Woman. Friend. Actress. Activist. Lover. Public figure. Mother to her small dog, Heidi. Model for a day. Traveller. Scorpio. Daniela Melchior has played many roles, although all eyes are on her character in the long-awaited sequel to Suicide Squad in the DC Comics universe. What can you do when even your wildest dreams come true? It’s the answer that is in every film: do good. By Patricia Domingues. Photographs by Frederico Martins. Directed by Cláudia Barros.
After the uncommonly hot weather, that was even hotter than in August, this week will bring rain. The days began slowly, developing into afternoons of muggy heat, the kind that makes your clothes stick to your skin, makes you thirsty and more than anything to jump into a cold bath. It is late afternoon in Lisbon, but the time doesn’t match the brightness of the day. On a terrace overlooking the river, the view is like a postcard: the still water, the trees reaching up to the sky, Christ with his outstretched arms on the other side of the river. It is a beautiful day, one just made to be photographed. But it is just a small frame of a larger reality. For six days, now, the largest 25 cities in the US have been under curfew. Flames have engulfed the church facing the White House. The name, George Floyd, has become a cry of protest against an oppression that can no longer stand silent and which is unfolding before us at this very moment. It is as if the very landscape is trying to convince us that all will be okay, but that nothing, not even a series of rainbows, can convince us that anything will get better until it begins with us. By us. Daniela Melchior’s latest Instagram post shows us what is happening. It is a black square that was published on #blackouttuesday, along with photographs she captured at the house in which Martin Luther King was born in 1929, and of his famous phrase: “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream”. The waters are not calm and, whenever possible, Daniela uses the voice she has gained from her exposure and her work to stir them up. “I don’t believe there are any disadvantages as a public figure in helping people”, she said while sitting at the table on this Lisbon terrace after being liberated from the social mask. “I can make enemies or whatever, I could make virtual enemies, but it is always worthwhile speaking about subjects and defending what is right.” She seems to be anticipating the future: reports in the tabloid press and negative comments about her stance will not be slow in appearing. It is the other, undesirable, side of the coin that almost always accompanies success. And if you don’t know who Daniela Melchior is, just type her name in Google. We’ll save you the effort: “next big star” is probably what you will see.
The path to superstardom seems to have been made bit-by-bit. We first knew her on the small screen, in shows like Massa Fresca, Ouro Verde and A Herdeira. From there she moved to the silver screen with O Caderno Negro and then co-starring with Diogo Morgado in Parque Mayer by António-Pedro Vasconcelos. Now she has hit the big time alongside Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena and Jay Courtney, playing one of a gang of supervillains in a James Gunn film that is still very much under wraps and which will be unveiled in August 2021. What is already part of Daniela’s past is still in the distant future for us. She was immersed in the character more than a year ago. She was in Atlanta, LA and Panama, and after six months filming returned in February to be immersed in the same reality as all the rest of us: the inside of her home. From the huge filmsets to being locked-down in her home on the Cascais line, she claims her routine away from work is almost all the same. “Even in Atlanta, I spent most of my time studying at home,” she said. From her foreign experience, she recalls the freedom that is now denied to us — but we want to know everything, her experience, the set, what it’s like inside a Hollywood mega-production, what challenged her, what made her happy and what made her want to come back. Daniela’s story in America begins precisely where our dreams end. It is the embodiment of what we read in the stories, what we would like to think happens to the best – the happy ending. Only (and this is just a small aside) this story is far from over. That was just the beginning. And that is where we want to return.
“I have wanted to be an actress since I was very young. My biggest dream was to be a film star, at least in Europe. That was as big as it could get. Portugal is very small. And people would tell me my problem was that I didn’t think big enough. But it’s true, I do not have another version. So I made my first film, Parque Mayer, and someone in the United States saw the trailer, approached me to represent me and I thought ‘okay, I have nothing to lose, but this person will eventually come to realise that they are wasting their time with me in the sense that is will be difficult to make a star out of this Portuguese nobody… it is hard enough for Americans’. But no, things happened very quickly.” And at supersonic speed, to become a supervillain, Daniela flew to the United States for a blind audition. “I didn’t know what they were looking for. The day before I had a meeting with the executive editor and the director, and I asked my manager — because he understood how things happen there — how I should present myself. Here, the more natural you go into the casting the better. I wanted to do my homework. I called my manager and asked him, ‘what should I wear to the meeting tomorrow?’ And he said ‘you have to look like a superstar. Don’t wear glasses, wear make up and dress like a superstar.’ I had no idea what he meant. I was dressed like a model cliché, all in black, with skinny jeans, a T-shirt, a leather jacket, Dr Martens, because I thought it was a ‘superhero movie’. It was not until after I was in the film that they told me that when I came into the audition they all looked at each other and said ‘no’ [laughing]. The day after that meeting, they made a point of styling all the girls’ hair and makeup to make them look more like the character — and from the moment I began casting I completely deconstructed myself. With her eyes wide open she recalls how the director turned to the producer and said: ‘tell me this isn’t desperation, but I think it is her’”. “In fact, they only realised when I started my audition. They did not know. They usually give a profile of the character that I’m going to look like, subtly of course, and give out signs that I might be what they are looking for. For this film, they did not know. I did my best, and that was that.”
