Íris Cayatte

An actress on the rise

Words: Patrícia Barnabé

Íris Cayatte is the next big thing (perhaps you’ve never heard of) in Portuguese film and theatre. She has little time for hype cycles or social media noise, instead building a career for herself one step at a time, while always keeping a discreet, watchful eye on her true passions of cinema, fashion and makeup.

Born in Lisbon, daughter of a Portuguese father and Finnish mother, her last name Cayatte is of French origin, and she’s a picture of serene, savage beauty — which about says it all. Brought up by her Nordic mother and grandmother, she would visit Finland every summer, even spending one year living in the forest. “My mother is an anthropologist, and was doing field research on the house, with me and my brother to keep her company,” she explains, sitting at a café terrace in Jardim da Estrela. She was just four or five years old, but this episode “helped make me the person I am today.” They then lived in Luxembourg for four years, where her mother translated Finnish to Portuguese for the European Union, and she returned to Portugal aged 12.

Her parents got her into Saint Julian’s College, but she remembers “not getting along well with the others. I came from a Luxembourg state school, my friends were all children of emigrants and kids from the north of Portugal, and all of a sudden I’m in this school where all they talked about was money all day. I was the only one living in Lisbon, I didn’t have a chauffeur, and I caught the train on my own every day. I ended up with one or two friends, ironically the only ones in my year to become artists, the rest were just into business, marketing and bullshit,” she grins. But her time spent there ended up being extremely important, for it was where a teacher, Darren Scully, noticed her there every lunch break watching the rehearsals of the older pupils. So one day he gave her a part in a play, and she impressed him enough to invite her back every year. “He believed in me and became my acting coach, if truth be told. It’s thanks to him that I’m a professional actress; but my acting soul comes from my Finnish grandmother.”

Her grandmother would say to her as a child, and to her brother: “You’ve got two hours; choose whatever you want — rags, objects, texts — and then I want you to put on a play for the family,” she recalls. And Íris grew up in an artistic household. “We were brought up to go see films and plays, and talk about them afterwards.” Her father is a reputed graphic designer, her brother is a director, and one uncle is an assistant director. “I’m always soaking up visuals wherever I am. My visual memory, for example, always kicks in whenever I think about the future or an idea occurs to me.” Her uncle got her a small part in Afirma Pereira with Marcello Mastroianni and “it was the first time I was on a film set, aged 6,” she recalls. At 17 she went to London, auditioning to get into the Central School of Speech and Drama, and after her course finished, she decided to research stage internships in New York, where she found a small Soho company, “an off-off Broadway black box theatre”, emailed them and got in. “I learned a lot, I met incredible artists, and I learned a great deal about stage lighting and the more technical side, as I was doing production and sitting in on rehearsals.”

A motorbike accident forced her to stop for six weeks, but she received compensation from the English government and so went globetrotting. Once back in Portugal, she got a call from actress Maria João Luis’ Teatro da Terra company, inviting her to take to the stage. She cancelled the trip she had been planning to India and accepted, since theatre was always what motivated her, “ but with cinema always here,” she says, tapping her forehead. But theatre was where it all began, her first professional experience being Dostoevsky’s The Gambler at the São Luiz theatre, stage directed by Gonçalo Amorim and with “an incredible cast, my theatrical godparents Romeu Costa, Carla Galvão, Carla Maciel, Mónica Garnel, António Fonseca… Theatre gives you the foundation for everything. I’ve studied a lot of philosophy and English literature, Scully would give me all kinds of plays to read, applying textual analysis. I’m really into the theoretical part that precedes the stage.”

Now “it’s cinema, cinema, cinema,” she says, as if it were just a question of waiting for the right moment. “I have such respect for cinema I was like… mmm, not yet.” She appeared in the films of Fanny Ardant, Edgar Pêra, Fernando Vendrell, a short by Ana Moreira, and worked with Pedro Maia and Paulo Furtado, among others, adding that she has many interesting projects soon to come. “I’ll never forget, I was in Paris one month shooting Ana Moreira’s Cassandra, a play we did six years ago, and RTP asked if we weren’t interested in making a film instead, and that was that. It was shown at Estonia’s Experimental Film Festival, in Tallinn, where Íris was approached by “a young French-Iranian woman who asked if I wanted to go smoke a cigarette, and she said: ‘You’re the lead in my film’. I thought, yeah right: this is just festival schmoozing, it’s not gonna happen. And cut to two months later, I’m in Paris,” she grins.

The film is autobiographical and “is a love letter to womanhood”, with just Íris Cayatte in the frame, “every scene is full-on, it’s really intense,” premiering at the Paris Cinémathèque in the summer. Íris is extremely proud of her director, who fled Iran to make movies. “One time someone pointed a gun at her because she wasn’t wearing a burqa, and she ran. At the end of the shoot, she told me: ‘If anyone in Iran finds out I made this movie, I’m probably dead.’ And that was when I realised: ‘OK, no one makes films on a whim, it’s a serious business.’”

