Award-winning actress Eva Melander is widely recognized as one of the most talented of her generation of Swedish actors, having proven herself to be equally accomplished on stage, television and screen.
She won the Swedish Academy Award (the Guldbaggen) for her critically acclaimed performance in the Swedish feature Flocken, directed by Beata Gårdeler and recently starred in the TV production Rebecka Martinsson: Arctic Murders which aired on Channel 4 in the U.K. as well as Sweden and other territories. Melander is best known for many other Swedish productions, like the acclaimed Swedish/Danish crime series The Bridge (which was later given a US remake for FX) and her multiple roles in TV series as varied as Jordskott, Nurses, Modus, Real Humans, Lasermannen and Mästerverket.
On film, she can be seen in the features The Hypnotist, directed by Lasse Hallstrom, and Sebbe, directed by Babak Najafi. Eva trained at the National Academy of Mime and Acting in Malmo, Sweden and has since been starring in several stage productions at the most prestigious theatres in Sweden, including the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm and the Stockholm City Theatre.
In Border, the Un Certain Regard Cannes winner and official Foreign Language Film Oscar submission for Sweden, Melander plays Tina, a border guard who has the ability to smell human emotions and catch smugglers. When she comes across a mysterious man with a smell that confounds her detection, she is forced to confront hugely disturbing insights about herself and humankind.
I spoke with the actress on the subtext of this fascinatingly dark fairy tale, the riggers of the complicated makeup involved and how she found Tina, her character in Border.
AW: Good morning, Eva. How are you today?
EM: I’m good, thank you. I just arrived in New York yesterday and leaving tomorrow so it’s kind of a little race.
It must be quite a whirlwind doing all of this press for the film all over the world.
Yes, it started in Cannes and then Telluride and Toronto a couple of weeks ago and those were the first international things I could go on for the film. And then of course press in Sweden, it’s the Swedish submission for the Oscar.
Yes, I was just about to say congratulations on the film being Sweden’s entry. That must be really exciting for you.
That’s really good, thank you. We’re very happy about that.
I saw the film at Cannes and it’s still one of my absolute favorites of the year. I am in love with this movie.
Oh my god, thank you. Did you see the opening night?
I did! I didn’t have much knowledge of the film going in and I hope that’s how people come to the film and then just get blown away.
It’s like me reading the manuscript. When we started I was like, sometimes I had to do this pause and was like, ‘Wow, oh my God, how should we continue now? How do you even do this?’
Did you audition for the part?
Yes, I did. This casting director called me and asked if I was interested…actually two different. The first one, who was working on the film first, about one and a half years ago, he called see and he was really stressed like ‘Ah, hi, uh, I don’t know what to say,’ it was a really awkward phone call. He was like, ‘Don’t take it personal, I’m just afraid you’re going to get offended.’ And I was like, ‘this is embarrassing, what’s he going to ask me, to look after his kids or something?’ and not about acting. Why is this so awkward? And he said, ‘No, I was just wondering if you’re interested in trying out for this extraordinary, odd-looking person. So that was what made me curious, really curious, you know. I didn’t offended. Then I read the short story and parts of the manuscript and then got more curious about who was going to direct this. I thought that must be somebody really brave.
Were you familiar with Ali Abbasi’s work at the time?
No, I didn’t know him. So I watched Shelley, his first feature film. I went into it and I thought this such a huge, what do you say, it’s challenging in so many ways. So I got a callback and met with Ali and Eero [Milonoff], the Finnish actor who was playing the other part, and at the callback when I met them I just felt really comfortable and we were attacking the manuscript in the same kind of way.
Your chemistry with Eero is just incredible in this. How did you develop that trust and intimacy for this very specific on-screen relationship?
When I think back to the first time we met at my callback, he was there. I think he had already gotten the part and I just remember we started doing scenes without prosthetics and without the transformation and both of us just went a hundred percent there. We just didn’t feel ashamed of anything. We just went into it in the same way and that made the chemistry or the chemistry made us trust each other in that way. I just felt immediately that it worked and I think a lot of it had to do with that we had the same kind of approach to the material; that we had no reason to feel embarrassed. Just go.
How did you prepare for a role that is so physically demanding and body altering?
I did gain 18kg (40lbs)…
Yeah, it was kind of too much, kind of. Ali asked me how I felt about gaining 10kgs after I got the part and I was like, ‘Oh, we didn’t have much time.’ I thought 10kgs is a lot but just put me together with a PT and a dietician and we’ll just work it out. We (David Seesa) met and started to train and after seven weeks I was 10kgs bigger and heavier and then it just continued (laughs) to 18kgs.
