For a little over a year, Laia Manzanares’ (Barcelona, 1994) career has been a roller coaster of a ride after appearing in such popular TV series as “Merlí” (TV3) and “I’m alive” (TVE), and now recently after premiered in theaters “Alegría”, Violeta Salama’s debut feature, hot on the heels of wrapping up filming another independent film of a similar vein and just as she’s about to dive head first into filming on another, we spoke with Laia about her crazy-paced professional life, Uma Thurman, Scarlett Johansson, psychology and shyness..
You’re fascinated by psychology, so on that topic, how would you define Yael, your character in ‘Alegría’, psychologically and socially?
Yael is a girl from Israel, educated in Judaism and with a rather privileged class situation. Psychologically, she’s been ultra-protected and also very limited by traditions and culture, and who, for the first time, escapes and makes her way to Melilla to start making her own decisions. For me, she is a girl in her twenties who’s going through adolescence, breaking with everything she has inherited and begins doing the things she wants.
When she’s faced with the wedding, is she resigned or happy?
She arrives in Melilla extremely happy and, from minute one, disappointed sets in because he was going with the energy of returning to Melilla, to go to the family home to prepare the wedding … and, suddenly, she meets Alegría, her aunt, who, as soon as she sees her she starts taking chunks out of her. Poor thing, I feel really bad for her! I see her as being super vulnerable, and despite being a strong girl, she’s kind of made from porcelain. If you aren’t careful how you hold it, it can easily slips out of your hands and break.
Was filming in Melilla a great and unforgettable experience?
It’s like Spain in the 80s and 90s, and for me it has been a kind of trip back in time. Even the cars are old. It’s part Europe and also part Africa. There’s an incredible mix of cultures.
What was it like working with Violeta Salama, the director of “Alegría”?
Very easy, because she’s so cool. She adapted the script she had already written to the cast she finally chose. If I was Yael, she wanted Yael and Laia to get closer to each other, and to meet somewhere in between. We had a Jewish coach, who was a great help. I knew very little about Jewish culture, and spending time in the coach’s own home, with their family, was great and helped me understand Yael. Later, on the set, everything flowed really well.
Coinciding in “Alegría” with Cecilia Suárez, known for the series “The House of Flowers” (Netflix), must have been another great experience.
It was great, a privilege. Cecilia is a genius and, in addition, in the movie, she removed the Mexican accent. She spent all day long with her cell, listening to audios of her speech therapist. We premiered the film in Mexico, at the Guadalajara Festival, and there were people who asked us if Cecilia’s character had been dubbed. She has a cynical sense of humor and is very generous. A fine captain.
You often say that when you were little, you were very shy. Did acting help you get over that?
Until I was 12 years old, I hardly spoke. My neighbors had never heard my voice! When I saw Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill” (Quentin Tarantino, 2003), something inside me clicked and when I saw her, I thought to myself, “When I’m older, everything will be easier. I will be able to be free to do the same kind of stuff she does”. I didn’t exactly want to be an actress… I wanted to be Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill”! I wasn’t sure just them whether in life or in work, but that came later, as in the case of Yael in Alegría. It was when I came out of the egg and started making decisions. Since I was so shy, they signed me up for theater in primary school. That’s one of my great traumas, because everyone else was older from higher grades and I thought: “These guys are so old, they’re terrifying!” Besides, I was terrified of speaking in public. So, no, I wasn’t your typical singing and dancing girl. I could never have imagined that, years later, I would be an actress. It was when I grew up that I said: “I feel like doing theater.” I studied at Nancy Tuñón’s school and, when I had to consider what career to follow, I reflected: there is always time to study psychology, and, on the other hand, now I really want to continue studying performing arts. So, I took that path.
Being the star of the video clip of the group Tame Impala “The less I know the better” marks a before and after in your life.
Completely. I didn’t really know who Tame Impala was then. A friend, Anna Serrano, called me because she was casting this video clip. And I said, “Okay, I don’t have a bean in my bank account.” I needed to get some cash because I only had 75 or 15 cents, something like that and I think Beyoncé saw me in the video clip, because we were nominated for some MTV awards in London, competing with her and other artists. It’s like the craziest thing in the world for me, (laughs). Let’s see if Beyoncé calls me for a video clip.
And then you play Oksana in the TV show “Merlí”, a character you helped build together with the show’s creators, right?
Yeah, 50 percent theirs and 50 percent mine, because I built Oksana with Héctor Lozano and Isaac Alcayde, the creator and coach of the series.
Was Oksana’s look your idea?
We did it with the makeup and hair team. I suggested they shave my head on one side, and I sent Héctor some of my photos from when I was 16 years old, and he decided to shave my head. I think it worked out really well for Oksana: she’s young, wants to do what everyone else does and she doesn’t want anyone to know that she’s a mother. She’s a rebel who doesn’t want to be seen as a mother, because she feels that she’s a heel of a lot more than that.
On the street, are you still Oksana?
Yesterday, for example, I went to the Sant Andreu town party, to a concert, and as I was leaving someone shouted: “Oksana, Oksana”. In Mexico, people stopped me because I was ‘that girl from “Merlí”.’
“I’m Alive” is another milestone in your career. Not only because of the volume of work, but also because it was a hugely physically demanding job.
That was totally new to me. In this sense, we had specialists to rehearse the fight scenes with or the descents with a rope. I loved it.
And you didn’t hurt yourself?
