Interview with Nuno Lopes

Interview: Cláudia Pinto
Photo: Frederico Martins

Filming fish beneath the sea was his dream, symbolised by a peaceful life in the Azores, the actual backdrop for this conversation. And as there are no coincidences (they say), the tide of his life changed and he found a safe place on the stage with its own challenges and ambitions.

Man and the sea

He’s one of the most renowned Portuguese actors on both stage and screen, with a career that has already spanned more than two decades. We were left speechless after seeing Saint George, a film by Marco Martins, and the world’s reaction was to honour Nuno Lopes at the 2016 Venice Film Festival, in the Orizzonti section, for “his” Jorge.

From the theatre to the silver screen, this year marked his debut in the Netflix international series White Lines, as the character Boxer. But music also enters the artistic equation that is his life.

How do you feel the connection to our Portuguese soul?

When you’re abroad, it’s interesting how you feel about the community. I’ve emigrated several times: I lived for one year in Brazil, another year in New York and I’ve spent a lot of time abroad. And, in a way, I begin to feel like an emigrant. And the connection with Portugal is amazing.

As I grew up, I always felt like a citizen of the world, somehow I always thought that part of me belonged everywhere and I didn’t feel imprisoned within a single way of seeing things. But when you live abroad, you have an idea that there really is a place you call home and there’s a group of people connected to you. And often it’s not the place you were born. But in my case it is: Portugal is where I feel good, and I feel at home among these people.

When you’re abroad you realise that there is in fact a Portuguese soul. There’s a typically Portuguese melancholy and sadness that you only notice when you’re abroad.

Is this melancholy greater than your wish to be a citizen of the world?

Much greater. More than a need, I felt like I was a person who could belong to any place. But only when I went to other places did I understand there’s a place where I belong. And that place is Portugal, without a doubt.

But it’s very interesting that we only have that awareness when we’re abroad.

And does this melancholy identify us as Portuguese?

Melancholy is something very typically Portuguese, associated with saudade [nostalgia, longing, homesickness], which exists only in our language. It’s a feeling that’s intimately linked with sadness and joy. To be sad because you don’t have someone, but happy at the same time because you did.

What defines us is that we like this melancholy and we’re at peace with it. It’s an atonement for our natural sadness. There’s a melancholy in visiting the intricacies of our soul.

Do you like to suffer?

Our joy comes from being alive! You find life in suffering and in melancholy.

Did you always want to be an actor?

No. I wanted to be a marine biologist (laughs). In fact, I wanted to have the same job as Jacques Cousteau: filming creatures underwater. For many years I thought about taking a degree in biology and, interestingly, of coming to work in the Azores, which is why I have a strong connection with this island.

And why did you move into the arts?

I saw that it’s one thing to be a biologist, and another thing filming animals underwater. It’s a very unusual profession in this world (laughs). I dropped the idea and spent many years not knowing what to do.

I was always very shy and interestingly, through music — I began to play guitar — at one of the first concerts I gave at school I became addicted to the feeling the stage gave me. Because when I went onstage for the first time, I realised I wasn’t shy: I had control over myself and others. I became addicted to that feeling of knowing how to express myself. I was able to speak more in that place that in any other place in my life.

Later I went to see my sister perform ballet and I saw António Feio’s students perform one piece. I enrolled in his classes and three months later I knew that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Is the stage still the place where you always feel good?

Yes, undoubtedly. I’ve been asked many times if I prefer cinema or theatre, but I think that depends a great deal on the phase I’m going through and what challenges me the most at a given time. I started out in the theatre. After António Feio’s classes I went to the Cornucópia theatre, where I graduated and where I gained a work ethic that’s still with me today. It’s in the theatre that this ephemeral side comes back to me, which I kind of need. I spent many years in theatre; lately I’ve done more cinema because it’s more of a challenge and it’s still an area in which I think I can make more progress.

