By Paul Risker.
“It would have definitely been another series had it come out before the financial crisis, or it would have had a different reception,” offers actress Natalie Madueño in reflection of the climate that has invariably impacted the new Danish Series Follow The Money (created by Jeppe Gjervig Gram, 2016). More broadly, Nordic drama has exhibited an ambition to expand from its noirish first impressions on foreign shores through the political dramas Borgen (2010-13) and Blå ögen (Blue Eyes, 2014), as well as the family dramas Arvingerne (The Legacy, 2014) and Tjockare än fatten (Thicker Than Water, 2014- ). And recently Denmark even tackled superstition and vampirism with Heartless (2014- ), further proof of the diversity of storytelling on the continent.
Follow The Money taps into the criminal intrigue of the corporate and financial sector within the renewable energy industry. It’s a milieu that features shades of the grim noir traditions of the discovery of dead bodies, amidst the intersection of blue and white collar crime. In as much as the everyday can impact storytelling and the reception of those stories, so to can the experience of the creative process impact the creative forces both in front and behind the camera. Madueño, who plays corporate lawyer Claudia Moreno in Follow The Money, readily admits that as a “newly educated actress going directly into this, it has been life changing.”
In conversation with Film International, Madueño discussed the process of discovering and creating her character, the contrasting layers to Claudia that forges a sympathetic connection between her and the audience, as well as the metaphysics of performance.
Why a career as an actress? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
Well, when I was in seventh grade I always wanted to be a veterinarian, oncologist, biologist…something. But then I did a play at school where we had to do our own version of West Side Story. I didn’t go into it thinking I wanted to act, but in some way I ended up being the leading female in that play, and it was after that I thought it might be something I want to do more in the future. And then as I grew older I just continued to pursue that and then I finally realised that this was what I wanted to do.
What was the appeal of the character and the story when you first read the script for Follow The Money?
It was a story that I hadn’t come across before and I thought the story about financial and corporate corruption and crime was interesting, as well as the big theme of greed, which is a very human one because it is something that we all have in us in some way. But Claudia was a very exciting character because she’s so determined, ambitious and passionate. In some ways she’s cold, but she also has another side to her – a young mother who is very warm. And so it was the differences in the character that really interested me.
In speaking with actors they have explained that the process of developing a character can lie in the discovery of the smallest detail, such as the way the character walks. How does the process of discovering a character work for you personally?
The first thing I did when I found out I was going to be playing a lawyer was to go to law school, where I took a couple of lessons. I just started gathering information and because I have never been in that kind of world it was new to me, and so I just started looking at young lawyers. I met up with a couple of lawyers and I just looked at how they acted and spoke; how they sat and walked, and how they talked about things. Then I slowly just picked what I thought was going to create Claudia from the different kinds of people.
Having spoken with filmmakers on the subject of honing one’s instincts within the filmmaking process, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the place of instinct within the mode of performance, and whether it is an evolutionary goal?
When creating a character you start off reading a script or synopsis; reading things about the character and then you have to find out how you want to portray this person that is just on paper. With Claudia I really noticed her language and so I tried to sit down and read some lines to look at her language and how she talks. I tried in some way – I can’t remember how – to convert that into a physical way of moving, and that was when I started to get a grip of the character.
You talk about the physical nature of your performance, but one of the things I pick up on is your physical presence in a scene and yet by looking into your eyes there is an alternative or more complex emotional reaction beneath it all. I find that divide within a character between the physical and what the eyes infer to be an interesting aspect of your performance here.
That’s an observation that I’ve tried to work with because there are certain situations in the series, and in episode two when she has just been promoted she’s having this meeting with two guys that she met in the first episode. They are feeling very superior to her and she has to sit there and be superior to them. They end up winning the conversation and so she has to be very stoic on the outside, yet so much happens on the inside. Her tempo on the outside is different to what it is on the inside, and I find that very interesting to work with where you are sitting completely still, but through the eyes you are giving the impression that something is going on on the inside. And then how much can you tone it down on the outside, but still have something going on.
