Marina Palii: “Acting is a form of freedom”
Ever since I first saw “Malmkrog” (2020), Cristi Puiu’s latest film, I wanted to find out who that young Romanian actress who plays Countess Olga, one of the five main characters (the others being played by foreign actors), is – she was a new and impetuous appearance in our cinema. Her face suggests the entire time an emotional intensity that contrasts with the inevitable conventions of a period film and the rigidity of the mise-en-scene.
For various reasons, the portrait interview I had my mind set upon then is coming just now, two years after the film’s world premiere at Berlinale and several months after “Malmkrog” exhausted its short and deprived by the pandemic theatrical run.
Born on March 31, 1991, in the town of Făleşti in the Republic of Moldova, Marina Palii attended high school in Sibiu. Then she moved to Bucharest, where she first studied Foreign Languages at the University of Bucharest (2011-2014), and then studied acting at UNATC, where she earned both a bachelor’s degree (2014-2017) and a master’s degree (2017-2019).
The role in “Malmkrog” was her first-ever part, which she got during her master’s, in 2018. In 2019, she also starred in a French television film, “La forêt d’argent”, by Emmanuel Bourdieu. In 2021, she participated in the Berlinale Talents programme, an experience that resulted in creating “Ensemble”, described as a “collective audiovisual piece” made by the 42 film professionals who attended the programme.
After short collaborations with some theaters in Bucharest during college (Nottara Theater, Small Theater), at the end of the master’s, she got a job at the “Ioan Slavici” Classical Theater in Arad, where she commutes from the capital for rehearsals and shows.
In the interview for Films in Frame, Marina Palii talks about the work process on “Malmkrog”, her collaboration with Cristi Puiu, the reception of the film, her experience at UNATC, her childhood in the Republic of Moldova, and last but not least, about what acting offers her.
It’s been four years since Malmkrog was shot and two years since its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival. Last autumn, it also had its premiere in Romanian cinemas, after some hesitations or delays caused by the pandemic. Therefore, enough time has passed for you to look back on this experience with greater detachment. Why do you think Cristi Puiu decided to offer you this role? Have you thought about that?
I have, of course, but I still don’t have a clear answer. It all started with Simona Ghiţă (i.e. casting director and actress, she also plays a supporting role in the film). She called me one night and asked me to do a reading in French. She sent me a monologue. I auditioned in the dorm room at UNATC, after which I was called to go to Sighișoara for a casting.
I had no idea what that meant. Calling an actor for an audition and paying for their transportation, to me it was something unheard of. That’s how clueless I was. I borrowed an old edition of Solovyov’s text in Romanian (Malmkrog is based on Russian theologist and philosopher Vladimir Solovyov’s book “War, Progress, and the End of History: Three Conversations, Including a Short Story of the Anti-Christ”). I read as much as I could in the car. Then I got there, straight on the set. Cristi was sitting at a table, I was sitting at the other end. The audition was filmed. I read an excerpt. Cristi corrected me, he told me to read it more humanely. He gave me some directions. I was quite nervous. I had left school. I was waiting for them to decide on the cast for The Seagull, and now I was in Sighişoara out of nowhere.
And because I was nervous, he asked me as a joke if I wanted some brandy. I said yes, to loosen up a bit. I actually thought that he also meant it as a direction. Then we talked about the part. In the evening I met the French actors, we talked for a bit, thinking that the next day I would return home, be at ease and go back to school. I met Mr. Puiu, what more could I want?
But the next day, on my way back to Bucharest, I received a phone call – they asked me if I could pack my bags and come to the shootings. So I did. I think it was February, 2018. The last day of shootings, if I’m not mistaken, was March 31st. I know because it was my birthday.
I don’t know what made Cristi offer me the part. At one point, I thought it was just a matter of luck because an actress had left the set and they probably needed someone else urgently. So I imagined the process wasn’t that tough. That was the explanation I came up with because I couldn’t understand why the cast of Cristi Puiu’s film would also include a student, who had never acted in a movie before. I am still overwhelmed by the trust he has placed in me and the risk he has taken. I later realized that I was actually a good fit for the character. But I’ve also worked hard on it.
In what way? What was the work process?
The process was extremely difficult. And that’s because in college I learned a certain kind of approach to the character, to what acting means. So I started from the outside in as soon as I put on my costume. The shootings started the day after I arrived; I put on my costume and saw myself in the mirror. I told myself I was a countess and I started acting like it. (laughs)
But Cristi didn’t approve. Obviously, he was right. After about two weeks, I had the feeling that I was naked in front of the camera, in the sense that the period costume emphasizes the actor’s expression so much that everything I was doing extra turned out to be more of a nuisance – what I imagined a countess should be like or act like. It was all useless.
