Kristín Thóra Haraldsdóttir is an Icelandic actress, born in Reykjavik and raised in Scotland, England and Iceland. Her most recent work includes lead roles in two award-winning Icelandic films released in 2018. In the Sundance award-winning ”And Breathe Normally,” directed by Ísold Uggadóttir, Kristin portrays Lára. For her performance in this role, Haraldsdóttir was awarded the Queer Lisboa Film Festival Best Actress Award. The film has traveled far and wide, and received nine international festival awards. In Baldvin Z’s ”Let Me Fall,” she took on the role of Magnea, who is struggling with life after many years of drug abuse. The film premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. Haraldsdóttir has also appeared in television series in Iceland, such as the award-winning ”Prisoners” by Ragnar Bragason and ”Stella Blomkvist” by Oskar Thor Axelsson. Alongside her career in film and television, Haraldsdóttir continues to perform on stage, both in the City Theatre in Reykjavik and the National Theatre of Iceland. Her roles range from comedy to drama, classical to modern, from supporting roles to lead actress. For her work in the theater, she has been nominated four times for the Icelandic Theatre Awards, winning the Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role in 2015, and receiving an Icelandic Honorary Award for Outstanding Work as an Actress in 2014.
Tara Karajica talks to her about being an actress, a Shooting Star, women in film and her next projects.
What made you want to become an actress?
Kristín Thóra Haraldsdóttir: Since I can remember, acting has had a special place in my heart. When I was a child, something happened inside of me when I went to the theater with my parents – it was a special feeling I only felt there and nowhere else. I didn’t like watching cartoons; I only wanted to see real people. Some would say I was a very dramatic child. I would become completely immersed into what I was seeing on the screen. I was in awe of the characters I would see. At age ten, in elementary school, when I enrolled in drama class, the same thing happened, but this time, I was on stage myself. Something happened inside of me again.
I knew I wanted to become an actress because I wanted to tell stories. I truly believe this form of art can raise empathy in the world, and I wanted to be part of that; I wanted to portray people’s flaws and strengths in the hopes that someone in the audience will see himself/herself in the character and relate.
You portray struggling women in both award-winning films And Breathe Normally by Ísold Uggadóttir and Baldwin Z’s Let Me Fall. Can you talk about these characters?
K.T.H.: Lara from And Breathe Normally and Magnea from Let Me Fall are very different, but then again, very alike. They are both addicts. Lara is recovering from her addiction while Magnea keeps sinking further and further into the total darkness of drug addiction.
Lara is a mother and I felt like her son was her inspiration to fight. She lost custody over him once when she was using, which aches her heart and she will not let that happen again; she loves him dearly. But she is also a fighter in her heart. Her pride is very strong and she will not ask for help even in desperate need. It is not only pride that is stopping her from asking for help, it is a deep state of denial after getting sober. Struggling to keep the addiction at bay, Lara’s emotions run the game. During all of this, she is also trying to care of her son and secure a temporary home, following an eviction. It is empowering to see that Lara is coming back to her real self – she is strong, kind and brave – and to see how she deals with these difficult problems. Adja helps her see that in herself. Adja, the other character in the film, comes from an even more difficult situation but, together, they find the strength in each other.
Magnea is a bright, sensitive and a talented person. In the film, we see Magnea when she is young –fifteen years old – and when she is older – 30 years old –. I play Magnea when she is older. She may be a fighter in heart but, at this point in her life, drugs and the violence against her by abusive men has wrecked everything good and beautiful in her life. She feels like she has nothing left to fight for, nothing to live for and she tries to take her own life, but her suicide attempts don’t go the way she planned. She doesn’t have the energy or the will to fight or live; she has lost so many times. She knows she is lost, but can’t find a way out and even if the way out came to her, she wouldn’t even dare to hope that it could lead to a brighter path. Very deep inside, though, she wants her life back. Very deep inside, Magnea is still there. Magnea is based on a real woman whose first name is the same as mine, that unfortunately took her own life a few years ago. Kristín Gerdur was extremely talented, a good student and had a bright future ahead of her. Her family was so generous to tell us her story in the hope that it would help someone. Kristín Gerdur had been sober for a few years and that part is Stella in the movie. When she was sober, she dedicated her life to helping others. But the pain of past traumas, the pain of all the violence was too much, so she felt she would need to numb herself again with drugs or die. The film is dedicated to two women and Kristín Gerdur is one of them.
Your characters in both films also have drug abuse problems. Can you elaborate on that?
K.T.H.: Yes they are both addicts. Like I said, they are in different places in their drug abuse. Lara is not as traumatised as Magnea; her way back to becoming a respectable citizen is not as overwhelming although her guilt and shame are palpable. Magnea has absolutEly hit rock bottom and she feels like she has nothing to live for. She feels as if she has nothing more to give to the world, which is devastating if you keep in mind what a bright future she had in front of her.
How have you prepared for these films?
