Lena Olin Plans Her Demise in A Critically Endangered Species
"That’s a challenge as an actor – and for any woman, to not be pleasing."
"I have to play this part," Lena Olin recalls thinking after her initial reading of the screenplay for her new film, A Critically Endangered Species, which makes its world premiere at SXSW. Maya, the character Olin plays, is a poet of a certain age who feels her best work is behind her. In a stunning opening scene, Maya tells an NPR interviewer during a live radio conversation that she plans to commit suicide, but first needs to find an executor for her literary estate, who, in turn, will inherit her real estate – an isolated, undeveloped stake of land in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains outside San Francisco. Furthermore, only men need apply. It was with some trepidation that I called Olin for this phone interview, half afraid that I might get Maya on the line instead of Olin.
Perhaps, like me, your fondest memory of Lena Olin derives from her international breakout in 1988's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in which she plays one-third of an erotic triangle set against the background of the 1968 Prague Spring. Or maybe you've only recently made her acquaintance when she played a recurring role on TV in J.J. Abrams' Alias, with Jennifer Garner. Other highlights include Chocolat, Romeo Is Bleeding, The Reader, and her Oscar-nominated performance in Enemies: A Love Story. Olin's acting career began in her native Sweden, where she worked with Ingmar Bergman in After the Rehearsal. The roles are diverse and daring, and she's never been one to rely on her good looks or previous laurels to land parts. Thus, it's no surprise that the role of Maya appealed to Olin's artistic instincts. Maya is a fiercely independent woman who has no children or heirs. Not willing to accept "a healthy state of denial or an unhealthy state of mortality," as she tells the NPR interviewer about the personally unacceptable quality of her current writing, Maya makes a practical decision to preserve her legacy by ending her life before her writing becomes stale. Sensibly predicting her future sales, she remarks: "Suicide jolts you into another category."
Co-directed by Zachary Cotler and Magdalena Zyzak, A Critically Endangered Species is full of language and inquiry, as befits the life of a poet. Cotler, too, is an award-winning poet, and filmmaker and producer Zyzak is a novelist. "I was approached by Zachary and Magdalena," explains Olin of how she came aboard this project. "It was just a very compelling script. I loved it, and they were able to wait until the timing worked out for me." During the shooting, she continues, "the fact that Zachary's a poet helped us a lot because he's so articulate and was able to tell me what he wanted because he has the language to describe things that are impossible to describe."
As a parade of young men come to apply for the executor's job, Maya tests each one sexually as well as intellectually. The sex is always for her own gratification, not the applicants'. Maya is not always a sympathetic character, and since so many actors shy away from being seen in unflattering portraits, I wondered about Olin's willingness to jump in with both feet. "She's certainly not a lovely older woman," Olin reflects, "and I thought that was so intriguing. She's a great character and she's hard to like. It's not nice what she's doing, but I get it. You can see her but not judge her. That's a challenge as an actor – and for any woman, to not be pleasing. I'm not pleasing and that's OK."
In fact, it's better than OK. It's something honest and quite marvelous.
A Critically Endangered Species
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