Then, the ego, which also had to be contained, because the candor and kindness he sought in Olga transpired from a reverse process, from giving up your own preconceptions, your ideas about acting, and from emphasizing the text, which is very difficult. It was hard for me to say a text without dressing it up with all sorts of meanings, because I was afraid and I was overwhelmed by its candor.
I feel this is one of the aims of the film – establishing some convincing characters starting from a text of philosophical dialogues where the participants are abstractions, patterns that carry ideas.
Probably when you, as an actor, give up trying to explain the text and dissect it too much, you reach some sort of harmony with it. That was the greatest bet: how can such an abstract text become an extension of the actor. It wasn’t until I saw the first draft of the film that I realized it, because when I was in the thick of things I couldn’t see that.
Cristi kept telling me to listen to him, to trust him, to ask fewer questions about what this or that means or about the relationships between the characters.
I can’t explain it in a rational way. But the meaning emerged from simply giving up. Most of the time, I would learn the text for the next day at night, and we would wake up at five in the morning because makeup and costumes took about two hours. So the quickest way was to learn the text by heart and see what you do with it on the set. Paradoxically, that helped, because I stopped limiting myself by rationalizing too much.
You had to perform in a period costume, in a foreign language and following a particular text. Did you see all this as an obstacle or as a challenge in trying to reach that candor you talked about in the interviews?
On set, I saw them as obstacles. After that, I realized that they were actually challenges. I wasn’t mature enough, including professionally speaking, to know how to relate to such a text. Although it is a text that I initially perceived as an intellectual debate, during the shootings I had all kinds of uncontrollable reactions.
For example, there was a scene – when Ingrida reads that letter – in which I burst into tears because I was thinking about the war in Ukraine, where I lost loved ones. It was like an avalanche. I didn’t understand how such a text could bring such visceral reactions in me. I often felt repulsed by Olga, her lines became an enemy. In a way, that was also a struggle – trying to detach myself from the content of the text.
But what is the balance between technique and intuition, impulse?
Depends on the situation. But I was glad that during shootings there was a combination between the two. On the one hand, you had the rigorous text passages, when you had to deliver your lines exactly like they were in the script. The logic of the sentence, the cadence, the intonation, the accent, all these had to be scrupulously met. And if there were small improvisations, they had to be really subtle. We had marks on the set for our movements. We had a pre-established choreography, which was based on our improvisations during rehearsals.
For example, in the first part, with the dialogue about the war, the choreography was originally born from the actors’ movements around the room. The five of us were trying to find a rhythm, the right positions through which we could establish the relationships between us. At the opposite end were the improv scenes, which were a delight. There are several such scenes in the film, such as the scene from the balcony in Russian, some scenes with István (István Téglás), the scene in the beginning with Zoe (Zoe Puiu).
There is the belief that Cristi Puiu is harsh with the actors, that working with him is difficult. At the same time, many of them described the collaboration as an essential experience that transformed them. How was your relationship with him?
Very difficult at times. But Cristi can also be extremely generous and have trust in the actors. I saw that. We talked at one point about the reasons for our confrontations. The answer was simple. In general, I’m a pretty insecure person. I lack confidence, so I tend to ask all sorts of stupid questions. There was a moment when the relationship with Cristi became very difficult, but that was because I couldn’t get to that presence and that candor he was looking for as fast as he wanted.
On the other hand, there were times when I delivered pretty quickly. For example, in the Russian scenes, when the relationship became very open, bright. The French scenes, however, were harder for me because I was used to the French I studied in college, so I would often stretch the final syllables of the lines rather than just put a stop to the sentence and keep a certain cadence.
It had ups and downs. I learned a lot from that. And I still do. But you don’t go somewhere and expect everything to be milk and honey. Besides, what matters in the end is the result. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was bad.
But what do you mean by this “presence” in front of the camera, which he often talks about and which you also mentioned, especially in the case of a period film like Malmkrog?
I’ve felt it a few times. When it happened, I felt like I was naked. It was a feeling of nakedness in front of the camera, that you had nowhere to hide. At the moment I felt embarrassed because everything was visible and I knew that everything was visible and I couldn’t understand why I felt that way. But apparently, it was good if I felt that way. It wasn’t a display of embarrassment, it was just an awareness of the fact that you had nothing to hide. Then the embarrassment turned into silence, and I could feel something warm and pleasant inside my chest.
