MIAMI (Reuters) - A pair of lead actors from a prize winning film about escaping Cuba have emerged from hiding to confirm they are seeking political asylum in the United States.
The young Cuban actors went missing last week while en route to the Tribeca Film Festival in New York where they were due to appear at the movie's U.S. premiere.
Actress Anailin de la Rua and actor Javier Nunez, cast members of "Una Noche" ("One Night"), broke their silence Friday night in a TV appearance on the Miami-based Spanish language channel America TeVe.
In an interview with Reuters, de la Rua and Nunez said their life imitating art saga was not quite as dramatic in real life as the harrowing story depicted in the film.
"Una Noche" follows three Cuban teenagers who try to escape their homeland by sea on a raft to start a new life in Miami. De la Rua and Nunez, who fell in love during filming, play a brother and sister, but only one of them survives the risky journey.
The pair said their real-life decision to leave Cuba stemmed from the success of the film and invitations to travel to festival premieres - Berlin in February and then New York.
They spent six days in Germany in February, their first overseas trip, but returned to Cuba and only began to think of leaving the island permanently when they got news of the invitation to New York.
"In part it's hard to leave your family and friends behind," said de la Rua, who has two sisters and divorced parents in Havana. "But at the same time you do it so you can help them. There's no future in Cuba."
Nunez said his mother lives alone in Cuba and he plans to help her out economically along with his older brother who left Cuba for Ecuador several years ago and works as a waiter.
The actors, both aged 20, said they were surprised by the film's success, especially as it was their first - and only - acting roles. They were 15 when they auditioned separately for the film, and then spent two years preparing for their roles after being selected by the film's director Lucy Mulloy.
"She told us what she liked and didn't like. She likes very natural acting," said de la Rua.
But nearly three years passed before the film's release, during which time the pair took regular day jobs. "Our friends in Cuba kept on asking us 'when is the film coming out,' and they almost didn't believe it was for real," said de la Rua, who worked at a Havana street stall selling home-made handicrafts and jewelry to tourists. Nunez worked in a pizza restaurant.
"It never entered our minds that we would get to travel because of the film. We never imagined that it would go this far," de la Rua added.
There is a long history of Cuban athletes and artists defecting to pursue careers outside their home country, including the 1997 defection of baseball pitcher Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez who smuggled his way out of Cuba by boat and became a star with the New York Yankees.
More recently the desertions have included talented ballet dancers and soccer players.
A Miami immigration lawyer, Wilfredo Allen, who is representing the actors, said he planned to file for political asylum on their behalf in the next two weeks "based on possible persecution if they return to Cuba."
Under U.S. law Cuban citizens enjoy special immigration rights to remain in the United States, either by applying for permanent residency or by seeking political refugee status.
The couple's reappearance came a day after Nunez shared the best actor award at the Tribeca festival, along with Dariel Arrechada, a fellow actor in "Una Noche." Arrechada accepted the award on his own, and apparently plans to return to Cuba.
"Una Noche" also picked up the Tribeca Festival's best cinematography award and best new narrative director for Mulloy.
Mulloy, a London-born 32-year-old who shot the low-budget film in Havana and was inspired by a tale she heard on a trip to the island nation 10 years ago, told Reuters she wished the missing actors could have attended the award ceremony.
"I haven't heard from them," she said. "Honestly, it's all happened so quickly ... it's a shock," she added.
"I'm sad for them because they are my friends," Arrechada told Reuters in broken English and Spanish after accepting his award on Thursday, referring to his missing fellow actors.
"I wish they were here, but ... you could be happy for them, for Javier and for Anailin and for everyone. It's weird. I miss him."
The couple is staying with de la Rua's uncle in Miami and plans to move into their own place as soon as they find jobs. They said they would like to act again, but are willing to do any kind of job to kick off their new lives.
They said the director of "Una Noche" is hoping to make a sequel, titled "Una Noche Mas" (One More Night).
"We'd like to do that," said Nunez.
Additional reporting by Christine Kearney and Tara Cleary; Editing by Vicki Allen