Elīna Vaska – Latvia’s “Shooting Star”

Elīna Vaska always stands up straight. She has an open yet deep and mysterious look in her eye. She observes directly, seeing through things and looking inward. Her fearlessness is almost scary, and one feels pride for her. There is something archetypically Latvian about her, something ancient. And yet she is very much of this century. She is aristocratic in her human simplicity.

Vaska’s convincing, heartfelt performance in director Renārs Vimba’s debut film Mellow Mud has moved audiences. It also helped the film win the Best Film award in Latvia and several awards beyond the country’s borders, including a very noteworthy Crystal Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 2016. Film critic Alissa Simon of Variety has written about the debutantdebutante actress: “The phenomenal Vaska, who currently studies audiovisual and stage art at the Latvian Academy of Culture, is a remarkable find, certain to be in demand at home and abroad.” It is no surprise, then, that Vaska has been named one of the European Shooting Stars of 2017.

In 2016 Vaska was also awarded a Lielais Kristaps award for Best Actress, the Latvian version of an Oscar. On stage, when receiving the award for her portrayal of the main role in Mellow Mud, Vaska said: “The greatest boldness should not be attributed to me, for playing this part. Instead, it should be to you, for choosing me for this film. Thank you!”

A few years earlier, Vimba had tasked the Latvian agency Casting Bridge to find a young woman who could, as the film’s main character, carry the emotional burden and dramatic coming-of-age narrative onto the big screen. The agency searched all around, including at a school in the small town of Cesvaine, Latvia. At the time, 18-year-old Vaska was in 12th grade and, like many other girls at her school, decided to audition in between classes. “To me it seems like a lucky string of coincidences: Why did they specifically come to my school? Why did I get in line to audition along with the other girls? More likely, it might have been to overcome my insecurities, to try something I’d never done before. And the fact that I didn’t harbour any great hope of getting the part gave me a sense of lightness and unrestraint,” Vaska remembers.

But there was still a long way to go before she reached the role of Raya. A second round of auditions, this time with Vimba himself, took place a few months later. Due to a misunderstanding, however, Vaska believed he was just one of many assistants sent to speak with the teens. Their conversation was therefore informal, friendly and easy. “As I left the audition, he (Vimba) asked me whether I have freckles…. And from the way he looked at me I knew I had piqued his interest,” she says.

Vaska is, in fact, a Rigan. She spent her childhood in Latvia’s capital, where she also attended ballet school and nourished her dream of becoming a contemporary dancer. “Dance is one of my great unfulfilled dreams,” she says. Her parents moved to a small town when Vaska and her siblings were still quite young, forcing her and her younger sister and brother to find different outlets for their creativity and energy. Ballet school was now too far away, so Vaska chose to enrollenrol in the local music school. Her main instrument was the cello, and she spent an additional two years studying the flute. Vaska’s grandfather is the internationally known composer Pēteris Vasks. Everyone in the family played the piano, but Vaska describes her relationship with music as quite intimate. She plays when alone or with only a couple of friends and believes that, instead of providing an opportunity to be noticed, music school taught her to feel the power of music and to become a good listener of music.

However, when watching Vaska’s debut in Mellow Mud, one cannot fail to notice the young actress’ skill at expression. She speaks, as it were, with her whole body, tensing up with spite or curling up in despair. She animates her hero with her entire human essence. Raya is no longer a child, nor is she already a woman – she tumbles through life without the support of adult family members, all the while preserving her very human but still immature sense of self-awareness.

Vaska explains: “The director told me that Raya will not cry when her brother is brought home with an injured leg. Raya will only cry once during the whole film…. It’s important to feel with your whole body the things that are going on around you. I always keep my eyes and ears open – I’m sensitive to that. I work intuitively, because I’m not a professionally trained actress and don’t have my own ‘acting couch’…. I don’t lacerate and beat myself up, but it’s always important for me to know that I believe in what I’m doing.”

Vaska has moved viewers in Latvia and abroad with her organic approach to acting. She has a natural knack for acting, a “film gene” that lets the camera see the finest emotional nuance in her face – the way she forms a thought, the way her hero doubts and then finally makes a decision. She has about her a freshness, a not yet fully comprehended feminine power, a most intense naturalness.

As the filming for Mellow Mud was wrapping up, Vaska sought ways to stay in contact with the cinema world. To that end, she spent a year working as a recruiting assistant at Casting Bridge, the same agency that had discovered her. “I don’t like statements about becoming obsessed with theatre and cinema, but at one point you realise that you do want to be a part of all that, that you want to understand the different parts that go into it. It’s important for me, as a young actress, to understand and appreciate the amount of work put into a project by the people all around me on the set. My first big project as an assistant was for the BBC series War & Peace (2016), directed by Tom Harper,” she says.

While continuing her studies in art theory, Vaska agreed to try her hand at acting on a professional theatre stage and now plays a double role in The Lover (directed by Gennadiy Ostrovskiy). In the play, a deceased young woman is remembered by her husband and her lover, whose memories are visualised as amateur home movies. Vaska’s role as a happy young woman is only shown on screen. On stage, she plays the woman’s 15-year-old son, and she does this so convincingly that, were it not for her name in the programme, one would never guess it’s a young woman behind the unkempt, obstinate teenager. “I trained in boxing to learn how to move like a boy, and I worked with a speech therapist to learn how to express my character’s thoughts. Every little thing says something about a person, even the way he opens a door or picks up a glass,” says Vaska.

In January 2017, another stage performance by Vaska took place at Dirty Deal Teatro in Riga. The production, titled The Other Side, is a story for children that centres around the topic of death. “I’m interested in acting, and I’m looking for opportunities in Europe to further my education in this field,” says Vaska.

Winning the Crystal Bear at the Berlin Film Festival is a significant event for Latvian cinema, and it is a heady achievement for the new director and young actress. In February, Vaska will participate in the festival’s European Shooting Stars project, which is a wonderful opportunity for a select group of promising new actors like herself. When asked what she expects of this project, she answers: “It’s important for me to receive advice from professionals. Latvian actors do not have agents, who can help them work on a broader scale. It’s very difficult to continue working on your own, it’s very touch-and-go…. I need someone by my side who believes in me and can help me make the right professional decisions. And I’m not scared of anything.”

Daira Āboliņa, film critic