Interview: Lena Olin and Tora Hallström on Hilma, Playing the Same Character, Speaking with Spirits and Finding the Science in Art

When filmmaker Lasse Hallström (Chocolat, The Cider House Rules, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape) prepares to release a new film, people tend to take notice, especially when the prolific director who has entrenched himself in working in America decides to return to his native Sweden to take on the life story of one of the country’s most celebrated and groundbreking artists, Hilma af Klint, in his new work Hilma. Deciding to make the movie a family affair, he’s enlisted both his daughter (newcomer Tora Hallström) and his wife (the legendary Lena Olin) to play the title character at different points in her frustrating and heartbreaking life.

Klint’s work was largely ignored or dismissed in her lifetime, mainly because she believed she was painting images that were transmitted to her from other planes of existence, perhaps even ghostly or alien in nature. But what resulted was the beginnings of abstract painting and Modernism, even if nobody realized it at the time. This rich and often tragic biography captures the life of a woman determined to never change her vision as an artist, despite working in a hostile, misogynistic world where her unconventional work and romantic life clashed with the norms.

I had a chance to sit down for an enlightening conversation with Olin and daughter Tora (this is her first starring role) on the day before they attended the Opening Night screening of Hilma as part of the Chicago European Union Film Festival at the Gene Siskel Film Center at the beginning of March. Olin has long been a favorite, with memorable performances in such works as her breakthrough role in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Chocolat, Romeo Is Bleeding, Havana, and the TV series Alias as well as the current Amazon series Hunters. To date, Tora has only acted in smaller parts in her father’s films, since she initially opted out of the show business world. But that is about to change, as we discuss.

Hilma is set to screen once more as part of the CEUFF, on Saturday, March 25, at 3:45pm at the Siskel Film Center. Please enjoy our conversation…

At the Guggenheim’s exhibit of her work, they titled Klint's collection “Paintings for the Future.” If at any point, did it occur to you that believing you have the ability to talk to spirits or somehow see the future is a tremendous burden on one person? In playing this character, did you think about the weight that would have been on her? How do you convey that in the performance?

Tora Hallström: It was definitely a weight for her and a responsibility, but there was also this joy, and it gave her hope that somebody would understand her work in the future. Living in that time and being the person she was and having all these thoughts, none of which fit in in her time, I think it gave her the strength to keep going, knowing that this was for the future. She had faith that she could send her work off and know it would be received in another time.

Lena Olin: It was also her passion. She had such faith that we were going to get it. We had watched the documentary , and that touches on how extremely clairvoyant she was, for example, to see the blueprint of the Guggenheim building. It’s identical, and they hadn’t seen her design when they built the Guggenheim. That faith was what drove her, and when I first went to the exhibition, and when I saw “Paintings for the Future,” it moved me because to believe so strongly that we would get it, that she would actually ask for the paintings to be rolled up and hid for decades. When we were still living in Stockholm, we lived across the street from the attic where all of those painting were rolled up. If you put a picture in an attic, it’s not tempered, there’s no climate control, so the fact that they were there, and when they rolled them out, they were still okay. But her faith was joy, and she had such strong faith, so when I saw that exhibit, I realized it was like a message in a bottle. To believe that somebody sane is going to pick up your bottle, read your message, and send help, that’s faith. She had that; she trusted us, and that's extremely moving.

She also trusted that whomever it was sending her messages was being honest that people would eventually get her. It’s not uncommon that artists aren’t appreciated in their own time, but to compound the fact that no one believed her about the spiritual messages, that she was a woman, does that put the responsibility on you to play her the right way, a way that would honor her and her messengers?

LO: The only way to do that is to prepare like a crazy person. We saw the family, we went to mediums, we studied everything we could. It’s somewhat overwhelming. If you’re going to play a Holocaust survivor, it’s impossible, but then you have to forget that and try to learn as much as you possibly can and then let go of the burden of it and just be the character. I could see that it happened to Tora; she had a tough time getting out of it after the shoot.

I was going to ask about how tough it was to shake this character, but tell me about your preparation first.

TH: I just had this faith that she was there. I became totally converted to learning about mediums and communication with the other side. I believe that we spoke to Hilma. All the work that goes into understanding what made up her life was combined with “meeting” her privately and getting her blessing. It gave me the freedom to let that go and know that she would be with me. I felt so connected with her throughout the filming, which I can’t even explain, but I feel she was with me.