Recently, about a year and a half ago, I performed in Marco Martins’ Actors, and I know that now and again I need to return to the theatre, because there’s a very strong connection with the public, in addition to the ephemeral aspect. What remains in cinema and photography, for example, is a record over which you have no control whatsoever. The photographer or film-maker is the one who decides how the story is going to be, how the character is going to be, the moments in which the character will act. But the advantage is that it’s forever. Whereas in the theatre everything stays in the memory of whoever was present. But in the theatre an actor controls everything: pauses, timing, how the room breathes. And now and again I miss feeling that control.

“In the theatre the actor controls how the room breathes”

Is there a character that has left its mark on you during your career?

A lot of characters have left their mark on me, but without doubt what left the biggest mark was Saint George. Jorge was based on an idea of my own, which I presented to the film-maker. At the time, Marco (Martins) and I wanted to make a film and boxing was always something that attracted me because of its cinematographic aspect. And at the same time depicting one of my heroes, someone who literally fights for his life and fights in order to eat.

Jorge was the most important of all, because it was five years of work. After the initial idea came the research, I learned boxing for two years, and in the last six months of work I was training six hours a day.

Additionally, out of all my characters it gave me the biggest hangover. I’ve recovered now, but it took almost three years.

How do you come back from a character like Jorge?

There are characters that become a part of us. I finished Jorge and went to do another film soon afterwards. And I regretted it.

Why? Was it Jorge who made that film?

No, but when you spend so much time with that person, he becomes a kind of best friend. And I felt like I was betraying my best friend.

We construct a person who goes around with us constantly, and there comes a day, at the end of filming, when you take different paths. I often wonder where he went.

That character was so important to me and was in my life for so long that when I replaced him so quickly with another person… there was something that made me feel like I was betraying him.

It took me many years to understand that the character was no longer my friend and I had to let him go.

What do you think came together to make the film a success?

The film talks about the crisis and how Europe was becoming a kind of debt collector. To some extent, there were few people telling the story of these people; people who were already poor and were left with even less. In a sense, in the case of Portugal, many people saw themselves in this story.

Also, internationally there was the idea of Portugal as the good student and so things hadn’t been so bad. The film revealed the suffering in Portugal to many people who thought that way. And I think part of the film’s success is precisely because people understood that the story hadn’t really been like that.

And the authenticity of part of what was happening…?

Yes, there was a mixture of real and fictional discourse; a certain documentary aspect. There are very few actors in Saint George, much of what happens in the film is portrayed by residents of Bairro da Jamaica and Bela Vista. For example, my boxing instructor in the film was my instructor in real life.

How did “White Lines” happen?

It was through casting. I met my British agent through the Passaporte project, and he took me to the Subtitle Festival where they showcase not just films but also actors. In those three days, castings take place involving 100 casting directors from countless films and international series. I got to know the White Lines casting director there, I did a self-tape, I had a meeting later with Alex Pina, another self-tape, then I met the actress. And after four castings I was selected.

How was the experience?

It was very interesting, and very different from anything I’ve done up to now. As well as being a major international production — you feel that every day — it’s a work of entertainment and the production gives the project a very large authorial side.

How was the public reaction?

The reaction was very positive. All of a sudden I felt that a lot of people had watched the series and they associated me with “Boxer”, not just in Portugal but also internationally.

The Boxer… did you feel the public’s connection with your character?

Yes, the Boxer was a very iconic character in the series, and he was in fact intended to be iconic. A guy from Ibiza: fun, cool and romantic at the same time… he had everything he needed to succeed (laughs).

Did it open more doors for you?

The series was released at the start of COVID. It was a very difficult time, because all international productions are still on hold. But of course it’s a different way of looking at my work.

And how does music come into this equation?

It’s a hobby that became a second job. Unlike acting, where I bear the responsibility of expressing a vision that isn’t mine — whether it’s that of the text, the author, the film-maker — with music I don’t have that responsibility. I just have to make people dance and it’s a time of liberation, freedom and adventure.

And the future?

I just finished the new Marco Martins film, Great Yarmouth Provisional Figures, I wrapped up another in France and I’m preparing a new film.

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