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Venice: Pablo Larrain on How Star Mariana Di Girolamo Took Control of ‘Ema’

Chilean auteur Pablo Larrain likes to tread new ground with each film, but movies with women’s names, and female characters at their center, do seem to have a special appeal for him. After “Jackie,” he’s back in Venice with “Ema,” a portrait of an incendiary lady contending with tragedy in a totally different way than her husband, who is played by Gael Garcia Bernal.

Larrain spoke to Variety about how young Chilean actress Mariana Di Girolamo made “Ema” her own. (The interview has been edited for concision and clarity.)

“Ema” is totally different stylistically from “Jackie,” but it’s similar in that what carries the movie is the power of the central female character.

There is a point in both the movies where you become a witness. And the movie becomes a testimony of the process of being a witness to that character. In both cases, it’s very based on the actresses. You need someone that can carry the movie on their shoulders. And her [Mariana Di Girolamo’s] power is endless: Her sensibility, her mystery, her intelligence, her strength is absolutely endless to me.

How did you find Mariana Di Girolamo?

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She had done only TV, like soap operas. I was in Santiago, and I saw this picture of her on an ad on the street. I texted her. We sat down for a coffee, and literally after 10 minutes I was offering her the role, and she said yes. I said: “I’m not going to show you a script, because I don’t have it. And when I have it, I don’t want you to have it. I want you to trust me.” And then Mariana was stunning.

It’s interesting because she had experience in TV, so she had an education of working with four cameras, whereas here it was one point of view. It was interesting to see how fresh she was. She was not heeding the marks; she was not looking in the right direction. She was not caring about a cinema-type filmmaking and logic. We slowly kind of worked with her so she could actually be in the frame. And then we all agreed that we’ve found someone who’s not only going to be essential for our movie but, I’m sure, for Latin American cinema.

So did you really work without a script?  

We had a structure, and then we wrote a lot of things while we were shooting, which created a number of complications for the team. It was like that from the beginning. We had a map more than a proper script, and we hid it from the actors. We just gave them the scenes the day before. So that creates a very particular type of performance where the actors don’t really control their character, and what they control is some sense of humanity.

There is a lot of talk these days about male gaze and female gaze. How do you feel about this issue?

I remember during the “Jackie” press tour I got a lot of questions like: “Pablo, how do you feel about making your first movie about a woman?” I remember Natalie [Portman] saying: “Why this question?” I understand the world has changed over the past two years, but I just feel that I see a very specific sensibility, and I feel that I am a witness of these times. There is a wonderful sensibility and a wonderful force that you can capture and put in a movie. Also, what happens is that you work with a character, and when the actress really starts to enter it, obviously you are directing and conducting it. But there is a point where you start just filming her, because they do control it.

It’s Mariana’s movie, but Gael’s pretty important.

He’s a man who can absorb a lot, and who can be really simple and elegant. His is a complicated character, because he’s a man who is in love with someone who loves him, but she loves other people, too. And he becomes part of this family in a way that is very serious and very strong. I think Gael is one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with. He’s a very political man, too, and he’s very clear in his intentions and in the world that he describes and sees. I think he’s somehow from my generation, too. So we were both kind of witnesses of Ema and what she does and what she is.

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