In “Border,” Swedish actress Eva Melander buries herself in the role of Tina, an ostracized woman who feels out of place in society because of her otherworldly appearance. The peculiar creature she plays in director Ali Abbasi’s foreign-language Oscar submission suggests the unholy offspring of Quasimodo and a Tolkien Orc. But that’s just the starting point for an entrancing and unexpected love story when Tina — who works a lonely job in border security, using her rat-like sense of smell — wakes up to her superpowers when she meets a fawning man (Eero Milonoff) who looks just like her.
This dark fairytale owes much to its leading lady’s remarkable physical transformation, but audiences gripped by “Border” would never recognize its star on the street.
In reality, Melander is an affable, soft-spoken, 43-year-old acting veteran who has juggled a range of stage, television and film roles for over 15 years. The blue-eyed blonde looks nothing like her animalistic creation in “Border,” and the specifics of that transformation make it clear that she’s delivered the most astonishing performance of the year. If that’s all it took to crack the Best Actress race, she would rank alongside Olivia Colman in “The Favourite” and “Roma” breakout Yalizia Aparicio as the frontrunners of the pack.
At the very least, her accomplishment deserves its own spotlight. “I had a teacher in acting school who said, ‘Your fucking personality must not stand in the way of the character you’re supposed to do,’” said Melander in an interview from her hotel in New York. “How I look is one thing, but my biggest interest in the characters I do is how they look and act. My personal issues should not stand in the way of a character’s life.”
The details of Melander’s transformation speak to the full extent of that commitment. Prior to the shoot, Abassi asked if she could gain 10 kilograms — around 22 pounds — to embody Tina’s powerful, broad-shouldered physique. She wound up gaining closer to 40 pounds, working with a trainer and dietician to build up the muscle mass of her upper body while maintaining a food schedule that required her to eat every 90 minutes. “I totally agreed that we should change my body,” Melander said. “It was like an extreme sport. Part of my brain felt like this was insane, but exciting at the same time.” It was also very uncomfortable. “You get sweaty,” Melander said. “It’s hard to sleep at night. You’re breathing doesn’t go well. But I was as committed as I get.”
The physical duress didn’t stop there. Over the course of the monthlong shoot in the forests outside of Gothenburg, Melander spent four hours in the makeup chair everyday, often starting at two o’clock in the morning. Then, she would subject herself to a 10-hour shooting schedule. She was buried in nine pieces of prosthetics, covering her eyelids, nose, and mouth, so she couldn’t fall asleep or watch television to pass the time in the chair. Only her top lip remained exposed. She began listening to meditation apps. “I was trying to move myself out of my body and go to other rooms in my mind,” she said.
Melander’s character takes her acute sense of smell for granted, assuming it’s her only useful skill, until she learns the bizarre secret behind her existence that empowers her. But even sniffing the air presented a unique challenge on camera, given the restrictions on her facial muscles. She studied videos of dogs on YouTube to figure it out. “The lip and nose move together,” she said, squeezing her face together like wrinkled plastic. “This was my toolbox, and it was covered with silicon, gelatin, and glue. I had to figure out how to work within that.”
Abbasi spent almost two years searching for the right actress to play Eva, and initially wanted to avoid prosthetics by casting unorthodox actors who looked the part. “I really tried to find people who looked different, unsymmetrical, and overweight,” he said in a phone interview. “I wanted to find this otherness in real life, but I realized I was focused too much on looks. This movie is really about a difficult emotional journey, and I had to find the actual actor who could do that.”
Melander impressed him, he said, because she was able to convey the experience of feeling love for the first time. “She just blushed,” he said, recalling the cue during her audition session. “It was this little thing that almost made me cry. She had an inner life that the other characters didn’t have.” But then he had to confront a practical concern: “I was afraid she looked too good and was too thin,” he said.
Melander’s eagerness to transform herself came from years of contending with roles that required her to do the extra legwork. “When I started acting in Sweden, I always felt as if I had to create my own character because I didn’t feel as if they were there,” she said. “They were just written from a familiar point of view — girlfriend, wife, friend. The story was always about somebody else. I think I’m quite trained in creating characters who have souls and lives even if they’re roughly written into the story.”
She was miffed when the first casting director for “Border” (who was later replaced) called her to explain the role, and seemed hesitant to use the word “ugly” when describing Tina’s appearance. “As an actress, that has never scared me,” she said. “You can always make yourself look better. I want to see people in television and film that I see in real life, not only TV and film faces.”
It should come as no surprise that she excels at clarifying the intentions behind the movie, which finds Tina coming out to grips with herself and finding a new purpose. “If you’re a total outsider and you’ve never felt like you’ve been seen, you’re just disconnected,” she said. “This love story allows her to come closer to herself. She’s rubbed herself out. How much do we rub ourselves out to fit in? That’s something we all think about.”
In between the premiere of “Border” and its release, Melander has been enmeshed in another transformation, playing Richard III in an experimental theater adaptation currently running in Sweden. Once again, the material asks a lot of her: She appears in every scene of the two-hour production, which has no intermission, and requires a lot of tricky maneuvers. “It’s very violent, physical, with a lot of moving foam and white paper,” she said. “We’re ripping things apart, trashing things, painting on the walls. The floor is leaning and slippery. It’s kind of a wild and weird performance.” The connection to Tina is not lost on her. “Tina and Richard III both don’t have it easy, because of their appearances and the way they approach the world,” she said.
For now, Melander only has a Swedish agent, though she’s keen on exploring how her chameleonesque abilities could make the transition to English-language projects. She listed Julianne Moore and Frances McDormand as key reference points for her ambition. McDormand is a particularly apt point of comparison: The real-life Melander bears a notable physical resemblance to the two-time Oscar winner, who grapples with the same kind of tricky balance in her roles that Melander accomplishes in her latest screen credit. “I’ve always found that I can identify with the way she does serious people who have a lot of feelings inside, but there’s always a sense of humor in her work,” Melander said. “I can always see that she’s having fun. She takes care of her characters while looking at them with a little bit of distance.”
Melander has embraced her ability to attract roles that don’t resemble each other. “People don’t call me asking me to do what I’ve already done,” she said. “They call me because they’re curious about what I can create. That’s how I approach the business.” And the capacity to go unrecognized at film festivals has allowed her mingle with a rare kind of anonymity. There’s a perk to that, too. “When people don’t realize it’s me,” she said, “it’s a good opportunity to hear honest criticism.”
“Border” is now playing in New York and Los Angeles.