Giving women a voice
Victoria Haralabidou talks about her latest role in short film Here Is Now, and her quest to represent more diverse female stories on screen
Shortly after seeing her grace our screens as Stephanie Kelly on the ABC's four-part series Barracuda, Victoria Haralabidou is preparing to do the festival circuit with her latest work, Here Is Now.
Written and directed by Anita Lee, the short film set in Sydney sees protagonist Jessica (played by Haralabidou), at age 42 having reached a point in her life where she is starting to question herself, her surroundings, and her decisions.
As she struggles to understand these emotional changes, her marriage with husband Michael (Sam Smith) is on the rocks. But in her attempt to confront him about the state of their marriage, Jessica finds herself unable to escape memories from their past – a concept which deeply resonates with Haralabidou.
"For me it's a story about not only a woman, but a person - a human being – that is in that position where you question everything that happened to you. You question the memories, your existence in this world, your decisions, the choices that you've made," she tells Neos Kosmos.
The 44-year-old actress met Lee while working on a film with the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, and when invited to take part in the project says she was thrilled, in part to work with a female director.
"I loved the script and it's great to work with a female director just generally because I haven't worked with many of them, and to see how they interpret that quest," she says.
Inspired by a concept of the body's renewal proposed by researchers in the 50s, the director set out to explore the notion that as humans we are built from scratch with new atoms and molecules every seven years. Except for the memories of course, which continue to exist and linger – a confronting realisation many will come grapple with.
"This concept is something that is a little bit more metaphysical that is harder to explain. And because cinema is so visual, the way Anita interpreted it was really interesting.
"Finding yourself and understanding where you are. Where are you standing right now? What are you part of and what were your decisions? And have you made the right choice?"
Haralabidou herself has come to face many obstacles in life. A Greek Russian migrant of Pontian descent, she made the move to Australia in 2005, where she admits few knew of her work and was in a position to prove herself.
"In the short film my character had made some choices in life that felt – and I don't want to give away too much here - but it felt right. But later on she started questioning those. And I too made some choices in my life," she says.
"Recently I was talking to my agent, and saying that now I have Leo, my son, I think this and that. And she told me, 'no Victoria, you were always like that'. It was interesting because I realised people really don't change that much. The core, who you are, all the good and the bad memories, where you come from, this whole theory of epigenomes and that we carry on from generations - not just your mother and your grandmother, but it comes through all these generations - that your chemistry inside that is somehow preserved. And the idea that, that's how it's going to be for the rest of my life?"
But when it comes to herself as a person, a mother, and an actress, she doesn't believe in a major crisis, or breakthrough for that matter, but instead that there we are "constantly going through these realisations".
Behind the scenes of 'Here Is Now'.
At a time when women in Hollywood are coming out and being honest about the limited roles being written for them – isolated to representing either the young love interest, or the one-dimensional mother without needs and wants of her own – looking through Haralabidou's CV, one would think she is an exception to this experience, with a growing list of diverse role. And while she admits to being proud of every job she has taken on, she is certainly not immune to the gender bias in today's scripts.
One way to solve the discrepancy she says is for writers and directors to have more of an open dialogue with actors, as was her experience with Barracuda and Here Is Now, to have greater input in the end result.
It was early in her career, her first film in fact, when she played a Russian migrant that she set the tone for her career.
"I'm not your typical Russian and I'm not your typical Greek. During the casting there were all these blonde girls with blue eyes, and I spoke to the director and I said can I try? And he said 'well you're not really the type' and I said 'yes but every Romania, Bulgarian and Albanian will feel like I'm them too. They can relate to me.' So he laughed and he said 'yes' and I got the part," a role for which she went on to win Best Actress at the Drama Film Festival.
"You're not telling the story just about the Greeks; you're not telling the story just about the Italians. You're telling an ecumenical story about humanity, about displacement, and about love, careers and choices, and everything that every single human being - doesn't matter where and what - that we can relate," which she says reaffirms one's existence in this world and the fabric of society.
"That's why I say, with novels, TV series or film, if I can relate with humour, with themes and ideas, with good actors and strong characters, then I exist. I'm a part of it, not as an actress, but as Victoria. If I'm not, then I don't exist."
Sick and tired of not seeing women of her age and cultural background represented on screen, she is thankful to writers such as Anita Lee and Christos Tsiolkas for creating strong female roles.
"It's fine playing the mother, but I want to see from the perspective of a mother, I want to see from the perspective of a woman in her 40s that feels entitled and has a crisis of her own," which she is one step closer to achieving through Here Is Now.
"It's not exactly boo hoo I feel sorry for that beautiful man in his 50s who's in a crisis. You can't ignore that we are misrepresented and I feel like I don't exist, I don't exist on pages. I'm constantly compromising. It's like me in the bookstore in Melbourne and this beautiful lady was telling me 'well it's about a man, but there's a very good female character'. Again? I'm going to compromise again? Or read something old like Virginia Wolf and feel so blessed that she existed?"
Victoria liaising with director Anita Lee on set.
Given that women have a long history of being marginalised, she says it's about time they imposed themselves, which is why she is such a strong supporter of quotas.
"Let's say six out of ten plays that are put on should be women. Four of them will be awful – fantastic. Two of them will be good, but you have to start from somewhere," she says.
"I'm tired of hearing that 'if it's a good play we'll put it on'. It's all about personal art, not maths; it's someone's taste."
Speaking with the actress, she exudes an enviable sense of confidence and one that can only be attained through personal trials, obstacles, and perhaps even age.
While she's excited to be involved in projects such as Here Is Now, she is upfront and honest about her needs as an artist.
"I'm excited, I don't want to sound disappointed, it's just that I know what I can do, and I can see that I can do more, but there's not enough for me. I have to push more and plus I feel, I have to write more because this is ridiculous - I can't even find a novel about a women!"
Upon hearing this from one writer to another, and having been an avid fan of her on screen work, I can't help but be excited to see what she comes up with.
"Me too," she says, "Me too."
Here Is Now is due for release this month. For more information and updates, visit www.facebook.com/hereisnowfilm/
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