I did actually hurt myself, but it happened when I was running, alone. I had a great time with “I’m Alive.” When they told me they would hang me from the ceiling, I think I screamed, “let’s do it” The show strives to make a type of costumbrismo science fiction, so that everyone can identify with it. Paranormal things are an excuse to talk about emotional issues: distance, grief, why people die … You’d end up crying every episode, because there’s the emotional scene, the reconciliation scene, the loss or the infatuation scene. A great variety.
Let’s move on to cinema. You had a small, but important, role in Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s “The Realm” (2018). The camera entered the house where you were, and it was a frantic sequence shot, going up and down stairs.
It was amazing. I’m delighted with “The Realm” (2018). Sorogoyen is a great director, really intelligent and not far-fetched. We spent a day rehearsing this scene that lasted between 17 and 18 minutes, in sequence. You couldn’t arrive late to the travelling of the camera, because doing so would have killed the scene. On top of all that, with all those actors beside you, I was wondering: “What the hell am I doing here?”.
Do you think you are doing more dramas than comedies, and that there is a comic actress inside just waiting to explode?
I don’t know if I’m good at comedy because I’ve never done comedy. In my private life, I’m a bit of a clown, the person who makes others laugh. But my humorous side has never been explored on screen, but it’s something I’d like to do in the upcoming series Berto Romero’s making. That’d be a dream of mine, even if it is serving coffees. Yes, I want to do comedy. I need to laugh.
Every actress and actor is different in terms of their image, but the truth is that you do not look like anyone, at least, in the Spanish media and entertainment industry. Do you get that a lot? That you even look foreign?
Something weird is definitely going on because in Barcelona people always address me in English, because I have a semi-Nordic physique, but, at the same time, not so much, because I don’t have the blue eyes, nor the hyper mega blonde hair. And I’m not exactly pale.
I’m surprised that you don’t get offered foreign characters. Sorry, I stand corrected, there’s Oksana …
Yeah, she’s adopted, from Ukraine. The good thing is that she came here when she was 3 years old, so she didn’t have to speak Ukrainian, because that would have been complicated. Yes, there is something ambiguous about my face.
I remember seeing you in three plays in Barcelona: “Odisseus”, at the Sala Beckett, directed by Quimet Pla; “Amanda T”, in the Sala Atrium, directed by Àlex Mañas, who was also the author; and “Temps salvatge”, directed by Xavier Albertí based on the text by Josep Maria Miró, at the Teatre Nacional de Catalunya. Did these three plays leave their mark on you?
Yesh, and a deep mark. “Odisseus”, because it was almost like a family environment, with Quimet Pla and Oriol Pla, who I adore. There were 25 of us, live music… it was absolutely fantastic. I’d pay to redo “Odisseus”. “Temps salvatge” was my first paid theater job, so to speak. It was my introduction to the world of theatrical and institutional bureaucracy. Suddenly, being in the main hall at the Teatre Nacional de Catalunya … wow! Crazy. And I really liked Amanda T because it was the first time I did theater for kids, for teenagers. And schools would come to see the play. It was a tough story, but a useful one, and I liked telling it to young people.
You’ve just finished filming Pablo Maqueda’s second feature film, “La desconocida”. Is the ideal scenario to combine projects like this with series like “I’m Alive”? In other words, a bit of indie and then some mainstream?
Ideally, jobs come from wherever they are, from one side or the other. But it’s true that I am always more in favor of the underdog, the smaller projects generally have more heart. “Alegria” and “La desconocida” are movies that took seven years to raise the financing, to rewrite the script, to find the cast. They are not projects to be shot and released immediately but are the fruit of someone’s dream over years and years. As such, contributing to their completion is wholly satisfying.
Do you go to the movies a lot? What was the last movie you went to see?
This last year I haven’t been to the cinema much and I haven’t been reading anything, but only because I’ve been working non-stop. So, literally, I would finish a project one day and start a new one the next day. The last film I saw was Almodóvar’s “Parallel Mothers”. In terms of film’s that premiered in 2021, one movie that I absolutely loved was “Another Round”, by Thomas Vinterberg and I’m really looking forward to seeing “The Power of the Dog”, by Jane Campion, and Pablo Larraín’s “Spencer”, because I’ve heard such great things about them both.
Do you have references and favorites in the world of directing and acting?
I’m not really a mythomaniac, I think I’m more into obsessions. Small obsessions. Among my latest obsessions is Scarlett Johansson and she was one of my references for “La desconocida” was Scarlett’s work in “Under the Skin” (2013), by Jonathan Glazer, because she practically does nothing in the film. There’s something I like about people who do nothing and do 3,000 things at the same time. I mean, her eyes spoke for her. I also like Ruben Östlund, director of “Turist” (2014), which is a very well explained portrait of fragile masculinity. I’m interested in the world of current Nordic filmmakers.
You are about to start filming “Quest” in Mallorca, Antonina Obrador’s debut feature.
It looks so good. Enric Auquer’s character is alone until I, who am his sister, arrive. It’s a story about grieving, based on what happens to a scientist who goes to the island of Quest to investigate his wife’s suicide, played by Maria Arnal. Before that I shot a Netflix series called “The Longest Night”, soI haven’t taken a break since August last year, and I really need a break.
For a project to interest you, what ingredients does it have to have?
The characters have to connect me with something that I want to explain and that’s why I went all out with projects like “Alegría” and “La desconocida”.
A wish for 2022? Personal, professional, or both.
For an to COVID! Let it finish already, and then we’ll get around to fixing all the other bad stuff in life.