Swiss actress Carla Juri makes a splash (a putrid, bacteria-laden splash) in the NSFW German film Wetlands, which premiered at Sundance this January, and opens in select U.S. theaters on September 5.
The 27-year-old actress has been quietly gathering steam in her home county for some years now – winning a 2011 Swiss Film Prize for her performance in the feature 180°, and one in 2012 for her performance in Someone Like Me. In Wetlands, director David Wnendt’s ambitious adaptation of the best-selling Charlotte Roche novel, Juri makes a strong bid for the dubious distinction of the most disgusting character to ever be committed to screen. The actress brings an oddly compelling sincerity to the outlandishly unhygienic teenage protagonist, Helen, unabashedly exploring the dirtiest parts of her body (not to get into too much detail, but hemorrhoids are a significant driver of plot) while secretly yearning to reunify her divorced parents.
The film is body horror in the most literal way, and Helen’s experiments with various human fluids are impossible to watch without squirming; if anything, Wnendt demonstrates how provoking extreme bodily reaction in an audience can cost absolutely nothing. It’s not a role for the faint of heart, and Juri proves herself completely up to the task, more than willing to play up the comedy and, yes, pathos of Helen’s antics. Her undeniable charisma complicates a viewer’s initial disgust with an in-spite-of-yourself attraction, aided in no small part by her looks (the kind of spirited, Katharine-Hepburn-ish face best described as “fetching”). With Juri’s multilingual talents, affinity for provocation and roster of international agents, it’s a face that’s sure to grace screens for years to come.
Natalie Chudnovsky, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): When did you decide to become an actress?
Carla Juri (CJ): Around 19 -20. I never grew up with the idea of being an actress. Where I grew up, if you were an artist, you were a writer, painter, or sculptor. I realized that film combined different art forms: poetry, history, psychology, painting, sculpture and music. It was a relief to find a medium to combine them all! I wasn’t a kid who wanted to be in the movies. We spent a lot of time outdoors. We were confronted with moods – the mystery of the unknown, atmosphere, weather and how quickly it changes. That’s how I grew up and developed that curiosity for the mystery of the unknown. I think movies really carry that feeling. Movies, like nature, convey a heightened state.
In exploring a role, you discover so much knowledge and history . You consider the political situation and the zeitgeist of the time. There’s a lot of analysis and anthropology work, and I love that.
MM: How did you get your career started?
CJ: I went to school and then I moved to London and I looked for an acting studio. A place for students or fellow actors who are not working either, but are willing to work with you to exercise. It’s about finding an agent and trying to be proactive. You start from scratch, really. I speak different languages so I wasn’t limited to London, to English speaking roles. I had an agent in Berlin, London, and Rome – because I speak these languages. As soon as you have one film out, they start contacting you. If there wasn’t work in London, there was work in Rome. I was hopping like a vagabond around Europe, going to auditions. It was a pretty full schedule.
MM: How did you get involved in Wetlands?
CJ: It was open casting. It was based on a controversial best-selling book in Europe. The press received information that a movie would be made, and a lot of them said that playing the role of Helen was a shame to humankind. I was like, “That’s the part for me. That story needs to be told.”
I didn’t read the book, because it has so much information, almost too much to digest in the short period of time before the audition. I read my lines and the script. I liked Helen, I wanted to spend time with this character. It was a big audition so I didn’t think I’d get it. I just went and enjoyed myself. [Later] I read the book. It’s great to have so much material. A lot of people love this book, a lot of people hated it. It was really polarizing. I wanted to do justice for the people who loved it. You try or you fail. It’s all in or nothing.
MM: What did you do to prepare for the role of Helen?
CJ: I spent a lot of time hanging around Berlin, where Helen lives. The costume people gave me Helen’s clothes really early in the preparation. I’d walk around Berlin in her clothes. We tried piercings, all sorts of things. Berlin is a very literal city, so you need to go over the top to catch someone’s eye.
