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
A still from Genius
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Thomas Wolfe biopic Genius is a hackneyed portrait of the great white male

Genius ends up being terrifically boring, while enthusiastically reproducing the creative hierarchies of the time it portrays.

You can learn everything you need to know about the film Genius, starring Jude Law as the volatile novelist Thomas Wolfe and Colin Firth as his weary editor, Maxwell Perkins, from its opening five minutes.

An overly desaturated shot of Twenties New York reveals a hoard of hardworking men trudging solidly through the ratrace of city life. But what’s this? One man is set apart, lingering on a street corner and staring up at the words “Charles Scribner’s Sons” on the building across the street. He smokes and stares, so we know he is like other men – yet different, more thoughtful.

Meanwhile, alone in an office, another man is reading Hemingway. He is interrupted by an enormous pile of papers that lands with a thud on his desk. This manuscript has been rejected by every other editor in the city (a sign of true, misunderstood literary genius). Is it any good, the reading man asks Manuscript Delivery Man? “Good? No! But it’s unique.”

Our reading man opens page one of the manuscript. “… A stone, a leaf, an unfound door…” His interest is piqued – here is a man who knows the earthy prose of a true male genius. We are treated to cinema's most captivating delight: a reading montage. The reading man barely glances up from his paper as he jumps aboard a leaving steam train. “… Of a stone, a leaf, a door…” The train races through the countryside. “And of all the forgotten faces…” The reading man trudges up a country path, still engrossed.

“Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father's heart?” The reading man enters his home. He spares a fleeting glance for a woman (His wife? It is hardly relevant) in a sitting room surrounded by pieces of womanly fabric and several other ladies. Nameless girls (His daughters? They are beside the point) run delicately from room to room, giggling. Over dinner, he looks up at them occasionally to smile blandly at their delightful artlessness, but he cannot enter into trivial conversation – immersed as he is in the world of the story. “Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When?”

Our reader reads overnight, down the country path, on the same train in the morning light. “He stood for the last time by the angels of his father's porch,” he reads. “He was like a man who stands upon a hill above the town he has left.” He finishes the manuscript and sighs with the deep satisfaction of a man who is, finally, understood.

Cut to black. The word “GENIUS” appears on screen.

As an exploration of our problematic understanding of the word, Genius the movie is more revealing than any satire. It’s a script that could have been written by Mallory Ortberg. But its conception of genius as white, male, American, self-absorbed, indulgent, obsessed with its own individuality, and unable to comprehend its mediocrity, is presented without irony or self-awareness.

The movie continues in this general vein: Perkins and Wolfe strike up a friendship as well as a professional relationship and spend long hours together drinking whiskey, talking with what they consider to be great wisdom about how love is a lighting bolt!! and repeatedly crossing out words (as cinematically thrilling as you might expect). We meet other “geniuses” aside from Perkins and Wolfe: Hemingway and Fitzgerald. We ponder upon the real nature of genius – is it writing “wrenched from the gut”? Temperate editing? Or the genius of knowing your fellow man? There are writing montages, editing montages, and lots of close-ups of typewriting, crumpled papers, and streaks of red pencil. Hold on to your hats, kids, cause this is going to be a wild ride!

Women, black people, and the homeless are all used as vague backdrops onto which these conversations play out – but never fully considered as real, human people, people who Wolfe might find worthy for his next book, an investigation into America – all of it! In one scene, Wolfe and Perkins walk past a queue for a soup kitchen, prompting Wolfe to launch into a rant about the state of the country. “My work is frivolous!” he cries on a rooftop. But Perkins assures him of his enormous emotional contribution to society, and Wolfe soon seems to forget the men named on IMDB only as “Dock Worker / Homeless Man”. They stand arm-in-arm, smiling sagely out over a struggling city neither seem to know very well. Strings swell approvingly.

In another, we head to a jazz club with Wolfe and Perkins, so Perkins can experience the musical inspiration behind Wolfe’s experimental prose. The writers decide to best depict this with Wolfe throwing around words like “savage” while badly explaining the concept of jazz to anyone who’ll listen, before making grim sexual advances towards three women simultaneously: “Jazz Club Woman 1”, “Jazz Dancer” and “Jazz Club Customer”. It is not deemed necessary to give anyone other than Wolfe and Perkins any dialogue.

The film makes a less than half-hearted attempt to engage with the question of female creativity through Wolfe and Perkins’ partners. Wolfe’s girlfriend, the married Alice Bernstein (Nicole Kidman) is portrayed as Wolfe’s earliest and most steadfast champion: financially, emotionally and creatively supporting his literary endeavours. She is a set designer, and after Wolfe finds fame, he refuses to recognise her job as a creative or necessary pursuit, refusing to come to her plays.

As Wolfe becomes disinterested in her, Bernstein’s character changes at lightning speed scene to scene, one minute vindictively pointing a gun at her replacement, Perkins, the next swallowing handfuls of pills, supposedly as an act of attention-seeking, the next vowing she feels nothing for Wolfe at all. By the end of the film, she is reduced to muttering trite statements about how Wolfe was the sole thing that made her feel truly alive. We meet Zelda Fitzgerald, but only after she has been all but overcome by mental illness: she, too, is a hysterical prop used to warn the central men of the dangers of their obsession with their work.

Perkins’ wife is also a female artist side-lined. In one strange scene, we see her describe her playwriting, only to be talked over by Wolfe, who declares drama an “anaemic form” and returns to the topic of his novel, while Perkins’ daughters giggle at him in awe. We never hear of Louise’s work (or, indeed, anything about her that is not related to her husband and children) again. Perkins’ children, too, are only seen as interesting when they’re talking about their father or Wolfe.

These vague diversions do little to actually analyse the discriminatory way in which genius is conceived, be it in the Thirties or 2016. Here, genius is something white men do as their wives and daughters grow increasingly bitter. The homeless man standing out in the cold, or the black sex worker in a jazz club could have nothing of interest to add. In only allowing Wolfe and Perkins (and Hemingway and Fitzgerald) to speak for themselves, Genius ends up being terrifically boring, while enthusiastically perpetuating the creative hierarchies of the time it portrays. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.