• Interviews

Leonor Varela Returns to the Screen through Latin American Cinema

Long before the new generations of Americans discovered Chile, thanks to Pedro Pascal, another actress born in the Southern Cone caused a sensation in Hollywood and forced many to look at the map. Her name is Leonor Varela. In 1999, she starred in the TV movie Cleopatra.

Over the following years, this actress, who trained in France, shone as Nyssa in Blade II (2002) by Guillermo del Toro and starred as Kella in Innocent Voices (2004) by Luis Mandoki, among many other notable roles. But after a personal tragedy (her son Matteo died in 2018 at the age of five due to leukodystrophy which was diagnosed at birth), Varela disappeared from sets after participating in the series Lethal Weapon (2018).

Now, she is back, thanks to her South American roots. She is one of the protagonists of La vaca que cantó una canción hacia el futuro (The Cow Who Sang a Song into the Future), the debut film by her compatriot Francisca Alegría, which will premiere in the United States this May.

She also led the cast of the Argentine production Miénteme (Lie to Me), directed by Sebastián Schindel, which can be seen on Amazon, and recently participated in American Cherry, an American independent film by Marcella Cytrynowicz.

Varela recently spoke to us via Zoom about her first foray into her country’s cinema.

What was it like for you to join Chilean cinema? Because you have worked in French, American and Mexican films. And you have just made an Argentine film but there are not many Chilean films in your film career.

This film (The Cow Who Sang a Song into the Future) came to me at a time when I was able to resume my career after dedicating time to my son and family life. When my son passed away, the truth is that I took a little time for myself.

This project came when he was still alive and it was the first time, after a decade of being fully devoted to motherhood and with my priorities greatly changed, that I gave myself permission to embark on an adventure within a role that I could truly immerse myself in and in which I could lose myself.

So, the fact that the film was in my country gave it a lot of meaning. It was a new beginning in a very personal place and also with the person I did it with, who is a woman I immediately connected with on a human and spiritual level and who continues to be one of my dearest friends, Francisca Alegría.

The background of this film has a message of ecological urgency, of awakening to how we are living and inhabiting this earth and how we relate to nature. It also has a central anchor, which is the theme of motherhood, to which I had been very dedicated for ten years.

I did La vaca que cantó una canción hacia el futuro and then the Argentine film Miénteme, two leading roles that really required my full presence and being. I also had a part in the film Tell It Like a Woman, which was nominated for an Oscar.

Cecilia, your character (in The Cow…), is a woman in a very conflicted situation and suddenly something happens that brings all her problems back to life. What was it like to step into her shoes?

It’s hard for me to answer that because in a way, it was such a long-term, slow process with so much time for preparation and reflection that I didn’t have to think too much about it. I was digesting this material for three years.

So, by the time we started filming, the character of Cecilia was fully fleshed out in me, the way she walked, her stubbornness, her heart and what was soft and painful underneath. That repressed pain and anger she felt in her being for the loss of her mother.

Francisca based Cecilia on her own mother. We had many close discussions to shape the character to fit me. In that sense, it was a great gift.

Francisca mentioned that this project started at the Sundance Lab where both you and Mia Maestro were invited – a truly unusual process, different from how films are usually made.

Completely unusual, with Francisca’s characteristic magic that fills this film with magical realism. Indeed, I received a call from Sundance informing me that this director, who had been selected for the Lab, wanted to present me with this project and wanted me to be a part of it.

I read it and I was completely convinced that I had done it before. There was a strong sense of familiarity, as if I knew it from before. And that’s how it started. Imagine how it continued.

One thing about this film is that it’s unlike anything else. It has a narrative structure that breaks all conventions but still convinces and immerses you in the same way a conventional story would. That’s very hard to achieve.

It’s a very brave film because it breaks the usual narrative conventions of antagonist-protagonist. The driving force of the film doesn’t come from a place of conflict but from the mother’s desire to return and heal and how this family finds each other and exposes their wounds and takes responsibility.

There are films that break traditional storytelling conventions. Francisca is an author who promises a lot in that regard. She’s not interested in telling things in a conventional way; she has great sensitivity and is a great team leader.

