Incendies – Lubna Azabal interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
LUBNA Azabal talks to us about the challenges of making Incendies, a film about the victims of war in the Middle East and the thin line between love, hate, forgiveness and revenge that was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Movie Academy Award earlier this year.
She also talks about learning new languages for each role and working with Ralph Fiennes on his directorial debut, Coriolanus.
Q. What drew you to Incendies in the first place?
Lubna Azabal: The process came to me in a classical way. Denis Villeneuve arrived in Paris and he was looking for a few actresses. I was one of five. So, I met him, he gave me the script, I read it and the play it was based upon by Wajdi Mouawad, and then we met again and we had a one hour talk. I did an audition and three months after that he called me to tell me that I had the part. And then I started to scream [with joy]!
Q. Did he encourage you to speak to Wajdi at all? Or did you go and see his play?
Lubna Azabal: No, I didn’t want to see the play on stage, even though I read it, because when you have that kind of project it could be very confusing. I wanted to bring my own nuances to the character and I didn’t want to be influenced by other actresses because it could be very confusing. But after the movie I met Wajdi and we’ve continued to have a lot of contact by emails. But it was important for me to be free of anyone else’s image and just to be free with my own imagination.
Q. How long before shooting started did you go to Jordan? Did you go early for research?
Lubna Azabal: I’d never been to Jordan before the shoot. But I didn’t go for very long before the shoot because I know what’s been happening in the Middle East and what happened in Lebanon during the war and occupation. I know this whole story but I know it from when I was a student. I didn’t want to work the character in a political way. I didn’t want to make her an outsider… not in the beginning. For me, she’s a young woman in love and she’s accused of staining her family because she has a relationship with an outsider.
So, then we learn that she is pregnant and that they [her family] take her baby from her. I then decided to work on her as a mother because she could be any mother in the world. Then she’s no longer an outsider… she’s a lion… woman who wants to look after her child, so it’s very concrete and very real. It could be my neighbour, it could be my mother… I’m not a mother but I know I have sisters who are mothers and I know they could kill if something was to happen to their child. But within the context of the story, this whole thing is happening inside a very complex world.
So, inside this complex world she decides to travel all over the country to look for her child and she’s the witness of horrible things. And these horrible things eventually make her an outsider, to the point where she becomes certain that her child has gone and now we talk about vengeance. I think it’s a very human thought process. So, everything about her had to work like that for me because this Greek tragedy dimension surrounding the war… that’s already in the script, it’s there, so you don’t have to play with it.
Q. There’s not too many films that portray war from the victim’s point of view. Was that part of the appeal as well?
Lubna Azabal: Yeah, it’s about the victims and tragic destiny and about a broken life. It’s about rape as a weapon of war. It’s about so many things – the best and the worst of humanity. So, as I said, there is this kind of notion that love and hate, vengeance and forgiveness, can co-exist. It’s strange but it happens. And peace sometimes comes after death. But to find peace, for some people, is to find the truth, otherwise you cannot rest in peace – and that’s what she asks of her twins at the beginning of the film.
Q. Denis cast a lot of non-actors from Iraq and Jordan. How invaluable was that to you as an actor? Denis said they helped him to inform the authenticity of certain scenes…
Lubna Azabal: I love those people because we are talking about refugees from Iraq. So, you’re in front of people where there is no play, there is no sense of them trying to be an actor. They were playing what they live every day in their life. They know the war. Most of them lost families – their child, or their wife – and they had to travel from Iraq to Jordan. So, everything was on their face, everything was in their eyes, and it’s just so strong for us, as actors, because it’s a kind of lesson.
Those children having their heads shaved at the beginning of the film, they are children from the war and they know it. You can see in their eyes that they’re not playing. Denis didn’t say: “Do your eyes like that and show me that you’re sad or angry…” No, it’s there, everything is there and it’s so, so powerful. I love to work with that kind of non-actor, or a gypsy-like actor, because everything is there inside them. They don’t build anything – it’s just there and it’s so strong that it makes us, as actors, feel a responsibility to tell the truth. But I love that and I love them. At the same time, they were so professional. They were listening to what they had to do, which position they had to take, and were very aware of what is happening around them. It’s just so green and beautiful and generous.
