Winner of the Un Certain Regard Award at the Cannes Film Festival and now the official Swedish submission for the Foreign Language Oscar, Ali Abassi’s “Border” is easily one of 2018’s standout films. Its bizarre yet beguiling storyline centers on a woman with abnormal features who comes to realize her true nature when she develops an attraction to a fellow troll. Playing that lead role is Eva Melander, who underwent an extraordinary transformation to look the part. I was therefore excited to talk with Melander recently, as we discussed how she approached the role and ultimately empathized with an inhuman character. Below is an edited version of our conversation.
Shane Slater: Did this role come to you, or did you seek it out?
Eva Melander: It came to me through a casting director who called me and asked if I was interested in trying out for this part. I read the short story and parts of the manuscript and I got really curious. Immediately, I felt like if someone is going to make a film out of it, it could really be something great. Then I met Ali and I thought, he’s somebody who is really brave and hopefully very intelligent and a bit crazy. And when we met with Eero Milonoff, that was also my callback and I just felt like we were on the same page and I felt comfortable.
But it all started with another casting director calling me, who actually then stopped working on this film. I was having this really awkward phone call. He was feeling uncomfortable and didn’t know how to put it, saying “I hope you don’t get offended and don’t take it personal.” And I thought, wow, what is this! [Laughs]. And then he asked if I was interested in trying out for this extraordinarily ugly character. Then I thought, wow, that does sound interesting. Yes, I did get a little offended. [Laughs].
I didn’t know anything about the prosthetics or transformation by then. But through reading the manuscript and the short story, I thought if I get the part it would be the biggest challenge and most unusual thing I’ve done in my career.
SS: What was the feeling when you went through the makeup process and saw yourself in this character?
EM: Actually, I immediately got the experience of what it would be like for this character. All her life, people have been looking at her with this face. And when we were doing the tryout, I actually felt sad because I know how hard this world is to people who don’t look like the norm. That sadness drove me.
Then we went outside and Ali filmed me with his smartphone and we were lucky to have this bus coming with a huge group of teenagers. I was walking through this sea of teenagers and I got to experience that people are very polite, but you can tell it’s a big issue to look very different. It’s a huge issue. You can see from a very long distance that people get surprised and compensate with an extremely wide smile. I experienced those things for the first time when I had the prosthetics on.
SS: One of the most striking things about your performance is how naturalistic it is. Did that approach come from your director or was that how you personally interpreted the role?
EM: It was very important for me to do it that way because this character thinks she’s a human. She’s so intelligent that she actually pass like a human. She’s well respected at work, she has a boyfriend and a house, she drives a car. She has all those things but she’s actually not made for it. That shows how extremely intelligent she is. She’s trying so hard to fit in as a human, so Ali and I agreed to make her feel realistic.
SS: You had such instant chemistry with Eero Milonoff when the characters first meet each other. How was that collaboration, considering you were the only troll characters in the film?
EM: I met him first at my callback and I think that chemistry happened immediately. It’s such a special kind of material and those characters are so unusual. We just went into it 100% at once and I think that has to do a little bit with how we are as actors. I didn’t know him from before but when we started to improvise and do the scenes it was like, OK here we are. We took it seriously. It’s hard to say if that created the chemistry or the chemistry was there between us. But I could really see how we reminded ourselves of each other. We are character actors and we go 100%. No fear, just do it. We get paid to make a fool out of ourselves.
SS: Is there one thing you hope audiences will take away from this character and her story?
EM: It’s hard to say in just one sentence. But it’s so recognizably human. I think everyone can recognize being an outsider. We all have that inside of us. Where do I fit in? Shall I go with my own voice? What is important to me? I’ve been thinking about those things.