Christine Spines
January 26, 2007 AT 05:00 AM EST

In one of Babel‘s most brutal and moving sequences, Adriana Barraza’s Mexican immigrant nanny sobs uncontrollably as a hard-nosed cop threatens to deport her. It’s one of the movie’s most affecting moments, thanks to the flood of tears Barraza tapped repeatedly during the 14 hours it took to shoot the scene. Even director Alejandro González Iñárritu started to worry about Barraza, a habitué of Spanish-language television who played the mother of Gael García Bernal’s character in Amores Perros. ”He said, ‘Why do you have so many tears?”’ recalls Barraza, who’s in her early 50s. ”I don’t know. The suffering was for the character. The pain is important.”

Barraza’s high pain tolerance came in handy both on screen and off while playing a Job-like magnet for calamity. First, she packed 35 pounds onto her tiny frame because González Iñárritu wanted her character to have a more ”cozy face.” Then, she seriously risked her health during one harrowing sequence, in which she trudges through the Sonoran desert carrying young Elle Fanning in triple-digit heat. ”My body screamed, ‘Stop!”’ says Barraza, who has a history of heart trouble. ”But my interior said, ‘No. One more time.”’

Her suffering was not in vain. There is a layer of truth in Barraza’s eyes that elicits a heart-crushing empathy for her character, someone who’s been marginalized and overlooked all her life. Even her fellow performers were bowled over by the veracity of this first-time nominee’s performance. ”Adriana is breathtaking,” raves Cate Blanchett, still haunted by the image of Barraza’s agonizing march through the desert in her crimson party dress. ”You see this red streak running across the desert, and that is one of the iconic moments of cinema.”

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