NEW YORK - Like the character she played in "Maria Full of Grace," Catalina Sandino Moreno left Colombia to live in New York City. But her address Tuesday was more like Cloud Nine.
When Moreno was announced as an Academy Award nominee for best actress, she was "in total disbelief."
With just this one film under her belt, the 23-year-old actress now finds herself nominated alongside Annette Bening and Hilary Swank. Having performed only in Colombian theater before being cast as a "mule" in "Maria Full of Grace," Moreno may be the freshest face of this year's nominees.
A year ago, the HBO-produced "Maria Full of Grace" won best dramatic film at Sundance. Since then, the story of Maria, who turns to drug smuggling for money (a memorable scene shows her swallowing plastic-wrapped pellets of heroin), has become an independent hit.
Moreno's natural performance has been trumpeted by critics and at festivals, including the Berlin Film Festival where she split lead actress honors with last year's Oscar winner, Charlize Theron.
Just hours after Moreno heard the Oscar news, The Associated Press caught up with her to find out what it feels like to, in two years, go from being a student in Bogota to the actress everyone's talking about.
AP: What went through your head when you heard your name announced?
Moreno: It was a mixture of everything. I was talking to my mother, I had my boyfriend right beside me. I was watching my face and my name. It was so unreal - a total disbelief that it's happening. It's just unreal. This is unreal! This can't be happening!
AP: When you began the movie, did you ever imagine this could happen?
Moreno: Oh, no. When I heard that HBO was going to be producing it, I thought it was going to be on HBO, the channel. And I was so happy because my mother had cable and I was like, "Oh my God, Mom, we can see it on HBO! We can just lay here in bed and watch it." I never thought it was going to be released. I never thought it was going to be in festivals, I never thought I or the movie could win something. And everything happened. It was just a dream that I never dreamt.
AP: It seems you were very much "discovered" in Bogota. How did you come to be cast in the film?
Moreno: I was studying acting in a little theater in Colombia and somebody saw me. I was at the end of my semester studying advertising in college and I was so busy that I didn't want to go to the audition. The person who had seen me in the theater liked me and called my mother. She said, "Of course! Sure she's going to go." But I didn't want to go - I was so busy! My mother was the one that pushed me. She said, "You should go, you should go meet the American doing a Colombian film." So I figured I would go and see what this American wants. I'm a Colombian girl, why not? Two weeks later, they called me to tell me the director wanted to meet me. At the end of that day, Josh (Joshua Marston, the film's writer-director) told me: "Welcome to the crew; you're my Maria."
AP: What would you be doing today if you hadn't done this film?
Moreno: I don't know. I should be in school... maybe working in some (advertising) agency. And being in an office.
AP: Why do you think this movie has gotten so much attention?
Moreno: I think it's because it's a real story with real human beings with very naturalistic acting. (The actors) are so fresh and so natural and so human and so beautiful. And I think people like that. People don't care about subtitles. People don't care about races. It's the story about Maria and it's a whole point of view that even we Colombians didn't know anything about.
AP: Are you excited for Oscar night?
Moreno: I'm happy. A lot of people ask me "what are you going to wear?" I'm like, "I don't know! I just knew (I was going) three, four hour ago! I don't know anything!" I just know that I'm trying to realize that I'm getting an Oscar nomination! That is very, very odd. Just let me digest it and then we talk about dresses. And the only thing I know is that I'm going to have fun. I'm going to be with my family. I talked to my grandmother and she was like, "I'm going to go to LA to see you at the Oscars." That's perfect! I want all of my family to come!
AP: So what's next? How can you top this?
Moreno: Right now I'm breathing. And talking. I don't know what I'm going to do. I'm just going to wait until after the Oscars. The exposure is good. It's really, really good. I think it's going to help me a lot, 'cause I'm the new girl between all the veterans. I'm just thrilled and I thank God.