I’m 27 and Helen’s 18, so they sent me back to high school for two and a half weeks. Nobody knew I was an actress, not even the teachers. Only the director of the school. I was there as Helen. I had really long hair, down to my bum, and I cut it off. The teachers would call my name, “Helen!” and I’d go, “Oh shit! It’s me!” I remember Spanish class – I speak Italian at home, so I thought the languages are close, it’ll be no problem. But I was really terrible. The teacher came to me after the first lesson and said, “Helen, I’m really worried about you. “ I couldn’t say anything! It was an isolating experience.
I made friends. I had to make a different phone number. Everyone asked me for my Facebook. I had to come up with so many stories, lying on my feet. You have to trick your mind. You need to experiment. It’s like walking shoes. You need to walk in them for a while until your footprint is in the shoes. Helen is not like me at all, so it was quite a stretch. You need time, you need to play. Also, when you’re 18, the boys and girls are more divided. You realize where you were at at 18 – you forget! The director was generous and gave me a lot of preparation time.
MM: Where there any scenes you were nervous about doing for the film?
CJ: No. If I was scared of something, it would mean I didn’t understand Helen completely. I had to justify every action and reaction. A lot of her nakedness is emotional. To me, she doesn’t know she’s a rebel. She’s quite scientific, experimenting with saliva. She wants to know how it works. It’s almost childish. She has an openness that provokes, but she’s without agenda. She tries to put everyone off, showing them her worst side, to see if she can trust them. The hardest scenes were the ones that seem easiest – walking from A to B. Night shots, shooting summer in November, when it was really cold. I had my shorts and t-shirt, it was three in the morning. That’s when concentration goes and you have to keep going.
MM: Do you have any acting role models?
CJ: I don’t know a lot of names! I grew up in a small village in the middle of the Alps. It’s not a movie place. I knew Robert Redford because he looks like my grandpa [laughs].
MM: Favorite movies or filmmakers?
CJ: Many. I really enjoyed the Italian actress Giulietta Masina, Fellini’s wife. What impacted me visually as a child were French and Italian movies of the ’60s and ’70s – Godard, Fellini.
MM: You speak so many languages. Do you prefer one over another?
CJ: No. I do like to switch because its like being a chameleon. Language is part of the character you play. It’s part of the camouflage you adapt – how they speak, what language they speak, what culture they come from. German and Italian are really different cultures. I really enjoy how the movie sets are different. In Italy, they’re more chaotic and loud. Storytelling is different. You learn how to adapt to culture, but still be an outsider. I grew up bilingual, which made me an outsider. I was part German, part Italian. That makes you the most observant person of the group. You have both cultures in you; you see differences.
I learned English in New York, I was 15. English came quite quickly. At home I’m speaking Alp dialect: a mix of Italian, French, and German. So I don’t really know who I am, where I’m from [laughs]. I have identity problems. Its great to speak all these language, be in all these cultures, but it splits you.
MM: What’s your dream role?
CJ: I think I’ll play it when I’m really old, and I’ll know it when I play it. I can’t wait to be really old. The older you get, the more interesting you get as an actor. I cant wait to act when I have something to say. What do you go through then? And in film, I think it’s important to show a female who has aged. Then it becomes more about humankind than beauty. I think ugliness is much more interesting than beauty.
MM: What do you do for fun?
CJ: Music, I play piano. I travel quite a bit. I love nature, mountains, photography.
MM: Whats next for you?
CJ: A German film about a 19-year old painter named Paula Modersohn-Becker. She was the first Expressionist in Germany and wasn’t taken seriously because she was a woman. She divorced her husband, went to Paris – was really ahead of her time. We want to shoot in Berlin next year. MM
Wetlands opened in select theaters on September 5, 2014, with an expansion to follow, courtesy of Strand Releasing.
Photographs courtesy of Strand Releasing.
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