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Fortitude – Verónica Echegui interview (exclusive)

Fortitude, Verónica Echegui

Interview by Rob Carnevale

Verónica Echegui talks about playing the mysterious Elena in Sky Atlantic’s new drama Fortitude, working in Iceland and joking around with the hilarious Michael Gambon.

She also reflects her career to date, including making the move from Spain to a global audience, making her breakthrough with the acclaimed My Name Is Juani and winning the prestigious European Shooting Star Award.

Q. Fortitude is great so far. But I guess the character of Elena, being the most mysterious, is the hardest to talk about?
Verónica Echegui: Yeah [laughs]. But I can say certain things. She’s supposed to be intriguing. You will see.

Q. How would you describe her?
Veronica Echegui: I love her. She’s very complex. She’s been through a lot. And she’s in this community and new in town. She’s been here for four months and she wants to be part of it and to start from scratch. But what happens is that her real nature plays against it because she’s not able to control the kind of situations she’s provoking.

Q. What was the biggest challenge of finding her and playing her?
Verónica Echegui: Everything…. understanding her because it was not very clear who she really was to begin with. I mean I had a lot of information about her background and her back story and I knew a lot of things. But she was also someone that I was always discovering while playing her, so the challenge was that I had to trust my gut so much and just go with it. And it worked. We were working with [series creator] Simon Donald and it was a kind of co-operation. He knew his story very well but he would allow us to have some input and he’d watch all of the rushes to offer guidance where appropriate. But Elena was a real challenge. I was trying to follow my instincts about her story. I actually took a couple of months to work on her because she’s so complex.

Q. And how was working in Iceland? Cold?
Verónica Echegui: Iceland is cold [laughs]. It’s freezing there. I don’t know if we were lucky, though, because we didn’t really suffer – maybe one day. There was one day where I was crying [in a scene] when I wasn’t meant to be. But that was the only day I suffered. I grew up in the north of Spain, which is fine; it’s not that terrible, so it took some adjusting to. But last year was not a really cold year [by Iceland’s standards] and we were actually lacking a lot of snow in some shots! They had to bring in fake snow from London, which cost a fortune! It was crazy. They chose Iceland because they needed this world of ice and snow and we didn’t get it. We had to go into the mountains to get it because the villages in the valleys barely had any. And the fake snow was very foamy and sticky and a pain in the neck to work with [laughs].

Q. Given the remoteness of the location, though, did you and cast form your own tight little community?
Verónica Echegui: Yes, we did. We were only 26 people in the same hotel, spending every single day together and it’s amazing how well we dealt with that. We were like a huge family – and that’s a very rare experience. It was my first time dealing with such a huge, massive cast, where I did not have anything in common. But there was not one bad apple among us or conflicted person. It can happen on a set but it didn’t happen here. We were all so impressed. I think the casting director, Julie, did such a great job because she cast the same kind of souls. We spent a lot of time walking around and we tried to see whales because there’s not much to do there. So, when we heard there was one in the fjords, which was an hour’s drive from the hotel, we went to try and see it. But we weren’t lucky.

Q. And no polar bears either?
Verónica Echegui: [Laughs] No, polar bears… I think they escaped the island.

Fortitude, Verónica Echegui

Q. I’ve heard rumours that Michael Gambon is a big practical joker. Did you bear the brunt of any pranks or jokes?
Verónica Echegui: Yeah… Michael is the best man ever. He was so funny. I couldn’t understand what he was saying, especially at the beginning. I love his voice but I couldn’t understand most of what he talking about and everyone else was laughing. But after a month I started to understand what he was saying and I thought he was hilarious. He can be so funny and you can’t stop laughing with him. He has all these stories and anecdotes and he’s the best. We had a lot of laughs together and he was joking with me every day joking because I am Spanish.

Q. You mention coming from Spain. How easy has it been for you to land prominent roles outside of Spain in big dramas such as Fortitude or films like The Cold Light of Day alongside Henry Cavill and Bruce Willis?
Verónica Echegui: Well, not easy. I think I’m very lucky. Nowadays, everything is going very global. They are now casting people from all around the globe for all of these international films, whereas in the past we had little or no chance to access these opportunities. But on the other side of things, you now have to deal with a million other people from around the world for these roles. So, it makes it like a miracle [to succeed]. If they’re looking for Spanish girls, you’re in with a chance, but a lot of roles go to South American actresses. In the case of Fortitude, Elena was originally Irish…

Q. Really? How come she changed?
Verónica Echegui: I don’t know. I put myself on tape and then I came and did a second audition. But I still couldn’t understand why they were casting me. I could tell this was very well written, so I felt very drawn to it. But I didn’t know about Elena’s secrets at that point. So, on that second audition, the writer was there and he told me they didn’t really care about her nationality; rather, they were looking for a certain kind of energy. And then he told me the whole story and I was very shocked. I felt like I couldn’t do the audition. So, I don’t know why they did it [cast me] but they liked me and were very happy with me. And since then it’s been like a dream because I’ve had the chance to stay with Elena and have been able to play with the character a little bit, which doesn’t happen very often. They really listened to me and my ideas for her. I love my job and work very hard but they didn’t know me [coming into this] but they still trusted me so much. And I couldn’t believe it.

Q. You’ve also got Hunter’s Prayer coming up – another film?
Verónica Echegui: Yeah, we’ve been filming in Budapest. It’s an American project and I’m working with Sam Worthington, who is also producing. But that’s done now, so I’m free.

Q. What can you say about it?
Verónica Echegui: It’s a European thriller but it’s also more than that. The main character [played by Sam] has a beautiful journey from hell to a nicer place. He’s a hit-man and that’s all I can say. My character is involved with him and his story and I’m like an old friend from his past life and many things happen. But I’m a little bit afraid of talking too much about it in case I give something away that I shouldn’t. But I’d like to tell you that it’s very unusual and the way the director, Jonathan Mostow, is working is so unusual. I’m very, very excited to see it because I think it will be great.

My Name Is Juani

Q. How did My Name Is Juani change things for you?
Verónica Echegui: My Name Is Juani changed everything. It was my first film and it was with the late [director] Bigas Luna. Do you know him? He’s so famous in Spain because he’s a genius and he was the one who discovered people like Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem. He gave them an opportunity. My Name Is Juani was very avant garde for the time but everyone in Spain loved it. And it gave me the opportunity to work in cinema for the next 10 years. So, it meant such a lot to be cast in that film.

Q. And of course it helped you to win the European Shooting Star Award. How much did that mean?
Verónica Echegui: Oh my goodness, that was amazing. It meant everything. I’d also done another feature, which was produced by Pedro Almodovar’s production company, and that came out and got a lot of beautiful reviews and then they called me to go to Shooting Stars. It was incredible, especially as it meant I had been shortlisted from all the countries in Europe. I think they just choose 10 or maybe 13 people each year. But I met so many wonderful people there. Carey Mulligan was there, and it was just before An Education came out. I couldn’t believe I was so lucky. I certainly didn’t expect it. And I have to admit I didn’t know what it was before going! So, it was a very special time, getting to spend five days in Berlin and getting to know people so many remarkable people… casting directors form around the globe as well as spending time with my mates.

Fortitude airs on Sky Atlantic on Thursday nights from 9pm (starting from January 29, 2015).