Julio Cesar Cedillo: Life On Set

Julio Cesar Cedillo is a professional actor by trade and a photographer by desire. Raised between Texas and Mexico, Julio has amassed over 98 tv/film credits in his 30 year career and is best known for his showcase performance as the title character in Tommy Lee Jones’ award winning film The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. The film went on to win two Palme d'Or awards at the 58th Cannes Film Festival.  You can catch Julio this fall on the new season of Netflix’s Narcos as Comandante Calderoni.

Julio blurs the line between two worlds, real and imagined that reflect the Mexican culture. Edward Brown, Art Critic for the Fort Worth Weekly perfectly describes Julio’s approach to photography influenced by decades in the film world under the best cinematographers and directors known today.

Julio Cedillo’s photographs are imbued with a cinematic quality that allows the veteran actor to tell compelling stories through images and capture nuanced emotions through color and light. Influenced by his decades-long career in television and film, his insatiable curiosity for capturing the human condition in all its myriad forms are vividly caught in his growing body of work that ranges from oft-overlooked visitors to his home garden in his photo series En Mi Jardin to on-set pictures of actors, musicians, and painters. His deepest passion through portraiture gives him an outlet to seamlessly blend classical elegance with a tinge of theatrical sensibility that gives each image a blend of captivating immediacy and vulnerable intimacy.  Like many visual artists, Cedillo’s approach to photography reflects the influence of actors and photographers who have shared their insight in the craft, on and off set.

RR: Hello Julio, tell us a little about yourself and how you use photography.

JCC: I was raised between Mexico and Texas. I was born in Durango and spent a lot of time in Ojinaga Chihuahua eventually making Fort Worth home. I grew up in Diamond Hill and graduated from Dunbar High School in the magnet program (known as High School for Engineering Professions). I learned English quickly but had an accent. Reading plays and watching classic movies is what allowed me to gain confidence in speaking English and I learned so much about American culture that way. I got lost in films and always resorted to humor to deal with people. Acting became my security blanket, the theater saved my life. It’s where I felt the most wanted and accepted. I enrolled in an acting conservatory right out of high school and landed a major role in an ABC Movie of the Week soon after graduating from the conservatory school. It was a co-starring role opposite Academy Award winner George C. Scott and Hector Elizondo. The rest is history. I’m now celebrating 30 years as professional actor. 

I use photography as a way to document my experiences and to leave a record of memories. I approach my photography on set in a very loose and fluid way. I don’t predict or dictate completely who I will photograph or what I’m going to photograph. It depends on the set vibe.

RR: When did you decide to start documenting around your profession as an actor?

JCC: I began that process early on. We all have some kind of legacy. If you make tangible things. If you write, paint, cook (develop recipes), build, etc… You’re leaving something behind that defines you and that will inspire others to follow in your work ethic. You have to nurture that the best way you can with discipline. I got some sage advice from a very smart woman early on in my career. I had just begun acting and she asked me if I had any photos from my acting work. I responded, “No, why would I be taking photos. That seems so narcissistic. I’m focused on acting not showing off.” She gave me a bewildered look and said, “The photos are not for you but for your future children. What are you going to share with them about your youth and your experiences? What legacy will you share?” That was huge advice. She projected me into the future. She was right. So I began documenting my on set experiences on film beginning in 1990. I didn't take the best photos but I had memories. Once I was exposed to insanely talented cinematographers (aka directors of photography) my life changed forever again. I started to pay attention to important elements like quality of light, composition, styles, and narratives. I began exploring portraiture and documentary work within my on set life.

RR: Like you said, the images really bring to light your 'Life on Set' experience. How do you separate being a photographer and actor? Do they go hand in hand for you or do you have to get into a different role for each?

JCC: First I make sure that my number one job on set is to be the actor they hired. My sole purpose is to fulfill my responsibility as the character. I make sure I knock out some key scenes to prove I mean business as an actor and then after about a week or two, I pull out my camera. I begin photographing my on set life when things are bit more relaxed, when we are changing camera angles in a scene or during a break. I find my moments carefully. I tend to approach photography exploring documentary and portraiture styles. I photograph the extras, the sets, and the actors. But I sometimes capture things you will never see on the screen. I also direct the extras in some of my shots. I sometimes roam around like in street photography and shoot what moves me without interrupting anyone. That’s when I get stealthy. I don’t photograph in “character.” I just photograph. Typically, things move rather quickly on set and everyone is extremely focused since there are many moving parts and time is expensive. I don’t lose focus but if I have a light day (a simple scene) then I take advantage of that moment. 