That’s how I understood this presence: to really listen to what the person in front of you is saying, to not think about other stuff, like how you look on the screen or the fact that your line is next or that your fork has fallen off the table. It’s about being aware of the breathing, of the gaze. And it’s an unspoken dialogue between people, not characters. There were a few moments when I forgot about the camera, the team, the text. That is what this presence probably means.
Malmkrog has opened some doors for you: people have seen you, found out who you are, you participated in programmes like Sarajevo Talents in 2020 and Berlinale Talents in 2021. What does this film mean to you?
From a professional point of view, it was very important. It was the cornerstone of my career. It’s my debut in feature film. On the one hand, it’s overwhelming, because you don’t know what to do with it. You are an actress, you lead a professional life, you live in your little world, you do small things, you dream big. But this film took me to another level without realizing it was going to happen.
I applied for and participated in Sarajevo Talents and Berlinale Talents, which took place online. But it was great and I learned a lot. After the Berlinale, with the pandemic came a period of silence. Normally and ideally, I would have packed my bags, gone to Berlin for new opportunities. In reality, I was back to my normal life. There is a discrepancy between the two. But you adapt. You get back to earth and accept what comes your way.
How interested and observant were you of the reactions that the film generated among the audiences, which were sometimes influenced by people’s stance on Cristi Puiu’s public statements?
I really enjoyed challenging people. After the screenings, I would talk to my friends or the people I know and I was very curious to see their honest reaction, which wasn’t affected by the notoriety of the director. Some reactions were downright visceral. Some friends were outraged. We would often have really long discussions and argue over certain ideas. I was curious to see which of the characters each spectator would relate to the most. At a screening in Chișinău, a lady asked me if I believed in God. I have an answer, but it’s intimate, it’s not something I would talk about in public.
What about the general public’s reaction?
Some were heavily influenced by Cristi’s personal statements. Some condemned him without seeing the film. Others praised him. It’s up to each person. After all, you can’t impose a certain vision on the public. Some people got bored, they told me the film was too long. But this is also a curious thing: Why would you complain about a 3-hour and 20-minute film being too long when there are so many people binging a TV show over a weekend?
It probably has to do with the pace of life, with the effects of social media.
This film is a challenge, an exercise in patience with yourself. We have also had reactions from people who may not have theological education or be refined intellectuals, but who have still understood key things. There is no way of knowing how such a film may affect you. Which is why I think that it’s a timeless film, given the subject it addresses.
You first went to the Faculty of Foreign Languages, the French-Polish section, after which you studied acting at UNATC. What was your experience at UNATC?
It was difficult. I couldn’t get another financial support from the state so I had to pay for UNATC. Evidently, I had higher expectations. It’s one thing when you go to classes and enjoy them without having to worry about paying taxes. And it’s a completely different thing when the money comes out of your pocket and you expect a level of professionalism that is sometimes lacking.
It may sound harsh what I’m about to say, but I learned acting after finishing school. Obviously, college gives you some basics, it’s up to you how you use them further. And it’s like a jungle out there when it comes to the competition. There were 60 students. That is a lot. It’s very difficult to pay attention to each of them.
Things were quite fragmented. Many times, even the acting techniques were jumbled up. It’s only my perception, namely that what they taught us was rather based on the teachers’ experience and their own interpretation of the acting methods, which for me was very confusing.
It was a very difficult journey because I became aware of this situation as early as my second year of college. I understood very quickly that I have to find my way around, to gain experience, because you rather learn things by working. In the third year, I already had my first collaboration outside school, at the Nottara Theater, which started in the summer after the second year. I had a few shows outside school, some very small, but they were important as experience.
After completing your master’s degree in 2019, you got a job at the “Ioan Slavici” Classical Theater in Arad. Are you having a hard time commuting between Bucharest and Arad?
Yeah, it’s been hard. There was a job opening in Arad so that’s where I went. I found out about the contest by sheer accident. For personal reasons, I couldn’t afford to earn my keep as a freelancer because I needed financial security. I told myself since that is the opportunity that appeared, I’m gonna go with it, and I’ll see later how things work. There is a great team, they’re very open. And a very friendly work environment, which matters a lot. It’s true, the distance is also an important factor. I won’t lie, it’s not been easy. But I’m young, no need to complain yet.
You went to high school in Sibiu. Here you came in contact with the theater during its famous festival, where you worked as a translator for the Russian-speaking guests, as you said in interviews before. Why didn’t you go straight to UNATC instead of Foreign Languages?