In the midst of all that, this film comes out, which is totally unusual and had to be adapted based on the decisions being made. Some people truly don’t understand it, while others love it and that’s art. La vaca que cantó una canción hacia el futuro is a film that invites you to reflect, if you’re willing to.

Generally, the generation that has been more open to what the story proposes is the younger people and those who are looking for a new way to exist in this world. It excites me a lot to have a representation of those people who are seeking a new way to live with nature and relate to others.

What was it like to film the scene where your deceased mother returns?

Mia is still a sister to me to this day. We connected a lot on that set, during the underwater diving rehearsals, in the scenes we had together, which were few but very intense. We truly had a sisterhood and a beautiful friendship and we are both very grateful for it.

That scene in the forest was very beautiful and it was a strong release for me because of the emotional burden that Cecilia had been carrying for so long. By being able to externalize that, we ended up embracing each other and crying.

This woman has a double conflict. On one hand, with her mother, and on the other hand, with her son who wants to be a daughter. What was it like to act with someone who had no acting experience?

Enzo Ferrada Rosati embodies that essence in transition, free from gender and all the labels that you and I were born with. For Cecilia, it’s the same, she’s there trying to learn how to deal with it and she struggles not to judge what she thinks is best for him.

Many parents often make that mistake because they believe they know what’s best for their children instead of giving them the space for their own decisions and trusting them as they decide what they want to do.

Surely that has to do with the fear of them getting hurt, not out of malice. That fear is precisely well explained because it is the one she suffered from the absence of her mother who is the place of safety.

The fish die, the cows get sick and in the micro human society, we see everything turning upside down. Why do you think it’s important to show that strong relationship between the nature that surrounds us and our own health as a species?

Because I believe that as a species, we humans have become conquerors, exploiters, predators, users and consumers but we have forgotten that we are also part of nature. The disconnection is such that we live in cities of cement.

That part of us that is reflected in the world of bees, cows, fish and birds generates this impact and the interconnectivity of things is understood.

You became the Chilean figure in Hollywood when you did Cleopatra, something completely unusual at that time. Now your compatriot Pedro Pascal has appeared, who basically has the same story as you, having to leave his country and grow up in the United States, bringing Chile back to the international stage. Is it a good time to be “the Chilean in Hollywood”?

I have deep admiration for Pedro who is truly a great actor deserving of the recognition he is receiving for his enormous talent. I’ve loved him since Game of Thrones. It’s always a good time to be Chilean.

Unlike Pedro, I return to my country very often for ecological and social reasons and because I feel or need that connection, probably to know who I am because I didn’t have clear roots. In terms of being Latino, I believe that the doors in the North American industry are much more consolidated and open although there is still a long way to go.

I’m always very proud of my Chilean origins. There’s fantastic ecotourism. More and more people want to travel to Chile to see our landscapes. Nevertheless, let’s agree that Americans always find it difficult to go beyond because it’s such a large country, sandwiched between two oceans.

It’s not like Europe where they have more awareness of their neighbors. That’s why there’s less knowledge of others. In the world I move in, being Latina has always been a plus.

Will you return to the French cinema?

I have an agent in France but it’s very difficult. First, because I took a long time off for motherhood, my son, and the whole process so I put everything on hold.

It’s also very complicated to be everywhere, in Paris, Los Angeles, Santiago. It’s impossible when you have a family but of course, I would be super happy to work there again.

Having worked in so many places, where would you like your career to continue? Your recent leading roles were in South American films. Is that the path?

To be very honest, I believe that the most interesting opportunities and roles with richer substance are currently coming from that direction and one follows the trend a bit. I would love to tell you that I have thousands of options and I choose what I want but that’s not the case.

One goes where the current takes them. The streaming platforms have changed the industry so much and the ability to develop projects with people you love and have an affinity with and that’s also important as you grow older.

Now I’m hungry but for things that are substantial. In that sense, I wouldn’t say my career will go in the direction of either the Latino or the American way but it’s guided by those things that nourish the soul and make me feel that I have something that gives me happiness. For now, all of that happens in Spanish-language projects.


Translated by Mario Amaya