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
ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war