Pablo Larraín’s latest movie, Ema, is visually and thematically stunning. Larraín does things as a matter of course that other directors wouldn’t dare to. At the center of a story that envisions a shattering of societal standards (especially as they define what makes a “good woman”) as a means to progress is the enigmatic and magnetic performance from Mariana Di Girólamo, who plays the title role. This was the soap opera veteran’s first movie, and it plunged her into the deep end of experimental cinema. Di Girólamo’s character is a professional dancer (Di Girólamo isn’t). In several scenes, Ema sets things on fire with a giant flamethrower (Di Girólamo specifically requested she get to do her own stunts with the device). She didn’t work off a full script—instead, she says, Larraín gave the actors a scene at a time, allowing them to play out the lives they were inhabiting moment by moment.
I spoke with Di Girólamo recently via Zoom—Spanish is her first language, and there was a translator on hand (Rocio Santos) to assist, but Di Girólamo mostly conversed with me in English about filming this wild movie, playing a character with multiple sex partners, and where she would like to take her career. An edited and condensed transcription of our conversation is below.
JEZEBEL: You’ve appeared in Chilean soap operas. I would argue that Ema is straight-up operatic. Did your past work prepare you for such explosive material?
Yes, I definitely think so. The hard work of soap operas and definitely helped me to face this challenge. I love drama, but soap operas in Chile are not like Mexican soap operas or Colombia soap operas: This woman with big hair and perfect teeth—they are quite different. I arrived at the movie like this and Pablo always told me, “Less, Mariana. Less. Less.” And I said to him, “Pablo, I’m not acting at all. I’m not doing anything.” But I was doing something.
I think that’s part of what’s so entrancing about this movie. For as much as Ema gives, there is so much she holds back.
Dance is a very powerful tool of seduction and expression. She’s on fire inside, but she says few words. I think that that’s why she’s so mysterious and attractive and dangerous. We always said that she’s like the sun: You want to be close to her, but you’re a little bit afraid of her. And she’s so hypnotic for all of the other characters. She’s always planning the next step. She’s like an orchestra conductor.
When people ask you what this movie is about, what do you say? Like, what’s your kind of elevator pitch?
Oh, it’s difficult. It’s I think that it’s the story of her of that moment in her life. And it’s the story also of a failed adoption. It’s a very complicated situation, and it’s something that happens. This is the start of the journey to retrieve the child—this journey of remorse and one of the reasons behind this is she wants to create a family.
I think this movie explores the idea of “chosen family” in a novel way that goes beyond the typical connotation of the phrase. Ema is judged by society for not being a model woman and she takes a blow torch to that condemnation. Did you think of the movie in those terms? As a depiction of progress?
It’s about progress. It’s about new families, new orders, new generations, new ways of love. For example, the relationship that she has with her friends, it’s very [reflective] of this new generation. They are friends and they are lovers and they don’t care about labels or categories.
It’s rare to see a character have as many sex partners as Emma does. Was it complicated to relate to so many actors in that capacity? You kiss a lot of people in this movie.
That scene when she’s in this bed in a motel and you don’t know if it’s a dream or if it’s true, it was a little bit… not complicated because we shot with a respectful group of people. Sometimes even Pablo wasn’t there—only the art director, she’s a woman, Estefania Larrain and the cameramen and that’s it. I laid on the bed for a few hours and the actors arrived in robes, one after another. But it was fine. Pablos is a very, very, very respectful director, and all of the crew that he picked for the movie was a very reduced group of people and very professional and amazing. And with the other girls, almost with every one of them, we met before. We were friends. So we had this confidence.
I read that you didn’t have a script for this movie. What did that mean? Were you aware of the overall arc of the plot?
We knew the story, kind of. But sometimes we shot two different options for the same scene, sometimes the opposite option. We shot three possible endings for the movie. The only person that had the script was the continuity supervisor. It was a sacred script that no one could read or touch. The scenes arrived sometimes four days before or sometimes the same day. At first, it was a little bit frightening for me, but I realized that it was very liberating. I had to be very concentrated in the here and now of the shooting.
Do you know why he did it like that? Was it to kind of keep the movie alive and to keep you in that moment?
I don’t know why, you’d have to ask him, but I have the same idea that you have. I think that’s why the movie is so fresh and alive. You can hear sometimes the little mistakes. It’s not polished. In the part of Gael García Bernal’s monologue against reggaeton, it has a lot of improvisation. There was this space for that. Pablo gave us the space to do that. I’m not great at improvisation. I don’t love it. I didn’t do it as much because it’s not my thing.
You so inhabit this character that I wonder what it’s like when you watch this. Do you see yourself or just Ema?
When I saw the film, I said, “It’s a character, it’s another person.” And that was amazing. I watched it with my husband for the first time, and he said to me the same. He felt very, very attracted to Ema. I haven’t watched it for a year, but I think you need distance, or this conversation, for example, that I’m having with you to keep understanding… I don’t know if I want to understand it, but keep completing the experience of Ema.
What was it like to get to use the flamethrower?
It was amazing. I was annoyed with Pablo because I had first a double that filmed that scene for me, but I was very persistent and I said “I really need to do it, please.” And he said, “Okay, Mariana, today’s the day.” And I did it. It’s a super heavy weapon, and when you shoot it, you like [kick] back. But you feel very powerful. I recommend experiencing it. During the strikes in Chile, people wrote me and said, “Mariana, we need you to bring your flamethrower to the protest.” But no, it’s super dangerous.
Looking forward, do you know what you want to do with your career? Do you want to be in superhero movies? Do you want to be in complex dramas like this? Like what? What do you envision for yourself?
It’s funny because my first 10 auditions after Ema were for superhero movies. I said, “What am I projecting? I’m a drama actress.” I love, for example, period dramas. I would love to do that someday or comedy maybe. I don’t know if I’m good at it, but maybe. And why not a superhero movie?