In your preparation and looking at the actual artwork, what do you see when you look at it? You have a different relationship with it than a lot of other people, being this close to the subject matter. What do you see?

TH: I can’t even understand how she thought fully, because when you look at her notebooks, there’s an insane amount of mathematics and science and other things that you don’t see and maybe just looks pretty if you don’t know how much thought went into it. And you can see the mathematics and the calculations and her theories about gender and how all of that goes into it, so it feels complex when you know all the details of that which lies underneath it, the intellectual side of it. Also, the joy of her doing it speaks through the paintings. It was her escape, her lifeline, in her very difficult reality. It was euphoric for her, like a drug, and you can feel that in the paintings; it infuses you with this energy, and you can see the manic way she would paint when you look at them.

When you’re shooting, maybe more with you Tora, you have all of these reproductions surrounding you. Does that put you in the headspace that you need to be to play this character?

TH: Oh yeah. The set designers did such an incredible job. There was no having to pretend that we were anywhere. We would just step into set, and everything would be there. The art team that created these paintings that looked so real, even the sets of the period, it felt like you were transported to that period because they did such a good job of getting every little detail.

LO: And they taught you how to paint with those sticks and everything. I was doing classes with these amazing women. It was all women who made the paintings.

TH: Yeah, and the head artist was also spiritually inclined, so she understood Hilma’s way of thinking, so I got to speak to her about the process of doing automatic drawings and how physical it was. You can tell when you look at the paintings, especially those big shapes that she made, you’d have to use your entire body. I grew up as a dancer, so that really appealed to me, getting your whole body into it. It becomes almost a meditation and some kind of physical piece as well.

LO: I think what brought me fully into her were the science and creativity, which is key and we now understand. If you’re super-scientific and very creative, that’s a golden key to the future. One without the other is lesser than.

That’s Da Vinci in a nutshell.

LO: Yes, and you can see that. I can’t understand her paintings, but I see what’s so incredible about it. It’s like amazing music or amazing art, they speak a language without the words. I kind of get it, even if I don’t get it. She painted DNA before x-rays; she had a knowledge about what was going on, but I had to enter her world thought the easier work, like the black-and-white works. To me, that was heartbreaking, that the fight between the dark and light, death and light, and how we struggle, and it’s right on the surface in those. That’s how I got fascinated by her way of thinking. I think a lot of people have my reaction, which is you stand there and look at her paintings and think “Oh my god, this is amazing,” and I’m moved and touched, but I cannot explain it. That might be because you can’t explain it, or it could be that I just don’t understand it. I experience something and can’t always put words to it.

In Sweden, when the film opened, we got an award for Best Film. We were invited to come; we didn’t know we would win. We flew into Stockholm, went out to dinner, and when we got back to the hotel, there was a full moon with a rainbow around it, exactly as Hilma had painted. I said “Do you see that?” to Tora, and we took pictures. This was her telling us this would be good. It’s very rare that that happens. What has been important for me is to be encouraged to believe, and I’ve been that way my whole life but quietly. But then when you start speaking about things, there are signs from above, there’s meaning, there’s spiritual power. Then you’ve seen people at Q&As here and in Sweden, who tell you about what a big part of their life that is. It’s not always something you speak about, which is so important. It’s such a promise for the future that there’s something more and that everything is one.

You talked about focusing on the joy in her life, but she also spent so much of her life being rejected by society, by the art world. It’s the stuff that breaks your heart. Where do you think she found the strength to keep going?

TH: I think it’s more heartbreaking that she keeps getting rejected, but she still has this joy that she does, this faith that it will work out. We have the scenes where she talks about the temple and that she saw it; I was always envisioning that she saw the Guggenheim in New York. Can you imagine being in the early 1900s and seeing this spiral-shaped gallery where people are going? And then recently, people were having these emotional reactions to the painting, and the lines were around the block—I was living in New York at the time. It was crazy and everyone was talking about it. I’ve never seen people my age get excited about art the way they were about Hilma, but she was truly changing people’s lives. It was her unshakeable faith that she saw this happening, and it was so moving that she had that through the film, even with all the rejection she faced.

The two of you don’t have any scenes together, but did you find ways to collaborate on this character?

