'Ugly' Teen Turned Temptress, Sonia Braga Clouds Male Minds but Brightens a Beanfield

UPDATED 04/18/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 04/18/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

Sonia Braga became a typist at 14. She was one of seven children, the daughter of a widowed Sao Paulo seamstress. The story only gets worse. The actress now called the Brazilian bombshell was skinny, with big teeth and curly, stubborn hair that defied combs. She sums it up: "I was kind of ugly." She might not have been as unsightly as she portrays herself, but she is not a person who likes being challenged on details.

"I never lie in my whole life," she says. Keep that in mind.

She was unattractively pecking away, unaware of the stardom that would someday be hers thanks to performances in Kiss of the Spider Woman, Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands and, most recently, The Milagro Beanfield War, when into the office strode a man. He worked for a fashion photographer, and he asked her to pose.

I hold up my hand, requesting a pause. I do not understand how one minute she is one of the ugliest girls in Brazil and the next she is a model.

"I am ugly," she says impatiently, "but he did not think so. Why should I remind him that I am ugly?"

Believing she was too short to model, she decided not to pose for the man. While ugly might have been in her mind, short is reality. She is 5'3".

"Now I am still typing. This girl I knew told this filmmaker all about me."

She told him about this girl who was short and ugly and had big teeth?

"Yes, I think so," she says.

She got the part, and though the movie was made, it was never released. I begin to understand: The movie was never shown because she was so ugly nobody wanted to see it.

"No," she says, "I was beautiful, but nobody ever told me. The teeth were big but very white. They were not bad teeth. They were big teeth."

She demonstrates, baring uncapped originals. I tell her they are nice. She does not smile. This is not an interview as much as it is a litany. I am in trouble whenever I get my responses wrong.

She waits for me to continue. I suggest that following her success in the unreleased movie, she became a big star. She nods. I don't know how this happened, but I got it right.

She did TV, theater and then soap operas. Usually she was cast as a depressed teenage girl who would cry after the untimely death of a loved one. Such performances brought her fame. She is 37 now, and she has become such an important star in Brazil that even her brothers, who used to tell her she was ugly, do not call her names anymore. So far she has made only two movies outside her country, the first an HBO film and the second The Milagro Beanfield War, Robert Redford's beautifully filmed celebration of the triumph of poignant ethnic working folk over imperialist land developers. Braga plays an activist body-shop owner who rallies the town to the defense of the bean field, an uncharacteristically demure role for a woman who exuberantly shed her clothing in Dona Flor. There have been few nonerotic moments in her career—one was in 1986 on The Cosby Show, where she played Theo's math teacher.

"I am terrible in math," she says.

The rest of her life doesn't sound so terrific, either. She was the daughter of a part-black, part-Portuguese father and a part-white, part-Indian mother, and while that resulted in no social disadvantages, the death of her father certainly did. "In Brazil," she says, "prejudice is not racial, it is economic." She was 8 when he died, and her mother was barely able to support the family.

Even today, Braga does not live comfortably, but at least it is a matter of choice. Since giving up her apartment in Rio de Janeiro a few years ago, she stays with friends or in hotels. For a while she was proud of this unconfined existence, but now she is not so sure. "There is a day you wake up and want your T-shirts in a drawer," she admits. Another problem that comes with having no house is having no bed, but she avoids back problems by sleeping on hotel room floors.

"What a good idea," she says, brightening at her own cleverness.

Still, because we are in her hotel room, I cannot help but notice a bed nearby. I ask her if she is waiting for the hotel to remove it.

"I don't think so," she says, "but it is not a bad idea."

I remember that she has been called the Marilyn Monroe of South America, and I understand why. It has nothing to do with her looks. I go into the bathroom, splash cold water on my face, return to the conversation.

She tells me that she has no man with whom she can share a home. I ask about her rumored fling with Marcello Mastroianni while they were filming Gabriela in 1982. "I never did it," she says. I ask about her affair with Redford while making Milagro, gossip I don't believe for a minute. "I heard about that while I am in Europe," she says. "It is not true. If it is true, I tell you. There is nothing wrong with having affairs. I never had it, and I am not saying that to make people think I did." She says that only four times in her life has she had serious relationships. Twice the men left her. Twice she left the men. She has never married.

"I don't know why," she says.

Could she be too great a challenge?

"No, I am very easy," she says. "I am faithful, nice. That is why I never get married. I am too perfect to be a wife."

I ask her if that is what she tells the men who ask to marry her.

"Nobody did. They are too smart."

But some of them liked you?

"I never saw them crying for me, but they said they did."

What was it they liked?

"I can make them laugh. I tell them I love them, and they laugh, they cannot believe it. It is so hard to know what is going on in a man's head. You tell them every time what they have to do to make you happy, and they do the opposite because they don't want to do what you tell them. But, in fact, you still tell them exactly what to do because you know they are not going to do it, and then you have a reason to break up, because if they do what you tell them you will be together forever and nobody wants that."

Oh.

"Yes, that is my new theory about relationships. If you want to be together you tell them the opposite of what you want. That is the game, and I am not up to playing the game."

I ask her if, after all this, she still likes men.

"Yes, I do like them. They are not bad. They are just confused."

Sometimes, she admits, she becomes lonely. This can happen to women who think straight all the time. Among her good friends is Raul Julia, who starred with her in Kiss of the Spider Woman and the upcoming Paul Mazursky comedy, Moon over Parador. He has tried to help out with the direction of her personal life.

"Me and Raul were trying to find a husband for me, trying to pick the right person," she says. "A scientist? No. An actor? No. In the end he decided it had to be somebody who knows how to make sushi. It was because we were walking while we were talking about this and Raul was very hungry. He says, 'What a wonderful husband for you, Sonia!' If Raul was in pain, he would have picked a doctor for me. Raul is such an uncomplicated man."

We are discussing whether she might end up homeless on the streets of New York, pushing her T-shirts along in a wire shopping cart. "What's wrong with that?" she asks, as the interview ends. A limousine has arrived to take her to the airport. She is on her way to Los Angeles, a city she likes very much because she believes Norma Desmond, the silent movie queen Gloria Swanson played in Sunset Boulevard, lives there. I do not try to correct her. I am probably wrong.

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