Interview with Rita Blanco

Photo: Ricardo Santos

A look that changes in a matter of seconds. Another person, or character, is born before our eyes, lifted from the storybooks. She has already breathed life into dozens of roles, and has been part of our lives like an old friend. Her voice is familiar, her look we already know. But the real Rita is more of a mystery. Even if she shares so much.

Say hello to Rita.

Q: Were you born wanting to be an actress?

A: I don’t know if it was from when I was born, but from an early age, yes. Not really knowing what it meant to be an actress, I already was in the habit of talking to myself and imitating others. Maybe because I didn’t really like being me… I always wanted to be other people. And maybe later this desire arose, albeit in a more elaborate fashion of course. Because being an actress just on a whim or even if it’s one’s desire… isn’t particularly interesting. When becoming an actress is something that interests you because of something you wish to share with others, that’s when you gain a clear idea of your work, a thought process. It becomes something fun to do, and worthwhile.

But I would muck around pretending to be an actress, talking to myself, even when making the bed (she laughs). I loved speaking English; at that time, I used to make up the words. I was always comfortable speaking French; it didn’t seem made up to me because I was in a French school and it was normal for me to speak French. At the time our country had a strong French influence and I saw many French films. Speaking English felt like an act (it’s a fact that whenever we speak another language we’re acting). The love affairs I’d never had, but dreamed of… you live them as you do the washing, make the bed, hang out the clothes. I always believed I was a lovely and extraordinary young lady with endless suitors whom she would always politely decline, and at other times was in utter turmoil over some love affair.

Q: How did you go from childhood adventures to your professional career?

A: At that age, I didn’t even know how to become an actress. One day, my dad told me that to follow this career I had to attend theatre school… I didn’t even know such existed (she laughs) and I signed up for the conservatory. Otherwise, I would have studied philosophy. I joined the conservatory, and that was that.

Q: Did contact with art as a child play a fundamental role in your career path?

A: Yes. I don’t know how it would have been any different, but without a doubt I was given access to another reality. The foreign school opened doors, even artistic ones… to read the French classics, have more access to art. I was lucky to be born into a family with access to all kinds of books, where reading was normal… this made my life much easier. I can’t take credit for liking to read, it was simply something that was made easier for me. But my father would also tell me lots of stories… he’d read to me and then say “now tell me it in your words.” That was great fun. Knowing what I was listening to, I’d have to (re)tell to my father. And that was very exciting. Obviously, when you’re stimulated it makes your life easier… it spurs you on. The more curious you are, the more open you are looking at art, for example.

Q: And speaking French could open doors, at the time…

A: With Eric Rohmer? I was miffed back then (she laughs) because he didn’t believe I wasn’t living in France. We had no idea how xenophobic people were in those days, particularly with immigrants.

Q: And how did you get into making films?

A: I was at the conservatory and we’d go to auditions, the teachers encouraged us to try out different things that we’d spend our adulthoods doing. I went with my classmates and gave my name to a production company (Pais A). It was a big deal at the time because it produced foreign films, particularly French ones. There were a lot of foreign films being made in Portugal then.

I auditioned and they asked me if I could learn a text in French. And that was my first film, Le Cercle des passions. I was just a kid! João Canijo was assistant. He then spoke about me to Jorge Silva Melo and he called me to do a screen test. And I got in. I made a film where I got to meet Luis Miguel Sintra, who I acted with. I appeared in a few different films and joined the Cornucópia theatre. With Luis. Things were happening in a blur. I think I always managed to work with the very best. I learned a lot from all of them. Jorge would take me to film cycles, and João to others at the Gulbenkian… I met very influential artists.

Q: Do you undergo a transformation when you become a character?

A: No. I’m always me.

Q: Always?

A: Yes. All the time.

Q: How do you get in touch with emotions you’ve never yourself experienced?

A: From books. As I’m lucky enough to have access to literature… it’s no trouble at all. As I love reading, I’ve seen all kinds of lives and points of view, ways of thinking, people… that’s my inspiration. And my imagination and my life.

It’s like this: what if I’d been born in that character’s circumstances, if I lived at that time, etc. That’s it. That’s my way in. I’m always me. It’s always my vision.

Q: And how do you come back to yourself afterwards?

A: All actors are different. Some characters really have an effect on us… I once did ALMA at Cornucópia. I really had to go above and beyond and push myself much further, deeper. And after it ran, sometime later, I was at the beach, and I remembered Alma and started to cry. Not out of self-pity, because it wasn’t me, but in… sorrow for her. That character moved me incredibly, because of her honesty and suffering. She was a blank page. I loved portraying her, but it was very painful. It’s getting harder and harder to climb onto that stage…

Q: It is? Why?

A: Because I always feel more insecure than ever, afraid I’ll forget my lines or not be able to do it, to reach deep enough.

Q: Because theatre is more and more of a challenge…

A: Yes. I feel I’ve done all I’ve ever wanted. Of course, there are tons of things I’d still like to do… direct a film, for example (even if I never get to be a director). I’d like to film Dulce Maria Cardoso’s Retorno.

But… I’ve done all I had to do. I don’t feel I have the ambition… I don’t have a particular desire to do anything. I’ve already played seven or eight parts that had a major impact on my life. They’re done already.

Q: Which?

A: Get a Life. Blood of my Blood. Miserere. Acting in Amour was important. The Gilded Cage meant a lot to me… and even more to the general public. And that was the best thing of all.

Q: Did you get a sense of public recognition?

A: I really did. Actually, I was recipient of an award in France: I’m a Chevalière des Arts. I’ve had some major opportunities, including working with Pedro Penim recently. It was a big deal knowing I can still act, that I can still handle being on stage. And I’ll be in his next play.

Q: Why did you say that you’ll never get to be a director?

A: I don’t have the eye for it. I don’t come equipped with that feel for cinema. I could make a film, sure. But I don’t have a cinematic eye, but rather my way of looking at things.

Q: Will it be on a theme that means a lot to you?

A: Yes. Retorno. It’s a subject I feel like talking about. It’s a recent past that is rarely discussed and which to a certain degree has been whitewashed.

Q: Talent. In this magazine we talk about talent. Do we look at homegrown talent the wrong way?

A: The Portuguese only recognise Portuguese talent if it has been legitimised abroad first. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s unbelievable. Art in Portugal is one thing and one thing only: Portuguese. There are no rules, and that’s a fact. But in culture, we can only discuss what we know. If it weren’t for the fact she went to England, where would Paula Rego be now? She’s one of the greatest painters the world has ever known. I could cite dozens of examples. Eunice Munoz, for example, was loved by the public. She was a simple woman, not one to show off, she never made out she was the best. But she was. Humble, serious. She would be highly regarded anywhere in the world. The bottom line is… we have to support each other.

Q: You never had that ambition to go abroad?

A: No. I have exactly the opposite desire. I want to be a Portuguese actress, and talk about what it is to be a Portuguese woman. That’s the one thing I know about. What’s the point in pretending to be French? I’ve nothing to say on that matter because I don’t know how to be French… I could, but you know, there are thousands of French women already (she laughs).

I’d say I’ve been lucky to do what I like, with people I like, and for a public who likes me.

Q: The public likes you?

A: Yes. They’re very fond of me. I couldn’t ask for more. I’m loved. I wouldn’t be in the position I am if it weren’t for the public.

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