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THELMA: An interview with Eili Harboe

How did you become involved in the film?

– I read the script very early on, during the auditions. I was completely blown away by it; it was one of the best things I had ever read. The story itself is fascinating and exciting, but the characters are strong, independent and sophisticated. I feel so blessed that I was cast in this role.

The film-making process helped me get into the character and the scene and made me feel very safe on set. It’s common to feel confused about the setting and how to wrap your head around it. With Joachim, we had a really close dialogue about the character and the story. It’s been an excellent process.

When becoming Thelma, how did you try to personalise her?

– When I read the script, I felt Thelma was very defined. I knew that I would be able to personalise her, because it’s me portraying her and not someone else. I suggested things to Joachim, and we would try things spontaneously, which is something I appreciated when working with him. I had watched his films beforehand and felt like he was a director who knew what he was doing and always had a clear idea about it. While that’s true, he was very open to my suggestions and was open to the spontaneous way of working. That’s how I love to work. I’m happy that we established a real trust between us.

Were you a fan of the supernatural genre beforehand?

– I love supernatural movies, but I didn’t watch any to prepare for the role of Thelma. Joachim wanted me to see a scene from Obsession (1976) which was wonderful. I also saw The Piano Teacher (2001), which is a beautiful film. It showed me how a character can suppress feelings while still being very much alive, something I wanted to bring to Thelma. I also really liked the film It Follows (2014), where the main character is very calm and collected, but still very lonely in her surroundings. I saw that film maybe two years ago and didn’t watch it for ideas, but rather it was in the back of my mind. More than that, I’m inspired by literature, art and music. I don’t like to copy others work, but rather be inspired by it.

Do you feel Thelma is a very relatable character?

– Definitely. Thelma comes from a conservative Christian environment on the west coast of Norway and then moves to the big city. I think people coming from any background can relate to her in a way that she’s trying to establish herself in a new environment and she wants to get to know new people and have someone notice her, which Anja does. I think that makes her very relatable.

Thelma is undoubtedly a strong, female character. Do you feel it’s important in films to have women represented in this way?

– It’s essential to me that it was a strong and complex female character. I hope that, in the future, we don’t talk about whether or not it’s a strong female character, rather the character is strong on their own, regardless of gender or sexuality. I hope to play more strong characters, whether it be a supporting role or a main character as long as I feel the character is making their own choices. If it was a role where the woman is no more than a buffer for the main character, then I feel like I couldn’t do it as that’s not the direction we should be heading in. It’s crucial for me to have a strong representation of women on the screen.

An integral part of Thelma is her relationship with Anja. How did you work with Kaya to establish this relationship?

– The moment Kaya stepped in the room, I felt that she had something unique and genuine that suited the character of Anja. I was hoping that she would get the part and luckily for me, Joachim felt the same way. We immediately had good chemistry. During rehearsal, readings and in dialogue with Joachim, we both had time to discuss the characters and the relationship. I am so impressed by her commitment and talent.

Thelma’s supernatural ability is not the central part of who she is. How do you think her supernatural abilities add to her own vulnerability in the story?

– People may have different opinions, but how I see it is that Thelma has suppressed feelings growing up and has not been able to face herself fully. In the beginning, the supernatural ability is little in her control, and that was part of why this character was so enjoyable to work with and develop.

How do you feel the film was critical of religious themes?

– I think people will also have different opinions on this, depending on their background. For me, I see it as Thelma coming from a conservative, Christian home and that the suppression of her feelings and abilities, unfortunately, comes as a part of that. For Henrik and Ellen portraying my parents, I think it was interesting for them to work with exploring the mind-set of their characters and I believe they did amazing work.

Emma Vestrheim

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.