RESISTING DIFFERENTLY: Maria Kallimani, leading actor of At Home, interviewed by Lydia Papadimitriou in Karlovy Vary
Lydia Papadimitriou met actor Maria Kallimani at the 49th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in July 2014, where Athanasios (Thanassis) Karanikolas’s Sto Spiti/At Home was shown as part of the ‘Another View’ section, following the film’s world premiere – and Award by the Ecumenical Jury – at the Berlin Film Festival in February. Through a highly internalized and quietly expressive performance in the leading role of Nadja, Kallimani conveys very effectively the dignity of this domestic worker from Georgia, in a film that departs from stereotypical depictions of immigrants in Greece. Lydia Papadimitriou interviewed Maria Kallimani about her role in the film, her collaboration with writer/director Thanassis Karanikolas and her overall career in the cinema.
Lydia Papadimitriou : I would like to begin by asking you to introduce us to your character Nadja in At Home.
Maria Kallimani : Nadja is a domestic worker from Georgia who has lived over twenty years in Greece, and who, for the last twelve, works for a young, affluent and open-minded Greek couple and their daughter, Iris. She has an unconventional relationship with them – the wife says that she is her friend, and Nadja seems to be part of the family. However, from the opening scene we realize that Nadja has a physical weakness and she soon gets diagnosed with a disease – probably multiple sclerosis. Unfortunately, this coincides with financial difficulties for the couple because of the broader economic crisis. So they decide to sack Nadja, and the situation changes dramatically for her.
Even though she is from Georgia, Nadja speaks very good Greek – the script makes it clear that the couple hire her partly for this, as they want their child to speak the language well. Nadja is very devoted to all she does. But as she works with her body, her disease places a very direct threat. When she finds out about it, she initially chooses not tell the family, not because she wants to hide, but because she wants to work things out herself first. And when they find out and they sack her, she actively refuses to make any financial demands, even though she is urged to do so by the man she dates, the stable hand, Marco. She is deeply attached to her employers, she respects that they have financial difficulties, and she does not want to challenge this relationship. And, initially, she cannot accept that they sack her because of her illness. But of course, in the end, she realizes it.
LP : What challenges did the role present you with?
MK : One of the distinctive aspects of this character is that she has many domestic jobs; she is very practical. This was a challenge. But I liked it, as it allowed me to approach the role in a concrete way. From digging in the garden, to cleaning the bath, to cooking, to washing the child, to cleaning the windows – all this was a very good way into the role. This practical side allowed me to unlock aspects of her character, as she does not work with resentment, but with love. And I have seen a number of women like this in Greece in recent years; who work hard, but with dignity; who appreciate what you give them because they have gone through difficult times. The part appealed to me because it invited me to imagine how these women really are – because we normally see them from the outside. We see them in our houses – how they work, how they communicate; but we do not know their personal lives, what their actual life is – their children, their husband, their family, and it was for me very attractive to dwell into this woman’s life. To see a different side – not only her work, but also her personal moments with her partner, Marco. We see how she relaxes, how she drinks her coffee, how she swims – of course these moments are very few and far between. But it was for me very interesting to see her private life. The challenge was to work out how, despite her inevitable bitterness and doubts, in the end, she leaves with her head high and with a smile. She does not hold grudges. She understands the family’s choices. Not with a sense of superiority, but with love. Because she has real love, this is why she understands.
LP : Do you think that it is important that Nadja is specifically from Georgia?
MK : It is mainly important in so far as in the last few years most domestic workers in Greece have been either from Georgia or from Albania. In studying the character and learning some Georgian for the part, I had some help from a Georgian woman, Veriko, who has studied Greek literature and who, like Nadja, speaks very good Greek. She gave me some insights about the Georgians, suggesting that they have a certain moral depth as people; they are educated without necessarily having finished school or University. There might be some cultural affinity with Greeks because Georgians are Christian Orthodox – although the film does not highlight this at all. The fact that she is from Georgia is mainly reflecting the fact that there are no Greek domestic workers in Greece any more.
