angeles at night. (Carlos Leal)

For 30 years, you have made the right decisions. What was the most difficult one?

Leaving Switzerland when the success with Sens Unik was incredible. I arrived in Paris. And I struggled. My musical success was never an entry path. A rapper who becomes an actor, that did not exist back then… Paris has this excluding bourgeoisie. And which coopts. While the US gives a chance to all if you have a bit of talent. There are of course parties, the dream of red carpets, but I never navigated that Hollywood. The first thing I did when I arrived in Los Angeles was to find an agent. And a manager. From then on, I started to work.

How do you feel when you return to Switzerland?

I love Switzerland. It has many talents. The only issue is that it doesn’t know how to market itself. Swiss artists have this humbleness which sometimes jeopardizes self-marketing. In Paris, I understood that my typical Swiss humbleness would be a problem.

Which part of you remained Swiss?

My meticulous side. Switzerland is an expert in this field. Actually, I even followed an apprenticeship in civil engineering, and it doesn’t get more meticulous than that (laughs). I like its open-mindedness, its multiculturalism, and its capacity to innovate. I like bringing my kids here. Everything is more culturally rich. I enjoy this density.

What does your musical culture still bring you?

Hip-hop was like a guide to me, it gave me a way to express myself. We were pioneers with Sens Unik. We were the first band to create our own independent rap label. Even Parisians envied us. But today, it is no longer my music, it is the one of new generations who have much to say.

What do you miss?

I would like to direct films of course and maybe to create a book about my photographic work. I just need to find the energy to do it. Family comes first, and years are piling up... But I could never live without artistic expression.

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