INTERVIEW | Published 2011-09-07
Born in the Canary Islands. Critical favourite since “The struggle Carries On.” Eponymous working class. Ruth Vega Fernandez plays a leading role in the movie success “Kiss me”, likes solidarity and disses predictable romcoms.
A wall of roaring from a dozen high school students fills the soundstage at the Maria Square fountain. The heat is here to stay, sticking itself frantically to your clothes and skin. A taxi rolls into the street in front of Hotel Rival. From the steps emerges Ruth Vega Fernandez, purse in one hand, mobile in the other. She steps forward, shakes hands and smiles broadly. She plays a leading role in the acclaimed blockbuster film “Kiss Me”, which reflects homosexual love among young adults. The film is the first of its kind to depict lesbian love from a mature perspective, a story about young adults who are constantly forced to respond to stacked obligations and expectations. Like the fear of being confronted with deeply entrenched norms and beliefs.
– Everybody’s supposed to have nuclear families and a linear career path. The nuclear family’s very politically correct in Sweden. Everything is based on it. It pisses me off, says Ruth.
– To fall in love with another woman as a woman doesn’t fit into the norm.
The camera work in the film has a deliberately natural style, in which the frills characteristic of fiction film are stripped away. Left is a classic love story with a distinct feel for facial expressions, rapid eye games and subtle expressions. When Ruth portrays Mia it’s the manifestations of nuances rather than dialogue that gives fuel to the dramaturgical arch.
– I dislike when the script is on the nose. It shouldn’t be too obvious and demonstrative. In my acting I always want a documentary feel, she says and continues:
– There is so little good written dialogue in Sweden. People should dare to cross out more.
“Kiss Me” has several elaborate nude and sex scenes, which according to writer Alexandra-Therese Keining is important to establish authenticity and intimacy with the viewer. Ruth explains that it was difficult and scary to imitate sexuality and nudity.
– It’s a big deal. The character goes from lack of contact and being disconnected from her body to being hyper-sensual, she says.
– But it was important for the film to work, to understand the metamorphosis from reserved upper-class to liberated.
The other main role in film, Frida, is played by Liv Mjönes who among other things is known from the SVT production “Library Thieves”. The characters’ special relationship on the screen required special preparation. For instance, Ruth and Liv had very limited contact before and during shooting.
– It was deliberate. We wanted to keep the feeling of us just having met. And I think we managed to create a credible chemistry between us. I’d even say we managed to create a bit of magic, says Ruth.
“Kiss me” functions largely as a settlement with majority society, a questioning of the complete dominance of heterosexual upper middle class norms’. According to Ruth, the movie is just as much a way of challenging all types of norms, including homosexual ones.
– The supposedly tolerant family in hip clothing living in Södermalm tend to be characterized by family values that are just as conservative as the characters in the Mad Men series, she says.
– But it’s also bigger than that. The social control is as strong among homosexuals as in society at large. They’re just different norms.
Noise from the espresso machine downstairs breaks through into the conversation. A light beam from the door steps into the room, flaring up the mirrors along the wall. Ruth talks candidly about a vagabond childhood in Spain and Sweden.
– My parents are Spanish and I was born in the Canary Islands, just after the fascist dictator Franco died. My parents were hippies and for many years we moved back and forth between Sweden and Spain. When they separated, I moved with my mother to Gothenburg.
She says she was always seen as the svartskalle(strong slur referring to foreigner or person of colour) in school. And the one with the bad behavior.
– I was thrown out of the Waldorf School. It’s a typical upper class school and I didn’t feel that I fit in. Meanwhile I hung out with petty thieves and criminals, she says, laughing.
Not until she went to Paris was rootlessness able to be replaced by a feeling of home.
– When I was 16 I moved to France with my mother. For me Paris is a safe haven, a place where I don’t need to be defined by others. It’s nice to be able to disconnect from reviewer-Sweden.
That Ruth became an actor is far from random. The dream was there as a child.
– As a five-year-old I was dumbfounded in front of Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times”. I like that his movies have such clear themes like migration, oppression and class.
– The movie theatre was a sanctuary. My friend’s dad worked at The Haga Theatre in Gothenburg and was able to get us in. I went to The People’s Cinema nearly every day.
The road to the big screen and stage salons went through a prestigious stage school in Lyon in southeast France where she was the first foreigner ever to be accepted. Her debut before a Swedish audience was in the Swedish drama series “The Struggle Carries On” which aired in four episodes in 2007 and revolves around four young lives in Gothenburg between 1965 and 1976. Themes discussed are the possibilities that open up when class society crumbles, a radical political zeitgeist and youth culture. As the first film production Ruth acted in, “The Struggle Carries On” is special, she says. The TV series received almost universally favorable reviews among the culture pages. “Fernandez is my new favorite actor,” read the verdict by DN Kultur critic as “The Struggle Carries On” lit up the Swedish television sets. The rating was a five.
– I feel a great kinship with the character of Rebecca. When I played her it was as if the penny dropped. Her values coincided with my own. And her background as the first in a working class family to study at university, I can see myself in that. I had a classic working-class upbringing, with the single mom and small economic margins.
– Rebekah makes a class journey and all the time has that gnawing guilt at having left her class. I recognize myself in that. The emerging middle-class’ anxiety over their class journey.
