Joana Metrass On ‘We Die Young’ And Working With Jean-Claude Van Damme

As we await the release of Lior Geller’s We Die Young (1 March), Joana Metrass arrives on Close-up Culture to chat about her role in this socially-conscious action film.

Q: Can you tell us about Anna, your character in ‘We Die Young’, and how she fits into the story?

A: Anna is a girl from the neighbourhood, her husband used to be part of the gang and she wants nothing to do with that life. She became a mother very young and ended up raising her daughter alone. She is the closest person to Daniel (Van Damme’s character), the voice of his conscience.

Anna is the character that brings heart, love and kindness to an environment that “screams” everything but.

Q: ‘We Die Young’ is a story about escaping gang life in Washington, DC. What interested you about this story and its messages?

A: Well, this story resolves around a reality that very few people know: the gangs in Washington Dc are led by young kids. This film aims not only bring awareness to it, but also empathy. These kids are not necessarily bad kids. They are victims of their environment, kids who are alone and find a sense of family by being part of a gang.

It also brings awareness to PTSD,  a common problem in war veterans, through the character of Jean- Claude Van Damme. With our growing understanding of mental health, PTSD is something we also need to start looking into more and more, as it’s happening everywhere in America and in many other places.

These kind of films, with the purpose to bring awareness to important subjects and to help create empathy, is what moves me to being an actress. I believe empathy is what can – and will – change the world and it’s something that can be developed. To me, cinema is all about this.

Q: The film gave you a chance to work closely with action movie legend Jean-Claude Van Damme. What was it like working with JCVD?

A: I was so nervous when I first met him. As you say, he is a Hollywood legend. I have worked with many famous actors before but never with someone who is considered “a legend”. But after you meet him you forget all that, for he is a colleague focused on doing his best – like we all are.

Jean-Claude is for sure one of those people who has this incredible “star quality” to him when the cameras star rolling. You can’t help but look at him. It was an incredible experience.

Q: Do you have any fun or interesting stories from working on the film?

A: As I was replying to your previous question, one particular moment kept coming to my mind. There was a day when we were shooting a really hard emotional scene for so many hours. My head began “exploding” from keeping myself at that peek of emotion for so long; I literally had to go put it under very cold water. I was a wreck.

When I got back to the make up room to re-do all my make up, there was a group of ladies that worked in different departments of the film all waiting for me, and everyone was very quiet. No one was talking (me neither, because I was under such strong emotions). I thought: “wow, they must have really felt it too!” Then, after a second one of them couldn’t hold it anymore and broke the silence, they all excitedly started talking at the same time.

Only then did I realise why they actually were there waiting for me as they start asking: “OMG, what was it like to hold Jean-Claude Van Damme?!”

Q: ‘We Die Young’ has given you the chance to work with one big screen legend. Can you name one or two more legends you would love to mix it up with?

A: The top legend for me is Meryl Streep. And I don’t know if he falls into the ‘legend’ category or not, but the other one would be Daniel Day Lewis.

Q: You have a diverse background and have impressively straddled work between Portugal, England and the US. Can you tell us more about your background and being able to work in different countries?

A: I started my path as an actress in Portugal. I graduated from the National Theatre Conservatory and started working in theatre.

I had been an exchange student in high school, so I always had this thing of wanting to live abroad and in different cultures. After a few years working in Portugal and studying acting in different countries, I decided to move to London. Being part of European Union made it a lot easier. I knocked on doors and ended up getting a great agent, and then I started going to auditions and booking jobs – one thing just led to another.

In the meantime, I won a scholarship from Gulbenkian to go study in Los Angeles, where some managers had heard about my work in the UK and signed me up. It made sense to move to LA.

My very mixed background allows me to change my image (to look as though I’m from a variety of different nationalities) and also means I’m very good at accents. All of that combined helps me a lot to work around the world.

Q: Do you have any other upcoming projects to tell us about?

A: I have a British film from the British Filmmakers Alliance – called Spoiler – where I play the female lead. That should premier sometime soon. I also have a co-production between England and Brazil that should film at the end of this year.

Besides that, a pilot season and audition time meaning: time to make those future projects happen!

Title photo by Tiago Felizardo

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