With the Malta-filmed blockbuster hitting our cinema screens in the coming days, most of us are eager to spot the familiar faces who made it on the final cut. A substantial share of the local spotlight falls upon Elektra Anastasi, who got to share camera time with leading star Dominic Cooper. She tells Ramona Depares about her whole experience on set and her dreams for her career.
As I'm writing this piece, anticipation for the local premier of The Devil's Double has reached a peak. The reasons are various; very promising plot-line, hot leading man Dominic Cooper (the fact he plays a sadistic bastard doesn't automatically remove the "hotness" factor, no), director Lee Tamahori's reputation and...as the cherry on the cake, the movie was mostly shot on our islands and includes a host of Maltese names on the credits. Including that of Elektra Anastasi, aka "School-girl number 2" on the movie credits.
Don't be fooled by the generic description. School-girl number 2, as it happens, commands a discreet amount of reel-time. She has already left a mark at the trailer stage (go on, look it up on IMDB) with a teasing glimpse of her strong camera presence. The movie sees Elektra playing the part of a 13-year-old schoolgirl who catches the eye of the famously depraved Uday Hussein. My immediate thoughts are that pulling off the innocently naive looks of a 13-year-old when you're in fact 11 years older is quite a feat – no matter how great you look. How did this work out and how did Elektra convince Tamahori that she was the girl for the job?
"The call for the audition came quite unexpectedly. I was in the middle of setting up my new business when I received a call from Edward Said, who was responsible for the local casting. To be honest, when I learnt that I had to act the part of a 13-year-old Iraqi school girl I almost didn't go. I was worried that it was quite a long shot and frankly wondered how the hell I was supposed to pull that one off. But hey, I'm a Taurus and I love a challenge so I decided to go for it," Elektra tells me.
When the name Lee Tamahori was mentioned, Elektra was totally sold and threw herself into the audition process. Hours of research followed, with Elektra practising an Iraqi accent and trying to be as authentic as possible about it.
"When audition day arrived I was sweating buckets. My brief was to speak as though I were a young child, even when introducing myself on tape. I couldn't sound like a fully grown woman, so my speech had to be delayed. I avoided eye contact, I came across as timid and gave them the whole works during the audition, even jumping into a serious state of shock and practically going mental, screaming and crying," she remembers.
Put like that, it all sounds a bit odd.
"Well yes, I admit this sort of thing isn't easy to do when there is no script build up. I would kill to view my audition tape because I'm sure that it must have been seriously hilarious watching a 24 year old trying to get everyone to believe she's 13. However it all made sense later as the scene I'm in is quite heavy and necessitates an intense portrayal of emotions. But after my audition I wasn't totally concinved and I left thinking that I had just pulled one of my Bridget Jones moments. I really wanted to forget about it!"
As it turned out, Elektra's judgement was way off on this particular occasion. The director's call, with an invitation to meet up in person, arrived promptly the following day.
"At this point I couldn't feel my legs. I drove up to Kappara, where they were all set up to shoot in a particular house. Lee Tamahori popped out between takes and with his New Zealand accent said, and I quote 'Hello darling, I saw your audition tape I loved what you did with it, just had to make sure you looked this petite in person. All good, see you in a few weeks and thanks for taking the trouble to come out here'. He was truly lovely. I just looked up at him and couldn't believe this director, who is so huge internationally, actually said that."
Endearingly, Elektra confides that she was sure that her hand was shaking just a little, so she hid it in her jacket pocket.
"I couldn't stop smiling! I think I called all my friends and family in the span of ten minutes that day!"
Of course, Elektra is no new name on the Maltese acting scene. She finds her acting roots at Masquerade drama school and she had also scooped the Best Actress award in the 2006 MADC Once Act plays festival. Since then she has maintained a regular presence on the local circuit – however, nothing quite prepared her for the experience on the set of The Devil's Double, which she describes as "the best so far".
"I won't lie, I was ultra nervous and prett much overwhelmed by everything around me. It was like entering another world. The reality only sank in when I was given my own trailer and when I realised I had a person waiting on set to wrap me up in a bomber jacket between takes, because of the cold. I also had a make-up artist running around me every five minutes, which was fun! Just entering the set was a whole experience in itself and the crew's attention to detail was incredible. I learnt a lot from everyone on set and really appreciated the 100% professional approach," Elektra continues.
