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An Interview With Elli Harboe (Thelma)



Conducted By: Scott Bates

Rising Norwegian star Eili Harboe stars in Joachim Trier’s supernatural drama Thelma, out this weekend. I talked to the 23 year old actress about what drew her to her character, working with live snakes and her on and off-screen friendship with her co-star Kaya Wilkins.

How did you become involved with the film?
I was asked by the casting director to come in to do the audition and I read the script quite early on, on the second round of auditions, so I was lucky to get a sense of the story and character of Thelma, and I just immediately loved it, I thinked it – I’m a fan of Joachim Trier, and I loved his previous work, and he’s been one of the directors in Norway I’ve really wanted to work with. I think I had this unsettling feeling while reading the script, this brooding feeling creeping up on me like, I didn’t anticipate anything that’d happen on the next page, and I just loved his cinematic vision and his unique portrayal of human relationships, the themes of love and grief and combining that with a supernatural theme – that’s something different to what he’s done previously, and I just thought to myself “I hope I get this part, I think this is a really great character!”.

How did you approach the character?
When reading the script I really liked the character, she’s strong and vulnerable at the same time, but she’s still, she’s not a victim from her circumstances, and that was very important to me as a young actress, to be a part of that and portray strong female characters. But it definitely has been a challenging experience for me, emotionally, with what the character experiences, and physically, with the physical preparations – swimming and diving lessons, seizure therapy.

You had seizure therapy? What was that like?
Seizure therapy was fun, yeah it’s very interesting! It’s a technique, mostly for people who’ve experienced something traumatic, they can use seizure therapy to cope with that trauma. It’s something they did in the stone age, animals and children still do it, but our social and normative development has affected us in a way that shaking and nervousness are linked, so a way of portraying insecurity is shaking, but we try to ignore it and suppress it, but if you use it in a constructive way it will help you to gather strength to not experience the shaking when you don’t want to. But for me, this particular situation, I was using the seizure therapy to portray the kind of epileptic seizures Thelma has in the film, and I used that as a basis to work off of, and in the beginning it’s kind of rapid, static shakes, but then it comes into more kind of waves that people suffering from epilepsy experience.

How were the scenes with the snakes shot?
There were a lot of snakes on me, there were a lot of scenes with a snake on me or my body, but with CGI they enhanced it or changed the look of it. I’m not afraid of snakes so for me it wasn’t a problem, but the real snake didn’t go into my mouth! But it was very fun, the snake was very calm, and as long as you moved respectfully. They’re animals, I love animals – except rats, I hate rats! If it were to be like a rat coming out of my mouth or something I’d consider maybe asking them to change it! We had an animal trainer on set so none of the animals got hurt, he didn’t speak much English but he was Czech, from the Czech Republic, but he was very calm and showed me how to handle it.

How long did you prepare for and how long was the shoot?
I actually got the part in July and we started shooting in September, so we didn’t have very long preparations, but some of the underwater scenes, the swimming scenes, were towards the end of the shooting schedule so during the shoot I continued lessons.

Could you swim before you got the part?
No, I was like a dog! I could not! The swimming teacher said “How long do you have to prepare?” and I was like “Two months!”. One of the scenes is like a few seconds, but it was a full day of shooting, so I had to have the physical ability to stay in the water and handle it for like fourteen hours.

Did you and Kaya know each other before this?
No, Kaya is a very talented musician, she lives in New York – she’s Norwegian but she lives in New York, and she had never done a film before. I was just so impressed by her talent, she was so present and quirky in like the best way, I was immediately drawn to her and I had my fingers crossed that it would be her to portray the character. We’re great friends, I stayed at her apartment in New York for seven weeks this summer, so I’m really happy it turned out this way. We became very much good friends, but also after we shot the film actually, when I was in New York, and during all this, launching the film.

Have people responded to the film in the way that you thought they would?
I don’t think I anticipated anything – I just thought of this as a great experience, maybe the greatest I’ve been part of so far. As an actress I really enjoy working, being on set and working there, and I am very happy to be here at the London Film Festival, but this is not the main reason I choose to do this work, that’s when I feel most myself, when I’m able to be on set and work there. The reception has been wonderful, it’s been overwhelming and I’m so, just so happy it turned out that way, both in Norway and internationally so far.

I know you have acted before Thelma, was this your first lead role though?
No, I’ve starred as a lead before, but that was more of a low-budget film , which was also a great experience, I was involved very early on, so I got to be a part of the development of that script, of that film, and we improvised a lot, very fun. But yeah, this is my sixth feature film, but this is definitely my biggest part so far.

Had you worked with either of the actors who play your parents before?
I hadn’t, and they’re like trained actors, who’ve attended national schools of theatre and everything in Norway, so they’re very well-respected and they’re obviously very talented, and I was just so happy and excited about meeting both of them, and during auditions I was just like, I really enjoyed just working with them. Henrik, who portrays my father, as a person he’s just warm and very loving, he came to the audition with his bicycle and his children’s seat on the back and his helmet, he’s that kind of guy, and he’s kind of goofy in a way, which is not his character at all. Yeah, so, that’s what I think makes his portrayal of the character so interesting and intriguing, that complexity.

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