I applied to Acting in Sibiu. And I entered last (laughs). I had barely prepared for the exam. I went with Nina’s monologue and a tale from Ivan Turbincă. I thought I could come off as funny only if I spoke in a Moldovan accent. I knew it wasn’t good. I was really nervous and I began to stutter. Mr. Constantin Chiriac, who was on the admission committee, said to me: “Marina, we know you – why didn’t you learn the text properly?” Then I saw that I got in, I was so ashamed. I thought I was accepted only because they knew me, not because I deserved it.
So I went to Bucharest. I wanted a break, to understand exactly what it means to prepare well. So I chose Foreign Languages. But I was still interested in acting. For half a year I worked at the Podul Theater, right before Cătălin Naum’s passing.
As a student of Philology, I discovered the pleasure of learning foreign languages. And I was only able to unite these two fields while working on Malmkrog.
But I didn’t know what I could do in Romania with the Slavic languages, the ones I liked. They are not widely used here. You rarely get to use them, and only in a certain context. I learned Polish from scratch in college. In fact, I recently worked on a Polish translation. An anthology of contemporary Polish drama, coordinated by the Polish Institute, which will soon be published. That’s how I made my debut in translation.
But hadn’t you lost interest in acting during those years? Wasn’t it hard for you to reconnect with it after that?
Apparently not. I applied to UNATC and I got in, I was in the top twenty. I’ve always known that I’m gonna give it a try. I just wasn’t sure I would get in. Obviously, I had my fears and doubts, but it all turned out well in the end.
How did you decide to go to high school in Romania and why did you choose Sibiu?
I announced I wanted to leave Moldova for a better life. There was a family council run by my grandmother. They had a debate. Should we allow her to leave or not? Foreign country, drugs, temptations – all arguments were brought to the table. Eventually, my mother decided to sign the documents. I also had something to do with it. I kind of blackmailed her by telling her that if she doesn’t let me go, I won’t go to high school in Moldova and she will have to support me because I’ll stay at home.
And I chose Sibiu because I had seen some nice pictures of it (laughs). I also found out that it was the European Capital of Culture in 2007.
Since when have you had this artistic inclination?
I don’t know. I had never been to the theater before moving to Sibiu and seeing all those plays during the festival. It was a giant step: from zero theater at home to suddenly seeing performances by theater companies from all over the world. I was fascinated. Of course, you’re easily impressed when you’re 17.
But my mother said that I used to act when I was little. I was doing all sorts of skits, but not as elaborate as staging. I just had a more histrionic and eccentric nature. It wasn’t art, but rather stubbornness (laughs).
You were born and raised in Făleşti, a small town in the Republic of Moldova near the Romanian border, not far from Iași. What was like growing up in Moldova in the late ‘90s-early 2000s?
I grew up in a very modest family, a poor one, I might say, no reason to hide, in a country that was going through an economic collapse. Like many other children who grew up in Moldova during that period. But I don’t think much has changed since then, which makes me really sad.
Yes, we didn’t have much, my parents divorced when I was 11 years old, and my mother left after the divorce to work in Russia, to build a house for us. Me, my sister and my cousins would carry stones for the foundation. I would climb on the roof to help Grandpa, I loved my time with him.
But all these hardships made me stronger. I’ve never been a spoiled child, and I actually prefer it this way. Childhood has become my main source of inspiration in everything I do.
What does acting offer you?
I know it’s a cliché, but first and foremost, it’s a form of freedom. Things you can’t live in real life you often get to live through the roles you play. It’s a refuge because, in each of the shows I’ve played, there’s at least one moment that is about me, my family, my childhood, and not the character. These moments are like little boxes, little drawers, short therapy sessions with the public, which are known only to me. And that’s wonderful. It balances my emotional turmoil. I’m quite short-tempered so acting calms me down. It’s a balance in imbalance, it’s good for me.
And there’s another thing. I realized that I don’t have power over the message I often convey, since I’m just an actor and not a director as well. If I were to do a one-woman show or stage a play myself, then the social message would definitely play a part. But when you have to adapt from one director to another and from one vision to another, the resources are strictly personal, because it often happens that you don’t get to play the parts you wish to.
I always need to find something I like. I can’t do it otherwise. If neither the process nor the result live up to expectations, I lie to myself so I can do my job. And when an exception like Malmkrog comes your way, you take everything you can, because you know that such opportunities rarely show up.