This year’s Cannes Best Actress award went to two first time film actresses, Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur, for their tender and jarring performances as reunited orphans on the brink of tragedy, in Beyond the Hills. Based on the real life events that mysteriously ended with a 23-year-old girl’s death in a Moldovian monastery, Beyond the Hills was directed by Cristian Mungiu, winner of the Palme d’Or five years prior for his unforgettable drama, 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days. Using the notorious case as a thin framing for a deeper exploration of emotional abandonment and communal indifference, Mungiu chanced its most important performances on the two professionally trained actresses, never before seen on film. We sat down with Stratan and Flutur on a recent visit to New York City to talk about the shock of winning the award, crafting their celebrated performances, and the pleasure of working with one of world’s great directors.
Congratulations on the award. What was that experience like?
FLUTUR: Too fast. We left in the last minute and had to quickly rush to the stage at the last minute.
Did you expect to get so much recognition?
STRATAN: No. I didn’t expect this award. When they called and said that we had to be there, we knew that something was going to happen, but I didn’t know that it was this award.
What was it that attracted you to the script to Beyond the Hills?
FLUTUR: It was a very poetic story and very emotional, and it was very well written. So it immediately draws you inside somehow. And the characters were also very complex and interesting. It’s a story that actually hints in many directions. It has many, many levels. It’s really profound and deep, and this is amazing for an actor to have this kind of challenge.
STRATAN: At first, I was very interested in this project before I read the script, because I knew it was a movie made by Cristian. But after I read the script, it was much more challenging, and I just discovered that it’s not enough to read it once. When you read it the second time and the third time, you always discover new. That was so fun about this story.
Religion is a rich but also a very sensitive topic to cover in film. Were you apprehensive at all about making a movie about it?
STRATAN: Not necessarily because the previous story Cristian spoke about, 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days, was also a sensitive one. So when you speak about religion and about this kind of story, it’s really very easy to forget about the good way. I knew that through this script, Cristian would find the good measure to cover the story, not to go into a typical religious movie, because he didn’t want to do that.
FLUTUR: I was a bit worried when I read the script, especially because my character is very, very problematic for everybody especially or all these so-called religious people in the film. So I had to simply sit alone with the script and make the decision, a very crystal clear decision about whether I wanted to perform this kind of role, even though I knew Cristian. I knew his movies. I knew everything, but it was about my choice and what I want to do also. It’s not enough that you work with a famous director, it’s important what it brings to you personally.
Were there negative responses to the film?
FLUTUR: There were very different reactions. There were people who wouldn’t get over this religious aspect, to get to the more profound levels of the film, because the film talks about so many things. Its not about religion and its not anti-religion and its not anti-church. It’s not that kind of film. So you only see priest and you only see monastery and you think it’s about religion. And look what she’s doing she’s breaking the icon, but if you get stuck to this very shallow first level you don’t get the real story, but other people, and I’ve talked to people from the audience, they really got in to the human story behind all this.
Cosmina, how did you prepare for your role as a Orthodox Christian nun?
STRATAN: I tried everything I know about acting, and everything I don’t know. I experienced a lot of things, too. I went to a monastery before the shooting for a few days and I stayed there, worked there a little bit, ate their food. I was in the church every day, but nothing is enough. I just felt that I had to sum up everything to build the life of my character, to think about how she grew up in the orphanage, to go the monastery and pick what I need from there.
Have both of you always wanted to act?
You were a journalist for a time right?
STRATAN: Yes. I was a journalist. I studied journalism in my hometown and after that I worked there and in Bucharest for like two years for a TV station, and after that I decided to try to go to the university for drama in Bucharest, but I said to myself that I would only try this once, so if it should be like this, then it will happen. And it did.
How did you know it was right for you?
STRATAN: I found myself much more peaceful after I [began]. Even though it’s not such a peaceful life as an actor, I felt it right and I still feel that way.
What kind of career would you ideally like to have?
STRATAN: There are many kinds of careers. I don’t know. I would like to go in different directions as an actor. I find it so challenging to try to build characters that aren’t similar to you, because playing yourself in every character—I don’t think that’s acting. It’s like a confessing, and to get into different souls and different shapes its much more provocative for me.
FLUTUR: Interesting stories, interesting characters, interesting directors, that’s it.
Beyond the Hills hits theaters Friday March 8 2013. See the trailer below.