Elektra worked on set for a total of four days. Although at first unsure of what to expect – and also wary of media reports about the way some A-list celebrities seem to acquire a superiority complex – it didn't take her too long to adapt, especially because in reality everyone was pretty down to earth.
"They all made me feel comfortable. Dominic Cooper is a truly nice person; he knew that this was my first time on a proper set and he went out of his way to make me feel at home... especially given that on the very first day, while we were side by side having our hair and make-up done, Lee walked in and decided to change substantial elements of the script!"
Possibly every actor's nightmare, I remark. Elektra laughs in agreement, adding that she was sure the director actually saw the panic that set in on her face!
"All of a sudden I had this action sequence which was not on the script. Improvisational work is always nerve-wrecking for actors. I went back to my trailer, had palpitations and thought I was going to end up in a stretcher from cardiac arrest. I had been warned that Lee loves changing things on the day and that's exactly what he did! But it all worked out in the end..."
Elektra remembers how in between takes Dominic was kind enough to show her around the set, giving her an insight even into the more technical aspects. Much to her fascination, he also asked the technicians to show her the footage that had just been filmed so she could view herself on the monitors.
"He took a lot of time to explain and to show me how things are really done. This made working on the scene with him easier, especially given that Lee wanted both of us to improvise our dialogue. A good chunk of my scene is improvisation."
Elektra's four days on set brought with them a number of memorable experiences. The actress mentions how on one particular day she spent some time helping Dominic with his lines for an upcoming movie. She later found out that this was for "Captain America", in which Dominic has the role of scientist Howard Stark.
"That was particularly cool. I have a lot of priceless memories from my work on The Devil's Double. To mention just an example, on one occasion
Dominic and I were waiting for things to be re-set when people swarmed Dominic for signatures. All of a sudden a group of kids rushed up to me with scraps of paper and pens and asking for an autograph. As they were approaching me I looked over my shoulder, thinking one of the other actors was behind me, but they wanted MY autograph. I was happy to oblige because they just weren't taking no for an answer! Apparently their reasoning was that one day my autography might be worth something...let's hope they're right!"
I ask Elektra about the most challenging aspect of her role and, humbly, she replies that with her experience on film sets being very limited the word "challenging" could pretty much describe it all, from start to finish. It wasn't all about signing autographs and getting make-up applied, of course. Elektra had to deal with the cold from the very early morning shoot, the bruises that came from being continuously yanked out of and knocked around the car and on top of that, the actual pressure to perform. Constantly maintaining the mannerisms and voice of a young girl, instead of the woman she is, was particularly taxing.
"But it was all worth it! I had to be convincing, I had to be very soft spoken, I had to constantly be aware that this was not a glamorous role and that I had to look innocent and vulnerable. Funnily enough, one of the more nerve wracking experiences involved the first time I was exposed to what are referred to as 'squibs', ie the fake blood. Dominic had these squibs strapped to his waist and when he gets shot they are set off remotely, with blood spurting everywhere. Timing is crucial at this point and our reactions have to be perfectly timed to make the whole thing look as authentic as possible. It was quite overwhelming but Lee was extremely helpful in walking me through how they work. As director he really wants each scene to work perfectly and he works very closely with the actors at all times, which I liked."
At the time of the interview, Elektra is still eagerly waiting to see the finished product.
"I've only seen some behind the scenes footage of myself in the scene for now. So you can imagine my excitement! The movie seems to have been dubbed the 'Scarface of Arabia' and it's getting excellent reviews. But where my role is concerned I'm really trying not to get over-excited, for the simple reason that in this industry what took four days to shoot may be chopped into virtually nothing on screen after post-production! However, I suspect that my friends and family may be more excited than I am! Even though it's not a main role, they are still very proud of me for succeeding, especially since they know that acting is really where my heart lies."
However, Elektra is keeping her feet firmly on the ground and promptly adds that it is a very hard industry to tap into. Whatever the future holds, one thing is for sure: her work on this particular production does Malta proud.
About the movie
The Devil's Double offers an insight into the House of Saddam Hussein comes to life through the eyes of the man who was forced to become the double of Hussein's sadistic son. Directed by Lee Tamahori, starring Dominic Cooper, Ludivine Sagnier and Raad Rawi. The movie was shot in various locations around Malta, including Golden Bay, Kappara and Hal Far and commanded an estimated budget of $20 million.
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