Meanwhile, Bruno Gáscon’s Evadidos is about to come out, filmed in Barcelos during the pandemic, where she plays opposite Rafael Morais. “A dystopian world where the Americans have lost the war, and Portugal is under the control of Neo-Nazis. He wanted to make this film because of the times we are living in, where the right is on the rise…” Íris plays the part of a Neo-Nazi and “it was hard, a violent character, but fantastic to play.” In one scene, she had to give the Nazi salute. “I know it’s just a film, but I was crossing my fingers behind my back,” she laughs. Also coming up is Fernando Vendrell’s Sombras Brancas, an adaptation of José Cardos Pires’ Valsa De Profundis, where she plays Rita, one of the Portuguese writer’s daughters, in the story of a book he wrote after landing in hospital following a stroke. “It’s always difficult to play someone who is still alive. I hope she likes it and recognises herself in me.”

Íris is a low-key person, rarely seen out and about and always somewhere to the side of the room. “I know that being seen out in public is part of my job, and I’m doing it more now, but it’s also true I feel more like doing it because my career is on a surer footing and I have more interesting projects coming out. I’m still wary of social media. I don’t see an actor as a model, or as a product, either. I actually prefer not to know anything about an actor’s private life because when I see them, I can make up my own narrative.”

You’ve never been one for hero worship? “All the time.” But she struggles to name names, only saying that when she sees something she likes, it has to be “the whole works, not just a caricature.” She then lets slip the name of the equally discreet Beatriz Batarda. “When I see her act, I always think: ‘When I’m grown-up, I want to be a bit like you.’ She is one classy actress.”

On TV, she’s done all kinds of series, “the occasional soap, bit parts” and, as all actors will tell you, “I walk out more tired after 3 hours on a soap opera set than after 12 hours rehearsing a play or filming a movie, I get home completely worn out.” But it also upped her public profile and as “I don’t have the cute soap opera look, they always give me the part of police inspector or secret agent,” she jokes. “Some actors are a natural for soaps. I know I’m not very good, or I need my character to have more substance.” Cue her brilliant performance in the series A Rainha e a Bastarda, which takes place at the time of Dom Dinis and queen Santa Isabel.

Getting a part in HBO’s Kamikaze was all thanks to casting director Patrícia Vasconcelos’ Passaporte initiative, where actors get to meet foreign casting directors. So in 2018, a Danish woman who remembered Íris from back in the day invited her “without telling me a thing; I did audition after audition and I thought that was it. They changed the dates a million times and then called to say I had to go right now to the Canaries, but it was at the exact moment my play was opening, and I had to make what was a tough decision, and the next thing you know along came the pandemic. It was only afterwards that I managed to do it all. But I only played a small part in the series, you know the type: Portuguese girl on HBO. Everything in good time!” she laughs.

She adds how she really liked the way the Danish worked. “I had a flashback to my childhood, the silence, looking you directly in the eye, with room for dialogue and to breathe, on- or off-camera, the director even once telling me: ‘Take it easy, you’ve all the time in the world!’ It’s not like in Portugal, where there’s never the time nor the money.” This June and July she’s off to film the series Madrugada Suja with Rafael Morais, Victoria Guerra, Gonçalo Waddington and Manuel João, in an adaption of a book by Miguel Sousa Tavares, “and I can’t tell you any more.”

By nature “I’m very engaged and observant. When I see a movie, I’ve taught myself how to switch off and lose myself in what’s on-screen. As my brother is a director, my uncle an assistant director, and my dad a graphic designer, I’m always soaking up visuals wherever I am. My visual memory, for example, always kicks in whenever I think about the future or an idea occurs to me. And I’d love it if one day the cinematic art were to embrace me… I have such respect for it that I don’t dare say, or afford myself the luxury of saying, that one day I’d like to be behind the camera. But I have a lot of ideas and I’d really love it, no question. I work a lot with my brother behind the camera and whenever I can’t sleep I watch Makings Of…, hours spent watching interviews with directors, everything I can squeeze out of cinema. Sometimes I get a bit upset for not having done it yet, but I also know there’s a time for everything, and I’m closer than ever.”

And fashion? “I love fashion, of course!” And we notice her good taste from miles away. She has childhood memories of her grandmother “flicking through catalogues, Issey Miyake being her passion! She taught me a lot about fashion: the fabrics, colour and cut. The way I dress is pretty classic, I don’t follow the latest trends. But I love fashion shoots! I’ve yet to be invited to sit for a shoot with the kind of clothes and makeup I like, but as I’m anything but mainstream… Neither do I feel like doing something just for the sake of it.”

Íris Cayatte, an actress on the rise who we’ll be hearing a lot more about, mentions two things she hopes for: “Calm and togetherness. One thing I loved about the quarantine was the hush of birdsong and being at my window for hours in silent contemplation, without feeling bad for the world being in such a rush and me being there at my window. And a sexual revolution, but in the most charming of terms: where people come together, to reach out and reach within, to not be so selfish and to not be afraid of a sweet caress. We were once so mistrustful of each other, and I hope we don’t forget to reach out and touch. What happened to us made us look out for others and within ourselves, as one. To not be jealous, and to surround ourselves with those who are better than us, is the only way for us to learn.”

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