When you are acting are you aware of the audience and do you ever look beyond the camera?
When I am acting I am not at all thinking about the audience or the camera. I am really trying not to because often when you become aware of there being a camera in front of you or that someone is going to watch this scene at some point, then you lose the magic of presence in that scene. So when I am working I try to not think about that, but I also have to be extremely aware that there is a camera and how I have to look this way to catch the light. There is a fine line between being both aware and unaware if you understand what I mean. As Natalie I am aware of the camera, but Claudia is of course not in front of a camera, and that balance is sometimes hard to find. But I really try not to think about the audience, the camera or anything while I am acting.
The colliding realities of the character and the actress present a unique challenge. It almost mirrors the process of performance in some way where as Natalie you are playing a character, but on another metaphysical level there is Claudia playing a character in the way she presents herself to the other characters in moments. Therein the mode of performance almost breaks down on a metaphysical level.
One of the most difficult things is being aware that I am aware of playing a character, while the character is not aware that I am playing a character. I think that is a very interesting point and sometimes I become aware, and can you or can you not see that through Claudia? And the whole thing is being the character thoroughly and saying everything through them; acting through the character physically and mentally. This is very interesting because when you are one hundred percent present with the character and in the situation with the director, then once “Action” is said out loud you have to get completely into character. And if you are, then everything will just happen through that character.
In any other series Claudia would be a character that would evoke a negative response, but this series does not necessarily attempt to define her as a moral, immoral or indifferent character. This affords the series a moral maturity and complexity that could otherwise be absent.
I immediately liked Claudia when I read about her, although I know she does things as you said that are controversial. She is put in constant dilemmas of doing either right or wrong, and some of us think that she is doing a lot of things that are morally incorrect, but also are morally correct. But I think the reason that you don’t blame her or I don’t feel that you blame her for making those choices is because we are in some way on her side from the beginning. You feel the warmth of the character underneath everything and for the audience everything is just as new to them as it is to Claudia, which is maybe why we are on her side. And so perhaps that is why we do not blame her for making those controversial choices.
Would you agree her positioning as a mother and specifically the situation with her child makes her a more sympathetic character that counters those immoral choices?
Yeah exactly, and if she didn’t have her son she would be a completely different character. But because she’s a mother and you feel her love towards her son, you are just automatically on her side. If perhaps everything that she does is selfish and might be to enhance her own chances or to climb the hierarchy, we also know that she does things to make life better for herself and her son. And humanly I think we are just on her side because she’s a mother. Claudia is a character trying to make it in the world, while still trying to be an individual and a good mother. But I think that is her conflict sometimes because her individual needs are also the ones that become her Achilles heel you might say.
The financial crisis invariably means the series will resonate in a specific way, but had the series been released prior to the crisis how dramatically do you think this would have impacted the the show or its reception?
People including myself became very much more aware of the global financial problems and solutions after the financial crisis. I think that is one of the reasons that this is interesting because we can look back at it now. We have had some experiences and we are still working through it, and that is why it is interesting to watch this because it is something that has touched us all within the last couple of years.
Looking back on the experience do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process, and how has the experience of Follow The Money impacted you both personally and professionally?
First of all reading so much about wind energy and the financial crisis was new, and so that is something that has now taken its place in me. I am reading newspapers and the financial sections of newspapers that I wouldn’t have before, and I have now become very interested in global finance. So that’s also been a change and then then there is the major change in my life and career professionally. To do this series and to work with so many experienced people and to talk to so many great people about it has just been amazing.
Follow The Money is released on DVD & Blu-Ray Monday 25th April by Nordic Noir & Beyond.
Paul Risker is an independent scholar and film critic who contributes regularly to Film International. He is an Editor for Mise-en-scène: The Journal of Film and Visual Narration, which will launch in Fall 2016.