Interview: Talking ‘The Second Mother’ with director Anna Muylaert and star Regina Casé

Since its successful bow at Sundance earlier this year, The Second Mother has emerged as one of the year’s most beloved films by critics and audiences alike. Telling a female-centric story of class conflict within a São Paulo household, it represents a kind of drama filmmaking we need to see more often in Hollywood. It was therefore a pleasure for me to speak with the film’s award-winning director Anna Muylaert and lead actress Regina Casé during a recent phone interview. Below is an edited version of our chat, where we discussed the film, its themes and the excitement of its submission as Brazil’s Oscar entry.

Shane Slater: What was the motivation behind telling this story?

Anna Muylaert: I started to make this film when I had my first son 20 years ago, and my first idea was to talk about the work of mothers. In Brazil, this isn’t valued work and as proof of this, people hire nannies for a very low salary to raise their kids. So that was the beginning, and when I came to the character of the nanny, of course all the economic and social issues came too. And then I took about 20 years to get to the right story.

SS: Regina, you also came to the role with your own personal perspective. How did that affect your approach to the character?

Regina Casé: I didn’t do specific research for the role, but all through my career I’ve been to the places where characters like Val come from, where they live, where they go to dance. In working class neighborhoods and slums. I met various different iterations of Val. So I already had all that information, not just in my career but my whole life. My family comes from the Northeast like Val.

SS: The film strikes a nice balance between drama and comedy. Did the tone ever change while you were writing?

AM: All my films are a bit like this. I like to talk about serious issues but I like to have humor. These are the kinds of films I like to watch too. I chose Regina, who is for me, the funniest actress in the country. So of course I expected her to put some humor even in serious situations.

RC: That tone is an asset to the film, because there’s a very thin line both ways. If it were just over the top comedy it would be a caricature, if it was straight social drama it would have been boring. So we found this dangerous, delicate place between the two.

SS: You’re the first female director to represent Brazil for the Foreign Language Oscar in 30 years. Does this add any pressure?

AM: I think it’s very important. Especially because the film is very beloved in Brazil, so it means the film really represents people. I receive letters every day from people saying “I’m praying for you. I’m praying for the film.” So it’s not only a film by a female director, it’s one that people love. Of course, if we do get the nomination it would be historic for women directors and women in general in Brazil. Also because all the characters are female and the subject is very feminine too.

Anna_Muylaert_OnSetSS: One of the main themes of the film is social change. Is this something that you also see reflected in Brazilian cinema and the kinds of stories coming out of Brazil?

AM: I think the first film that talked about that was Neighbouring Sounds by Kleber Mendonça. The thing is, Brazil has been living with social changes for the last 15 years and the country is still not really fixed. But we’re talking about these issues and we’re improving. So I think there’s a tendency in cinema to show that. Also because we want the country to change. Nobody wants to talk about a maid’s daughter as a weak person, for example. We want to get out of this cliché, in cinema and the country.

SS: The film has a very specific Brazilian setting. Have you noticed any differences in audience responses in Brazil or abroad?

AM: Well, when we went to Sundance we weren’t even sure they would understand the story. But from the first screening, I realized it was a universal story. Although it has a lot of Brazilian flavor, but these power relationships are all over.

But there are some differences, especially in Brazil, connected to the social class where the theater is. So the rich people, they laugh at certain points where the less privileged persons wouldn’t. For example, when Val comes to the room saying Jéssica got 68 points on the exam. In an upper class `theater, people laugh. It’s like comedy, it’s like “Oh my God. This is not realistic.” When you go to a poor neighborhood, people clap. So that’s the biggest difference.

SS: Regina, you’ve been in the industry for so long. What is it that still excites you about taking on new roles after all these years?

RC: All my life, my passion has been to get in touch with people, common working people. So that always excites me and that’s what brings a special connection to this role. I felt that this role was a way to channel that passion of all these years of meeting, talking and listening to people. So it was a great opportunity to use that.

SS: So what’s next for the both of you?

AM: I shot a new feature and I’m in post-production now. So next year I’ll probably be releasing this next film, called There’s Only One Mother.

RC: This is my first film in 13 years, and I got extremely excited and happy to be back in cinema. So I definitely plan for my next work to be in cinema or theatre. I don’t have anything planned, but that is the goal.

Click here for my review of The Second Mother.