Nahéma Ricci has arrived

We spoke with the star of Sophie Deraspe’s Antigone about the peculiarities of discussing acting and how to deal with outpourings of audience emotion.

It’s never easy to talk about acting. It’s both a complex and completely abstract job that some people can’t necessarily put into words. Thankfully, most actors that I wind up interviewing have plenty of baptism-by-fire experience speaking about their work; finding a way to put those abstractions into work becomes a part of the job that develops with every project you have to go out and sell. You have to recall something that happened a year ago – something that you may have rewatched since, but that nevertheless has already gained status as a memory in your mind. Directors shepherd a project from its inception and stay with it until release; actors, in most cases, move on to something else.

There’s a first time for everything, however. Antigone is technically Nahéma Ricci’s second film – she also appears in Samuel Matteau’s Ailleurs alongside Théodore Pellerin – but it’s her first lead and the first film she’s had to go out and represent. For most actors, that’s already a significant amount of work – but Antigone is no ordinary movie. It’s played film festivals around the world (including two consecutive ones here in Montreal!), won the Best Canadian Feature prize at TIFF and was selected as Canada’s entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars.

That means Ricci has had to talk about acting and Antigone a lot in the last few months.

“I find it difficult because it requires a vivaciousness that isn’t always there,” she explains. “For example, last night I came home at midnight from Sherbrooke, where we were showing the film, and I’ve been doing interviews since early this morning. It’s hard to concentrate for four hours and offer the kind of spontaneity that’s required. Even staying in a café like this one for four hours with the perpetual din is kind of distracting.

“I also don’t necessarily know what’s of interest within my process, either,” she continues. “I try to talk about it, but I don’t necessarily know what distinguishes my story, my methods, from anyone else’s. Acting is very intimate. Finding what I want to share and what I want to keep for myself — this idea of creating a mythology isn’t always obvious. There’s things I regret saying, mainly because I don’t think I did them justice or didn’t lay them out properly.”

There’s also the fact that performance — a good performance, a bad performance, an alright performance — is excessively hard to describe, both from my end of the interview and Ricci’s. There’s something about acting that’s akin to sleight-of-hand: it works best if you don’t notice it at all. The more you talk about it, the more you complicate it.

“Acting is pretending there’s no method,” says Ricci. “People don’t understand how you do it because that’s your goal! Demystifing it all… I don’t know. I don’t know if there’s value in it.”

Ricci has no formal acting training – she’d done theatre through high school and beyond when she was cast in Ailleurs, but she was brought into Antigone as a “non-professional” (as are all of the actors who play Antigone’s siblings in the film). For the vast majority of 20-something actresses in the Quebec landscape, the process would be significantly different. They would already have years of television and theatre behind them when they sat down with me to talk about their first lead role. It’s a small world, in other words, and it’s easy to come into it feeling like an outsider.

“I didn’t really feel like an outsider,” says Ricci. “When you act, you’re not really judging or analyzing what your fellow actors are doing. I suppose there could have been a bit of additional insecurity, but even then, I don’t really think that’s the case. Once you’re on set, having already rehearsed extensively, I didn’t really feel like there was a disconnect between professional actors and us. Maybe you’d feel it more on stage — that requires a different sort of technique and rigor — but in film, I didn’t really feel it. In film, your body is truncated — the images are put together. You believe in linear time when you watch it, but that’s not at all the way it works.”

Coming at filmmaking without the general baggage of learning to make it also comes with a price, according to Ricci.

“The more I learn about the underpinnings of cinema and about the way films are put together, the more my capacity to marvel at it grows. But I no longer marvel at the ‘magic of cinema’ in the traditional sense. I marvel at the director’s mastery of the medium. That’s not an innocent experience, it’s acknowledgement. I can’t really identify with characters in the same way, but my experience is even stronger now that cinema is less magical. It still happens sometimes, though. At TIFF, I saw Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You and when I walked out, I thought to myself, ‘Wow, I didn’t analyze this movie at all!’ I didn’t think about the way they made the movie, because I felt like I’d lived it. To me, that’s the mark of success. To forget your own body!”

Nevertheless, Antigone has received a ton of attention, more than Ricci could ever have expected one year ago when she made the film.

“It’s difficult to receive so much emotion, so much love,” she says. “It’s very difficult because if I had to accept everything that’s given to me, it would be too much. People have very intense reactions. In order to preserve some form of humility, I can’t possibly accept every comment they give me. I don’t think people fully understand the impact that love can have on us. It’s work in itself to receive all that love and use to it encourage your self-confidence rather than your ego. That’s work that I’m learning how to do.

“I made this movie a while back, and I’m much less connected to the story and the characters at this very moment than I was when we were preparing the shoot. It’s a whole exercise of going back into that headspace in order to connect with people who’ve just seen the film. Sophie and I talk about it sometimes — there are screenings now, but I don’t sit and watch the film. It’s not like the theatre where you live the work simultaneously each time someone else does. When people are watching the film, I’m having dinner or in another room seeing another movie. You return, and people are living through these emotions for the first time… but not me! I was moved by Antigone for a really long time, but there’s a limit on emotion.”

Part of that work also means dealing with a sudden and pervasive visibility. I point to the poster of Antigone on a standee next to us; it’s a close-up of Ricci’s face. I mention that I’ve seen it pasted everywhere: on bus stops, on fences, in the metro.

“I do think that human beings have a phenomenal capacity for adaptation,” says Ricci. “It surprises even me to see that I’m over seeing my own face on bus stops. But at some point, even when I look at the poster, I don’t see my own face. I see Antigone’s face.” ■

See our interview with Antigone director Sophie Deraspe here.

Antigone opens in theatres on Friday, Nov. 8. Watch the trailer here: