Academy Award-nominee Chilean film director Pablo Larraín is presenting worldwide his new feature film, Ema, as you read this. After succeeding in La Biennale di Venezia, TIFF in Toronto, and London, we catch up with Mariana di Girolamo, the up-and-coming Chilean actress starring in the leading role, during the 30th Stockholm International Film Festival.
The young gun – the sweet and talented actress – faced her first feature film working together with heavyweights Larraín and Mexican star Gael García Bernal. She has a background working for several TV productions in Chile, which gave her praise and popularity, so it was a matter of time that Larraín and Mariana crossed paths. Her aunt is also a well-known actress in her country, which led some people to speculate whether this paid a key role in her career.

Nevertheless, with this work, Mariana has shown that her talents and sensibilities in front of the camera are innate. Furthermore, she is experiencing an exciting moment, and the United Talent Agency just signed her up in the United States. We wanted to know more about the exciting challenge of stepping up the game from TV to the silver screen and how this role also lights hope to a new generation within the compulsive and combustible moment Chile finds itself in.
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I believe Ema is your first feature film screening internationally and taking you to several film festivals around the world. How do you feel about it?
It’s been quite an amazing experience. It is my first time playing the leading role in a film. I come from the TV world, I made some TV series in Chile and a few films in VR – sort of experimental formats. So this film has been quite a new experience for me, very challenging. I keep learning from it. I went to Venice, San Sebastian, Toronto, London, and now I’m here in Stockholm.
As a matter of fact, I think you’re a member of the jury for the Stockholm Film Festival.
Exactly, I’m a judge! It’s called the Impact Award. It’s the first time I have the opportunity to actually watch films whilst promoting my own at a festival, so I’m very happy because I have a credential and I this opportunity here.
Some of the most exciting films in the festival this year are selected for the Impact Award – Beanpole by Kantemir Balagov and Atlantics by Mati Diop are on top of my mind right now. I think you will have a hard time deciding what to go for.
Yesterday, I saw Mati Diop’s Atlantics; it’s beautiful! And Beanpole, I have to watch it today. I have also Xavier Dolan’s. There are eight movies. Another one with Tilda Swinton’s daughter, The Souvenir. I have to be very responsible because it is a big prize!
Besides Ema, you’re a rather well-known actress in Chile who has worked in several productions for national TV such as Río Oscuro. Could you please let us know what is it about?
Oh, that’s the latest production I’ve done in Chile. (Laughs) It’s a kind of soap opera TV series in Canal 13. I have an aunt who is a very famous actress in Chile, Claudia Di Girolamo, and we worked together on this. We’ve been filming this for six months. Previous to that, I worked in Forget About Our Sins – another Chilean TV series – for one year and a half.
You have achieved popularity in Chile and Pablo Larraín has achieved international recognition as well, so it seems like a natural step for you two to work together. How did you guys end up in this project?
I’m not quite sure. (Laughs) When I was shooting Forget Our Sins, Pablo contacted me and talked about this project he had in mind [Ema], which didn’t have a name back then. He said this film depended on other projects to happen, so he said, ‘I don’t know this for sure, but I want you for this film.’
Did he know you were working on a TV series when he reached you?
He once said to me, in Venice, that he had never seen me acting – but I don’t know if that’s true! (Laughs) He saw a picture of me in the national newspaper and said, ‘Who is she?’ So finally, we met in person and had lunch together. He talked about this film and the only thing he said was that he wanted to depict a free woman. He wanted me to dye and cut my hair. One month later, he called to confirm that we were going to make the film.
I guess it was a very happy moment for you!
Yes, what a dream to work with Pablo! Like a fairy tale. So we started with the training and with the dancing immediately. Because Ema dances, you know.
How was working with him like?
He taught me a lot. Because this was my first experience in cinema, I didn’t know how to work in terms of technical stuff like being in front of a steady cam, the dolly, and things like that. Also, we didn’t have a script, we shot isolated scenes. We had to be very focused on the here and now. This was my first experience working in such realm. What an experience! Because not all directors work like him. He was very open to what I could offer.
The fact that there was no script made it more difficult for you?
At first, yes. I’ve worked in soap operas previously, and in them, it’s very important to know where you come from and where you are going. But all this wasn’t important anymore. Pablo said, ‘I don’t care where Ema is coming from, who her father was’. The first time, it all felt very frightening, but at the end, it was very liberating. I just had to be very focused on my workmates. Pablo is an amazing director.
I understand he created a trustworthy relationship between the two of you.
It was kind of a vow. He gave me this opportunity and it was our first time working together, he didn’t know how I perform. But I’m aware he saw something in me – he has very good intuition. He was very clear about this and he told me that he didn’t picture another Ema but played by me. So yes, we had a lot of conversations: we talked about dance, music, Chile, etc. I never felt like I had to prove anything to him. He had to teach me things I didn’t know before. He knew he was working with a beginner, that I had no experience in cinema, so it all developed kind of organically.
What would you say was the most challenging part for you?
