Behind the Eyes of Kika Magalhães – An Interview
The Eyes of My Mother was the very last film we watched at this year’s Fantastic Fest, and it also happened to leave one of the greatest impressions. The debut feature from writer/director Nicolas Pesce is a gorgeously shot work of horror with a career-launching performance by Kika Magalhães as Francisca, a young woman shaped by tragedy and isolation. Borrowing from our mini-review: To call the performance cold and detached would be an understatement. Every expression and movement is practically inhuman, as though her character truly never had a point of reference for how people act. Ms. Magalhães is simultaneously frightening and heartbreaking as the ethereal Francisca. With the film’s official release just days away, we sat down with Ms. Magalhães for an informative and fun conversation. World, meet Kika Magalhães…
The Ink & Code: How did you get into acting?
Kika Magalhães: I always wanted to be an actress since I was a little girl. I come from Portugal and I was born in a very small town, so opportunities are very limited. And I come from a conservative family. Saying that you want to be an actor, your parents are like, “No, we don’t think that’s a good thing for you.” For a long time, I denied that passion and did other things. I travelled a lot. I was lost for a really long time. I didn’t know what to do with my life. I ended up working as a dancer—also another passion of mine—and I was doing some live performances. That’s when I had an epiphany. I was working on a stage and the audience was right there. That’s when it hit me: I belonged the stage and I wanted to be an actress no matter what. This was in Spain, six years ago I think, and then I decided to move to New York City … I didn’t have a visa. I didn’t know anyone here. So, I thought that studying was a good way to start. I went to the Neighborhood Playhouse, where I studied the Meisner Technique.
I&C: Tell us about some of your earlier roles.
KM: I did one year at the school and was crazy to get the visa done. I somehow started working in independent movies—I was actually the lead actress in four other independent movies that have never seen the light of day … It broke my heart because I put so much into [them]. The producers were like, “Oh my god, you’re amazing. The movie’s going to be out next year and you’re going to be all over.” And then nothing ever happened. That was hard.
I&C: How did you get involved in Nicolas Pesce and this film?
KM: It’s actually a very funny story. I was in a struggling time here in New York with my projects not coming to fruition, visas, my family were all back [in Portugal]. I found an audition for a music video … I didn’t have a job at the moment and they were paying $200 for the day. And I was like, “With $200, I can eat for two weeks.” Nick cast me in the music video and we bonded. He said he was going to write something for me … It was great, but I had no expectations at all. A month later, he called me, all happy and excited, saying “please, please tell me you want to be in my movie.” I said, “Yeah, okay,” and so we started working on it. I was involved in The Eyes of My Mother when it wasn’t even The Eyes of My Mother yet. It was just an idea.
I&C: How did the process work bringing in your Portuguese background into the role of Francisca? Did you contribute anything else to the character?
KM: Nick was awesome, and he really liked to listen to my ideas … He didn’t know anything about Portuguese culture so I introduced him to the music of Amália Rodrigues, which he thought was beautiful. And Portuguese people are very religious so we brought that. Francisca’s always praying. She doesn’t pray to god; she prays to her dead mother, but it’s a Portuguese thing. And there’s a really funny thing that people don’t know. When Francisca’s eating, she’s eating a very typical dish from Portugal that is chicken cooked in [its own blood]. But in the film, it’s cooked in the blood of the victims. [Editor’s note: Ms. Magalhães offers up an evil smile and laugh at this disclosure, which was both amazing and terrifying.] People don’t know that’s what she was eating, but we do. It’s one of my favorite foods, by the way. It tastes so good.
I&C: What’s it like to bring a character like Francisca to life? How you connect to someone like that?
KM: I connected with her right away because I was going through such a hard time in my career and in my life here in America. The isolation. The loss. Not having your family. When I read the first draft, I thought Nick entered my mind and knew exactly what I was going through … Also, Francisca is my real name. Kika is just a nickname and he didn’t know that! It was a coincidence. It was a meant-to-be thing, you know?
