Walking out of Miss Bala after it screened at this year’s Sydney Film Festival, two things stood out in my mind. The first was the beautiful camera work. The second was the staggering lead performance. Loosely based on the experiences of a real life Miss Hispanic America, Gerardo Naranjo’s film tells the tale of a beauty pageant contestant caught up for three harrowing days in the brutal Mexican drug war. And in the part of the model turned drug mule, in her first major screen role: model turned actor Stephanie Sigman.
In the lead up to the film’s Australian theatrical release at Melbourne’s Cinema Nova next week, I had the chance to talk to Stephanie about her role. Check out our discussion, below.
Movidex: What was the casting like?
Stephanie Sigman: It was crazy! The auditioning process was long and hard, because they were auditioning for ten months. I did my first audition and then the second one, and then met the director, and then they weren’t sure about it and so kept going with the auditions. So in the end it took like ten months to get the part.
Were you given the script right away?
No. My manager called me and told me “I’ve heard about this film they’re going to do, and I think you would be perfect for it, and you have to go and do the audition”. And then when I met Gerardo [the director] in a café, just to talk about it, he was like “Ok, when I feel like I am ready, I’ll give you the script”. He was very reserved about it.
What was it like for you, having only just started acting, playing the lead character in a film?
This was my first big project. And I was nervous, because I was aware of the responsibility I had to this project. Doing this character…the character is the movie, basically. So of course I was nervous. I think to do a project like this is very hard, and you go to the deep, dark side of the situation and the character. You have to trust the people you’re working with; there’s no other way to do it and to feel good about it. It’s about feeling comfortable in this hardcore situation. And also I enjoyed it a lot, because I think at the end it can be a very tough film, but an actor is an actor, and I love my job. I just have to find how to have fun, every time
You mentioned going to dark places. In the film, your character goes through some pretty harrowing experiences. How do you prepare for scenes like that, and how do you try and convey those dark feelings in your performance?
Well of course you prepare, psychologically and emotionally…you have to prepare your body to go to those places. And I think the preparation for me was being more aware of the situation. I read some books, watched some films with Gerardo, talked to Gerardo a lot. And then, in the moment, you just let it go. It’s like…be strong enough to be soft. Because at the end, you have everything in your system, and you just have to relax and do it.
How ‘hands on’ was Gerardo with you as an actor?
He’s very precise in what he doesn’t want. He’ll tell me “I don’t want this, and I don’t want this, because I’ve seen it before and I don’t want that kind of acting”. He was like “I just want you to be there. Really there. And I’m not going to tell you exactly what to do with your body. You need to feel it, and just do it”. He doesn’t like the more melodramatic kind of acting…he’s more like “don’t try, and don’t act. Just be there”. So he knew what style he wanted. But I wasn’t that experienced, so he had to guide me through it. He told me “I want you to tell me everything through your eyes”. And at the beginning I was like “how am I supposed to do that?!” But when we started to talk about it, I really understood it. It was really beautiful.
One of the really remarkable about the film is its cinematography, which includes several breathtaking long takes . Does trying to achieve shots like these present additional difficulties to you as an actor?
That was very exciting for me. Because it’s one thing to be in the character…but another thing is understanding the cinematographer’s side of doing the film – the lighting, the movement. I was lucky because I had this very great Director of Photography, from Hungary. Mátyás Erdély, the DP, he was amazing. But he was very precise. So you have to pay attention to the DP all the time.
Obviously Miss Bala deals with the drug war, which is a very real problem in Mexico. But I’ve also seen you say in other interviews that it’s important to separate truth from fiction. How close do you feel this film is to reality?
Well it’s different because it’s a film. And we made it look how we wanted it – how Gerardo wanted it. And in the end, if you feel related to the film, as a Mexican or as a person, it’s because it’s a piece of reality. But it depends what reality we’re talking about. It was very hard here in Mexico when it came out, because a lot of people were like “why are we doing this kind of film again? Why, if we’re seeing it in the news…it’s the same subject”. But you can make a lot of different films about love. You can make a lot of different films about a society. Or about the drug war. Or the North of the country. At the end it’s a story, but I think it’s a very different point of view and perspective.
What have you shot since completing Miss Bala?
I have a film that is coming out in the cinema in Mexico this week, called Morelos. It’s about an independent hero here in Mexico. It’s a period piece, and it’s very beautiful. I also did an independent film in New York, but I don’t know when it’s coming out. And I just did a new film in Norway. It’s a Norwegian film, with a Norwegian and American cast, and a Norwegian director. And I’m so glad about that film, because it was a whole new, completely different experience. And I had to talk in another language, which was very hard. But it was very fun to do. It was called Pioneer.
So you’re interested in working outside of Mexico?
For me that’s very exciting. I’m an actress because I like challenge, being challenged every time. It could be a challenge here in Mexico, but it makes me really excited to do something in another language. Not just in another language, but another culture, another country. It’s another point of view of the world.
Miss Bala played this week as part of the La Mirada Film Festival. It opens at Cinema Nova in Melbourne on November 22nd