Caught Between Two Cultures: María Thelma On Navigating The Film Industry - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Caught Between Two Cultures: María Thelma On Navigating The Film Industry

Caught Between Two Cultures: María Thelma On Navigating The Film Industry

Published March 4, 2019

Aliya Uteuova
Photos by
Art Bicnick & Provided By The National Theatre

“You’ve got to be really good at being bad,” says María Thelma Smáradóttir. Over the course of 10 years of studying and auditions, María has experienced her fair share of rejections. But hearing thousands of no’s for every callback only developed her resilience.

In her final year at the Icelandic Academy of the Arts, María was tasked with presenting a 20-minute play as part of her final project. Not knowing what to create, María consulted her mother and older sister over a cup of tea. “My sister asked me if I ever wondered where our mother was born,” María says. “I felt so ashamed that I hadn’t even looked into my other heritage.”

This kitchen table conversation led to María creating ‘Welcome Home’—a spoken word performance of her mother’s immigrant story performed at the National Theatre of Iceland.

Where you’re from

María’s mother, Vala Rún, was born during monsoon season in the middle of Thailand’s rice fields. Having lost her parents at a very young age, coming to Iceland felt like a homecoming. “My mother’s journey is something I’ve discovered just recently,” María says. “At a certain point in your life, you just get curious about who you are and where you came from.”

“Developing an unshakeable belief in yourself is the only way you can make it.”

Growing up as a child of a Thai mother and an Icelandic father, María felt no different from her peers. “My childhood felt normal because I didn’t know anything else than coming from a biracial home.”

But she did have to grow up fast, helping her mother navigate daily hurdles, such as bank visits and doctor’s appointments. “My mother speaks broken Icelandic,” María says. “She’s a human being who speaks a language, but she doesn’t speak the same language.”

Gifts and sacrifice

During her play, María addressed the obstacles that immigrants face when trying to build a life for themselves. “It’s so rude when people start to speak louder to my mother, or speak to her like she’s deaf, articulating e-ve-ry syllable, as if she’s stupid or something,”she says. When María and her sister were children, their mother always spoke to them in Thai, giving them the gift of bilinguality while forfeiting the chance to practice her own Icelandic.

“Her sacrifice is the biggest gift she has given me, and today I’m able to help others by translating for them,” says María.

Just one look

When she travels abroad, people often ask María where she’s from. “When I say that I’m from Iceland, some people ask, ‘No where are you really from?’ I say ‘Iceland,’ and they say, ‘No, but where are you really really from?’ Just ask me about my heritage—because that’s another question. When I finally say I’m Icelandic and my mom is Thai, then they always go, ‘Oh, I knew it, because you don’t look Icelandic.’ But what do Icelanders look like? Is there only one look?”

For María, the most rewarding part of performing her show is the ability to give someone else a voice. Mixed-race children and immigrants who came to her shows expressed gratitude for having their thoughts spoken out loud. “It’s a really basic story but it’s a story that has not been heard on stage in this country. We’re talking about immigrants, about racism, about being biracial, about being stuck between two worlds,” María explains.

Family story

When she was just beginning her career, María struggled with shyness, to the extent that she didn’t even invite her parents to her performances. At the premiere of ‘Welcome Home’, María’s mother sat on the front row. For María, telling her family’s story on stage felt like a peak of her career because only six years ago, she lived in a constant doubt of her abilities.

“I was really afraid that I didn’t have a chance to be an actress in Iceland because there were no Asian role models,” María recalls. That all changed when she looked at her background as her strength.

“I spent so much time thinking ‘I’m a half-Asian in a pretty much white society, I don’t have a chance,’” María recalls. “But you can also look at it from a different view and think, ‘I’m going to get that role because I’m this and that, because my nose is big,’ or whatever it is. Developing an unshakeable belief in yourself is the only way you can make it.”

Future looks bright

María is deeply aware that there is a generation of mixed race actors that will come after her, but there weren’t many role models that came before her. María credits American actress Viola Davis and a Canadian-Korean actress Sandra Oh as women who shaped her confidence. “There are very few minority actors in Hollywood and they talk openly about it,” she says.

María herself doesn’t dream of being a Hollywood movie star—she’d much rather explore her creativity in lower-budget movies. Just seven months after graduation, María auditioned for one such film. She got the part, starring alongside Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen in ‘Arctic,’ a survival film set in Iceland.

The harrowing plot became reality for María and tested her limits during the filming process. María discovered she’s claustrophobic when she and Mikkelsen were zipped up in a double sleeping bag and buried in the snow. In another scene, María was in a cave and Mikkelsen was setting off a flame to scare away an animal. “The cave was so narrow, so if the flame touched my sleeping bag it could’ve caught on fire,” María says. Luckily, everything went well and the entire film was shot in 19 days.

Million dollar advice

During the filming, María received advice from Mikkelsen that stuck with her. “Mads believes that nobody is bigger or smaller than him,” María says. There were scenes when María wasn’t in the frame with Mikkelsen, but he asked her to do the scenes with him anyway to help him out. “He doesn’t consider himself above it,” she says.

When ‘Arctic’ premiered at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, María was overjoyed to see the Icelandic crew at one of the most prestigious festivals in the world. “I just thought ‘wow, we made it so far, this small isolated island in the North Atlantic,’” María says. “It was really the definition of hard work.”

See ‘Arctic’ at your nearest Sambíó movie theatre.

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