Introducing Tonia Sotiropoulou

An interview with the Greek actress.

What links Skyfall, the highest-grossing film of all time, with Berberian Sound Studio, the winner of the most awards at the 2012 BIFTAs? If you look close enough, you’ll see that it’s the up-and-coming Greek actress Tonia Sotiropoulou.

Four years ago, Sotiropoulou moved from Athens to London to pursue her career. She has just finished playing the part of Gilda in Future Cinema’s The Shawshank Redemption. Here, she talks about living in London, how she landed the role in Skyfall and what she finds appealing about independent film.

What were you doing in Greece before you came to London?

I did my first movie while I was in drama school with a director called Nikos Perakis who is very well known in Greece. After studying, I started working and doing TV. I’ve always wanted to do cinema and I’ve always wanted to move from Greece and go either to America or to England. At some point I realised it was time for me to go and accomplish what I thought I could accomplish. I decided to move to London because I love the way the industry works here. You have the chance to do American films, European film and English ones as well. So I moved to London. I started having acting coaching classes for two years because English is not my mother language so I had to work on it. I did accent softening and all the boring things actors have to do – well, it’s not boring for us but for other people who are not in the profession it might seem a bit weird.

What was the first role you landed after moving to London?

I did seven short films and some web series but the first part I got in a feature film was in Berberian Sound Studio. Statistics say that for a good actor you get one out of thirteen auditions. Berberian Sound Studio happened a year-and-a-half after I moved here.

How did your involvement in Skyfall come about?

I was originally auditioning for another role, one of the main parts. I didn’t get that but the casting director told me that there was another part that I would be suitable for. Eight months of my life passed, I did some other projects and then I got invited to audition for the small part I did in Skyfall and I was lucky enough to get it.

What do you like about living in London?

Everything is anarchy in Greece, not only now with the crisis, but it’s always been this way. It’s a different kind of mentality, maybe because we have sun. But it’s relatively an easy life to live. In London you really have to work hard because it doesn’t matter how much networking you do or how many people you know, you have to be disciplined. You actually have to go through auditions and you have to work on yourself and your craft a lot more than you do in Greece. I really like it because it has changed me completely. I have become a lot more disciplined and I’ve found a peace within myself and in my life. I’ve found my base and I feel more at home when I’m in London. When I return here, I’m coming back home. And when I go to Greece, I feel that this is the place where I grew up, but I don’t feel like I belong there. I feel like I belong here a lot more.

Berberian Sound Studio was a low-budget, independent film, while Skyfall was a massive blockbuster. Which of the two – independent film or blockbusters – interests you more?  

Of course I feel enormously proud that I’m a part of Bond. Even though mine was a small part, just working with the people involved, just breathing next to a huge director like Sam Mendes, is a huge lesson for an actor. But somehow I feel we have accomplished a lot more with Berberian Sound Studio. You make a film like that with a low budget and you put so much love into it, you believe in it, and then it works out and you see that people actually accept it, love it and you win awards. I love independent films because they don’t point at themselves for the whole world to see – like a Bond film does, for example. It’s something more personal. And when an independent film is accepted and appreciated, it’s a huge satisfaction. I think through independent films you have the chance to make more personal projects that mean a lot more to you than a blockbuster can. With big budget movies, people are betting a lot of money on you and you have to deliver, and so you have this anxiety. With independent projects you know you’ll have your crowd but you know it’s a loyal crowd. You know that they came to see the movie because someone told them that it’s interesting. It’s not because you have to see it in the way that you have to see Lord of the Rings just because it’s Lord of the Rings. You conquer people and that’s a wonderful thing to do as a director, as an actor, and as a production company.

In Skyfall and Berberian Sound Studio, you’ve been involved in two hugely successful films. What is it about a relatively small project like Future Cinema that appeals to you?

Acting is my job. It’s what I love to do. Especially with Future Cinema – when will I ever get to play Gilda again in my life? Also, it’s the interaction you have with the audience. I really love what I do. I want to see myself developing as an actress. I don’t believe that I’m an artist just yet because I don’t believe I’ve accomplished something that is miraculous. I believe that everything I’ve had to do had a certain amount of difficulty to it but it’s something that is manageable. I really love acting. All the rest – how people perceive one, or being a celebrity – it’s a part of this industry and people identify it with success. But for me, my job finishes when I hear the director say "It’s a wrap". I know that my job ends there.

Editor's note: This article's photograph was originally incorrect - depicting Berenice Marlohe rather than Tonia Sotiropoulou - and has now been corrected.

Tonia Sotiropoulou as Gilda in Future Cinema's The Shawshank Redemption. Photograph: Laura Little
JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images
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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.