In films like "Scarface" and "Traffic," he's surrounded by tough guys with
a penchant for excess. But this genial actor says good health is found
by avoiding extremes.
It's difficult to separate actor Steven Bauer from his breakout role as Manny Ribera, ill-fated sidekick to Al Pacino's Tony Montana, in the 1983 gangster epic "Scarface." That's because, like Bauer, who has worked in film steadily since then, "Scarface" has never really left the scene. The film has achieved cult status and influenced hip-hop culture, drawing renewed interest just last month with the 25th anniversary of its release.
But when Bauer enters the Manhattan sushi restaurant we've chosen for lunch, it quickly becomes clear that his personality doesn't jibe with Ribera's suave swagger. Instead of the tailor-made suits that grew more costly as Ribera and Montana fought their way up the Miami crime scene, Bauer is dressed in jeans, a black shirt and sport jacket. The actor is the subject of an interview this afternoon but is searching for answers himself.
He is a self-described "child of exile" whose parents fled Cuba when he was three. "I have that exile trauma mentality - having no homeland except your homeland," Bauer says, sitting beneath a large skylight in a back booth of the restaurant. "I feel the pain of my parents' loss of their homeland. I have a split allegiance. I am American, but I am always missing Cuba."
Bauer, 52, says acting helps him fill in those gaps and overcome the shyness and insecurity that came with feeling like a foreigner. "I would say it's the saving grace of my life," he says of his vocation, which he adds has allowed him to wear the roles of strong, confident personalities.
He cites true-to-life roles from the late 80s and early 90s in particular from which he says he drew confidence. In "The Sword of Gideon," Bauer played a Mossad agent pursuing the murderers of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. In "The Beast," he played an Afghan avenging an attack on his village by a Soviet tank crew. And in the mini-series "Drug Wars: The Camarena Story," Bauer, in a role nominated for an Emmy, played undercover DEA agent Enrique Camarena, who was killed on the job.
More recently, Bauer links his sense of a personal internal divide to "The Intruders," a psychological thriller slated for release this year in which Bauer's character wrestles with personalities that have touched his life. "This is a very deeply layered character," says Meadow Williams, Bauer's co-star and a scriptwriter on the film. "The character, Michael Foster, has gone through a tragedy and a lot of anguish and complications, and Steven pulled it off beautifully."
Off-screen the genial Bauer sang for makeup artists and told jokes to the crew. "He's just got this very warm, friendly and unpretentious way about him," Williams says. "That's a positive in health."
Bauer's on-set joie de vivre extends to his passion for a savory, healthful plate, Williams says. "He loves good flavorful food," she says. "I saw him eat garlic, lean chicken and vegetables. He's fit and muscular."
Bauer says his philosophy about diet is simple - one chooses food carefully. For instance, Bauer does not combine meat and sweet fruits, subscribing to the theory of some nutritionists that eating a concentrated protein and a concentrated carbohydrate at the same meal slows digestion.
He avoids the extremes of hunger or excess. At lunch in New York, his meal centered on fish and vegetables, with one nod to his Cuban heritage: black bean soup. "I'm going to go for something that reminds me of the taste of home," he says. As Bauer explains, his roots continue to shape his health and life in big and small ways.
Energy Times: You were three years old when your family left Cuba. Tell me how your roots have affected your life and career choice.
Steven Bauer: I was very, very shy and insecure about who I was, and personality was missing. My personality was someone who was just trying to please and not getting in the way and not being the foreigner. I didn't want to be the foreigner; I wanted to be like you, I wanted to be like the people around me. The outside worked real hard to please, to be everybody's friend.
What acting gave me was the opportunity to walk in the shoes of men who have conviction, who have strong ideas, who have motivation, who have ambition - things that I didn't have as I was growing up. I didn't develop ambition. I didn't develop competitive spirit. I discovered those things by playing them. Studying them gave me all those personality traits. I actually got to live them. I don't mean method acting where actors would live the role for awhile. I don't do that; I can go in and out.
ET: How often do you get back to Cuba?
SB: Never. I have chosen not to go back there although I know it's do-able. I know myself. I'm a very emotional person and I get affected by misery and by extreme conditions. I know if I went to Cuba I would be affected by that poverty and people who want to be free, but they can't. They've given up hope of being free, except for those who've thrown themselves into the ocean at the mercy of nature. Some of my friends go back and enjoy themselves, but I keep thinking, enjoy myself at the expense of these people? They're desperate.
ET: When we first spoke, you said you wanted to discuss your approach to food and health. Your parents must have brought the Cuban diet with them. How did that diet evolve and shape your philosophy about food?
SB: I learned to view food as a fuel. It's like blood, except it's not already running in your system; you have to choose what you put in. I'm not real scientific about it, but the older I get the more instincts I get about it. When I was a kid I had no idea. It's not as if I would eat anything; as a kid I was a finicky eater. I liked the food they made in my home, but that was very simple, meat and plantains. Unlike my American friends, I didn't have to eat vegetables, greens. Certainly I wasn't seeing them at home so when I was out I would always have this awkward moment when people would put greens on my plate and I would be mortified.
Needless to say my mom was big into eating meat and starch. I don't think I ate a tomato until I was 19 or 20 years old. I think the first vegetable that I ever considered eating were peas, but they were in butter, or snow peas and green beans, but they were done in garlic. Cuban food is a lot of fried food. It's also broiled. Rice is also a big staple of the Cuban diet, with everything; black beans, hamburger meat sauteed with it. My mom made it tasty. And pasta, pasta, pasta. In my mom's version of spaghetti, a more Cuban version, she just puts in a lot of cheese. It was this big casserole of spaghetti, meatballs and melted cheese.