Again, to work in this format. For instance, receiving instructions in the middle of the scene. You can’t look at the director, you can’t lose your focus. Things were very new to me. The severity and strictness of such a demanding approach on every scene. Combining the director’s point of view but also Ema’s. Pablo was asking me for things as I was performing. Also, the dance part was challenging too. I enjoy dancing but I’m not a professional dancer. Sometimes, I wasn’t sure where to hold on or how to get a grip on a particular situation, so I was in a mantra.
You were working with Gael for the first time too. I believe that was very inspiring as well.
Yes! I was very nervous. He’s the guy from Amores Perros (by Alejandro González Iñárritu), Y tú mamá también (by Alfonso Cuarón) and a lot of other films. I admire him a lot. He asked me if we could have dinner before getting into the film. I was very nervous but it was a very good idea to break the ice and talk about everything and anything. He’s very generous as an actor and as a person. I learned a lot from him – about his engagement with his work, his passion, etc. I think he started to work in filmmaking at the age of eighteen with very well-known directors.
Both Pablo and Gael have a solid experience in filmmaking and have worked with many industry heavyweights. But, as we’ve been discussing, you were working for the silver screen for the first time. How was it for you to take the responsibility of starring in the leading role on the same level?
Pablo and Gael are very close. Imagine how important was it for me to make them feel comfortable! Of course, we all were together in this. Gael came to Chile to work with this unknown actress to him in this movie without a script, so again, it’s Pablo Larraín’s way.
How much of Ema is in Mariana?
Only our passion for dancing! I don’t know if passion is the right word, but I really like dancing too. Ema is fiction, but especially now, we can find some of Ema on the streets of Valparaiso. Santiago is burning now. A lot of people asked, ‘Mariana, what is the flamethrower about? Just grab it and burn it all!’ But I can’t do that! (Laughs) I think now, more than ever, this film talks about our generation, our new orders in Chile. We are in the middle of a big crisis.
Do you dance reggaeton as well?
(Laughs) I like to dance it. Maybe in a bar or just cleaning my house, but I don’t go to reggaeton clubs. Gael’s character in the film – Gastón, his speech against reggeaton is probably the funniest I’ve heard in a long time! In Toronto, the audience started to applaud it in the middle of the screening. They think he represents the vision of a generation, but my generation is more linked to this music genre. In Chile, reggaeton has achieved a lot of success, I think that even more than in Puerto Rico or anywhere else.
Do you think this film speaks about the current situation in Chile?
Again, it’s fiction, but I think it’s an accurate portrait or reflects rather well our times and what is happening at the moment. In the country, there’s this concept called ‘nini’ – which I think also exists in other Spanish-speaking countries –, which refers to young people who don’t work and don’t study and have no intention of doing so (in Spanish, it stands for ‘ni estudia ni trabaja’). Many people are saying that the people demonstrating on the streets are ‘ninis’. Ema is not a nini, but she somehow resonates with these young people who’re very tired of the system. They have nothing to lose because they have nothing to start with. They work as a community. Maybe because I’m very angry about it, but these people didn’t have the chance to work or study, it’s not like they’re lazy.
Have you asked your friends around to know if people connect with the film?
Yes! And people do. Not because of the protests but because of the symbolism of fire. In the film, Ema says that you have to burn the old weeds in order to grow new ones. I don’t want to look like I want to burn it all, but places like San Cristobal or Santa Lucia in Chile actually burned, not totally but… We see this in Ema when she burns the sculpture of Arturo Prat, a ‘national hero’. It’s symbolic.
Does the idea of working in the United States (or any Hollywood production) attract you? Or is it more about the people you work with regardless of whether it’s independent filmmaking or something more commercial?
Maybe both. I just signed with UTA in the United States – they are in Los Angeles and in New York. I’m having meetings and auditions, so I’m very open to all the possibilities. Perhaps, living in Chile is not the best for me now because it’s quite off from the US and Europe, of course, but I want to keep working in Chile and Latin America and have the opportunity to work with other Latin American film directors. Maybe in Mexico too. Regardless of whether I move somewhere else, I will never disconnect from my country, my family and friends (of course, that’s my circle), and I will keep pushing against the problems in Chile.
What is Mariana up to when she finishes a day filming? Are you workaholic, always developing your role further, or do you disconnect?
I like to disconnect, I’m like that. When I finished Ema, I went to Europe for a month – to Barcelona, actually. But for three weeks, it was impossible to get rid of her. (Laughs) I kept thinking about it. It was in my bones, in my blood, still on my dyed hair – but I tried to! I’m always saying that I need holidays, but then, I’m desperate to get back to work. Maybe I’m a little bit workaholic too.
Do you use social media to raise awareness of all the issues happening in Chile now?
I use Instagram a lot. I think I have an important role as a communicator. I try to use it wisely and responsibly to show what is going on in Chile. It’s a platform.
As an up-and-coming actress receiving international attention, what would you say to young people who perhaps see social media as a shortcut to attract attention or achieve their dreams?
That happens to me in Chile because of my last name, which people link to my aunt, so they think I’m here only because of my family. Then, only after working very hard, I prove – even if I have nothing to prove – that I’m here because I own it. It’s good that people recognize me for my work as a versatile actress. I’m very hungry. So I suggest people do the same.
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