Icelandic actress María Thelma Smáradóttir has recently made her Hollywood debut with her role in the acclaimed film Arctic, by director Joe Penna. The film, starring Smáradóttir and Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, is a tale of resilience and humanity, of survival and selflessness, all against the harsh climate of the arctic landscape.
With solid theatre education and a career path that seemed focused on theatre, María speaks of happily embracing the challenge of working on a high-profile film, while looking forward to being part of a more diverse, inclusive, and egalitarian film industry.
Elena Stanciu: You are a recent graduate of the Iceland Academy of Arts. What was this experience like? What is the most important lesson you've learned?
María Thelma Smáradóttir: I learned it’s important to be very good at taking risks and make mistakes while still in training or school, because that’s the environment you can afford it, without dramatic consequences. I believe you have to be really good at being bad, before you get really good; you simultaneously develop resilience and getting back up after a “failure” becomes easier.
ES: You currently work at the National Theatre of Iceland. How did you discover your passion for theatre? How do you envision your creative future, in terms of the balance between theatre work and film?
MTS: I discovered my passion for theatre at around 16 years old. I had never been on a stage at that point, but I had my first acting lesson in high school and never looked back. There was something magical and dramatic about the theatre atmosphere: people telling stories on stage in a way that it was almost dangerous. There where so many things that could go wrong and the actors had to deliver their performance in a certain way; no cheating, no take two. The costumes, the lights and the excitement of the audience – it all clicked for me.
I’ve been lucky with balancing my work between theatre and television and film. I’m not committed to theatre the entire year, which allows me the freedom to take on other projects. I never saw myself in films or TV when I was younger. I just thought that I would be on stage at the National Theatre of Iceland and that was it. I guess the universe had a greater plan for me. In terms of my future, I don’t know what it will bring me. I just know that I will continue to make the most of every opportunity and go with the flow.
ES: Speaking of opportunities, you just had your big screen break with the acclaimed movie, Arctic. How did you experience it as a first film? Did it raise the bar for you for future projects?
MTS: I couldn’t have imagined that my first movie would be so tough, but I guess the universe doesn’t bring you challenges that you can’t handle, right? This experience taught me a lot about teamwork and patience. The shooting schedule was all over the place because of the weather. We couldn’t predict what the weather was going to be like, so we just had to stay calm and work with it. I’ve grown thicker skin after this unbelievable experience.
ES: Arctic is quite an austere production – only two characters, set in an unvarying landscape; the kind where the performance is vital. Did you feel any pressure in this regard? What can you tell us about the prepping/ research you did for this role?
MTS: I can’t say that I felt any pressure. The movie doesn’t focus on the characters’ backstories, there are no flashbacks, and very little dialog. I just reacted towards whatever was thrown at me. We wanted the characters to be relatable to the audience. This movie could have been about anybody – about you and me. What I liked about the movie is that it asks some important questions: “What would you do in this situation and what makes us connect as human beings? What motivations you to fight for your life when you have nothing to live for? Would you fight for someone else or not?
ES: In recent years, big studios have turned towards Iceland as the location for numerous films and TV shows, which I imagine is great both for business, national branding, but also for local talent. How do you experience this, coupled with the overall blossoming of the Icelandic film industry itself?
MTS: It’s almost surreal to think that a small isolated island in the north Atlantic with a population of 348.000 people has made it so far internationally. I am enormously proud of my fellow co-workers in the film industry here in Iceland and fellow actors that have made it so far. I think it’s safe for me to say that we do have the toughest crews because we are used to handling difficult situations and shake of the blistering temperature for many hours straight.
ES: You've entered the film industry at a time of paradigmatic change, both in what stories are told, how they are told, and in how the industry functions. What are your expectations? Do you have any fears or concerns?
MTS: I don’t have any concerns. I feel like the industry is moving in the right direction and I can literally see the changes on screen. Casting, for example, has changed a lot. There is more diversity and more relatable casting choices. You might ask why it’s important to have relatable characters; the answer is that we all want to feel connected as human beings and we want to be able to reflect ourselves in the characters we see.
Gender equality in roles has changed for the better. The industry is more aware of what roles women play in movies; we are less and less cast as sex symbols or used to support a man’s status in scenes or movies. Many of the stories are becoming more political and I can see we have created this environment where we are able to discuss those things, which is a huge step forward.
ES: Any advice for young actresses and actors out there, working to have their big break?
MTS: To those who are reading this: be brave! Be very, very brave! You really need to develop a sense of resilience and an unshakeable belief in yourself, bigger than your fears and insecurities. Focus on getting better at your craft. Approach every project as if it was your last one, because if you enter your work with that mentality, you will deliver your top performance. Make excellence your brand. And don’t worry – the universe has your back!