After making Jackie with Natalie Portman, Chilean director Pablo Larrain surprises with his latest Chilean film Ema casting little-known actress Mariana Di Girolamo in her debut movie role. The 29-year-old, who has mainly appeared in Chilean soap operas, now has an American agent and is destined for big things. When we spoke on stage at the Ema Q&A at the Stockholm Film Festival, she looked like an angel, and hardly resembled the troubled punk dancer she plays in the film.
Loosely based on a screenplay by Guillermo Calderon and Alejandro Moreno, the film follows Ema, who has adopted a young boy together with her choreographer husband Gaston (Larrain regular Gael Garcia Bernal from No and Neruda), the director of an experimental dance troupe. After a violent incident, Ema has decided to give the kid back as she cannot handle the fact that she has turned him into a pyromaniac. The marriage ends. Ema is violent and acts out, sexually as well.
In their Venice Festival review Variety noted how Ema “makes the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo seem like Little Miss Sunshine” a point that is particularly valid for Swedish audiences. Here are some of the things we discussed on stage with the Stockholm audience.
You’ve been compared to Lady Gaga in the film. Do you feel this is a career-making performance?
This has been a new experience for me going to festivals and having a chance to show the movie to the world. I’m very happy and thankful.
Pablo Larrain previously directed Jackie with Natalie Portman. Ema couldn’t be a more different character than the very self-contained Jackie Kennedy. What was the most difficult thing for you to do?
Ema is such a complex woman. It was really challenging because we didn’t really have a script and we shot isolated scenes. In the end it was liberating because you only had to be very concentrated with yourself and with your acting partners, with Gael, Santiago (Cabrera) and Paola (Giannini). Pablo is such an amazing director. He is very sensitive where he casts his eye. I don’t know if other directors have his patience.
Was Pablo the reason you wanted to make the film?
Was it what you expected? Nobody expected this from him.
After Jackie, no. I think he’s very brave for doing this film. I really appreciate him; we need brave directors and people nowadays.
I’ve always found Pablo’s background interesting in that he is the son of Chilean politicians. He’s usually made films that are somehow political. Is Ema political?
I don’t think this film tries to be specifically political but of course he is political. Always. Hopefully this film reflects our generation, all the crisis in Chile, what’s happening now. Ema is fiction but I think we can find some Emas in the world. It talks about new orders, new ways to love and new ideas about families. The fire in the film is symbolic. You have to burn the old to bring life, the new order.
There’s a lot of sex in this movie! Were you ever told you’d have to have sex with so many of your cast members? Was that hard to do?
(Smiles) No, it was easy! We shot those scenes with a lot of respect with a few members of the team. I think it’s how Ema relates with others. It’s not important who she has sex with, even if she still establishes some respect for them.
The comparison between sex and dancing is interesting – that if you’re good at sex you’re good at dancing – or the other way around.
After Ema leaves the dance company she starts dancing on the street and starts sweating. I think it’s how she seduces, when she dances. Pablo says that how a person dances is very personal. You can see something about a person when they dance. So, Ema seduces with dance. That’s why she dances reggaeton (an aggressive reggae-rap Latino style).
Are you a dancer yourself?
I’m not a professional dancer but I really enjoy dancing with my friends in clubs. I like reggaeton but only to dance. I don’t like to listen to reggaeton. I think what I have in common with Ema is our passion for dance. I did two months of dance training before making the film.
What did you think when you first saw yourself on screen?
It was very hard. Pablo was very sure about two things: that he wanted to talk about a free woman and that he wanted Ema to have that very strange sticky blonde hair. I don’t know why.
What tips did Gael give you since he’s worked on several of Pablo’s other films?
Not that much, but we had this very nice dialogue all the time and a lot of respect. I wanted to know him, and he wanted to know me, but I was a little nervous because I was going to work with such a major star. We had dinner beforehand and talked about everything and that was important to break the ice. I learned a lot from him, about his passion and his joy. Of course, we didn’t stick to the script, so we were swimming in this pool together with Pablo.
How did you make it work?
With a lot of concentration. Pablo said if I had something I had to say I had to say it in the moment. We found ourselves looking each other in the eyes. The script was quite poetic but being in the present, the here and now, was very important.
What would you like to do next if you could do anything you wanted to do?
To keep travelling and working. I really like making films. My experience is mainly on television soap operas and I really learned a lot from this experience, so maybe working in another language, practising my English and working in the theatre. I’d like to work with different directors. I’m very hungry.
Cuba’s Ana de Armas is the new Bond girl. Would you like to be a Bond girl?
I don’t know. (Hesitates, but just for a second.) Yes, yes! Maybe I can be with my accent.
Ema is in cinemas May 13, 2021