For her role in the new film "Casa de Los Babys," the last thing bilingual actress Rita Moreno expected was a language problem.
"[Spanish] did not come easily. It took an entire month of doing the entire script over and over," says the Puerto Rico-born actress, adding that she found it difficult to act in Spanish while still thinking in English.
Worse, she had to work on her Spanish pronunciation. "I detected a tiny bit of an American accent," Ms. Moreno explains, which would not fit her role as an upper-class Mexican woman who has hit hard times.
"Casa de Los Babys" focuses on a group of American women living together in Mexico as they each wait to adopt a baby. The movie chronicles their lives of quiet desperation and contrasts them with the equally troubled lives of the Mexicans entangled in their stories - from hotel operators to lawyers to would-be tour guides. Directed by John Sayles, it goes wide Oct. 3.
Moreno stars as the proprietor of the hotel, in what turns out to be her first Spanish-language role in a film. In the end, she says she was pleased with her performance. "I would love to do it again. I'm hoping when this plays in Hispanic countries someone will ask me."
With Sayles's diverse track record that stretches back to "Return of the Secaucus Seven" (1980), it's no surprise that the director pulled together an interesting cast for "Casa." The adoptive moms include Mary Steenburgen, Marcia Gay Harden, Lili Taylor, Daryl Hannah, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Susan Lynch. "Casa" was filmed on a tight budget, so there was little time to rehearse. Each actress faced her own challenges.
Ms. Taylor plays one of the prospective moms in a role that's more straightforward than some of her previous ones, such as the lead in "I Shot Andy Warhol." Taylor's character was also more at ease with herself than the other women, which presented issues.
"He wanted to see me play less intensely. It's harder to play a regular person without neuroses," she says. "I learned about faith, which [Sayles] has a lot of. He has faith in what he's doing, and that's really inspiring."
Taylor and Ms. Gyllenhaal say the actresses grew close during the four-week shoot. "We all lived in a big house together," Gyllenhaal says. "We ate all meals together and swam together. I never lived with six women before."
Because the film is an ensemble piece, none of the actresses felt the burden of "carrying" the film the way, for instance, Gyllenhaal did in her art-house hit "Secretary."
"I could be a little freer," Gyllenhaal says. "What was complicated about it was that we were playing these women who were really broken in some way. I think we all took on those characters in some way... [off-camera]."
Gyllenhaal had to figure out how to connect to a character who was much more insecure than she is in real life, while Taylor had to flesh out a performance without any major personality problems.
However it may be Moreno who had the toughest job of all. Her character is an older woman who's been abandoned by her husband and has only the hotel she operates as a means of support. Moreno's main problem?
"I never worked in an office my entire life," says the actress, whose career includes "The King and I" and "West Side Story." But her solution was easy. "I called some Chicana girl friends and said, 'What do people do in offices?'"
They came over with props like keyboards and a credit-card machine, so Moreno could figure out what she would be doing in the hotel office. It turned out to be a lot easier than losing the American accent.