Sunday, November 30, 2008

"People who saw me holding the seal like a baby must have thought I was a looney" - An interview with Arta Dobroshi

When I watched the Dardenne brothers' new film The Silence of Lorna, I was struck by the astonishing performance by the unknown actress in the lead role. When I met Arta Dobroshi a few days later, I was even more impressed by her achievement – it was hard to believe the beautiful and light-hearted woman sitting in front of me was the same person who convincingly played such a tough, withdrawn character on screen. After winning her part in the Dardennes' fifth picture through an open audition process, Dobroshi has experienced an extraordinary rise to prominence this year, and one suspects this is just the start of an exciting career. I met the actress in London recently to talk about her remarkable performance, but as this discussion does reveal certain unexpected plot developments, I would advise readers to avoid this interview until they have seen the film.

To begin, could you tell me a bit about your background and experience before this film?

I finished the Academy of Arts acting and drama course in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, which lasted for four years. It's acting in general for film and theatre, and when I was studying I played in theatre and short movies all the time. In fact, the first time I took a drama was when I was 15 in America, because I lived there for a year as an exchange student, and then when I was 17 I played in this performance with young people, still non-professionals. I loved it so much, rehearsing for eight hours or more, and I said something must be wrong with me because everyone else was tired and I was saying, "I want more, I want more!" [laughs]. Also, my older brother is a director so I learned a lot from him, and when I finished the Academy I got a role in a feature film in Albania, which was a co-production with Germany and France, and then I got a second feature, a third feature, and then I got this one. When I got The Silence of Lorna I was in Sarajevo doing a play in Bosnian. The casting agent for the Dardenne brothers called me said they had seen some of my movies, and there is an open casting in Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia, all places where Albanians live. I went to Pristina, and the audition was open for everyone else, it was five minutes, and I just had to say, "I'm Arta Dobroshi" in French, but I didn't speak French. After that they called me again in two weeks and said they wanted to see me, and I was in Sarajevo, so they came and we shot all day long, and then they asked me to go to Belgium to do two more scenes in French with Jérémie Renier and Fabrizio Rongione. I learned the two scenes phonetically, and after I finished the two days of shooting they said, "Congratulations, you are Lorna".

How much time did you have to learn French before shooting the film?

I went on a two-week intensive course, it was eight hours a day, but I was also learning in the hotel doing double the work, and not going out at all. After two months I had to speak French, and I also had to cut my hair, because it was very long. It was the first time I cut my hair so short, and we cut it shorter and shorter, because they wanted to see my eyes and face, so they cut it really short, almost bald [laughs]. It was nice because I always wanted to cut my hair but I didn't dare, so this was my chance, and I wore a wig in one movie that was like Lorna's hair, and I liked it, but when I was getting my hair cut for real I thought, "Be careful what you wish for". Now I'm growing it, I haven't cut it since the movie, so I'll let it grow and we'll see.

Were you familiar with the Dardennes' work before you got this role?

Yes, because of the academy, but I hadn't seen their films. Just before I did the audition, I found a movie on DVD, because in the Balkans they aren't shown like in Europe, and the only way to find them in Pristina was on pirate DVDs. I mean, it's bad, but at the same time it's the only way to see the more arty movies, because we only get more commercial movies. I saw L'Enfant, and when I got the part I was so happy, because the character of Lorna is so good, and she's in every sequence. Nowadays there are more leading roles for males than females, so when you get a role like this, I had the feeling it was like Monster with Charlize Theron. She is very strong, and the whole movie is on her shoulders, so it was great.

As well as being exciting, was that an intimidating prospect, to be carrying the whole film?

No, it was just exciting. I think it's better if you're in every sequence and shooting every day, because every day you are Lorna, you don't have a chance to have a week off, and the movie was shot chronologically, so every day I could experience what Lorna experienced. The way I work is to be as close to the character as possible, so I tried to spend five months alone, I didn't go out, I didn't party or drink, and after shooting I went home or just walked on the streets that Lorna walks on. That doesn't mean I didn't have fun, we laughed a lot while we were rehearsing and shooting the movie, but I just tried to keep that rhythm that she has.

To shoot a film chronologically is a very rare opportunity in movies.

Yes, definitely, usually you shoot the last sequence the first day and everything is mixed. Maybe there were ten scenes we didn't shoot chronologically, but we started with the first scene in the bank and the last scene was the last scene, and it's great because the evolution of the character goes in a natural way. At the end you don't even have to communicate, everything goes so smoothly because you are so into it. When you wake up in the morning you are Lorna, and it was only Saturdays and Sundays I went to the pool to relax, but that's it.

Lorna's a fascinating character because she goes through so many changes, from assisting with a murder at the start of the film, to having a change of heart and possibly losing her mind at the end. What's it like to go through all of those emotions?

In the beginning she is like a robot, she does things very automatically, even the way she makes a sandwich. Then she starts to change, but I never thought about it, I just went with the flow, because I was so into the character that things went naturally. When Claudy died, even I as Arta was sad, but then you didn't have time to even think about Claudy, because I had new problems to solve, and things were changing without even realising that it was changing. The first time I saw the movie I saw these changes, but when you are so far inside the character you are not aware of it. That's how I work, I cannot work any differently. There are many scenes in the movie that are emotionally difficult to do, and after a scene sometimes I just felt like crying, but Lorna keeps her emotions inside, she does not let them out.

