There was no bigger discovery at the 2013 Berlin International Film Festival than Paulina García, star of Chilean director Sebastián Lelio’s competition entry “Gloria.” If García isn’t your average young newcomer, that’s part of the point: Her electrifying performance in “Gloria,” for which she won the festival’s Best Actress prize, finds her playing a 58-year-old divorcee coping with the advent of a midlife crisis as she falls into a questionable romance with a man her own age. The role finds García in frequent closeup, displaying a physical intimacy rarely seen with actresses her age in contemporary movies. Though she has acted on stage for years, García is not widely known to filmgoing audiences around the world. The new movie, recently picked up by Roadside Attractions, may change that. García spoke to Indiewire during the festival about creating the character that has brought her so much attention in recent weeks.
Your character carries a lot of baggage from the very first scene. How much leeway did Lelio give you in defining her?
In terms of the percentage of me that I put into the character, I think it would be difficult to put a number on it. But what I can’t just try to project the image of her — it has to be linked to my proper self. That’s really the challenge of trying to work out this character. An excellent English director once said, “There’s no character that isn’t entirely myself.” I think that is what I wanted to try and find — those parts of my identity that somehow chimed with her. I wanted to reach out and find parts of the character that I can connect with. From that starting point, I tried to go with the flow and make sure that the bits and pieces that don’t chime with the character are locked away, so I can create this sort of synchronicity. So it doesn’t mean putting on a mask but really trying to spring some life into that character and to be able to open up to her. So there is this mysterious linkage between my identity and Gloria that’s difficult to express.
If you’re asking about how I most identify with her, I think it’s the passage where she moves from being a supporting role in other people’s lives to having a lead part in her own. As you see, she really is contemplating this — she has a passive look at what’s going on in other people’s lives. Both of her children are going through difficult times and radical changes: The son was married and the wife left him with a child while he’s looking for work. Her girl, well, has become pregnant with a tall Swedish guy, and she’s going to live in Sweden, moving out into the world. That’s quite a strong event in her life. Then, suddenly, Gloria strikes up this relationship with an older man who shows up in her life and is quite ambiguous: Asking for chance after chance and then disappearing without explanation. From this point, she becomes active and takes up the lead point in her own life and becomes number one. I’ve had experiences like that in my own life and I think that was quite a pivotal point in this film. It’s not really about being expressive about this in so many words; it’s about realizing the moment in time in your life when you take control of it.
Much of Gloria’s experiences go unsaid, leaving much to be inferred from reaction shots: In two key moments, she looks at a dancing skeleton marionette and a peacock, both of which imply the thoughts going through her head.
Yes. I was really surprised how people were taken by the skeleton dance scene. Actually, it’s a twist that’s fairly well-known and it only has one line: “Look at how the skeleton dances/Look how it shakes its bones entirely.” And I was impressed by how people reacted to the peacock scene. Quite frankly, when I look at it, I’m still moved to tears just thinking about it. Sebastian said something that I completely agree with: “Sometimes we have a bull within us.” Sometimes I feel that it’s more like a donkey, a stubborn donkey, but it’s this inner urge that pushes us toward things. That was also a strong element of this film. I didn’t have that many lines to say. Therefore Sebastian really allowed me the time to be taken into the mood, the layers of mood, that are in the film. He’s a very focused director and that led me to feel very concentrated as well. I can say that was fairly easy to do.
We don’t often see the sex lives of older characters on screen displayed as graphically as they are here. How do you feel about the way it’s portrayed here?
I can’t really say if it’s something that was missing in cinema, but I think there’s something noteworthy in that there is an obsession with the body in western society as a whole. It’s certainly there. It’s interesting how Sebastian tries to convey that with this film. I think the image of the hairless cat in this film is really strong: We have this naked cat and this naked woman. What Sebastian does is he shows nakedness in a way that is both beautiful and ugly. There’s attraction and repulsion at the same time. It’s a very interesting way of framing it. When I think about it, perhaps there is a void in modern cinema for this kind of stuff.