Interview: Juli Jakab Talks László Nemes` “Sunset”

Juli Jakab as Irisz Leiter Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Watching László Nemes’ films without getting first hand experience is impossible, unless some of us

either do not understand it completely or try to keep safe distance from the story that, at times, can be too disturbing to follow.

“Sunset”, written by László Nemes with Clara Royer and Matthieu Taponier as co-writers, and

directed by László Nemes is a complex story of the past of its protagonist Írisz Leiter portrayed by Juli Jakob, who does not want to go anywhere.

During the Toronto International Film Festival, I had the great pleasure to sit down with the lead star of “Sunset” to discuss the film, Írisz Leiter, and how she prepared herself for an incredible journey, I sincerely hope you will get a chance to see with your eyes through the silver screen.

MOVIEMOVESME: Can you share your journey leading up to “Sunset”?

Juli Jakab: I’ve known László Nemes for ten years and I had a small role in “Son of Saul”, it was a really, really tiny one. Even I don’t remember it sometimes, but I worked with him before, and I would really love to do it again. And I had known about this project from before Son of Saul, because he already had a version of a script for “Sunset” before shooting Son of Saul, and I knew that his next project is about a woman at the beginning of the 20th century, and it interested me very much, of course. But the most important thing was that I really wanted to work with him again, and after Son of Saul, they started preparations for “Sunset”, and they asked me to send a video for the audition, but they also … it was very widespread casting process. They casted, I don’t know, hundreds or thousands of girls, and I was there among them.

MOVIEMOVESME: I’m sure as an artist the director is always one of the most important choices just because you know that that director will help you to get where you need to get in terms of portraying the character or understanding, but what is it that you like about Írisz Leiter?

Juli Jakab: During the casting process, it took ten months for me, so it was really long and I always had to do different scenes from the actual script, so I have gotten to know her piece by piece, and her story. And I thought that this is a big challenge, to portray someone with very few tools because, I don’t think that we can say after watching the movie that we really know Írisz, that we can describe her properly. There are just a few attributes she shows, even though she’s not only the main character of this story, but she’s the one who we see all the time, and she’s the one who we going through the events, so this was the first challenge, and the second one was that I already knew Lazlo’s style, and after I read the script, it was obvious that this story is, again, it’s not over spoken, so I knew that I have to use my face, and especially my eyes to express feelings and changings and every expression of Írisz, and it was a great challenge to figure out how to do this. How do work with so little.

MOVIEMOVESME: What was the point when you said that, “Okay, I think now I can be her.” Why do you think that someone who knows what she’s getting into is trouble, she may lose her life or even someone may die, but she’s still going forward?

Juli Jakab: I think she’s, in a way she’s a real heroine. She’s very independent and she follows her own instincts. She’s, yes, she can survive all the time, but on the other hand, I felt that she is probably the loneliest person on earth at that time. She really wants to be attached to someone. From the moment she learns that maybe she has relatives alive, maybe she still have that brother. The only thing she’s longing for is to meet him and to find someone or a group or anything she can belong to, and I think this is a very, very … this is something that connects us all, that we all want to connect to someone, to find someone who protects us, and who cares about us, and this is … so I think this is like evolutional urge not to be alone, and this is what … I’m sure that it’s not a conscious thing, it’s something from the deepest core of human soul to go through anything to find that someone. And I don’t talk about love. I mean, like a relationship. I talk about family or love or any kind of familiar atmosphere.

MOVIEMOVESME: How was it for you as an actor to exchange your life experience with the character you portrayed to become one?

Juli Jakab: Yes, it is. It is. I mean, I know my way or when one enters about how to portray her, I try to … I drew different memories of mine, and I used them to fuel each scene. I thought a lot of my mother. Of my late mother, she dies away right before the shooting, and I came to realize that I didn’t even know her. So when I think about the mysterious woman with a lot of secrets in her life, and a lot of faces, I remember that I cannot connect them together, and somehow I cannot see the full picture, and I know that it won’t happen in my life, probably for me, it was my mother to think a lot to portray her. And on the other side, what did I get from Írisz? I think she’s much more stubborn than I am, and I like it in a way. I think I would keep some of that stubbornness and she had some kind of a grace all the time, and it’s not because of the … it’s partly because of the dresses. It’s interesting when you put on dress like that or a hat like that, your body changes immediately, but she has an inner grace in her self, and that gave me a lot. That was something I liked to be together with.

