Michel Jourdain shifts gears from racetrack to movie set with role in 'Roma'

Former NASCAR and IndyCar driver Michel Jourdain Jr. behind the wheel in a 2007 race at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico City. Jourdain appears in the Oscar-nominated film 'Roma.' Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images for NASCAR

Read the original Spanish-language version of this story here.

It happens to everyone, right? You take your child to a casting call one day, only to be told that you're the one who's perfect for a part in the movie.

No? Well, it happened to Mexican former IndyCar driver Michel Jourdain Jr., who -- with no intention of doing so -- scored a role in filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron's critically acclaimed Spanish-language film, "Roma."

Jourdain plays a small but significant role in "Roma," a Golden Globe and Golden Lion winner that was recently nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film. The ex-NASCAR Peak Series driver now shares a common bond with Diego Luna, Gael Garcia Bernal, Sandra Bullock, George Clooney and Daniel Radcliffe -- all of whom have worked with the highly decorated Cuaron.

The film is a semi-autobiographical account of Cuaron's life growing up in Mexico City in the early 1970s. Jourdain's character, Dr. Alex Matos, is a friend and business partner to the husband of Sofia, who is played by Mexican actress Marina de Tavira.

"It was all rather funny," Jourdain said via telephone of the circumstances that led to his casting. "They put out a casting call at my children's school [in Mexico], for any student to sign up. Marco, my son who's now 12 -- this was two years ago -- signed up, and his mother took him. They asked him to return, but I took him for the callback.

"Once there, they asked me if I also wanted to come in. My initial reaction was no, but my son said, 'Do it, Dad! That way we'll both come out in the movie.'"

Marco's dad was the only one who walked out with a part, but a trip with his mother during filming in Mexico lifted the younger Jourdain's spirits. Meanwhile, Michel shifted gears from the racetrack to the movie set, working under his compatriot.

"At first, I don't think I knew that it was a Cuaron film," said Jourdain, who finished third in the 2003 Champ Car driver standings. "And then I was struck by just being there and watching him work."

"Roma" casting director Luis Rosales said no one recognized Jourdain, one of Mexico's most well-known drivers, at first. The only thought was that the 42-year-old Jourdain had the traits they were seeking for one of the roles.

"Michel was there at casting with his son," Rosales said. "I saw him there with other parents, and I thought he had interesting features that fit what we were looking for. So we asked him to join the cast."

Rosales said the cast of "Roma," which is available exclusively on Netflix, is comprised of 98 percent amateurs or non-actors. Cuaron sought to give the performances in his film a more natural, everyday feel, and he gave Rosales photos of people the director grew up with to help in the casting process. Rosales set out to find the best fits.

"Michel's demeanor and face caught my attention as being spot-on for that character," Rosales said. "But we didn't know he was a famous athlete, until my assistant told me that he was a well-known driver, so I Googled him.

"We already had several auditions, Michel was already cast. So I approached him, apologized for not knowing who he was and asked if he was comfortable going forward with the project. He didn't have any problem. He's a very gracious person; we were looking for somebody like that, and he wanted to be a part of it."

For his part, Jourdain -- who seemed unsure as to whether Cuaron knew who he was coming in -- had only acted in commercial spots for his sponsors and in a small role on a soap opera. All of a sudden, the athlete who had never taken an acting lesson found himself on the same set with one of the world's most acclaimed directors.

Jourdain said Cuaron, who won Best Director honors at the 2013 Oscars for "Gravity," made him feel at ease when it came time to film his scenes, in particular because Jourdain hadn't seen the script. Cuaron, Jourdain said, walked him through what to do and filled him in on his character during a key scene in the movie.

"We had two sessions of four or five days to film the New Year's party on the hacienda, and watching him [Cuaron] work was an incredible experience that stayed with me -- with or without nominations," Jourdain said. "I've worked with some of the world's best drivers, but I can tell you that Alfonso Cuaron is on another level."

Jourdain said he didn't work much with the movie's breakout star, Best Actress nominee Yalitza Aparicio. However, his real-world wife Concha and in-film wife de Tavira -- who is nominated for an Oscar in a supporting role -- attended the same school, which paved the way for a friendship between Jourdain and de Tavira.

"I don't make any sort of difference in the movie, it's the same with or without me," Jourdain said. "But to me the experience of being a part of it is awesome ... Lots of folks who know me perfectly well have seen the movie and don't realize that's me."