Eduardo Verastegui has been a model, a musician, a producer, and an actor. Known for his musical success and his celebrity status in Mexico, the star of 2006’s Bella plays a peace-keeping rebel in the upcoming film For Greater Glory. The movie, which has already released in his native Mexico to great fanfare, chronicles the Cristero war of the 1920’s. Starring alongside Andy Garcia, Eva Longoria, and Peter O’Toole, he joins in a battle for religious freedom in the wake of the government’s decision to persecute the public practice of Catholicism. Verastegui is a practicing Catholic himself, and his faith has become a major part of his work. This film has been especially meaningful to him, and he was kind enough to talk to Beliefnet’s Stephen Russ about the movie, his life, and the impact he hopes to have on those around him.

You are very picky about film roles you choose because of your faith. What drew you to this movie?

Let me go way back. I’m from Mexico, I moved to LA right when I was turning 28. After ten years of working really hard in music, film, and television I realized that I was not assuming the responsibilities that I had to assume as an actor. Sometimes you forget that whatever project you are involved in, whether you like it or not, it’s going to affect how people think, how they live, how they behave, how they dream, because media in general, and film and television, they have the power to touch people’s hearts and change their minds. Most young people in America spend more than eight hours in front of the media. Somebody told me that the statistics for average percentage between parents and children having meaningful conversations is only three to six minutes a day, but in front of the media more than 8 hours a day. So we know who is educating the youth – it’s the media. Now there’s nothing wrong with the media, it’s just a means, it’s how you use it that makes the difference. In my opinion I was poisoning our society by the projects I was involved with. Out of ignorance I ended up doing things that right now I don’t feel proud of and wish I could go back and redo, but I can’t.

When I turned 28 I realized all these things that I’m sharing with you, I made a promise to God that I would never use my talents again to do anything that would offend my faith, my family, or my Latino culture. I discovered that Latinos today have been stereotyped in a very negative way in the media. The bandito, the criminal, the gang member, etc., very few times do you see the Latino having an opportunity to be a hero. But there are real heroes, like in this movie For Greater Glory Anacleto Gonzalez Flores is a family man, a man of faith, a man of character, a peaceful man who was called the Mexican Gandhi because he wasn’t afraid to use to his talents to serve and to make a difference. He wasn’t afraid to fight for something bigger than himself to the point that if he has to give his life he will, and he did, he sacrificed everything to protect religious freedom and he became a martyr. That’s why I was so inspired by him, he’s my true inspirational hero role model because of what he did with his talents, with his life, and the last words that came out of his mouth were “Viva Christo Rey” (“long live Christ the King”) in real life. So that’s why I think it’s very important, knowing how much media influences what people think, especially knowing how much youth have this tendency to imitate what they see in film and in television, we copy and we behave in the same way. You are what you read, what you see, who you hang out with, that’s why right now I choose carefully. Anything I do or produce, it has to have enough ingredients promoting truth, beauty and goodness.

Where you familiar with the war and your character prior to seeing the screenplay?

When I got the script I knew about this war and this character, but only a few years before. Before that I didn’t know anything. I was completely ignorant about the topic. I didn’t know about the Christeros war, I didn’t know about this dark period of Mexico in the 1920s when religious persecution happened and more than 200,000 people died in a horrible way because of this war. I did not know anything about this because in public school they didn’t teach me [about it]. I felt embarrassed, like I didn’t know about my own history… then I discovered that most of the people in Mexico didn’t know about this topic and I discovered that one of the reasons why it is not taught in public schools… is that we don’t feel proud of what happened in Mexico. We always like to celebrate the beautiful things; our culture, our music, our food, but not this horrible internal war between the government and the church. The second reason is [that] it’s such a delicate thing that they want to bury this wound.

That’s why they didn’t teach any of this in school, but I think it’s the opposite. We need to bring the wound out, heal it, go back to history to study and learn from these decisions that were made at the time, so we don’t commit the same mistakes in the present, so we preserve ourselves from all these horrible consequences. I think people need to stand up when the government is trying to take religious freedom away from the people, and hopefully we don’t make the same mistakes but sometimes people don’t learn you know. We commit the same mistakes over and over expecting the same results but its nuts. It happened in Spain a few years later, it happened in Cuba, and in many other countries. It will happen here now in the States and many parts of the world where the government starts taking the right of religious freedom away.

