It gives you the courage to take risks because you know your director has your back. They'll tell you if something doesn't feel right. They're there to rescue you.
Don’t call it beginner’s luck. We’d be hard pressed to say that Romanian actress Cristina Flutur’s immaculate performance in Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills was anything but a teaser of what’s beyond the horizon. When the film premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival last year, it marked the first feature film to Flutur’s name—she had previously studied acting in Cluj, Romania and joined the cast of the National Theater, “Radu Stanca”, in Sibiu in 2004 where she currently works. Not only did Beyond the Hills receive rapturous praise at the prestigious festival, she went onto pick up the Best Actress honor at the awards ceremony—an honor shared with her equally impressive co-star Cosmina Stratan—where the likes of Charlotte Gainsbourg, Isabelle Huppert, Helen Mirren, Juliette Binoche and Meryl Streep have shared the stage in years past.
Inspired by true events and the non-fiction novels of former BBC reporter Tatiana Niculescu Bran, Beyond the Hills unfolds at an Orthodox convent where pious women toil dutifully under the watchful eye of an authoritarian priest. Flutar plays Alina, a young woman who arrives in a mountainous region of Romania to visit her friend Voichita (Stratan), a devout novice at a monastery. As children, the two had formed a piercing bond at an orphanage that steps outside the lines of mere friendship. Now, Alina wants Voichita to leave her cloistered life and return with her to Germany. But when Voichita is disclined to go, an increasingly desperate Alina becomes unhinged and the nuns become convinced that she’s diabolically possessed—an exorcism is performed.
Beyond the Hills hits select theaters on March 8th.
You had no official acting credits to your name prior to Beyond the Hills. How did you get involved with such a high-profile film?
Well, when I was two years old… [Laughs] No. I got into acting fairly late. After finishing high school, I studied literature and language at the Alexandru Ioan Cuza University in Iași for four years. After that, I decided I needed a change and looked to acting. I was always interested in the idea of living several lives and that was the main reason I wanted to try something new. I had the impression early on that I had more than one destiny and went to drama school for another four years.
Literature, language and acting don’t seem too far apart. These are tools for communication that let’s us explore and analyze the human condition.
That’s right. I was interested in how people react in certain circumstances and how people’s thought processes work in general. I’ve always been very curious about the human psyche and loved reading biographies over all other kinds of books. How do people make the choices that they make? Why do we do the things that we do? How come his life is like this when her life is this other way?
Did you apply these specific questions to the character you play in Beyond the Hills?
You can apply it to all characters because it’s an opportunity to learn more about yourself in the process. You learn so much about the people around you at the same time. You learn how to be tolerant. You discover that you’re not a machine, but a complex and emotional being. You learn that your traumas shape who you are—traumas that will differentiate you from every other person.
You play this emotionally-abundant character who at times becomes physically violent as the film progresses. How did you approach the role in the beginning?
This was inspired by a true story and I read the novels that were written about the events before the movie was made. To be honest, I didn’t want to relate so directly to the true story because this is largely an adaptation. The names of the characters have been changed and the narrative has fictional elements to it. Nobody actually knows for sure what really happened at the convent. This is a re-imagining of the events by Cristian [Mungiu], so we can only make assumptions. I talked to Cristian from the beginning about this and we both agreed that the best way to approach it would be to treat everything as a work of fiction. I only read the novels because I wanted to get a sense of what happened—what people thought had happened—in real life as a form of respect for those who had suffered in the process. But the novels didn’t serve as a guide for my character when I was preparing for the role. I left the novels behind when it was time to. It’s hard to talk about how you prepare for a role. The script is obviously the most important part of it. It’s hard to put into words how it all happens. It’s a mystery even to me. You’re creating a human being and there is a galaxy of complexities inside. It’s your job to pick out the things that matter and are relevant from that galaxy.
What was the collaborative process like with Cristian?
