Close-up: An Interview With María Thelma Smáradóttir

Icelandic actor María Thelma Smáradóttir plays one of only two characters to feature in Joe Penna’s survival thriller Arctic.

María spoke to Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge about working in freezing cold conditions, Mads Mikkelsen, overcoming self-doubt and much more.

Q: ‘Arctic’ is your first feature film. How did the opportunity to work on this film and with first-time director Joe Penna come along?

A: I wish I had some kind of a romantic story about how the opportunity came about, but I guess the process was pretty basic. They were looking for an actress in Iceland who had an Asian background, so they contacted me. The producers sent me the script and I really liked it. Then I met with Joe and Ryan Morrison (writer) for an interview/audition and the rest is history.


Q: Without giving too much away, what can you reveal about your character and the role she plays in the film?

A: Hmm…it is tricky. Well, we didn’t approach the characters as typical “characters” you would see in movies. They are just two human-beings from different backgrounds and they are trying to survive. They try to communicate but they don’t speak the same language, which is really interesting because it brings us to the question: ‘what makes us connect as human-beings?’

Q: Mads Mikkelsen has said this was the most difficult film he has ever made. How was the experience for you? Any stories you can share?

A: It was very tough on so many levels. The location was very isolating and the weather was unpredictable, so it was quite difficult to keep up with the schedule. I don’t allow myself to complain because at least I had the chance to stay in our tiny trailer between scenes while Mads had to be out side in the blistering cold all day, everyday.

I remember it very clearly when Mads told me this was the most difficult film that he had ever made. We had a pretty intense day and we were driving home from the set. I sat in the front seat and he was in the back. We had a long day and we were both pretty emotionally drained. He told me: ‘this is probably the most difficult film that I have ever made.’ I slowly turned to him and said: ‘this is my first film.’ He looked at me with a smirk on his face and replied: ‘good, you’ll grow a thick skin after this project’ – which was totally true!

Mads and María build a snowman on location

Q: Mads gives a breath-taking performance and he will be honoured at the upcoming Evolution Mallorca International Film Festival. What was it like working with Mads, especially when he was under such great strains?

A: Great question. Well, patience was crucial. I guess neither of us were prepared for what was coming. Like I said before, the location was very isolating and sometimes the cold was very overwhelming. On top of that, he had to act and travel through a wide range of emotions so he was under a lot a pressure – both physically and emotionally.

Under these circumstances, there was no place to hide or escape what we were going through. I guess we developed a mutual understanding and a trusting environment where we could be completely raw. It was my intention from the very beginning to be as supportive I could be.

Mads is a really unselfish actor which makes him so great. For example, we had to do a reshoot of one scene that’s pretty emotional and they only needed a close-up of his face, but there here two of us the scene. Instead of doing it by himself (which he could have easily done), he asked me to help him out, even though I wasn’t on screen. I thought it was super respectful of him. That tells me that he doesn’t consider himself above anyone else, despite his great success.

Q: I believe Joe said the film was originally supposed to be set in space, but changed his mind when he saw Ridley Scott’s ‘The Martian’. Were you disappointed that you didn’t get a sci-fi adventure?

A: (laughs) No, not at all. I think being in the Arctic makes it more relataible.

Q: I mentioned earlier that this was Joe’s first feature after coming from a musical past on YouTube. How was Joe to work with? Did you feel his background meant he brought something different?

A: It was great to work with Joe. He’s very generous and approachable which is really important. I believe that every director brings something special to each project. He had a really clear vision of what he wanted and his future is very bright!

Q: I just rewatched the Cannes red carpet for ‘Arctic’. How special of an occasion and an experience was that for you?

A: Very special. I was unbelievably proud to see the Icelandic crew at Cannes. We wouldn’t have made it without them.


Q: Around the time of Cannes, you posted on Instagram about triumphing over the ‘closed doors and setbacks’ you have faced. Can you share some of the experiences and hurdles you have had to overcome?

A: Absolutely. Well, after numerous of auditions and countless no’s, the self-doubt starts to creep in – whether it’s something relating to your looks, heartbreak, talent or whatever.

Growing up in a predominantly white society (Iceland) with a mixed background (my mom is Thai), I didn’t have many role models. There were no actors in Iceland with an obvious ethnic background so I thought that I didn’t have a chance. Sadly, I really thought that my mixed background would be an issue for me. But I was so wrong. As I grew up and started to look at my features from a different point a view, it started to work in my advantage. Instead of thinking: ‘I will never get the part because of my background’, I started to think: ‘I will get it because of it.’

So being the only actress in Iceland with an Asian background is actually what led me to Arctic. What are the odds, right? You really need to develop a sense of resilience and the belief in your self has to be bigger than your insecurities and your fears. To those who are reading this, you’ll be ok. The universe has your back.

Q: You attended the Iceland Academy of Arts, starred on the TV series ‘Prisoners’ and recently played the lead role in short film ‘Miss Iceland’. What else can you tell us about your background and what brought you to acting?

A: My interest in acting started to high school. I was very shy and started to attend acting classes. It really brought me out of my shell and I never looked back.

Q: What are your ambitions and hopes for the future?

A: My dream is to continue taking parts in films and television. I want to travel around the world, going from one hotel to the next.

Q: Do you have any upcoming projects you can share with us?

A: I have a couple of things coming up, but nothing I can share with you guys just yet. But hopefully soon!

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