Q. How easy was Nawal Marwan to shake off at the end of a day, or even after the shoot? I imagine she was very demanding to inhabit, both physically and mentally?
Lubna Azabal: Oh, you cannot imagine. When you decide to accept that kind of character you are involved 100%. But I always work like that but especially for Nawal it was like I was sleeping with her, I was taking my breakfast with her… every day, day and night, I was with Nawal. I wasn’t thinking about me at all. I was like in a big bubble. Even on the weekend, when I had a day off, I wasn’t able to have a break somewhere or to get out from my room. And not because I didn’t want to, but because I was like… you know, sometimes there’s this kind of magic happening at times, where there is this connection with you and your character and you become one. It’s a kind of schizophrenia but it’s really wonderful when it happens because you feel so much freedom inside you. So, I was totally involved and it was really tough for me to say goodbye to her, to say goodbye to the crew and to say goodbye to the movie. I was so deep inside of her.
Q. Is she still with you at all today? Johnny Depp says he keeps a part of every character for life…
Lubna Azabal: No! [Laughs] Can you imagine? Not me, not me! Right after Incendies, 10 days later I had to be in another movie, for something totally different, starring with Ben Foster [in Here] in another country, in another language, with another director, so I was obliged to really make a cut with Nawal. I wouldn’t really enjoy my widow’s tattoo. It’s like losing someone… it’s the same feeling. You need to separate yourself, otherwise I think you’d become crazy if someone like that stayed with you. I wouldn’t like that. If Johnny can live with that, then…
Q. You recently worked with Ralph Fiennes on Coriolanus. How was that?
Lubna Azabal: Well, being with Vanessa Redgrave, Jessica Chastain, James Nesbitt… for me, it’s just like being at Walt Disney. It’s amazing. Also, it’s something very challenging because to be able to speak in Shakespearean language… as you can hear, English is not my mother language [laughs]! So, I was so proud and so surprised when Ralph wanted to meet me and wanted me to work with him. The audition was very… he’s an actor so he can understand the anxiousness of other actors and your fears.
So, he’s really smart and just asked me to read with him for the audition. It was very simple, we just read together and then he gave me the part. Until now, we are in good contact and he’s a really great man – he’s extraordinary. He’s also a super director. He was directing, producing and playing the main character. But to play Coriolanus is an enormous part and yet he did it so well. When I saw the movie, I was very proud of him and all of us because he did it in a very wonderful way. All of his crew were very calm, very open and so generous… it was like he had been doing it all his life. When I look back, I realised I learned a lot and still have a lot to learn. It’s really impressive.
Q. So, what was harder to master – Middle Eastern dialect, which I gather you struggled with, or Shakespearean English?
Lubna Azabal: Both were incredibly difficult because I don’t speak Arabic either. I’m not Arabic. So, both were difficult. I’m used to working with new languages with every role – I’ve played Jewish, Greek, Armenian… But language is like music, so if you’ve got a good ear, it’s like learning some notes and the music starts to get inside you and you try to grasp it phonetically. I worked on Incendies for three weeks with a dialect coach and did the same thing for Coriolanus and the same thing with the Armenian crew. So, it’s homework… a lot of homework. It’s very like being a student. There’s nothing intellectual. You just have to do the work to hear and then practise, practise, practise and arrive at something very real.
Q. How much did the film being nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar mean ot you?
Lubna Azabal: A lot. Not only to me, but to all the crew because now everyone in the crew – from the director to the producers – have become friends and we’ve been there like a gypsy family because none of us have been there before. We didn’t know this Hollywood world and this very prestigious world. So, we were like children. It was for us a big celebration and we went there without any pretension of winning something. We didn’t expect anything because we were already there. To be a part of those five movies, I mean come on! To begin with, there were 60 on that shortlist. So, it’s just magical to be there still at the end of that road. And there’s no winner really. I mean it helps the movie to have the statue, but we can say we’ve been there and it was really magical for us. We were on the red carpet and I saw Colin Firth and I was drinking champagne with actors and hanging out with other actors. What more can I ask? It was wonderful.