Ruth sees Rebekah as a survivor. Life is more planned toil than joyful chaos.
– She fights all the time with herself and other people’s expectations. It’s not so much about living as it is about survival. She knows that she has to do it herself. That no one else will do it for her.
The role as the buttoned-up architect from an upper middle-class background in the film “Kiss Me” differs considerably from the working-class hero in “The Struggle Carries On.” Mia is an architect like her boyfriend and on the verge of marriage. When Frida appears her plans for the future collision with love. But the similarities with Rebecca in “The Struggle carries on” end there. Mia also has something sad and weighed-down about her. For Ruth, it was more the challenge of playing a middle-class girl that lured her.
– It was a challenge to nail the character. And very interesting. I had to work to tone down my movements, become more reserved. That’s characteristic of the upper middle class very much, the cool and reserved. Mia is a compressed character, carrying frustration and anxiety.
– Then I worked hard to file away my Gothenburg accent.
During the spring, Ruth toured around France with a production of Anton Chekhov’s play “Ivanov”, something she continues with in the fall. The play interests her because it “is both artistic and political.” Though basically, she is more than a theatre person, reveals Ruth.
– Theatre is often really bad, she says, laughing and putting her hands to her face.
– It’s true. I usually sit in the audience and feel ashamed. Just want to disappear. Good theater is very difficult. But when it’s good, it’s also magical, she says more seriously.
“The Struggle Carries On” opened her doors to the theater, among other Göteborg City Theatre. “Ruth Vega Fernandez makes Rose a street-smart but desperate child of her city. She colors her hilarious and expressive moves but manages to simultaneously convey grief with her eyes, “said Swedish Dagbladet critics of her work in the metropolitan epic “City Lights” . Ruth says she turns down roles that do not put artistic expression first. Projects based on stereotypes and tired clichés go away.
– The Commercialized movie is the worst thing I know. I would never say yes to that. Entertainment is not enough to interest me, says Ruth and lowers her gaze to the table top. She surrounds the off-white espresso cup with both hands and seems to think. Then she continues:
– I want to convey complexity. Reality is complex and involves many shades of gray. Right now everything’s being simplified. There’s being projected a simplified picture of society. My job as an actor is to question and get people to open their eyes and become critical.
Rebekah put down medicine from the hospital to send to the needy in Palestine. Mia breaks up with the heterosexual norm, leaves her gridded life in her turn-of-the -century flat and chooses love. Both “The struggle carries on” and “Kiss Me” carry strong political undertones. Politics and social issues engage Ruth, but at the same time evoke despair and frustration. She glances out the window. Rain is in the air.
– Money plays an increasing function and displaces ideology. It’s a shame. Last week there were mass demonstrations against the cuts in Spain. What is happening in Europe right now, the dismantling of welfare, is terrible.
– Spain’s Socialist government has tried to pursue a socialist policy, but have not gotten the banks to tag along. While the right tries to say that it’s the government’s fault. Sick.
– When the crisis came the banks didn’t care. A wave of privatization is sweeping through Europe, the entire region is moving to the right. This makes it difficult to persue a socialist policy in the long-term, says Ruth.
She argues that politics must begin to focus on how power in society can be spread to everyone, not just be reserved for groups with extensive financial resources. Today it’s too quiet about the priviliges of the economic elite, Ruth thinks.
– There are no ideals left anymore, no consciousness. Just take the monster in France, Nicolas Sarkozy, who set the country back several decades in development. Even in Sweden there’s the same trend. The focus has shifted from solidarity between people to self-interest, consumption and ruthlessness. It pisses me off.
– Purchasing-power has become the new religion.
Political scientists often talk about a trend shift in the late 1970s, from progressive radicalism to right-wing liberal backlash. The bourgeois electoral victories in 1976 and 1979 may not have changed day-to-day politics so much, but indeed political discourse for a long time ahead. Ruth nods and finishes the espresso. She worries that Europe’s left appears to be on the defensive. As the gestures become larger and her pauses shorter the Gothenburg accent thickens.
– It’s a bitch that everything’s becoming privatized, she says. The mantra that everyone can succeed as long as they want it, is an illusion. You grow up with a drunk dad without support from those around you, you don’t stand a chance. We need to help each other to make it work.- It has become taboo to fail today. You don’t want to see that there are people who are affected. It’s only entrepreneurship that counts, she says tartly.
Class as a term is used less and less in public debate. Meanwhile, Sweden is the country in the Western world where the gap has grown most rapidly in the last ten years. Ruth gets the question what the class term means to her.
– That there are different classes with different rights. You can’t pretend that class doesn’t exist. Money is only unimportant if you already have money. Class becomes unimportant if you belong to the upper class, she establishes.
Her eyes thicken markedly when the conversation is redirected to politics and social issues. Ruth not only has opinions, she is deeply affected by injustice. Were she to be prime minister for a day, she knows exactly what she should do:
– I wouldn’t hesitate to raise taxes for the rich. The money’s more needed elsewhere.
This fall, Ruth opens the next chapter in her screen career. Though other projects also beckon.
– I wish I had more time to paint and write. The desire is always there, she says with a clever smile before taking off toward the subway.