RR: What do you think photography can do that film and cinema can't?

JCC: Let’s be clear. Cinema has been inspired by paintings, novels and especially photography. There are research departments in certain studios or they employ those services to make sure they get their facts straight for their films. These researchers have a substantial library of books including photography that help directors execute their vision and transfer that perspective to their cinematographers, art directors, production designers and costume designers.  They are constantly inspired by so many photographers in their respective genres. Many amazing directors have been phenomenal photographers. Stanley Kubrick (Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon) Wim Wenders (Paris Texas, Wings of Desire) and Anton Corbijn (The American, A Most Wanted Man) are great examples. Kubrick and Corbjn began as a photographers then went on to direct. 

Photographers have also been inspired by cinema. Gregory Crewdson comes to mind. Photography and cinema is intertwined. You have still photography and motion photography. You tell stories with both.

Photography is an ever evolving medium that doesn't require explanation or refuses to give explanations. Cinema requires some kind of narrative (explanation) order even though certain films have challenged that view such as 21 Grams, Irreversible, The Threee Burials of Melquiades Estrada and Memento.

Photography comes in all styles. But from a practical sense, street photography offers a freedom that can’t be compared to any cinema. It’s just you and your camera. It can be argued that you can shoot cinema the same way which it can but it still involves a sense of order (you still have to edit the sequence). Camera size can be an issue in cinema even though I’m now seeing all kinds of smaller cameras being used for filming. But the shots are dictated and you have to fulfill the script’s narrative. In photography I would say freedom and serendipity are the driving forces in it’s creative process that can’t be compared to cinema. And keep in mind that cinema also employs the art of sound. 

RR: A lot of the films and roles you've portrayed in have a historic, Western, South of the Border, kind of type. Being from the Texas region, how do you feel about casting these roles? Do you feel like it is a type or differently?

JCC: Everything is a building block. I couldn’t start as an actor by complaining about the types of roles they were casting and can’t make a difference on the outside if I refuse to audition for those roles. I will make a huge difference on the inside of that set once I’m cast.  I will then affect the experience by destroying any stereotypes and making corrections because I am now the expert. That’s why they cast me. I’m not an activist. I am an actor first. The people I have played exist. My job is to humanize the role by making it believable regardless of how it looks on paper. My job is to give it substance. I have auditioned and landed roles that others refused based on that notion…that it’s a stereotypical role. I landed several features that way including The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Cowboys and Aliens, and Frontera.

RR: films like Frontera deal with real issues about immigration and human trafficking. Your images (and the films) lend almost like a tableau look into a these topics. Do you tend to keep that in mind as you've photographed on the set of the films? How do you process those issues?

JCC: In those kinds of films I try to approach my photography like a documentary photographer.  I never place my camera where the actual filming camera is placed. I look for other interesting angles, compositions to help me convey what I’m seeing within the world I’m in. The fact that people are in costumes, make up, on sets already tell the story. I just try to add another element with photography. I do keep in mind the subject matter but I approach it with great respect and care. 

RR: What has been a favorite experience of yours while photographing on set?

JCC: Working on the set of Cowboy and Aliens was definitely my favorite experience. It felt like summer camp and I got to spend a lot of quality time with some phenomenal actors. I spent about four months on that film. Spending the most time with Daniel Craig, Walton Goggins and Sam Rockwell was the highlight. Daniel Craig is a huge photography geek. Photography was a nice subject that we all could talk about with great passion. Walton Goggins is also a great photographer. You’d be surprised how many great actors are photographers. 

During filming in the middle of nowhere near Abiqui, New Mexico, we were being held inside a white tent to keep us a cool. They would pump cool air into the tent. It was our “waiting room” before heading out to shoot our scenes. Keep in mind we are in period costumes in the scorching heat. So here we are, the whole cast stuck inside a white tent hanging out. I couldn't believe the amount of beautiful diffused light bouncing around. Then it hit me. This is a perfect time to start shooting portraits Avedon style. I approached Sam Rockwell and took his portrait. He loved it and we took another. I then went around and showed the image to the rest of the cast in the tent, before you know it they all wanted their portrait taken. It was a fun moment and cherish those portraits for that reason. It gave us something special do during that time together.

