Love is frustrating, incredible, and, above all, madness. That’s the dark heart of Thelma, a Norwegian supernatural thriller from director Joachim Trier, whose guiding force is the budding romance between Thelma (Eili Harboe) and her college crush, Anja (Kaya Wilkins). This isn’t a cliché girl-meets-girl story, though, because there’s something horribly off about the doe-eyed, deeply religious Thelma, whose reaction to meeting Anja involves an unsuspecting library, a seizure and a whole lot of dead birds.
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As the film contorts away from the usual coming out narratives and settles into something far more sinister, Thelma’s supernatural elements take hold as her relationship with Anja begins to blossom and wilt thanks to her penchant for telekinetic outbursts. But don’t go in expecting lesbian Carrie—there may be flickering lights, someone bursting into flames, and a religious zealot father, but the true tale that Trier explores is that of repressed love.
As the film snakes its way into theaters and the cast prepares for a long road to the Oscars (Thelma is Norway’s official foreign-language submission to the award show), we caught up with Eili Harboe to talk about her star-making turn as the titular antihero of this year’s most refreshing (and shocking) thriller.
OUT: You’ve said you improvised scenes throughout the film. What was your part of the film to improvise?
Eilie Harboe: Definitely the scene on the balcony in Anja’s apartment after I’ve had some wine with her and we step outside and she’s having a smoke. Everything there is improvised. You feel like you’re on the balcony with them. You see it and you can almost feel the cold, crisp autumn air—you can see it in our eyes and our hair.
Sometimes, the scene itself isn’t improvised. They’re written in the script, but [Trier] didn’t have any idea how to shoot it, so it’s improvised in that sense. The environment really affects you in a way that you can’t prepare for. Your body is almost working against you because if you’re physically vulnerable because of the weather or the temperature, [your body] doesn’t want to be vulnerable emotionally, as well.
Yeah, you really have to fight back against the cold. In Thelma, your character falls in love with a woman. How did you approach this particular love story?
If I had never been in love it would definitely be difficult I think, but I have. So obviously it wasn’t difficult at all. It’s a love story and I hope, personally, that we can get to a point where you don’t feel like you have to ask me that question. I think that’s where we’re heading and we still have a long way to go, but I think someday people won’t be asking questions about this movie specifically having a lesbian relationship. It’s nothing we even talked about on set [and] if we were to talk about it, I would consider it very disrespectful. We just talked about the emotional state of the relationship as a love story.
Eilie Harbo and Kaya Wilkins. (Photo courtesy of Motlys)
I like the film because it really doesn’t treat it in a special way—there’s no coming out. You just happen to fall in love with a woman.
Exactly. In the industry, gay characters are being portrayed more often but they’re still very stereotypical. Even in Girls, which was a great show, I love the character Elijah but I wish it wasn’t so stereotypical. Even portraying a gay or lesbian character is the right direction.
Yeah, and sexuality is so fluid anyway.
Yeah! That’s not something that should define you. You choose if it defines you, but I hope we get to that place where we don’t have to defend your sexuality.
It’s interesting watching the film because I saw a lot of parallels between her repression of her romantic feelings and the onset of seizures, especially in terms of coming out after living in such a strictly religious family.
That’s something that’s great about this film. You can interpret it in different ways and her supernatural abilities are very real, but that’s my interpretation. I see her suppressing her feeling growing up because of the accident and then she moves to the city and is introduced to the love of her life, which brings her out of that suppressive state in her mind. I think those are very closely linked. She has such an empowering, strong sense of emotion for this woman, and that portrays itself in those uncontrollable supernatural abilities.
Some people have very strange interpretations of the film, which is very entertaining. Some people believe that she’s supernatural so she’s also lesbian. [Laughs]
Thelma is out in select theaters now.