Halina Reijn was professionally trained at the Theatre Academy in Maastricht. While still a student, she was asked to join the ensemble at the Theatercompagnie, where she had leading roles in plays such as “Hamlet,” “Lulu” and “Shopping & Fucking” for which she received the prestigious Dutch theater prize, the Colombina, for “Best Supporting Actress” in 1998. In addition to her very active theater career, Halina has performed on the big screen in the Oscar-nominated “Hotel Paraiso” by Paula van der Oest, Maarten Teurniet’s “A Father’s Affair” and “Grimm” by Alex van Warmerdam. In 2006, she starred in “A Thousand Kisses” by Willem van de Sande Bakhuijzen, Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book,” the Dutch entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award and “Blind” by Tamar van den Dop. In 2008, she portrayed Margarethe von Oven in Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie. In 2016 and 2017, she played in the musical film “De Zevende Hemel” and onstage, opposite Jude Law, in the play “Obsession,” a coproduction between Toneelgroep Amsterdam and the Barbican Centre London. In 2019, she directed “Instinct,” her debut feature as a film director starring Carice van Houten in the leading role. The film won the Variety Piazza Grande Award, received a Special Mention for Best First Feature at the 2019 Locarno Film Festival, where it world premiered, was selected as the Dutch entry for the 92nd Academy Awards and was recently nominated for the EFA European Discovery 2020 – Prix FIPRESCI Award. In addition to her acting career, Halina is also an author, and had her first book, “Prinsesje Nooitgenoeg,” published in 2005.
At this year’s Canneseries Festival, Tara Karajica talks to Halina Reijn about “Red Light,” the series she co-created with fellow actress and friend, Carice van Houten, under the umbrella of their production company Man Up. It is a swirling, current drama series about three women who lose themselves and find each other in the world of prostitution and human trafficking. It has just won the Special Interpretation Prize for the series’ ensemble cast as well as the Student Award.
What made you want to become an actress and then to subsequently direct Instinct?
Halina Reijn: I think for both Carice [van Houten] and I, the main reason to get into acting was the film Annie that I saw when I was six. I grew up in communes, very hippy-like, and we did not have any form of TV because my parents thought moving images would influence my brain development in a bad way. Once, I had a babysitter who was really bored with all the wooden blocks that all our toys were and she took me secretly to the cinema to see Annie. After that, I was like: “OK! I’m going to be famous! I’m going to be a child star!” I totally failed, but I did become an actress later on.
When I saw Annie, I thought Annie actually made that film. I thought actors made that film and then, I found out that it’s not like that, that the actors only come after the script’s already finished and they are sort of the last step in the creation of the project. And then, I thought: “No! I want to be in charge of it” or, at least, not in charge, but I want to create something myself. So, I always thought that in the back of my head, but I never got to it because I was working 24/7 with Ivo van Hove, a famous and very demanding theater director. I always dreamt of becoming a director. With Instinct, our first film, that was the first time I actually did it.
Talking about Red Light, what was the starting point of that project and how did it come about?
H.R.: The starting point was that we founded our company, Man Up, and the first idea was to create a TV show. So, this was seven years ago – even before Instinct. I thought we had to create an international TV show about women, for women. And, I have been obsessed with the Red Light District since I was very small: “What is that about? It looks like a Walt Disney Park, but at the same time, women are having sex there for money.” I was taught by my hippy parents that this was a great thing, that this was very progressive, that this was a symbol of Holland being such a progressive country and that the happy hooker was even like a feminist who did with her body what she wanted to do with her body. But, only slowly, I started to find out that it wasn’t like that and that it was much more complex and that there’s also a lot of human trafficking going on. Also, when is a woman actually voluntarily doing something? And, when is she not even consciously forced to do something because she just doesn’t have any other opportunities, or because she’s gaslighted by some scary pimp? And so, the complexity of that whole habitat, of that whole environment, that whole dynamic would be a great vehicle to talk about these issues that I have with myself about sex, control, rage, power, surrender… These are all questions I have about my own identity and I thought that using this arena would be great to talk about these themes.
Motherhood is one of the major themes in the series. Can you talk about that?
H.R.: We started out with just the idea of the arena of prostitution and it slowly evolved into this. We want to make drama for all women, about all women. So, we have three main characters; one is a prostitute, one is an opera singer and one is a police detective. If we talk about women – and we talk about the things that I experience in my life – motherhood is a huge part of it; whether you have children, whether you don’t have children, whether you want them, whether you don’t want them… As a woman, you are really basically supposed to have children. If you don’t, you’re already an alien. So, I really wanted to talk about that within all these different roles. In spite of these different social and economic backgrounds that these women have, they all struggle with similar themes. And so, motherhood, for me, was a very important part of it. We invented this opera singer that is hugely successful, famous, in a beautiful marriage, with a lot of money, is a daddy’s girl and has everything and then, she’s obsessed with having a child. She thinks: “If I don’t have a child, I’m not a true woman. There’s no point in existing on this planet.” And then, you have the other woman, who is a police detective, who has a beautiful marriage, who has beautiful children and a career, but she sort of regrets ever having them. She thinks she’s not a good mother, but she also doesn’t want them. So, she starts to fantasize about escaping. We have seen that done by so many men in so many films where they go get a pack of cigarettes and they disappear into the sunset and they go on an adventure and we follow them into this adventure, and we wrote her character almost as if we were writing a man. Even the writing team and our main writer, Esther [Gerritsen], found that that was pretty hard because it’s such a taboo to write about a woman who doesn’t want to be the mother of her children even though she loves them dearly. We researched this phenomenon. There is a whole phenomenon – if you go online, you can find a lot of information about it. Through these three archetypal women, we wanted to talk about these huge themes for women and tried to free ourselves from them.