RR: You recently portrayed a character in the Netflix series, Narcos: Mexico. What was that experience like? 

JCC: Yes, I landed a nice role as Guillermo Gonzáles Calderoni, commander of the Mexican Federal Judicial Police. The role is based on a real person and was considered the Eliott Ness of Mexico, meaning he was the top cop in the 80’s taking down some bad guys.

It was a great experience. It was a rigorous schedule spending about two and half months shooting in and around Mexico City. We filmed in Cuernavaca, Toluca, Querétaro, Puerto Vallarta and Guadalajara to name a few. It was fascinating to see how in the early 80’s how ill equipped the local authorities were in battling the organized cartels. They could handle the typical drug trafficker but not the well oil machine it became. Officers didn't have the training or the financial support to confront the growing cartels. I very much enjoyed the research that went into making the series. There was so much detail in every aspect of making this series. There are things you will never see on the show but were present on set. For example, the police reports, the signage, the badges, the cigarette packs, etc…were of that period in Mexico. I love the writing and the development of the characters. They are not stereotypical. These people existed. The show does a great job of presenting a gray world. Working with some of the A-list actors in Mexico was a true highlight for me. I wish people understood how much effort goes into making a show like this. I’m grateful I had the chance to add another important credit to my film career.

RR: What was it like shooting images during the filming of this series?

JCC: Being on any set is a privilege, but being on the set of a hit show is even more magical. The unique locations, the detailed props from the 80’s in Mexico, the extras in their costumes, the sets that had to be built…all of this adds to that magical vibe of being sent back in a time machine. You get excited. Then you focus on why you are there as an actor. You get accustomed to the world you’re in while you’re working. I then begin to search out my photographic opportunities.

RR: You take photography as serious as you do acting. Do you have any photographic projects, work or exhibitions coming in the near future?

JCC: I plan on traveling to Ojinaga, Chihuahua where I have family. I want to document some of the local life and to take portraits of the people who have never left that sleepy town. I’d like to plan a show there exhibiting not only their portraits but some of my past work. I spent a lot of my childhood there and I want people there to know they are not entirely forgotten. They deserve to be immortalized in a portrait. 

A huge opportunity fell into my lap this fall. I got to participate in a once in a lifetime experience with the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. Actually, you and I and several other artists were hand picked by Assistant Curators of Education Jesse Morgan Barnett and Tiffany Wolf Smith to participate in the billboard project titled Modern Billings. It’s a public program that places works of art on actual billboards. I would call it a true exhibit because the Modern is using a traditional advertising tool and using it to expose the local community to contemporary art. I’ve seen this kind of program in Los Angeles with some well established national artists. It’s a big deal to be included. Who would’ve thought I’d have a photograph of our vaquero culture on a billboard in my old stomping grounds? I still can’t believe it. It speaks volumes about the Modern’s out of the box thinking and sensibilities.  

They used my image from Zaragoza Coahuila titled La Mera Hora. You can see it on Jacksboro Hwy along with the other artists’ billboards. My long time friend, Jorge A. Jimenez, (actor best known as Poison in the first season of Narcos) invited me to his hometown of Zaragoza to document the “cabalgata” events. It’s basically an excuse to party and have everyone from all over to celebrate the founding of their town with a huge cavalcade of horses and wagons traveling through private ranches. Literally hundreds of people on horseback. It eventually ends with a “carne asada" cookout with plenty of beer. La Mera Hora (The Right Time) can mean almost anything can happen especially as dusk sets in. It’s a play on words. It has a stronger meaning in Spanish. 

RR: Thanks for the interview Julio! We'll be sure to keep up with all your work in film and photo.

JCC: It’s an honor. I appreciate this opportunity to talk to you about photography. It’s a big part of my life and I rarely get a chance to dive in with great conversation. I’m a huge fan of Deep Red Press. I want to thank you for exposing us to some great photographers and stories.