It was a great collaboration because we understood each other right away. What I liked very much about Cristian was that I didn’t have to constantly talk or ask questions. We really understood each other without words, which is miraculous when it happens. I was very grateful for that because, otherwise, you spend more energy trying to rationalize everything. I didn’t have to do that on this film because we were at the mercy of our intuitions and instincts to go there. That just felt more appropriate to me. Playing a character that’s so impulsive, passionate and visceral, this kind of approach seemed better suited. Cristian gave me a lot of freedom. He created the illusion that I have time to find my character and I bought into that illusion. [Laughs] You know you don’t have time! Everything is always rushed because you’re on a tight schedule. Cristian was always very calm and warm. He reassures you that everything is okay and everything will be fine along the way.
Actors only have their directors to catch them because you can’t watch your own performance. They are your safety net.
When you trust your director, you begin to trust yourself even more. It gives you the courage to take risks because you know your director has your back. They’ll tell you if something doesn’t feel right. They are there to rescue you. If a director doesn’t panic, that calm spreads around to everyone else on set. So many things can go wrong at any moment that if a director is able to hide his frustrations—we all know it’s there all the time—it helps tremendously.
What are your thoughts on the controversy surrounding the film’s subject matter? People were bound to get riled up about it.
When you first read the script, you know it’s going to be controversial—and you accept it. Either you enter the belly of the beast or you don’t. It was black and white like that. Once I decided that I would do it, I accepted everything that would come along with it. I knew some people would oppose the film and dispute my character. I don’t have time to read into those things, but the people I’ve been talking to at film festivals seem to be able to get deeper into the story and get to the profound things that are actually worth talking about. If you get so caught up in seeing the film within this religious context and judge it from that point of view, you’re really missing the point of it all. The film isn’t against religion or the Church. That would be a shallow way of approaching it.
Sometimes, films that divide audiences aren’t “good” or “bad”. When someone is so stubbornly set in their ways, they don’t have the ability to look past their own beliefs.
Exactly. This film is much more profound than that.
Beyond the Hills certainly made a big impression at Cannes last year, especially when you were validated with the Best Actress honor.
It was kind of unbelievable. You don’t think about stuff like that happening when you work on a project. I don’t think it’s healthy to start thinking about the red carpets, festivals and awards. It’s a different game that you play. When you’re working, you’re so into creating a character and the story that you have other priorities. I was so blessed to work with Cristian and on such an interesting story. Everything that came after the film were things that I hadn’t thought about. I took it as it came.
Awards are certainly meaningful on a personal level, but it also allows smaller films—hopefully this is the case—to find wider recognition and distribution.
That’s a great gift. I think awards allow more people to see it because you hear about what happens at places like the Cannes Film Festival and the New York Film Festival, which creates buzz and curiosity. I think only good things can come out of it. It also allows us to meet new people. Like here, right now, we can talk with people that you wouldn’t normally get to meet otherwise. It can open doors to interesting projects. Awards are always a gateway towards something new.
You must get some interesting questions. Does it ever make you think, “I never thought about it like that before”?
That happens all the time because when I was making the film, I was working on it from my own specific point of view. There were times when I didn’t even talk much with my own director! I was in my own little world. When I give interviews and people ask questions, it’s surprising how I respond in some instances. I never talked to anyone about my process or what I was thinking about at any given moment during the shoot. I was surprised by what Cristian said too because we all had different interpretations about everything even though we were racing toward the same goal. It’s interesting to talk about these things after it’s all over and done with. Even something that seemed so clearly green in your mind was blue to someone else. But that’s completely normal. I love talking to people like this precisely for that reason. When you show the film to an audience, it feels like you’re getting another film out of it because they have their own take on it.
That’s why films—all artforms—live on infinitely after a maker has put on their finishing touches. The interpretations are unending and there are no definitive answers.
It’s true! It’s this living creature. This is also the case when a person sees the same film twice. They take something different away from it. You change from one day to another and you form new ideas and/or beliefs. You might see a movie one way and see it completely differently two months later. Maybe you’ll discover things that you didn’t see before. Everything is constantly in motion. All physicists say that and now we have proof. [Laughs] When I first saw Beyond the Hills, I was surprised because I didn’t see myself on screen. I was taking in everything about the film that I wasn’t aware of while we were shooting it. I was watching the film behind the film. “I remember that rehearsal day. Why did we shoot that? Why was it so cold?” In time, I’ll be able to remove myself from what was happening behind-the-scenes and watch the film with some detachment.