Wednesday, February 28

Ordinary people playing actors: a ‘wild casting’

“Being an actor seems amazing to me, but I’m fine like this.” Jordi Puyol, on the other end of the phone, reflects on his first and so far only experience in acting. This maintenance technician from a small town in the province of Lérida is one of the protagonists of ‘Alcarrás’, the film by Carla Simón that won the Golden Bear at the last Berlin Film Festival and which opens tomorrow. “I experienced the shoot very naturally,” he recalls, “although we had no idea. We were learning the vocabulary they use in the movies as we went along.” Pujol speaks in the plural referring to his co-stars, all of them natural actors, that is, people with no acting experience who were recruited by Simón for his second film. ‘Alcarrás’ tells the story of the Solé family, a saga of farmers whose lands are in danger due to the installation of some solar panels. For the director, it was important that the first-time interpreters were from the area and related to the field. As she has stated, “it is thanks to them and my proximity to this world that I have been able to tell this story.”

Leading this selection, which lasted for a year and a half, was the casting director Mireia Juárez, who has been in the job for more than 20 years and has worked with filmmakers such as Icíar Bollaín, Cesc Gay or Simón herself, with whom collaborated on his first film, ‘Verano 1993’. Even then, Juárez had to find two non-professional actresses to play the girls in the film, but ‘Alcarrás’ has been a greater challenge. “It’s the most complex project I’ve ever done,” she admits. “We needed very diverse profiles, from 4-year-olds to 80-year-old women. And the second complication is that we had to believe that this group of strangers formed a family.” While professional interpreters guarantee interpretive quality, anonymous faces provide inherent credibility, since the border between person and character is diluted. They are placed in new situations, fictional settings, but are asked to react to events as they would in their normal lives. For this reason, and in the words of Mireia Juárez, “when working with non-actors, what is sought are people who are as close as possible to what is written in the script.” This is the case of Jordi Pujol, one of the nine thousand people who participated in the casting of ‘Alcarrás’ and who for much of his life has dedicated himself to growing fruit. On the screen he plays Quimet, a ‘pagès’ who lives by and for the peach harvest. There are things that I love about him and others that I don’t. But deep down I understand.” So much so that Pujol remembers having lived with the character, even outside the set. «Sometimes, after a day of filming, I would ‘wear’ it for a while at home until my wife told me ‘get down on the ground, get down, you’re not filming'”.

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Listen to the podcast 'La Mirada Encendida' about how non-professional actors are chosen

Creativity when working with natural actors

Beyond ‘Alcarrás’, this season Spanish cinema has several titles performed by non-actors that highlight the attractiveness of this discipline. ‘Six current days’, the great winner in the past Gaudí Awards, is one of them and Neus Ballús is its director. “I find it creatively absurd not to use this method considering how rich it is for the viewer.” The filmmaker refers to the variety of bodies and faces that non-professional actors bring to the picture, but also to the linguistic diversity and accents they bring with them. In fact, in ‘Seis Días Corrientes’ we listen to Spanish, Catalan and Arabic. The film narrates a week in the life of Valero and Moha, workers of a small plumbing and electrical company. Ballús found the interpreters, Valero Escolar and Mohamed Mellali, at the Installers School in Barcelona. “I sneaked into classes and watched them interact with teachers, ask questions… I got to see a thousand plumbers.” Nothing in this film is done in a conventional way, as the script was born out of weekly meetings between the cast and the director. In total, two years in which they worked mainly with improvisations, that is, scenes that are staged on the spot. “Thanks to that time, I got to know them so well that I didn’t need to mark dialogues for them in the script,” recalls Ballús. Once on set, the game didn’t stop because the director wanted none of them to forget that their job was the reason they were there. “Someone on the Art team was purposefully causing breakdowns so that when they went into the shoot they would have to figure out what wasn’t working.” The result: a comedy full of tenderness and humanity in which the vulnerabilities of each other are portrayed.

Working with natural actors allows (or rather requires) new methodologies, both during the shoot but also during the search for those unknowns. Chema García Ibarra has been making films with people without acting experience for more than ten years. His cinema, a mixture of science fiction and costumbrismo, could not be understood without that alleged artificiality that arises, precisely, from ordinary people standing in front of the camera. In the preparation of ‘Sacred Spirit’, premiered a few months ago and awarded at the Locarno Festival, he had the collaboration of the French Cendrine Lapuyade, a specialist in what is known as ‘wild casting’: going down the street and stopping without attention to the people who can fit the profiles that are needed. “Since we were in full confinement, we had to invent an online version of this,” recalls García Ibarra. So they decided to advertise the tests in Elche and its surroundings as a job offer. “We never use the word ‘casting’ because it doesn’t address a person who doesn’t want to be an actor,” he specifies. Instead, they put out announcements on local radio stations and printed flyers. “We added that it was not necessary to have a certain physique or be extroverted.” Some 3,000 people responded to the offer. The director from Elche knew how to take advantage of the inexperience of his and his actors, making it easier for “gestures, tics, that remind me of life, to sneak in from the rehearsals. Thus, in a fictional story, that documentary atmosphere is created that interests me so much».

‘Sacred Spirit’, ‘Six Current Days’ or ‘Alcarrás’ are clear examples of the variety that natural castings introduce into fictions and also of their creative possibilities. But there are and will be more cases. ‘
Scoundrels‘, by Daniel Guzmán, recently released, stars Joaquín González, a friend of the director since adolescence and with no previous experience on camera.
‘The water’, by Elena López Rieraselected for the Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival, presents a mixed cast, with professional actors and newcomers.

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