I&C: And then, perhaps most importantly, how do you detach from her once it’s over?
KM: I’m very different from Francisca even though I was going through the same kind of thing. I’m a happy person and I love people … When we were on set, I would take my time to prepare and become the character, but once [Nick] said “Cut,” I was me again, playing with the gaffer and making jokes with the sound guy, and just slapping Nick’s butt and having a good time. Otherwise, I’d go crazy. Can you imagine if I’d really be like Francisca? I would be like the Joker!
I&C: Were there any films/performances that served as inspiration to you?
Nick told me to watch a lot of horror movies. Audition was a big one. Under the Skin—I loved Scarlett Johansson in that. I researched a lot of serial killers, like the Manson Family girls, and Ted Bundy and all of those types of people … I watched Anti-Christ one day before going to the set. I had never heard about that movie before. I was already at the house [upstate] where we were living and I was like, “What am I getting into??”
I&C: I’ve seen Francisca being compared Norman Bates—who is ultimately a sympathetic character—and Leatherface—who at least originally was more of a force of nature than a character, with little insight into how he got that way. I feel Francisca straddles the line between the two. Was it more important you to inspire more sympathy or fear from audiences? Or were you striving to find the balance between the two?
KM: I never thought about how I wanted to people to feel about her. I was more concerned with knowing who she was. I never saw her as a dark person, an evil person. Some of the reviews said Francisca was obsessed with death. I don’t see her that way. Some people said she’s a serial killer. I never saw her that way either. I only saw her as a loving and caring person, as weird as that might sound. For me, all of her actions came from loving and a desperate need to connect with someone. All of the horrendous acts she does, she doesn’t do them for the love of death. She can’t stand people getting away from her.
I&C: Did you and Olivia Bond collaborate at all in developing your performances of Francisca at different ages?
KM: I met Olivia when we were on set. It was funny because she was very much like me. She was always joking around and running everywhere. Nick wanted us to spend some time together, so we were dancing and playing with the cows together. I taught her some Portuguese. We had some good times together. They shot her scenes before mine, but I was on set the whole time … But I think it all came from the direction that Nick gave us. Nick wanted the character to be so still and so emotionless. Olivia and I had a good understanding of that.
I&C: Was it always the plan to shoot the film in black and white?
KM: The black and white is another character. I cannot picture this movie in color. Black and white is Francisca’s life. That’s so sad, but Francisca’s life is black and white.
I&C: What was the most difficult part of the shoot?
KM: It was probably the physical conditions. This was mostly an overnight shoot and we did it quick. We did it in eighteen days. We were shooting twelve hours a day. Sometimes we’d start at seven p.m. and shoot until seven a.m. … The camera was always on me, so it was very exhausting. I’m not complaining; I loved every single moment. It was also very cold. We were shooting in October in upstate New York. I wore those really thin dresses. It was freezing. And the house didn’t have heat because it was making a lot of noise, so they were turning the heat off … I could be freezing cold and tired, but once Nick said, “Action,” all that stuff was gone.
I&C: What’s next for you?
KM: This year wasn’t very easy … I had to take some time to work on my Green Card and, for that time, I couldn’t work. Thank god I have my Green Card now. I did some independent stuff. And I was cast in a movie that shoots next year. It’s a comedy with a bigger budget and some name actors. I can’t say much about the movie yet … but I’m thrilled to go from this crazy, dark movie to the most uplifting, positive, colorful one.
I&C: So you do want to move around and not just do horror then?
KM: I love horror but I don’t always want to do the same thing. I want to explore all kinds of acting … I want to be like Christian Bale, you know? He transforms from role to role, and you don’t even recognize him sometimes. But I don’t want to lose sixty pounds though. If I lost sixty pounds, I would disappear.
We are very thankful for the time Ms. Magalhães took to chat with us. Watch her haunting performance yourself on December 2, 2016, when The Eyes of My Mother is in theatres, on Demand, on Amazon Video and iTunes.