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An Interview with Alma Pöysti

Photo: Marica Rosengård

Alma Pöysti is an actor known for Liberty, Moomins on the Riviera, and Tove. I spoke with Alma about her background in theatre, portraying Tove Jansson on stage and screen, her work as a voice-over artist, and her upcoming projects.

Did you always want to pursue a career in acting, and how did you land your first role?

I’m from an artistic family with the theatre being very present. My grandparents were actors and my father was a theatre director. My uncle was an actor as well. Of course it wasn’t self-evident that I would become something in the theatre world, but I grew up with it and I felt that I was drawn to it very strongly. Then when I grew older and had to make some kind of decision what I wanted to do, it was time to make the choice. After the bachelorette I took a year in Paris and gave myself a year to think about it. I came to the conclusion that I’m going to be an actress. I applied to the theatre academy. I didn’t get in the first time, but then I got in the second time. I worked a lot and tried to get experience and learn as much as possible. In the way it was an obstacle, I respected the theatre so much and my family were a part of that world, I didn’t want to make it self-evident, or get any free rides. I’ve been working quite hard to prove myself as well, standing on my own two feet.

So your background was in theatre?

Absolutely. Mostly, theatre. I’ve been working in Finland and Sweden, in two languages. My passion really lays with the theatre, but now I’ve got hooked and I loved working with a camera and with Tove. I learnt so much from both sides and also the DOP Linda Wassberg about acting with a camera. I feel like there is so much to explore there. All the theatres are closed now as well. I got an agent as well, Actors in Scandinavia, this autumn. I am very grateful for it, since it helps a lot with getting more camerawork.

How did the role of Tove Jansson come about?

Well there was a big casting process. I think they just wanted to scroll through every actress there was available, or possible for the role so it was a long process for casting. They saw a lot of people. It all started with sending in self-tapes. I got a round further and there were workshops, auditions and finally, I think it took something like nine months before I got the final call. Before the film came about I had actually played Tove on stage at the Swedish theatre in Helsinki in 2017. Then I did a lot of background research, so I had her somewhere in my periphery. I just studied again and refreshed all that and tried to learn more. She’s such an amazing person. I feel like I’ve been studying her for many years now and still quite astonished about all the things she did and all the things I keep on discovering. It has been a long journey actually with this particular role, or person. It’s something else as well, she’s real and not part of someone’s imagination, well partly maybe. It’s really something else to study a real human being.

What’s the biggest difference between portraying the same person on stage and on screen?

Actually I got one insight working with Tove on camera. On stage it has a lot to do with me coming out of my shell and reaching an audience and enlarging my expression of course. With camera I can invite the camera into my shyness and be brave enough to allow it to be there so close. This was something I discovered somehow, that I don’t have to prove anything to the camera. It has to be enough that I’ve done my research and that I’m thinking the right things and feeling the right things and that I’m in the moment. It was a big relief. It’s something I can’t really put my finger on. Of course the form was different and the script was different, the whole staging is different, but there is something in the acting there. To just be.

I was reading a lot of books about her and studying drawing and painting. I lived with an unlit cigarette in my house for many months so it would become a like sixth finger somehow. I took a lot of lessons in drawing and painting and our graphic designer Sandra Wahlbeck was really important for me. I was sitting with her and trying to imitate Tove’s handwriting and in what order some lines came in, things like this. I had to study a lot to be authentic in the role of an artist. There was that and of course dealing with a person like Tove, who is such an icon. There is a lot documented about her, also on film. I was listening to her interviews and watching her body language. There were a lot of films to be watched and there was a choice we discussed with Zaida that I’m not going to be imitating what I’d seen. We were just going to trust that I’d soaked up enough, but not making some kind of imitation because that could land in some kind of acting that wouldn’t be true somehow.

I guess there is a lot of responsibility with a figure that big in Finland?

Yes, we had some really fun and horrific discussions with Zaida that this is kind of mission impossible. We can’t but fail. She said so beautifully: ‘so let’s fail in an interesting way.’ That somehow gave us some kind of liberty to really have fun with it and do our kind of art with this story and persona. Tove Jansson’s niece, Sophia Jansson, also said that people are going to have opinions, so please just do as well as you can and strong and beautiful work as you possibly can. Don’t be worried about what people will think because they will think. That was a relief and also some kind of blessing that she said that. As we dived into the work we just got lost in Tove’s world, it kind of took over and I’m so relieved that that happened. There were so many important things to focus on and not being scared wasn’t one of them. There was no time for that.

You’ve also done some voice-over work for some of the Moomin films…

I’ve been doing a lot of that and reading audio books also from Tove’s production, both her short stories for adults and children’s books. I’ve been dealing with Tove professionally for a long time. Then when I grew up as a Finnish kid I grew up with her stories, so her work has been very present for me always.

I’m so happy that she’s getting recognition as an artist because this was something that was so important to her, but it kind of fell into the shadow of the whole Moomin Ferris wheel. Now there are many retrospectives of her art all over the world. Her art prices are climbing, which is fantastic.

What were the biggest challenges shooting the film?

I guess pre-filming, it was about the attitude, not getting her being an icon and not letting that be a problem somehow. Once we got over that it was surprisingly easy. We kind of tied that knot somehow. Then it was just technical things, like the art and this was shot on real film as well, so that brought some challenges. You couldn’t watch the dailies, you had to wait for the film to be developed first. It might sound like a cliché, but it really became a love project for a lot of people. They are all professionals and had done a lot before, but you could see that they really put their hearts into this. Everybody gave that little bit of extra and found along the way somehow that this will be going bigger than we realised when we started out.

How involved were her family with the project?

There were a lot of discussions actually. They were very closely working with the film and reading versions of the script. They also visited the set and saw the film, of course. Sophia Jansson even wrote a beautiful text on Moomin characters website about how she experienced the movie. I think they know that art is art and that we had to take some liberties. There was no conflict in this perception of what the work would be. Their trust was huge and a very important thing for all of us because I don’t think any one of us would have wanted to make a movie that would have been somehow disrespectful towards the family. They helped a lot with materials, like telling stories about Tove and commenting on interiors and things like this. They were super involved. It seems like they are happy with the result.

Are you currently working on any projects?

I’m moderating five live online talks at the Swedish Theatre in Helsinki, under the headline Dreaming of a better world - talks about cultural activism, where we discuss representation on stage, being a female in the world, we talk about the fire of an activist, the silenced HBTQ (LGBT) history in the theatre and about art and the environment. I’m also preparing for some filming that is coming up that I unfortunately can’t talk about yet. Some audio books and audio work are keeping busy! I’m happy to keep my foot in the theatre world, it’s truly where my heart is.

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