How did you actually decide who was going to play whom and how did you prepare for the role of the opera singer?
H.R.: Carice is really my muse, and I love creating roles or stories for her that are very challenging for her and so does Esther. So, I think we immediately knew she had to play the sex worker because it’s a very challenging part; it’s very hard and something she had never done before. This was obvious. And then, to be really honest with you, I loved playing this part, but I also attached myself to get it financed and I would’ve rather directed it and been behind the camera, so I was just like: “Whatever part works, give it to me.” But this was great to play, of course. It’s beautiful and it’s challenging. And then, we found Maaike [Neuville] in Belgium, because it’s a co-production, and she’s, I think, the best actress in Belgium.
What do these three protagonists have in common, according to you?
H.R.: They seem to be worlds apart. Especially in the first two episodes. You’re like: “Oh my God! They couldn’t be further apart! One is on the stage, singing opera, the other one is a prostitute in the Red Light District and the third one is a detective.” So, what they do have in common is that they are all struggling with motherhood – all three of them. They are all struggling with their freedom because they are all trapped. Sylvia is, of course, in a prison that she doesn’t even realize because she thinks: “No! I have a great relationship with my pimp” but, of course, it’s very toxic dynamic, very co-dependent and she’s very addicted to him. She thinks she’s also the manager of the company because everything is in her name but, in the end, she still has to go and stand behind the window and sell her body. And then, my character, who looks like she has it all, right? is totally imprisoned. She has this super dominant father, a super dominant husband who’s not to be trusted, and she’s obsessed with having a child and she thinks she’s not good enough. If she’s not pregnant, she’s nothing in her eyes. She’s completely imprisoned in her own stupid conditioned thinking of what a woman should be. And then, we have Evi who’s also imprisoned in her prison because she wants to escape and she needs the bottle to free herself from her demons. She loves to work. If Evi would have it her way, she would work 24/7, but of course, society doesn’t accept that of a woman. So, they’re all struggling with freedom.
What was the research behind the dynamics and the nature of the Red Light District like – especially in terms of questions of social and economic aspects and differences between women?
H.R.: Yes, absolutely. We did a lot of research on the prostitution side. We met with policemen, sex workers, volunteers who work with them, doctors, pimps, human traffickers even. We did years and years and years of research on that, but we also did research on the opera world. We met two opera singers to talk to them about what it is like. For me, as a stage actress, there are, of course, a lot of similarities, so I luckily already really knew that. We also went to fertility clinics. Then, with Evi, we talked to a lot of female police detectives to see how they cope with all the violence in their work, how they take that home, how they do not take it home, how they become mothers after being with a dead body and they go home and have to feed their little baby. How does that work? I think we did an enormous amount of research on all levels. I think that’s the best way to go about it if you want to create stories because you have to do it with respect for the actual arenas that you are talking about.
Can you talk about Man Up and the situation of women in film because you are very vocal about this subject?
H.R.: So, Man Up was created not out of frustration, but out of hope and dreams of creating stories for women –and not just women, but to be more inclusive on all fronts. So, it’s not just about the white woman getting more show time, but it’s about being inclusive on all fronts and I just feel so strongly about this. I think it’s a great time to be alive. There’s a huge movement going on. Also, a lot of sad things are going on in the world, but at least there’s movement; people are waking up… We all need to wake up and become activists because it’s the only way. I totally realize that the world I’m in – films and TV – it doesn’t matter on a bigger scale, but you can only try to hold a mirror and show all these dark things that are hidden inside ourselves because I do not think that the answer to all of this is creating films about strong women because I don’t know what that means! I think this has nothing to do with me because I’m so weak. I have so many questions. I’m so vulnerable. So, I want to create dramas about that. I have all these questions and I want to make movies out of them. And I hope I can bring some help to other women.
What are your next projects?
H.R.: With Man Up, we’re working on a book about WWII and two Jewish sisters who joined the Resistance. It’s a true story and it’s called Sisters of Auschwitz. We bought the rights to that book and we’re going to make a film out of that. Then, we are also talking about a lot of new projects that we’re looking at.
Photo credits: Olivier Vigerie – Canneseries.
This interview was conducted at the 2020 (hybrid) Canneseries Festival.