ET: Were you overweight as a child?
SB: Amazingly, no. I was light. My genes, my metabolism seemed to deal with it. My mother always made sure we had some steak, chicken or fish. Fish was fried, baked or broiled. In my twenties I started really enjoying rice and pasta. Somehow I managed not to put that weight on because I was very active. Later on I started going out a lot and having a lot of dinners out, and I could not resist freshly baked bread. I always had to taste the bread.
ET: You don't regularly indulge like that now. When did you start being more mindful about your diet?
SB: Probably in my early thirties. Even though I was still really slim, I started paying attention because I realized I couldn't keep eating pasta and rice and bread forever.
Those are the concessions I try to make to my body now, because I know I am not a marathon runner.
I didn't have the time or the discipline to be one of those [exercise] fanatics, and I know a few of them. They would say you can eat what-ever you want, all the starches you want, you just have to work out every day. I have other rituals. I play guitar. I read a novel. I watch the cable news shows whenever I can.
ET: So you've been disciplined for a long time then. Have you strayed off course at all?
SB: I may go through periods where I'm not as careful. Let's say I have other concerns in my life, other things take precedence and so what happens is, like a lot of other people, I self-medicate with food. So I'll give myself a week from stress and I'll have some pasta. I don't eat creamy pasta. I just love pasta, good pasta with olive oil and garlic. I don't even eat meat sauces anymore; when I was a kid I loved it. I do love ravioli, but I never order ravioli because it's filled with [cheese] or beef. You're eating big chunks of pasta, so I'd rather have a little bowl of angel hair pasta with oil and garlic.
If I cut out pasta altogether, that's not really an option. That's like cutting out wine. I can have pasta and eat it healthily. And I can eat it once a week. Then I'm not starving myself. I'm not punishing myself, and I'm not being a pasta glutton. At the same time I stay lean. I don't have that excess body fat. It makes the goal achievable, and you're taking a reasonable approach as opposed to an extreme approach.
ET: You live in Los Angeles, which is not known for being pedestrian friendly. To avoid being sedentary, what do you do for exercise?
SB: I just find ways to combine it in my everyday life, to do something. If I'm in the house a lot, I get out of the house and walk somewhere as opposed to driving somewhere. I make sure that I'm walking 25 minutes to a half hour. There is a big pool in my apartment complex in LA, so I can do laps. I swim, not every day, but twice or three times a week. There is a great gym and spa downstairs next to the pool. So I'll do laps and then I'll go in the gym and do some curls, situps, pushups and crunches. Or I'll get on the stair machine or treadmill and ESPN is on. I can actually justify 25 to 30 minutes on the treadmill while watching the daily news.
ET: So, for the most part, you combine exercise with a purpose, and you eat for health not just appearance.
SB: A lot of people who have that kind of strict exercise regime are working on their bodies, not necessarily their health, so it's also a vanity thing. Let's face it - we live in an era in which there's so much emphasis on the exterior. It's one of the funny things that's happened to man, that we've become micro-attentive to the aesthetics of the human body, not necessarily its inner workings. There is a tremendous industry, mindset and philosophy about nutrition and it grows, but it's quieter than the fitness craze. Sometimes it's fitness and sometimes it's vanity.
I'm as vain as the next person. I'll still gauge myself by what I see in the mirror. Sometimes I overly notice, whereas other people around me will not notice that I may be a little heavier. I know I'm heavier and I know why - because I've been careless and I've been a bit more extravagant with the opportunities to have a great Italian meal. I'm not going to sit down and not order pasta. But I'm going to try to just taste the pasta.
ET: That looks healthy. Describe the dish you're eating.
SB: It's spicy tuna with avocado crunch roll. Tuna, scallions, avocado and crunchy rice. It's very inviting. Then there's two pieces of sashimi - yellowtail. It's one of my favorite fishes. Melts in your mouth. It's tasty in and of itself; you don't even need anything to dress it up. That's ginger, that's good for you - cleans your palate and it's good for your digestion.
ET: How do you remain careful about what you eat on movie sets and on location? Is it tough?
SB: It is tough. The challenges are to be adventurous, but not to forget that there's always tomorrow and there are consequences to splurging or being extravagant.
Someone like me who loves good food, I sometimes can't resist. I have to remind myself.
ET: So you really try to pursue a moderate course when it comes to diet and you don't punish yourself for an occasional slip. That sounds like a good way to avoid regrets.
SB: I don't live in regret of the things that I'm not allowing myself. I allow myself to look at everything objectively and assess whether I can afford it. I'm no longer as impulsive as I was when I was younger.
ET: You work in a profession in which you have to watch your appearance more consciously than others. What advice do you have for others who may not be forced to be so conscious about their weight?
SB: For people who don't make a living with their looks, it's not imposed on them. But society imposes it on them. We all live with mirrors. Your body is where you live. It's what you inhabit. If you take that approach, where you're going to respect yourself and avoid extremes, you're going to live happier and you're probably going to look better.
You don't have to starve yourself or do whatever is fashionable, because those things change. Just treat yourself well and you'll be happier in your body. You don't have to be a fanatic to feel good and be healthy. You just have to give yourself some time and energy and discipline and care. Nurture it.