Creating an illusion

Gabriela Cartol on learning the craft of The Chambermaid

by Amber Wilkinson

The Chambermaid
The Chambermaid

Gabriela Cartol stars in The Chambermaid, which screened in competition at this year's Marrakech Film Festival. The film - Lila Avilés' directorial début - sees Cartol star as Eve, a maid in an upmarket Mexican hotel, where each of the hotel rooms opens into its own little world. It's an intense character study of Eve as she tries to work her way up, while gradually losing some of her shyness around the other hotel staff.

I caught up with Cartol in Marrakech to talk about the film, the craftsmanship of being a chambermaid and her hopes for her career.

How did you come to be involved in The Chambermaid?

I did a casting because Lila saw me another film called in La Tirisia, which is another sort of festival film. When she called me for the casting. I read some scenes and I knew where to 'get' the character from.

It's a very physical role. Were you surprised?

Yes. We didn't he a lot of time for training, so it's one of those decisions you take on faith because we didn't have a lot of time and I've never been a chambermaid. When Lila told me about it, it was only about two weeks in advance. So I had two sessions the chambermaids and was it. I was literally just learning the ropes.

It was a combination of chemistry with the director and the fact she knew what she was doing, so that gave me a lot of comfort and she also trusted me. So it was a mutual trust. That helped a lot. She knew exactly what she was doing and, unusually, she had seven years of investigating the story.

So, basically, it wasn't the training with the chambermaids but with Lila, the director. She would guide me, like: "No you have to do it this way... Or that way" because she knew. She was like another Chambermaid.

Were you surprised by the depth of the character. It's not just about the work but about her inner thoughts and life.

As soon as I read the script that was one of the things that brought me to it. I thought, "It's brilliant." There's a lot going on but you're not going to show it. It's a complex character, so it's more with the eyes, the physicality and how you speak.

For me, it's really important when I'm portraying a character. I give my voice to them but there's always a special way of speaking and finding her voice. And I think I did it.

"It was a mutual trust. That helped a lot" - Gabriela Cartol
"It was a mutual trust. That helped a lot" - Gabriela Cartol

A lot of the time you're alone. Was that a challenge to bring out those internalised ideas when you're basically alone in a room?

Sure. Once again, it's one of the things that brought me to it. I thought that's really interesting and it's going to be all me. To have that weight in your character - every single scene. The director said to me, "Are you aware that you're in every single scene? You're not going to have any time to rest. I'm going to need you to be there and I'm going to exploit you, basically." Because we did the filming in 17 days. Because usually actors wait.. We wait, we read a book, we sleep. But here we just didn't have time because also we used natural light, so there wasn't any time left. And they could kick us out at any moment because that was the agreement with the hotel - you can shoot here, but if we need the room then you have to move.

Did that happen?

Yes, we had to be like, "Three, two, one, go!" And get all the things out and then reshoot. It was insane.

Has it changed the way you think about staying in a hotel?

Completely. Lila opened my eyes. Every time you go to a hotel, when you walk in a room, it looks as though nobody else has been there, like you're there for the first time - and that's a craft. So I see the chambermaids now whereas I used to take it for granted. Whenever I go to a hotel, which is obviously happening a lot with this film, I think about the chambermaids and I think about the craft. I see the beds and I think, Wow. And I always leave them a tip and, on top of that, a note saying, "Thank you so much." Because I see them and I know there's someone working, so you go and have your comforts and it looks like you've been there for the first time even though you know there's been people there before.

The Chambermaid also gives you a good sense of the economic background for Eve.

Yeah, the working class people. It also reminded me of the film I, Daniel Blake, because even if he works harder and harder, he's never going to get any better off. It's the same for Eve. It's a sense of 'that's life' and that's what you get.

She has a character and that's what I liked about her. She's not flat. Yes, she's shy but she has feelings and she has emotions and she gets them little by little and you're discovering her. And that's what I love about her.

It must be strange in a way to act in the role and then suddenly see this film have this entire life of its own, travelling round the world.

It's been crazy, I've not stopped to think about it. Whenever I read the script, I knew it was going to be a festival film. It was really well written. I thought, this is a piece of craft as well. But I never thought I would be in Morocco, San Sebastian, Toronto, Los Angeles.

Is it a balancing act, between supporting the film on tour and moving on to new work?

Now I do feel like I need to stop travelling. It was the end of the year, to be fair, so I closed a series and then I went on a break for this film. So I just finished a series called La he, which is about La Malinche [a historic woman who played a key role in the Spanish conquest of Mexico]. I'm speaking Mayan.

"The director said to me, 'Are you aware that you're in every single scene?'" - Gabriela Cartol
"The director said to me, 'Are you aware that you're in every single scene?'" - Gabriela Cartol

Did you have much time to prepare?

No, it was two weeks in advance as well, so six sessions with a Mayan teacher and then that's it. We had the coach on the set. Languages are quote easy for me. I speak French, Spanish, English. With the Mayan, I don't speak it but I did have to learn it. Because in Mayan if you say something that's not quite right, it had a different meaning. So, I finished that and then, I said, "Okay, I'm going to take a break" and start a world tour. And now I feel it's time to stop the world tour and get back on track, so I'm preparing my next film. It's Tex Mex so I need to do an accent as well.

Will that be shot in Texas?

El Paso. So, I have to prepare. It's a single mother who is looking to stop the treatment for her son, who has ADHD (attention deficit disorder). It's really intense. It's with Rodrigo Pla. She comes from Mexico and she's had to immigrate to Texas. When The Other Tom, the book they're basing the script on, I thought, this is great.

You seem to be getting good, large roles. Do you think things have improved for women on that score in the past few years?

Yes, definitely. I know that my life has been really lucky because I've always had roles with an intense sort of background and that you can see the acting an preparation it takes. But the roles that I've done so far are main characters.

Do you find it's different working with a female director compared to a male one?

Yeah, I mean, with a female director there's always this sense of complicity. You know you're a woman and you can speak heart to heart. But I also love watching male directors. I like both.

If you had your pick of any role, what sort of role would you like to do?

To play a prostitute - but not like the cliché. I always think, "What makes you do that?" Because you don't wake up and think, "I'm going to be a prostitute." And the whole system gets my attention. I want to be able to understand that world and what is behind it. Characters like that - intense characters.

Would you like to take roles in English-language films as well?

I would love it. I would absolutely live in England. Or Spain. I'm Mexican but I look Chinese and with make-up I look completely different. I think I've got a unique look.

When it comes to films, do you look for specific directors or scripts?

I look at the characters. I think the work with the director comes after. To me, the main thing is that I get passionate about who I'm going to play.

The Chambermaid will be released in the US by Kino Lorber next year

  • 'It was like I had a baby,' - read what director Lila Avilés told us about The Chambermaid

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