LP : How did you become involved with the project, and what was your input in shaping the character at the level of the script?
MK : I first met Thanassis during the 2013 Berlin Film Festival, where I had gone with Elina Psychou’sI Aionia Epistrofi tou Andoni Paraskeva/The Eternal Return of Antonis Paraskevas. Thanassis knew my work from Ekonomides’s Mahairovgaltis/Knifer and he wanted to meet me. About a month and a half later, we started our collaboration. Even though he had a script, during pre-production (from about March to July 2013) he reworked the script with the actors. He wanted to know: How do we find the story? What is believable? What does not fit? In the process a number of things changed – for example, the ending. When I first read it, I was concerned that the character would appear to be a loser. This is a film that without any moments of eruption or outward intensity, so it was difficult to find this woman. I wanted her to be a strong woman, not a victim. And so did Thanassis. But it was not obvious how this would be communicated. Gradually, this emerged through discussions on the script, but also through discovering the character emotionally via acting.
LP : Do you consider that the director invites us to admire Nadja? Does he want to convey some positive values through her character even though she does not fight for her rights?
MK : The director wanted to propose a way of behaving through Nadja, so in this sense she is a symbol and a positive role model. Initially it was difficult for me to fully understand how she behaves and why she does not fight back. And I am sure that some viewers will say ‘Why does she not actively resist? Is she stupid?’ During the shooting I confirmed what my initial sense of this woman was, and I understood her more every day. It is her nature, her character, not to demand from the others. She has dignity and she cannot betray what she feels for these people. And this is where she gets strength in her life. It is a different kind of resistance. I think that despite being quite open, the ending is optimistic.
LP : Starting with your own very powerful performance, the acting in this film is internalized but also very expressive. Could you tell us how you worked with the director on your performance?
MK : First of all, we all worked on the script, as I already explained. During rehearsals Thanassis introduced us to the Meisner acting technique. This is a method that relies a lot on communication between the actors: by observing the other you find your part and you can touch emotions without overthinking. Even though we only worked on some scenes with this method it helped us connect as actors, and allowed us to better understand our characters. Sometimes we had to play a scene straight for the camera without having rehearsed; this put us under pressure, but it was also very creative because we had to enter in a particular situation here and now. As a director, Thanassis was very aware of what he wanted to convey and what he expected from the actors. But he also gave us freedom in terms of how to find and interpret our part; he did not interfere to close us off. We could try new things. He let us be creative within specific boundaries.
LP : Visually the film is very controlled. An aspect that indicates the visual control of the film is that, with the exception of one scene, Nadja wears one dress for the whole film. In fact, all the other characters also do. And everything – costumes and sets – is colour coordinated. Could you explain why?
MK : Zoe Asimaki, who plays the couple’s daughter Iris, asked the director during the shoot: why do we wear the same clothes every day? Thanassis had this idea that the costume is meant to reflect the character almost in an abstract way. I find the film something between fiction and documentary: on the one hand, it is very realistic, on the other, it is very poetic. And this idea that the characters should have one costume contributes towards its poetic dimension. This unified look does not offer any visual distractions, and it keeps the viewer’s focus on the story.
LP : Nadja’s costume is quite elegant – and there is something incongruous in seeing her dig the garden in this dress and in her platform shoes. In fact, from the dress alone the social hierarchy between the characters is not evident; you cannot tell, just by looking at them, that one is the domestic worker and the other one is her employer.
MK: Yes, this was part of the director’s intention. From the start – and many people have mentioned it to us – when she takes the daughter to the riding club, you cannot guess that she is not the child’s mother. And none of us wear any make up either. Visually we are not meant to be identifiable in terms of our social position.
LP : Before moving on to a broader discussion of your career in cinema, I was wondering if there is anything you would like to add about your experience in making this film.