MOVIEMOVESME: Your performance was also full of technicality. It’s not just walking in, even regardless of whether you did the research or not, which I’m sure you did. Where did you get those skills, or did it just come naturally?

Juli Jakab: Thank you, we talked a lot about the way of speaking, and I had a coach to help me, not only me, but to everybody else, too, to speak in a different tone as we speak today. I think that was all. The long shots we used during the shooting, this is really long, like one or two minutes long continuous takes help a lot, and I think help us a lot because with this method, you have think forward all the time in a technical way, because I had to hit my marks, and I always had to know where to be and which direction should I look, and it’s very complicated. It’s very far from improvising. We had to take control of everything, especially Lazlo, but also I had to pay attention for everything, every little detail. But at the same time, it is like reality, because it never stops. Normally when you shoot a movie, you do a day out of the total, and then the closeups and, you know, you have time to figure out new things, and to yes, but in this case, we had tons of rehearsals before the first shot, but then we had to do it in one … everything, it had to be right, and of course, we had a couple of chances and retakes, but it has to be reality.

By the time we got there to start the shooting, I was so immersed in this world and in this life, I sometimes … I wouldn’t say I didn’t have acting, I didn’t have to act, but sometimes I felt that I just have to … I can switch off my mind, and I just have to go with the scene, and be with the directors and extras and everybody.

MOVIEMOVESME: I wonder do you think that the past, regardless if it’s good or bad, is worthwhile going back again to dig deep and get the answers? Because in her case, it’s about the past, which because her future wasn’t defined yet, she didn’t know it’s going to get there, so what was your take on that?

Juli Jakab: I think it’s necessary to know our own personal past to define ourselves, and maybe it’s not something that belongs to childhood, but with early adulthood when you have to realize that you are not an independent individual, but you have your ancestors, and you will have your descendants, and it’s a full picture that doesn’t have frames, because it’s just an endless line. And you have to put yourself on this line and see yourself as part of a full picture, and this is why it’s necessary to know something about your own past, and it also can be said about an entire society. I think we sometimes we have to go back in history and we have to dig deep and see what happened before … how was it, how was it to live in an era in a beautiful and very, very brightful era like 1913 in Europe right before two world wars, right before this horrifying century. Something happened there and we have to go back and see people there and see beyond, look beyond the historical facts and try to understand those people there who caused that horror just a couple of years later. It’s important to avoid mistakes today, and it’s still impossible, I think, I’m sure that we have to keep these things in mind.

MOVIEMOVESME: So if you were in her shoes, let’s say or in that era, would you follow the same path if you had the chance?

Juli Jakab: Yes, as I said, I think this urge to find similar people, someone who we can belong to, I think it’s in everyone. I’m sure if I were alone 100 years ago and I had this sense that maybe there is this someone in the darkness, I would also do everything to find it, and to find out who he or she is and in this relationship, who am I, I guess?

MOVIEMOVESME: What do you think made Írisz Leiter so perfect and imperfect at the same time?

Juli Jakab: Good question. I think that since she’s very symbolic in a way. I didn’t want to think about it during the shooting, I wanted to see her as a real person, but now that I’m watching the movie, and when I read the script two years ago, of course I was aware that the story and Írisz herself has a very, very symbolic level, maybe not only one, but more. And I think … for example, at the beginning, she is very pure and very innocent, but I’m not sure that she is really pure and innocent or the viewer wants to see her as a nice young lady who has a beautiful dress and a nice hat with fine jewelries and the very clear gaze. So I think Írisz Leiter remains a secret until the end of the story. We can think a lot of things about her, but I’m sure that she’s not completely solvable, but as a symbol, it gives the opportunity to the viewer to think whatever they want to think about her, and maybe this is … this is a reverse projection, and this is what makes you feel very extreme things about her, but, I mean, you can feel warm things and at the same time, you can feel that she is the most irritating person on the … I wouldn’t say film history, but in this movie, sometimes she is really disturbing and irritating. It’s a very interesting balance, I guess.

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