Iceland's Oscar hopefuls

Silja Hauksdóttir, Donna Cruz and Katla M Þorgeirsdóttir on Agnes Joy

by Jennie Kermode

Donna Cruz, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, Þorsteinn Bachmann and Katla M Þorgeirsdóttir in Agnes Joy
Donna Cruz, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, Þorsteinn Bachmann and Katla M Þorgeirsdóttir in Agnes Joy

It’s a small town story now elevated to a very big stage. Silja Hauksdóttir’s second film, Agnes Joy, follows a slowly disintegrating family in the town of Akranes, just across the bay from Reykjavik – a place from which the light of the big city can be seen by night but where nothing ever seems to happen. The titular Agnes (Donna Cruz) is a frustrated teenager waiting for life to begin. Her mother Rannveig (Katla M Þorgeirsdóttir) is bored with her marriage, unhappy at work and increasingly wondering where she went wrong. When handsome TV actor Hreinn ((Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) moves in next door, both women find themselves distracted by him, and it’s clear that trouble is on the way.

This family drama, which we caught earlier this year at the Glasgow Film Festival, is now getting international attention because it has been selected as Iceland’s Oscar submission. Meeting Silja, Katla and Donna to discuss it, I noted that Iceland has recently been punching well above its weight where cinema is concerned. it only has a small industry. Did they know each other before this?

“I'm actually pretty new to the industry,” says Donna, “so I didn’t know a lot of people, but I'd seen countless movies and television shows. I was a little bit star struck.”

Donna Cruz as Agnes
Donna Cruz as Agnes

How did she get the role?

“One of the writers contacted me on Facebook,” she says. “At first I was like, ‘is this thing legit?’ I wasn't sure. And she actually didn't mention like, for what role I was auditioning. So I thought this was just like a small, small role. I was auditioning, and I was not prepared at all. Silja and Katla explained to me what the role was, which was one of the leads for the film... Internally, I was actually screaming that ‘Yeah!’”

“I knew Silja,” says Katla. “She called me and asked if I wanted to come to this audition. So I learned two scenes, and I was really excited. And I didn't want to call it, you know, because you still have to wait and be patient and see what's going to be chosen. And then I read it all, and it was just amazing. I just love it.”

I mention to Silja that I think Agnes Joy has themes in common with her first feature, Dís, which also dealt with issues around identity and the uncertainties of life.

“Yeah, finding out more about yourself, also, through your relationships,” she says. “For me, somehow, I think this film is a step in that direction, which I think is probably something I want to explore a bit further. I mean, most of the drama is just usually at your house somehow. That's where we spend all our time, like in our close relationships.”

She has spoken before about her interest in looking at real life as opposed to the sort of stories often told in cinema. There are a lot of fantasies in this film: the middle aged woman's fantasy of the exciting neighbour, the young woman's fantasy of an older man taking an interest in her and his fantasy of what it would be like to seduce a mother and daughter, and none of those things work out the way they expect. Was she interested in looking at the clash between those fantasies and the real world?

“Yeah, I mean, yeah, when you put it like this. Yes, I am. Because in my experience, fantasies, usually, they should be that: fantasies. Because when they play out, it's not what you really wanted or imagined. And so usually, it's always disappointment, right? And also in life, those big moments like ‘Should we get married? – all those Hollywood moments. At least in my experience, it's always so much more mundane.”

I tell Katla that I find her character interesting because she’s often in the middle, caught between her mother and her daughter. Did she feel that her character was pulled in two different directions like that?

Katla M Þorgeirsdóttir as Rannveig
Katla M Þorgeirsdóttir as Rannveig

“It's a good question,” Katla responds. “Yeah, definitely. Rannveig’s mother is very dominating. And she's also afraid, she must think about getting old and she's afraid that they would put her in house for old people and all that, you know. So her anxiety is rather clear. And the and also Rannveig is trying to control her mother, to pull her out of her house, and also controlling her daughter Agnes. What I find so interesting in this relationship between mother and daughter and mother and grandmother is this anxiety, how it moves, how we put it on our shoulders. And Einar, her husband, is like he’s in his own world, and so it's so frustrating. She's really struggling. And she's trying to do her best, of course, raising her daughter, but it's more complicated.”

Is she trying to control other characters partly because she has a sense of having no control over her life?

“I think so. Yes. I think so. She's really trying to get everything in control. And yet her self esteem is low and she has this co-dependency. So yeah, she’s struggling.”

I ask Donna how she prepared for taking on the demanding role of Agnes.

“I don't have a lot of experience in acting,” she replies. “And this is my first role in a movie and then I got the lead role. And I just got a lot of help from the cast members and from Silja. That really helped me a lot. The script was so well written, and you could connect with a character, I think that as well helped me a lot. Like you could see, you could see and kind of feel their emotions while you while you were reading the scripts.”

There's a lot in the story about how the characters – especially Rannveig - are trying to present themselves in ways that seem respectable to everyone else. A lot of layers of performance with the characters themselves acting. I ask Silja how she approached that when she was developing the script and then working with the actors.

Reflecting on what Katla said about Rannveig, Silja answers “I think her her issues, I mean, you talk about controlling and wanting to control...And for me, this is just like a catalogue of codependency which is definitely a generational disease but it also it comes from fear of losing control, of not having control – like, nobody's actually seeing me, and fear of if they see me that they see the real me and I have to hide who I am. So I think it's all of these small elements. Like we mentioned earlier, me and Katla have worked a lot together before and I do know that she is a really strong actress and she has an amazing, I don't know, somehow she has a lot of tools to portray emotions. So I was not fearful. I knew that she would just nail her, which in my opinion, she did.”

Setting the film in a small town also contributed to the way the characters came across, she suggests.

“When you're in a small community, people that stand out, they stand out quite a lot more. That was important, I think, for the claustrophobic feelings of Donna’s character.”

Agnes Joy poster
Agnes Joy poster

Was it an easier environment to actually shoot in?

“No, I mean, not really, we had to travel quite a lot. I mean, it is a half an hour drive.” She pauses as Katla laughs. “I know that's not a lot. But I thought it was extremely important to the story to to have some truth there, to have their houses there, so we, we get the feel of it in our bodies, sometimes. They actually live there, they're stuck there. This is their home.

“The shoot wasn't that long. I mean, it was a hectic schedule, it was a bit packed. But it was condensed. I think we got almost all the time we needed. If we would have got more time we would probably just have invented more problems – you know how it works. But yeah, it was a long preparation. It was a short shoot and the editing process was... the first stages were somewhat rough. But when we said ‘Done,’ it was done nicely.”

Did any of them expect the film to be as successful internationally as it has, or to generate so much interest?

“I didn't!” says Donna. “It’s not that I thought it was going to fail. I just didn't have any expectations and then it did so well, here in Iceland, and I was like, okay, that's fantastic. And I was kind of content with that. And then it's generating like a lot of popularity outside of Iceland.” She looks as if she still can’t quite believe it.

“It's hard to explain,” says Katla of her reaction to the Oscar submission. “We are so thankful. I'm so surprised. Oh, my God!”

Silja is now hard at work on her next project, which is for television.

“It’s drama, a bit of crime drama called Sisterhood [Systrabönd]. And we'll finish in February I think wrapping it up, totally will be done. I've been just editing and trying to work on future projects with the same kind of show.”

Katla’s life has been complicated by the pandemic – she’s spent eight months waiting for a planned première at the City Theatre to go ahead, with a lot of rehearsing. For Donna, though, things have been simpler. “I am open to opportunities when they come my way,” she says, “but right now my focus is on school.”

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