BRAZIL — "If you compare him to the average politician in this country, he's an extraterrestrial," says Carlos Vereza of his soap character, Sen. Roberto Caxias.
Indeed, Mr. Caxias of "Cattle King" was conspicuously unlike earthbound lawmakers.
He lived in a modest apartment, walked to work, never missed a session of Congress, and cooked fried eggs at home rather than spend taxpayers' money in expensive restaurants. His wife nagged him for not "being like the others" and using his position to enrich the family coffers, and he turned down campaign contributions with political strings attached. On most days, you could find him in the Senate or at home studying the legislative process, hoping to persuade his unsupportive colleagues to back land reform.
In one of the novela's most compelling scenes, Caxias gave an impassioned plea for land reform to a Senate hall with only three bored members in attendance. "How long? How long must the nation wait?" he asked, while one senator gabbed on a cellular phone, another read a newspaper, and the third took a snooze. When Caxias finished his speech, a teardrop fell on his text, exactly on the word terra, or land.
The next day, some real senators were livid about their portrayal as uncaring politicians. "I reminded them," says Sen. Eduardo Suplicy, "that many indeed don't pay much attention when bills to alleviate poverty or improve income distribution are discussed."
"Senator Caxias vocalized a problem that has existed in this country for centuries but had always remained hidden," says Mr. Vereza. "But now, even 10-year-old kids stop me on the street to ask when agrarian reform is coming."
Vereza is no stranger to controversy. In 1972, he was kidnapped on a Rio street by police agents who took him to a clandestine jail and tortured him for eight days, apparently angered by statements he had made to the media criticizing the military dictatorship. Fortunately, he was starring in a novela at the time and TV Globo pressured for his release.
More recently, Vereza locked horns with ex-president and current Sen. Jos Sarney after the latter banned a Globo television crew from filming Caxias's wake in the Senate rotunda, saying it would have "denigrated the image of the Senate." The next day, Vereza told reporters that Mr. Sarney was "no small landowner," who would be "honoring a politician, albeit a fictitious one, who brought honor to his profession."
In the future, Vereza says he may run for public office. "But for now," he says, "when it comes to social change, I am more useful as an actor."