When you're doing such an emotional role, is it hard to switch off from that and forget those feelings when you go home at the end of the day?

No, I cannot switch off. Actually, I try to keep those feelings, that's good for me, because I keep the feelings and I can think ahead to the next day for Lorna, so purposely I was trying to save that mood. I could have gone out and had fun, but that was fun for me, the research is fun for me, and I always write the biography of the character – where was she born, what does she do, who were her parents – until the first scene of the movie.

If you were so in tune with Lorna's emotions, I suppose you had to believe in her baby as well.

Yes, I believed in it totally. For me, speaking as Lorna, I believe in it, and from the first moment we started shooting the scenes where Lorna thinks she's having a baby, I had this... how do you say it... a stuffed animal, a white one that lives in cold weather...

A polar bear?

No, she lives in cold water...

A seal?

A seal! Bravo! [laughs] A white stuffed seal, and the moment we started shooting, I psychologically needed to keep that as my baby, until the movie was finished. I kept it like a symbol and whenever we were going out to shoot I would think, "Oh, I forgot my seal", it was crazy, and people who saw me holding the seal like a baby must have thought I was a looney [laughs]. But you have to believe it or the audience won't believe you, and I believed it so much I was worried that my belly would start to grow. I read once that it exists, that women really believe they are pregnant and their belly starts to grow, so I thought, "Arta, you have to stop". I was a little afraid in that moment.

And how do you feel about that final scene? What does the future hold for Lorna?

For me when I was doing the scene, I had a feeling of peace, and I feel the ending is more positive. After everything that happened, she found her peace, and it is sad that she found peace with a baby that doesn't exist, but at least she found it. That's how I felt, and maybe I'm totally wrong, and the beauty of it is that the audience can decide. That was just my ending, and the audience may understand it in a different way. Maybe they will be wondering, "What's going to happen, will there be Lorna Part II?" [laughs]. We were thinking in Part II we should have Lorna with a Porsche, with three children, she has escaped all the trouble and finally she can party [laughs].

In this film, you're working with a number of actors who have already worked with the Dardennes before. Did you find it easy to join that group, and get to grips with their working method?

When I arrived the most important thing was how to develop Lorna in the best way possible, and then I met Fabrizio and Jérémie, and later Morgan who played in Le Fils with Olivier, and it was like we had already worked together before. We all sat down together and had coffee, just like we are now, and it was so cool. I have to thank them for being so open.

What's it like to work with two directors?

It's great, I think. It's better because for your character there are three minds working, yours and the two directors', and they go together so well. Sometimes I needed to ask Jean-Pierre something and sometimes I spoke to Luc, depending on the scene, but I really think it's great to work with two directors. They are saying the same thing but in different ways, and they fill you with so many emotions and ideas. I actually worked with two directors before, it was a father and a son for an Albanian movie that was shot in the Czech Republic, and that was the same thing. The father was 70 years-old and the son was 35, so it was two different points of view, but it was very good. It doesn't matter how many people are there, we are all just trying to do one story – the lighting guys, the cameraman, the decorators – it's for one story. So when you think about it, it doesn't matter how many directors there are.

They once described themselves as "One person with four eyes".

Yes, it's true! And then you become one person with six eyes or eight eyes because there are other actors working with each other. Sometimes Luc will be behind the screen and Jean-Pierre will be with us on the set, or vice-versa, it's never the same. People think it's divided and somebody will always stays behind the camera, but it depends on the situation.

What have you got planned next?

For the moment I'm travelling a lot for the movie, I haven't stopped travelling, and I have one more month of that. Then I'm reading scripts, and it's very important for me to choose a good script and to have patience rather than to hurry up just to do something. I would love to do something in English now, so we'll see. And French also, because now I speak French. It's good that you do a movie and you learn a language.

How many languages do you speak?

Only four.

Only four? That's not bad, you know.

[laughs] It's only four, but you learn then so naturally you don't even know you're learning them. I'm Albanian from Kosovo, and it's so complicated with the new states over there now, so our language is Albanian, and I speak Bosnian, which is the same as Serbian and Croat. I understand Macedonian because it is Slavic – I can't say I can speak it but I can understand it – and I speak English since I was little, from the movies and cartoons, and it was natural.

Will The Silence of Lorna be released in Kosovo?

Yes, it will come out. I don't know which month, It will be next year, but I'm not sure. It will be crazy, because when The Silence of Lorna was chosen in Cannes, people were really following the story every night on the news, it was "Cannes, Cannes, Cannes" as the main news. It's great because every time you always have bad news, like politics or the banks going down, and then you usually have Cannes at the end, so it was great.

And how have you been handling experiences like Cannes, and all of the interviews and travelling you have been doing for this movie?

It seems very normal, to be honest. Since I was 15 I travelled everywhere and lived all around the world, and when I started acting I always said, "I am a citizen of the world and I want to work everywhere". People said it would be very hard because I am from Kosovo and it doesn't have any real status in film or theatre, but the world is very small and I cannot wear blinkers. Everything is normal when you are an actor, you do movies or theatre and then you travel, you do festivals, I have already done festivals with other movies, so it feels very natural. I am very lucky to work in this profession because it is not easy to be working all the time, so for that I feel very lucky, and very happy.