The character you play is a pacifist, is that something that you identify with?

Yes and no… no because my temper is very explosive. I’m trying to change the things I don’t like about myself and one of them is that. When I see somebody doing an injustice I have this tendency to try and do something right away, I’m trying to change more to Anacleto Gonzalez Flores. He was always trying to defend his faith, his belief, and his religious freedom with peaceful means like wisdom, intelligence, not with violence. I’m learning from him, I feel like I receive more from him than what I gave to this character. So I think this Mexican hero is going to change the lives of so many people, has changed the lives of so many people, including my own life. As an actor I am trying to see if I can do other roles, other characters, where I can learn from them. So by the time I finish I feel like I am a better person. I feel like I am more human by giving myself to portray them and in that process I end up learning so much about their virtues and about their lives and I can put that into practice into my own life.

[Flores] was a true peace maker and not only a person who was just talking. He did it. He sacrificed everything for something that was bigger than himself and he became a martyr. That’s the ultimate form of love for something bigger than yourself, and in this case it was for Christ, his faith, and to protect religious freedom. When I saw the film and saw the scene where he gets killed, he challenged me, and I asked myself “Am I willing to die for my faith?” “Am I willing to die for something bigger than myself?” “Am I willing to do the right thing?” “Am I willing to die to protect religious freedom?” Sometimes fear comes into me and the answer is no, but then I realize that it is humanly impossible to do what they did. They needed to receive a special blessing from God, where they get that strength to really die for their belief. I hope that if I am one day in a situation like this I can say “yes” and I can die for my faith.

You said that you’d like to seek out more roles like this in the future. Are there roles from your past that have influenced you in the same way?

Yeah, whether you like it or not, whatever you pick to do not only is going to affect you, it’s going to affect the audience for good, or for bad. You can’t just ignore the fact that not only are you going to be doing research for your character, you’re going to be playing that character for awhile, you’re going to see the movie over and over and over, you’re going to promote the film, and then you’re going to have to do 500 hundred interviews to promote the film. So of course it’s going to affect you because you’re talking about your character, talking about the story, talking about the message, so somehow it becomes part of your life. The worst part, especially when you do something that is not designed to “turn the light on” but the opposite, [is that] it stays forever. It’s something that will live forever, you will die and it becomes immortal. So when it’s good “thanks be to God,” but how about when it’s bad? There’s nothing you can do to block it out. That’s why it’s so important to assume the responsibility that someone like you, as a journalist, or me as an actor or film maker, or a singer or whoever is involved with the media, that we address ourselves every day by saying “What am I doing?” “How are people going to read this?” “I’m giving them food, what kind of food am I giving them?” “Am I building or am I destroying?” “Am I saying the truth or am I saying the lie?” “Am I part of the darkness or part of the light?” That’s something that only you can really be honest about, and when I start asking those questions to myself it broke my heart because life’s too short, you live once and boom that’s it.

I realized how much time I’ve wasted in my life. Then I just wanted to repair any damage I caused by what I said in interviews about what I thought a real man should be, because that’s what I believed at the time. I was seduced by a certain mentality, and I grew up in a place where I thought that the real man is the one that has thousands of women and the more women, the more masculine. In many other areas I thought this is what I needed to do in order to be happy and to be successful. Then I realized that I was wrong, the real man is the one who respects women, who sees their dignity, who protects women, and someone that treats women the same way he would like his mother to be treated. I started realizing how many people heard me saying these things and maybe they thought because I was a celebrity I was saying the truth. Somehow you become like a teacher, even if you don’t want to, even if you don’t want to assume the responsibilities of being a role model, if you are on TV or on film, if they push a microphone in front of you, you become a role model whether you like it or not. Some people will follow you and a real leader, I think, is someone who leads people to the truth.

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