MK : The crew was excellent. For actors this is very important, as it allows us to concentrate our energy to our work without distractions. The experience on this set was extremely positive. We could sense that everyone supported us for the job to happen. I also want to mention the excellent food, which was cooked by the aunt of our Greek producer, Argyris Papadimitropoulos. This may sound like an irrelevant detail, but it is very important because the conditions are tough: you get up at six in the morning, and then it is 12-14 hours work every day.
LP : Until relatively recently, your work has been mostly in the theatre (www.mariakallimani.com). Could you tell us how your involvement with cinema began?
MK : My first job for the cinema was in Hora Proelefsis/Homeland by Syllas Tzioumerkas, where I had a small part – two or three days of shooting. During this shoot I met actor Errikos Lytsis, who told me to get in touch with the director Yannis Ekonomides as he was looking for an actress for Knifer. This is how things started. With Ekonomides I had my first major contact with cinema and it was an excellent experience. Just like Karanikolas – although in different ways – Ekonomides is very passionate to find out the truth of the situation he depicts. With Yannis I felt like a 15-year old wondering what I would see and experience on the set. Acting for the cinema is very intense; you do not rehearse for three months, and then play the same part for another three during which time you can improve your performance. In the cinema, you may rehearse for a while, but ultimately you need to capture the moment. You need to do the scene here and now.
Knifer was crucial for me. First, because I realized how much I enjoyed acting for the cinema. But also because people liked my performance and doors opened. This is how I got the part in Elina Psychou’s The Eternal Return of Antonis Paraskevas, where I play a pregnant journalist, as well as the small part in Goritsas’s film Ap’ta Kokala Vgalmena. I also performed in two shorts, in Alexandros Avranas’s Miss Violence and in Ekonomides’s To Mikro Psari/ Stratos. And this is how Karanikolas found me for At Home, my first part in the cinema where my character holds the whole film together.
LP : Do you have any film parts lined up?
MK : I have a part in Yorgos Zois’s film Stage Fright, which is about an avant-garde performance of the Oresteia, where a group of people that we think is the chorus take things in their hands … I will play a member of the audience who, together with my sister, are called on stage. There is a script, but Zois plans to use improvisation. He has not revealed all the script to us; he wants to surprise us during the shoot. I also have a small part in Papadimitropoulos’s film Suntan that will be shot in Antiparos in August.
LP : As you have been involved with Greek cinema for the last five years, I would like my final question to be about the crisis: To what extent, and how, has it affected your experience (and that of your colleagues) in making films?
MK : My first part in Homeland was just before the financial crisis. Things were in a relatively good state then – of course in Greece neither in theatre nor in the cinema contributors were paid well. We used to say that for actors, there is always a crisis. For actors only television was financially rewarding – but during the crisis there were no more Greek productions and channels preferred cheaper imports. Now television production is starting again.
Even though things were difficult before the crisis, during the crisis they became worse. We were often asked to play in films without getting paid – but we did it in order to support Greek cinema and the directors who try to make good films. We are professionals, but many of us – actors and crew – realized that there was no other way to give Greek cinema some space and time to develop than to provide our services in this way. And of course when the films travel abroad and your work is seen and you are rewarded in this way – this is amazing. You travel, you get out of Greece. For us this is very important.
You know how it is in Greece: We are a small country and the mentality is not always one of mutual support. We are like in a small village… People often undermine each other, and this is very counterproductive. Opening up outwards makes people realize how more important it is to support each other. And films now are increasingly made as part of co-productions with partners from other countries, which I find very positive. These co-productions open up encounters with different casts and teams that create a different and dynamic outlook. I find all this very hopeful. It would be nice, however, if Greeks went to the cinema more to see at least some of these films – both the more mainstream, but also some of the more challenging ones. However, as increasingly Greek films gain recognition and some more audiences abroad, we can hope that some of this success will translate into interest at home – for At Home, and not only…
At Home opened in Greece during the Athens Film Festival Nyhtes Premieras and comes out in cinemas on September 25.