Click Here For The Video
We all give lip service to the idea that actors aren’t really like the characters they portray, but it’s hard not to tense up a bit before meeting Seu Jorge, who was the menacing, dead-eyed street hood Knockout Ned in Fernando Meirelles’ City Of God.
The surprise is that not only is he a gentle man, a loving dad to a three-year-old girl, but he grew up—like Ned—in the rough favela streets and avoided their angry influence.
Ned, he said, “was very close to my life and very far way from my own choices. This guy chose vengeance and he died in the arms of vengeance. I made another choice.”
The groundwork for that other path, Jorge said, began at home with a loving family. “Despite the fact that I was poor,” he said, “I had a good childhood because my parents not only loved each other but loved their kids as well. They were very tender—a lot of love. They did everything to keep their kids out of trouble.
“For them the real measurement of success was that I become a man with dignity, a man with his own internal compass and was not compromised.”
That internal compass led him to always be a bit of a loner, apart from the other kids. He began work at the age of 10, fixing flat tires, and he avoided fights, despite the tempestuous nature of life in the streets of his neighborhood, Baixando de Fluminense.
Although he left school at the age of 13, Jorge said his “post-graduate” work began when he, as a teenager living on the streets, was asked to join a group of people that were rebuilding and reviving an old theater at the University of Rio. He recalled that virtually living in the old, broken-down theater was the first time he had a roof over his head for years.
“It was my way of getting out,” he said, noting that he learned about the various aspects of theater, from lighting to Shakespeare.
Jorge was in a documentary about Brazil by a Finnish director, but his big break was the featured role in City Of God, which was based on real-life stories of young favela dwellers.
In parallel to his theatrical career, he began to slowly discover the joys of playing music. He said that as a shy young man, music helped him break the ice with friends as well as with women. “I didn’t want to see it as career, just something to be experience and enjoyed. I thought it wouldn’t work out if I thought of it as career.
Looking back, he said he had a “deep inferiority complex,” because he was so poorly educated and dressed and that he had never been well-nourished, never having eaten three meals in a day. Music, however, helped him break free of these “complexes” and he eventually gained some success with the samba-pop band Farofa Carioca, and he had a hit solo album called Samba Esporte Fino. It was a fellow musician who gave him his nickname, a play on seu’s two meanings, “sir” and “yours.” Jorge was seen as so giving to his audiences, he was literally “theirs.”
The parallel pursuits of music and acting serendipitously came together after Meirelles recommended him for a part in Wes Anderson’s movie The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.
In the movie, Anderson had written a part for a black Brazilian who was one of the lead character’s assistant seamen, but also played his own musical compositions. Jorge got the role and eventually the musical selections evolved into rewritten bossa nova-esque versions of classic David Bowie songs. The seemingly wacky juxtapositioning of styles was one of the most-talked-about aspects of the film and Jorge became the new next big thing from Brazil.
Despite the unprecedented attention from Life Aquatic, Jorg