That was that. It was her. The call came. “I don’t even remember. I think I started crying then called my parents to say I had been picked. I called my boyfriend and remember him making me say on record that ‘I will never doubt myself as a person and as an actress’. It really was a lesson. To believe in myself more. I don’t think I’m anything special, but I always put myself down.” She received the script in the summer, and had it off by heart by the time rehearsals began in September. She had immersed herself in the character’s tastes. She created a Spotify playlist with the music she would listen to. She did her best to put herself in the character’s shoes, leaving room for all the inputs she received — just as she likes to work, as part of a team, respecting the director’s vision and with a proportion of authenticity. The days began early, often at 5am: breakfast, makeup, filming, home, studying. She says the first scene they filmed was inside an airplane. She recalls being excited by the scale of it all, the attention to detail, but she didn’t have the time to be overwhelmed. “I really enjoyed observing and paying attention to the details and the grandeur of it all, drinking in the work of the other actors who were all very generous with the advice they gave me and in how they welcomed me — but otherwise, work was the priority. On being focused on my scenes. I always had it in my mind that I wanted to do my best at all times and to make sure my performance was good and that I could repeat it.” She realised that money buys time, and that time enables you to work more and better, that respect is earned through work and that there is no formula for what she chose as her profession. She grew, matured, changed. Were you afraid? Of course. So what did you do? She was really scared. “I used to think there were certain kinds of film genres that I could never make, and now, after making a superhero movie I think I am open to everything. It wasn’t that I thought I couldn’t, it was that I was reluctant. Now anything new is a challenge.”
Cut to her return to Lisbon. We skip from the typical conversation about the lockdown period and the uncertainties of the time of the coronavirus to the videoconferences of today from her temporary home on the Cascais line that is becoming hers, from where she hung the poster of the I Have A Dream speech that she brought from Martin Luther King’s home, of her enjoyment of routine, of being a homemaker, of her most recent passion — her dog Heidi. “It is a love as big as the world, and he is a scoundrel.” We move on to discuss fashion and the phase in which we want to wear what the trends demand and the here and now, the search for individuality through style, her recent passion for vintage, like the trousers she is wearing today, light grey that she brought from Thailand. She proudly shows the photographs for the Portuguese Soul editorial on her phone, where another world is also stored, from images from the set that cannot be revealed, the birthday surprise of a cake made of cupcakes the Suicide Squad prepared for her, the last photograph with her hair and makeup team in which she is crying and the WhatsApp messages she continues to share with them all. The memories. She has made friends for life, as James Gunn confirmed when he was asked on Instagram about his time working with Daniela. It seems everybody loved her. If the truth be told, it’s easy to love her. Daniela has one of these rare qualities that you re born with and cannot learn. She is captivating without being intrusive, nice without being a brown noser, sweet, shy, thoughtful and spontaneous. “She is a very hardworking young woman. Committed. Team player. Not afraid of challenges. Treats everyone equally. She is a ray of sunshine.” These are just some of the compliments those closest to her use to describe her. You are embarrassed at hearing some of them [feigning humility]. Let’s look to the future. What would you like to see when you look back? How would you like to be remembered? She confesses: “I have never thought about it”. She thinks a little. “I would like to see a peaceful Daniela, in the sense that she has things… I have had a goal for a long time: to have my own little space. I think this is what I would like to achieve. And I would like to be… I would like to open doors to actors, so they can see that it is always possible to aim higher. And it is not just that actress, but that they will remember me as the actress who fought for causes. I want more visibility so I can use it. I have always been that girl who could not abide injustice. I don’t mind being looked down upon and taking to the streets to defend others. Because of this I went to a lot of demonstrations when I was at school”, she smiled.
6 June 2020. A historic day for Portugal, when anti-racism demonstrations took place all over the country. I accidentally came across Daniela at the end of the Lisbon protest, that went from Alameda to the Terreiro do Paço. Above her head, she held a banner that read “Silence is violence”. She also has her phone in her hand, filming live to her Instagram account, once more using her public space to practice what she preaches, sharing her convictions and spreading the word to her 351,000 followers. The waters of the river stir up the background. Today the current is one of people. “I think that in the future things will be different”, she says hopefully. I am reminded of the words of Maya Angelou, about being the rainbow in someone else’s cloud. Not an Instagram emoji, but someone who strives to welcome the other. Someone who makes the effort to be informed and to inform. Someone who is not afraid to spread the word. Someone who systematically wants to be better. Someone who matters. Someone like Daniela Melchior.