K.T.H.: For And Breathe Normally, I listened to many, many podcasts mostly from recovering alcoholics in order to understand better the process of the way to recovery and what it was like to be using and building a new life after years of absolute numbness and denial. Lara isn’t using anymore, so all the feelings are coming to the surface or want to get to the surface and that is scary for her. She is a fighter; she will not loose her son again; she will not fail. She knows that this might be her one chance to start again. She knows that addiction is cunning, baffling and powerful. I also closely looked at the feelings that awake in motherhood, the human elements that rise above and can be stronger than anything else, except maybe addiction in some cases, which scares Lara. Adja, the other main character in And Breathe Normally, which is played by the amazing actress Babetida Sadjo, is also a mother, so motherhood was a strong element to build on as both Lara and Adja are both mothers trying to do their best for their children. They don’t see each other as an asylum seeker or a former drug addict; they see each other as mothers, as friends, as women. They truly see each other. Babetida and I worked very closely together through the whole process, which made the bond even stronger.
Ísold is an amazing director. She is so incredibly great and I feel very lucky to have had the chance to work with her. We talked a lot about the character and asked each other a lot of questions about Lara and her situation. All of a sudden, I felt like I just knew exactly who Lara was, how she reacts, thinks, talks… But I didn’t realize that until we started shooting. It was my first leading role in a film; I felt so insecure… Was I prepared enough? I was so nervous and it wasn’t until we started shooting that I could just feel that Lara was in my bones and I knew her inside out. What a relief it was to feel that! Ísold trusted me to follow my instincts and that encouraged me to go even deeper.
For Let Me Fall, I used what I had learned about alcoholism and addiction, the traumas that often lie under the surface, how the emotional life crumbles. But Magnea’s drug abuse was much harder than Lara’s. She used stronger drugs and there was more violence and trauma in her past. So preparing for Magnea, I met people who were using needles and were in a bad place in life. I also met recovered drug abusers; it was very important to meet them, as well as people who had been sober for some time who told me that they felt like the person they were while using was a totally different person. They told me stories about how their moral standards collapsed, how horribly they treated other people and themselves. Baldvin Z, the director, is amazing. He, like Ísold, gave me total freedom to trust my instincts. He also gave me access to a lot of helpful material, documentaries, interviews, and Kristín Gerdur’s diary. It was absolutely heartbreaking; I couldn’t stop crying and I knew I had to dedicate myself totally to this role, more than ever before, for Kristín Gerdur and her family, and in the hopes to show the deep pain of people we often judge unfairly and harshly. We have to keep in mind that they are in deep need of help and they very often have a long history of trauma and abuse.
You have starred on stage, on TV and in film. Which medium do you prefer? Why?
K.T.H.: I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to work in both film and theater. They are so different. I have worked a lot in theater since graduation but, recently, films and TV projects have been tempting me more and more. I love the intimacy in filmmaking and how you can use little details for your character; how you can use your eyes; for example; the little details in the costume, movements and speech. With all this, of course, you build in your character in the theater, but in film, the effects are more powerful. I hope I will continue to have the privilege to continue to work in film and television, in addition to theater. Today, I do prefer the art of film. I absolutely love everything about the creation of films.
How much of you is there in every character you play? Do you manage to dissociate yourself completely from your persona in order to play someone else?
K.T.H.: I always try to find a core where the character and I connect. Sometimes, I find it easily but, sometimes, I need to look deeper. It gives me a deeper connection to my work to find that core even if it is just a thread. It reminds me of the invisible human core that connects us all together. That is what films do: they touch that core. It is my job as an actress to connect. Sometimes, I can totally disassociate myself from my persona to become one particular character and, sometimes, I can’t, but I try not to panic either way! The most important thing is that the audience see the character!
You have won several awards. What does being a Shooting Star mean to your career and how do you think it will impact it?
K.T.H.: It means a lot to me. It shows me that my characters and my work have been noticed and appreciated and that is an amazing feeling. Getting this recognition is an incredible honor and an inspiration to keep getting better and better in my craft. Hopefully, it will give me opportunities to work outside of Iceland and give me a chance to connect with the international film scene: casting directors, producers and talent agents from around the world.
What does it take to be a star, according to you?
K.T.H.: Someone who has had the chance to let their talent shine and be seen. Hard work helps, but you always have to try and improve yourself and trust your instincts. It may sound corny or naive, but I believe we are all stars; some get a better chance to shine than others…
There has been a lot of talk about women in film this part year. What do you make of the situation of women in film? How is the situation in Iceland?
K.T.H.: In Iceland, I think there is a change in the mindset in the past years. More women directors are rising and getting chances. But in Iceland, there is no active female cinematographer shooting feature films that I can remember. I am extremely proud to be part of And Breathe Normally for many reasons. One reason is how many women were working in the film, on both sides of the camera. This past year, there was a big change in the attitude of women in film in Iceland. They are here to make their voices heard. The time has come and we will never go back to the way things were in the past.
Who is your favorite female filmmaker? Is there one you would love to work with?
K.T.H.: Andrea Arnold, Susanne Bier and, of course, the amazing Ísold Uggadóttir. I would love to work with them all.
What are your next projects?
K.T.H.: I have recently finished shooting an Icelandic crime series called The Valhalla Murders. Once I return from Berlin, I will begin rehearsing Tartuffe by Molière in the National Theatre of Iceland. Additionally, there are a few projects that are still in very early stages, which I am unable discuss at the moment.
Photo credits: © Harald Fuhr / EFP