TIFF 2018 Interview: Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir Talks “Woman At War”

Still from Woman At War. Photo by Benedikt_Erlingsson. Courtesy of Mongrel Media

In most cases, it takes only one person to change the world. You might wonder how. The answer to it is very easy to provide; you must see Benedikt Erlingsson’s “Woman At War” that is all about fighting for the sake of the country, and not let it get disfigured by a big corporation. And when the unexpected news comes in the face of a little orphan, Halla will make no mistake to use her math skills – millions of lives she could potentially save against one.

During the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, I was honored to have a few minutes with the great  Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir who tackles two roles in one movie at the same time.

Her approach to Halla and Asa were equally subtle, genuine yet poetic.

This is why I am extremely proud to invite you to read her interview below to learn more about the choices she made while portraying such a complex character in a way only she could pull it off.

MOVIEMOVESME: How did you get involved in “Woman at War”?

Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir: It was a long way for that actor to choose an actress. In the beginning, he had me in mind but then he thought if he should get real identical twins to play the sisters, so he went a big circle around it. But two months before shooting he came to me again and we know each other since we were children; we are childhood friends, me and Benedikt, the director. And we worked together in the national theater as children, we worked together in college and did things together and we were together in the theater school and we have created many successes in theaters before. And I also played in his other movie “Of Horses and Men” but yes I got this part only two months before he started shooting. And he called me in for the screen test among other actresses. He just wanted to widen up his horizon to see if there was somebody else that should play it or who should play it and then I was lucky, I got this big part.

MOVIEMOVESME: The character you portray is always on the run. She always runs away from the authorities as they begin approaching slowly.

Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir: It was kind of a lot of running and the man behind the camera was very happy because you never know how many times they will have to shoot these scenes. So there was a scene where I had to run like two kilometers and I hoped it won’t be eight takes, but it was only three takes so I was very happy. I only had to run six kilometers that day, in that shoot. So I just prepared, I just had to be in shape so I could do at least five takes. Then I saw the script after which I wrote down on the contract and I said and I need trainers, running trainers.

MOVIEMOVESME: The title “Woman at War” suggests so many things. What do you think Halla is at war? Because she struggling, she got an opportunity to become a mother, adopt a child. But I think the biggest war she had, it was against herself, her ideology, beliefs. What do you think? How did you analyze Halla and how did you see her and her way of being in war?

Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir: To analyze Halla I used a sort of a yogi approach because her sister’s the yogi so I had a long talk and analyze with yoga masters I know. And the yogis have three energies, or they talk about three energies. It is tamas energy that is the darkness, it is the raja energy that is the rightfulness to make right and that is the ambitious energy and you think you’re doing the best and Halla’s in the energy. But the energy of the ones that want to conquer the world with activism or rightfulness is a pen-book, so she always goes back in time as the darkness get bigger.

If you fight with your fist it will become part of the enemy. But the twin sister, Asa, sees in this energy, that starts with the self. And her belief is that nature will save itself by destroying mankind. So she’s thinking on a much much bigger scale. So I think for me the thing was about how are we gonna take the wars? How are we gonna change the world? Is it with a fist, is it with kindness? Do we need to be activists? Is it necessary to be an activist? To move the lines is it necessary? Or is it where we just have to have patience and just see mankind destroy itself and nature take over again when we have opened wide the layers on the energy? And then there starts the circle of billion years on the Earth without humans.

MOVIEMOVESME: A positive thing for Earth, isn’t it?

Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir: Yes, yes. So this is what I was thinking about. Halla, she really wants to bring change. I feel her character because she was not allowed to have a child a few years before. So she has given up the biggest dream of being a parent. And I think it’s something very deep, the longing to be a parent. She was told no, so she still needs to have a meaning to change the world. She takes on this battle to fight against global warming for all future children to come. But then she gets the opportunity again to become a parent, so she has this big struggle with herself. Is she an egoist or is it the biggest gift you give to raise that one child?

MOVIEMOVESME: So who do you think the child means to Halla, Is it a small drop or a big vanity for her?

Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir: But this is her battle, she doesn’t know if it’s a small drop or if it’s just her vanity. This is like you say, this is her war. Am I being selfish to want to have a child? Is it a selfish longing? But I think as a parent, because I have five children, being a parent is really the biggest sacrifice you do in life. Because you really learn to put yourself aside for the benefits of the child. If you don’t have a child you have to learn this in a different way, to put yourself aside and put things on a bigger scale.So, is this personal or is it one drop or is it vanity?

MOVIEMOVESME: Halla is a conductor; she has a job and she enjoys it. She found out an alleged cousin but in the meantime, she’s an activist. How’s it even possible to juggle all of that. Of course, it is possible but didn’t you find that interesting or fascinating about her character? She can do all this without the need of compromising her life goals.

Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir: Yes, I had to figure this out. And I thought because she’s a classical musician, and I’ve worked a lot with symphony orchestra of Iceland and I studied classical music from age six to twenty. So I know what it needs to take place in a symphony orchestra or to take the journey of a classical musician. It is like being a martial artist. Like being ninja or tai chi artist or something like that. So I really thought if she has this ability to work all the way to being a professional classical musician, she has the ability to calculate like a martial artist and work on two dimensions, something like this. So that was my back story even though we don’t see it in the film. She has this quiet place, one where she can rehearse eight hours a day alone on her instrument, is able to stay in the cellar and prepare activist acts up in the highlands. Did I answer your question?

MOVIEMOVESME: What really defines Halla? She is in her fifties, she always wanted to become a mother, so she knows there is another prospect of becoming one. There’s a girl waiting for her in Ukraine, while the police are searching for her. And then knowing that she could blow up her only chance of becoming a parent, she still leaves this aside and continues her fight on a bigger scale. Why do you think that a woman of her caliber chose to continue to fight and sacrifice motherhood?

Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir: Because she maybe doesn’t have the answer if it’s vanity or the drop to save the child. So somewhat maybe she has this feeling of if she doesn’t do the big jump to finish the job by really turning down the lines then she has failed the future and she has failed humanity. And I understand this feeling very well. It is the feeling of even though I have a child I have a longing to go to Africa and work in healthcare somewhere. There is this deep longing of going to help make the world a better place and she’s just so deeply into it. And the band just wakes her up and she sees they’re talking about her as a Breivic of nature. That she really feels she has to … okay, how can I put it … they have stolen her word of mouth and she realizes she really has to knock down the industry money machine, the imperialists, to bring some change. Because the only thing they will understand is losing money. And this was the first decision she took and it was not a good decision, she was out of balance when she took the decision. She was afraid when she took the decision.

MOVIEMOVESME: How would you describe the ending when Halla holds the girl in her hands while she has to make through the river created by the intense and heavy rain in Ukraine? Is that what’s meant for her, saving the world?

Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir: I think so yes, I think this is the reason for both things. Both for the electricity and fighting against global warming and then she carries the child. It is about the future. She doesn’t want to leave a footprint but wants to leave a healthy world for the future.

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