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Interview: Actress Maya Sansa

Dubbed by The New York Times as the new image of Italian cinema, Maya Sansa is known for her intense roles and impressive range. In addition to Italian, she speaks fluent English and French, widening her appeal beyond the borders of Italy.

The daughter of an Iranian father and Italian mother, Sansa began her acting journey when she was just a teenager. Upon graduating high school where her acting studies began, she went on to study her craft at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. While she was still a student there, she was chosen by director, Marco Bellocchio to costar in his film, La balia (The Nanny). The film premiered at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival and launched Sansa's career. In the years to come, she would go on to work with Bellocchio on two more of his films, Buongiorno notte (Good Morning, Goodnight) and Bella addormentata.

In Bellocchio's 2003, Buongiorno, notte, Sansa plays the role of Chiara, a woman caught up in the violence and beliefs of the Red Brigades, a left-wing extremist group that was active in Italy during the 1970s. The story speaks specifically to the organization's 1978 kidnapping and murder of former Italian Prime Minister, Aldo Moro. Director Marco Bellocchio tells the story through the eyes of Chiara. Sansa's performance is outstanding. You could feel her anxiety and confusion as she struggles to remain faithful to the organization, even though she is against using violence to punish Moro. She expresses the immense conflict between her thoughts and emotions without using any words, just with her body language and her glares. When she does deliver her lines, she does so with strong conviction. She truly becomes Chiara.

Fast forward to 2012 when Sansa joined forces again with Bellocchio for his drama, Bella addormentata (Beautiful Sleep). Marco Bellocchio, is known for making socially conscious films that shed light on hot issues in contemporary Italy, and he did not hold back with Bella addormentata. The film tackles the 2009 case of  Eluana Englaro, a Pugliese woman who remained in a coma for 17 years following a car accident in 1992. Englaro was given a feeding tube shortly after the accident, but her father fought to have it removed because he wanted his daughter to have some dignity at the end of her life. Euthanasia is a controversial topic in Italy, especially with the strong presence of the catholic church. The case went to trial several times. Then in 2008, the Milan Court of Appeal declared that Eluana's father was allowed to suspend feeding and hydration. Sansa was awarded the David di Donatello for Best Supporting Actress in her role of Rossa, a woman with psychological problems who wants to end her life although she is perfectly healthy, until she meets a doctor who assists her in working through her problems. Sansa passionately embraces the role of a mentally troubled woman who looks to her inner strength for survival.

Maya Sansa in NYC with Marco and Pier Giorgio Bellocchio
Sansa recently appeared in New York City to present her films, Buongiorno, notte and Bella addormentata alongside Marco Bellocchio on the occasion of his retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. I caught up with her at the press conference for the presentation of a book highlighting the career of Bellocchio. Sansa gave insight into the back story of her complex roles and what it's like to work with an icon.

You speak several languages, work throughout Europe and travel the world. Has the diversity of your background- growing up with parents of Iranian and Italian descent, contributed to your international lifestyle?
Not really because my mother and father split before I was even born, so I really grew up with my mother. But my Italian family moved around a lot. They're originally from Istria, and my grandmother is half Austrian. So I think there is that in the family anyway.. a kind of movement. And I've always liked the idea of traveling. I left Italy when I was 18-years-old. I went to study in England. I stayed there for six years, and then I went back to Rome. Now I live in Paris, and I like it. I find it very inspiring, and I think it's very good for creativity.

Tell me about your experience working in French cinema and how it compares to working in Italian cinema?
They're similar because it's Europe and they're Latin countries. The French are more Latin than they like to think of themselves. But there are differences about the sensitivity. I think Italians can be very direct, very warm and a little aggressive, but we don't take it personally because we know there's nothing too serious about it. The French can be slightly touchy. One needs to be careful, even in the creative process, with the way you relate to people. Marco (Bellocchio) is extremely kind, and I'm definitely a gentle person, but sometimes we can be a bit too direct, getting into passionate discussions. In France, I'm slightly more discreet. I don't trust the relationship that I've had with the directors to the extent of expressing my full opinion all the time. With Marco, I'm used to being extremely free, and therefore I kept on doing it in Italy and it just felt right almost every time.