Oh my goodness.
Yeah! I mean, you just have a schedule. He said, David said to me, ‘Okay, now you’re not going to have time to meet your friends or, you know, do anything outside of this because you’re just going to be eating.’ And I’m like, ‘That’s crazy because you do eat when you meet friends and family and so I’m going to do that anyway.’ But then I understood what he meant because it’s like eating every one and a half hours. Every 90 minutes, and you have this schedule on your fridge and you eat more than you can. At least it’s good stuff, real food. Lots of carbs and very often. But it’s like poisoning your body; you get sweaty and moody and it’s hard to sleep at night. And we were bodybuilding at the same time four times a week. When I was in Cannes I was still a bit bigger than I usually am but now I’m back to basics. But yeah, that was really something.
Sometimes actors say they can finally get into a role once they’re in costume. Did you feel the same way once you had gained the 18kg? Did you have a different understanding of Tina as a character than before?
Yes, in the sense of, I mean yes, absolutely because you’ve built this character, you know the body. And I used that; the way she moved. I just needed more space, of course, and I started to move differently. I was not as smooth as before walking down the street. I was like ‘Oh my God, can people just, you know, get out of the way!’ (laughs) And I think that’s a lot how she felt. One thing I practiced with this character is making her half human, half animal and interacting with these things that humans have designed; tables, chairs, rooms, spaces, houses, cars, everything. I started to look at it as if it were uncomfortable. Every time I was going into a room or entering a building or sitting down at a table I started to kind of investigate how it would be to be uncomfortable in those situations. When you do feel comfortable you want everything to be like a forest or a field you could walk on with your bare feet. It’s also the relationship she has with animals; I developed my way of communicating with them like feeling like we are the same but that civilization is made up and for other people. That’s how my thoughts went and how I practiced.
I mean, gaining all this weight and muscle and being so stiff in my body – all of this fat and overtrained muscle that couldn’t fit under my skin. It was a similar feeling to being a small box or how do you say?
Like being in a confined space, trying to get out.
Yes. She’s never comfortable except when she’s out in the forest.
So true, and at the beginning with that little moth or insect. She has these extremely intimate and thoughtful moments with animals that she’s not able to have with people.
The prosthetic makeup to work with seems very extensive. What were the biggest challenges there?
That was a huge challenge because I think of it like you have this whole toolbox you have for you doing your work but it’s covered in glue, silicone and gelatin. It’s hard to find the right tool.
I love that. That’s a great description.
That’s exactly how I felt. I’m like, ok…now how’s this going to work? How to manage, how to play through these layers of glue and prosthetics. So that was a really big challenge for me and you’d have Ali filming me on his smartphone and we also had the Nadim Carlsen, the photographer, in for a day of tryouts to see how the mask would work. How much I needed to get what kind of expression Ali wanted. So that was hard work, you know, preparing. When we started shooting I thought again, ‘How is this going to work?’ so Ali had me go home and watch all the dailies, I think it was one and a half weeks of shooting at that point. I carefully looked at myself for hours, which is kind of insane in a way. But I was trying to see, to understand. Then I realized, ok, it’s working.
This character of Tina, she doesn’t afford herself a lot of feelings or expressions. Because of her look she cannot really afford a big smile or look surprised or show her teeth when she’s angry. She’s, she’s kind of rubbed herself out because she’s an outsider. People always look at her in different ways. So that was the other challenge how to play through these prosthetics with a character who doesn’t use a lot of expressions. I was really rubbing my brains to do that.
One of my big takeaways from Border is that it’s a really fantastic queer story. What is your take on the queer, gender-bending element of the film?
We never talked about it in that way. We thought of it as this is just how these characters are. We didn’t talk about for that scene but for me, personally, when I read the manuscript for the first time I was like, wow, that is a really a queer perspective and I enjoyed that too.
I think queer audiences will find something pretty amazing if they go with it, and I hope they do. What do you hope audiences take away most from watching Border?
Wow. I need to think about that. (pauses). I couldn’t in my wildest fantasy create this story and when I read the manuscript my thoughts were twisted and going back and forward and I was surprised by it and had to think about things so if you could sum that up in one word I hope that is what the audience would take with them.
It’s kind of an adventure and they can ride on that adventure with you.
Yes, an adventure, I like that.
Eva, thank you so much for taking some time to talk with me today.
That was great, I was really happy to talk to you.
Border is set for release in select theaters from Neon on October 26th.