The Unbearable Brightness of Lena

A smitten Jorge talks acting and a new movie with Swedish star Lena Olin

Film by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Lena Olin

The Artist’s Wife
Opens October 2

When you kickoff your acting career working for Ingmar Bergman, there’s nowhere to go but down. Lena Olin managed to break through and forge a path of her own, one that included working for Sidney Lumet, Philip Kaufman and Roman Polanski (yeah, I know. So does she).

While not quite a household name, Olin has some doozies in her filmography: the irresistible Sabina in The Unbearable Lightness of Being; the femme fatale with a twist in Romeo is Bleeding; and a Cuban revolutionary in Havana. She came close to being a household name once, as Jennifer Garner’s super-spy mother in Alias, but decided not to stick around.

Following an appropriately camp turn in the controversial series Hunters, Olin returns to theatres with The Artist’s Wife. Olin plays Claire, the spouse of a renown painter with Alzheimer’s (Bruce Dern), whose willingness to care for her husband wanes with every insult hurled her way. But with the growing alienation comes the reawakening of her own artistic passion.

An unassuming piece that targets a mature audience, The Artist’s Wife’s main assets are Dern and Olin: the former, as volatile as ever: the latter, a warm screen presence. By her own admission, Olin was moved enough by Claire’s mix of softness and strength to sign onto the project.

Over the phone, Olin is a delight. She drops Bergman’s name unprompted, as one should (“to be picked by him… you feel like you have the magic stuff going on”). Not only is Olin interested in having a conversation, she’s quick to laugh and can pick up on cues and provide insight. I’ve been doing this forever, and I can tell you this never happens.

What do you look for in a screen partner and what did you find in Bruce Dern?

Bruce is someone who, when the camera starts rolling, will do whatever comes to his mind. He never stays in the prison of what you agreed on. That’s so fun and inspiring. It demands authenticity because you can only react to what he throws at you. That’s what you want as an actor. You want to take from yourself and give it to the character.

I imagine that requires a level of trust.

Yes, and the confidence you develop with a fellow actor is either instant or not. If you’re comfortable, it’s easy to keep going, hold each other’s hands through the shoot. If it’s not there, it takes the oxygen out of the room.

In the film, you seem very comfortable with the brush. Have you painted long?

No, I can’t paint, but I’ve played a painter a lot of times, including The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I’ve shadowed different painters to witness their process and how they go about things, which has been extremely helpful. Painting, like acting, is very individual.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is from 1988. I’m from Chile, and because Pinochet was still in power then, we couldn’t see it until 1991, which happened to be my first year in college. There was a deluge of forbidden films that opened in ‘91. For me, it was perfect timing.

Of course, that’s so cool! It must have created a lot of movie lovers and people who chose film as a career. Like yourself. (Mind blown. I never thought about it.)

You’ve worked with Bergman, Lumet, Pollack, Kaufman… is it hard working with novice directors when perhaps you know more than them?

I never thought about it that way. I’ve always felt that when I work with someone — no matter if they’re a big shot or not — we become explorers searching for a character. I do a lot of preparation because I like to feel I have a lot to offer when I come to set the first time. Every director is a new world, and you just have to stay open and see what they have to offer.

Are you able to separate the art from the artist?

My dad was a director, my mom was an actress, and I grew up around actors and directors. I empathize with the struggle of those who are creatively gifted. I don’t think I’ve ever judged anyone and I’ve worked with some pretty unlikeable people.

What character of yours would you revisit?

Every single one of them. I’ve this illusion of what my films look like, but then I go back and start questioning my decisions. Every day of shooting, there are things you want to redo.

Is there any movie of yours you think didn’t get a fair shake?

There’s a movie I made with Aaron Paul that’s now called Adam. I played a Russian nurse working with a man who’s paralyzed. It was a very fun shoot. I’m not sure if it ever came out.  (It was shot in 2011, remains unreleased.)

What’s the biggest misconception about you out there?

When I meet people for the first time, they often tell me “are you that tall?” and I’m like “I guess I am”. I’m not terribly tall, I’m 5’10”. People often create an image of who you are and I’m so concerned about it. I don’t want to disappoint anyone who likes me. 

I don’t think that’s possible.

Thank YOU!