Your roles in Buongiorno notte and Bella Addormenta were very intense. What went into the research for those roles?
What really helped me apart from that I love working on characters and composition, was convincing Marco that I was right for the roles after playing the title role in The Nanny, our first movie together. I played this very maternal character from the countryside, very young who abandons a baby and then is hired to take care of the baby of these aristocrats. She's kind, generous, warm and maternal. Then for Marco to consider me, the actress from The Nanny, to play the role of a member of the Red Brigrades in Buongiorno notte, was quite a big jump. He auditioned me several times. I wanted to work with him so badly that before auditioning, I read everything about them, as many books as possible. I had watched documentaries to hear them speak and talk about their experiences. I really wanted to understand what happened to these young people, many of them extremely intelligent and sensitive, to take such an extreme position in politics.  And then I've always liked working on the physique, to find the body of the character is very important. I wanted to meet Anna Laura Bragetti, the real woman behind my character, but he (Bellocchio) didn't want me to. He said, 'no this is Chiara, the character written on the page.' He didn't want me to meet her because the character was a mixture of two people. It was the story of Anna Laura Bragetti but it was also Adriana Faranda, which is another woman, a Red Brigade. Anna Laura Braghetti with Adriana Feranda and Valerio Morucci were really trying to convince everybody that it was counter productive to kill Aldo Moro.

The effect of the eye looking through the peek hole intensified the scenes.
Technically, that was very hard. On set you have the lights, you have the distance from the camera and there is a focus guy. And you need to work with the focus guy for you not to be out of focus.. and Marco very often even though afterwards he cuts the scenes, shoots sequences that are very long. So I was coming from over here, and had to go over there..and then finally get close to the keyhole where actually there was no keyhole, it was just a camera. If I got it wrong, then we would have to start all over again. So it was a real work of precision, which I loved because it also helped me to be very focused. This character was under terrible tension and she was under pressure. There's an element in the book that I really like, which is not in the film. I asked Marco about it and why he wasn't putting it in his film. The members of the Red Brigrades were bleeding very often because of this tension. There was this physical phenomenon in which blood would come out of their noses. And Anna Laura Bragetti would bleed quite a lot. I said, 'Marco, that is quite a strong image. Maybe even just visually it might be beautiful." And he said, 'I like it and I considered it but it's too much. It's gonna be too much. Plus, remember that this character will cry. so we'll have the tension coming out one way or another,' and it's true that image was very strong in the book. In Marco's film, to me, it became the tears.

In Bella addormentata, your character is dealing with drug addiction and tries several times over the course of the film to commit suicide. It was another very intense role for you. Tell us about that role and the research that went into your character.

Marco and I had not worked together for a while and I knew that he had no idea of auditioning me because in his mind, the character was meant to be 20-years-old and very skinny. He had this image of the cliché drug addict of the 80's. Then little by little, he came to understand that something was not quite right. He was being stubborn, and I managed to insist and say, 'Look Marco, honestly I would like to get the opportunity to play this role because I feel I can do something with this.' But he was really not sure. It was Francesca- his wife and editor, a wonderful editor by the way.  She said, 'Come on, audition Maya.'  And it worked. Then when I did the audition, he understood that actually the character he had written was not a young girl. It was a woman that had lived through certain things. Most of all, it was very interesting that my character was the same age as the doctor played by Pier Giorgio Bellocchio, because it' was like a duel; pro-life against life, pro-suicide against suicide. And there is a real conflict that has its strength. If it had been a man and a young girl, it would have been more patronizing. It's a real mirror because she also reflects his insecurities and his past, which was probably difficult too. I also worked of course on the addiction, on the drugs, and all the little gestures.
Maya Sansa and Walter Veltroni, NYC

You're successful in your career, and you're an intelligent, well-traveled woman. What inspires you and drives you in life?
MS: Well I think I like to live a rich life, intellectually and artistically. I try to have beautiful encounters in my private life and in my professional life and very often the two things become intertwined. Any job that makes me meet people I like.. any professional experience that is like a beautiful life experience to me is very good and that's what I want to keep on doing. You know when you're younger, you can be afraid because you think, Oh what do I need to do? You've got more insecurities because people are kind of pushing you to try and be successful, to try and establish yourself. I think I managed very early to understand that was not my problem. Of course we all need to work but my journey is not very much about who am I going to become or who am I going to meet as an actor. Of course who am I going to become as a person is very much my concern. I want to improve myself and grow. It's more about living a good life and meeting nice people and having more fulfilling relationships professionally and personally.

Maya Sansa is currently working with Iranian director, Amir Naderi on his film, Monte, which is being shot in Italy. Because of her international appeal, in particular her work with directors, Marco Bellocchio and Marco Tullio Giordana, many of Sansa's films are available in the United States


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