LO: Absolutely. During the pandemic, we got together and worked on the script and discussed, and we could bring up things about her and talk about what we felt were important to us that she had as a character. Then we hung out on set a little bit, not always, but a little bit if we could when the other person was working so we could see the way the other walked and moved and related to other people.

TH: Another part of it came out during the pandemic. I was living in San Francisco and moved home and was alone with my parents for six months. At that time, my dad had a draft of the script, and we would workshop it three times a week, for hours at a time, going through 20 pages a day and then say our comments, and immediately we were aligned. That was great. Sometimes we’d disagree, but we shaped the script together

LO: We were after the same thing, for sure.

TH: When we got the first version of the script, Hilma was very nice, and the story was told so beautifully and it was so moving, but I think my dad had gone into this thing where he was protective of the main character and didn’t want them to have flaws. He was very careful not to have her misbehave or do anything wrong, and we were like “No. She needs to have flaws and be complicated.” She had anger, and there are scenes where she goes through the impossible; that makes it even more beautiful, that she was a woman and able to behave that way. We were very aligned on that from the beginning.

Can I ask a question that may have a very obvious answer: why is this film in English?

TH: Yeah.

LO: Lasse wrote the script in Swedish, and Sweden is a very bureaucratic country in many ways, including with the Swedish film industry. He went the normal way to get it made, and they said “Maybe next year we can take a look.” In other words, this very slow process. But Lasse wanted to make it before Hilma became a massive things because he felt that this woman was going to conquer the world. He wanted to have the movie made now, when people were still curious about her. Then Viaplay came in and said they’d pay for the whole thing, but it had to be made in English because Viaplay wants to be specifically Nordick but play internationally. They said, “This is the perfect movie, you’re the perfect guy, and Tora is the perfect girl to play the character, but we want it in English.” It was easy for us to make our English sound like British English, so within a few minutes you for get they are speaking English. That’s the simple reason.

Lena, you mentioned earlier that Tora had trouble shaking the character when you were done shooting. Tora, do you still miss having Hilma in your life every day?

TH: I got so many beautiful things from her that I still have today. The part that was hard to shake was…I worked in investment banking before I did acting. I worked in tech for a while, which is why I was living in San Francisco, and I’d grown up with very sensitive parents, because they’re both artists, and I became this very rational person to balance them out and would suppress my emotions. I’m a very sensitive person to my core, but I’ve been working these normal jobs where I’d been behaving normally and didn’t have these creative outlets, and was also trying to be the rational one—learning to pay taxes and all these basic things that I felt my parents didn’t know how they worked. I was going to not be emotional and be very rational.

Then I got into this field and realized I’d been suppressing all of these things that were suddenly coming out, and I had a very hard time, once you open the flood gates, tapering and controlling them. That was the hard part for me. I’d end up all night crying after a day of shooting; all of these things would just spill out, but it was very therapeutic and good for me. So I’ve gotten so much in my personal life from doing this and finding this outlet for stuff and letting myself be weird and emotional.

I didn’t know you had done all of that before acting, but being someone who started out outside of the creative world, I don’t want to shock you, but your mother has made some amazing movies over the years. Do you have a favorite or maybe one you connected with first?

TH: I remember loving Chocolat and being on the set for that. A lot of the older ones I haven’t seen actually , because some of them are sexy and she has relationships with other men, and I think that would just be weird for me, seeing her have a relationship. Once I visited you on set, and you were having a relationship with a younger man, and you were wearing lingerie, and I was like “Should I be here?”

LO: I remember looking for you, and they said you’d gone to lunch, but you really ran away.

TH: And I brought my boyfriend with me that time, and we were like “Okay!”

LO: I’ve always felt with Tora, like you’ve always been dancing and so expressive in music. But I think you had the brain for all of that stuff that you did, and that’s when Lasse realized that Tora had the brain to play a woman like Hilma. I’ve been following what she’s done over the years, but I think acting came easily to you. She was in fifth grade when she won the math award for the whole school. But it’s been so rewarding and such a blessing to watch her come into this. And now she’s gone to acting school. Like everything else, she wanted the education to back up what she decided to do. We don’t understand that exactly, but now she’s graduating acting school.

So this is something you’ve committed to.

TH: Oh yeah.

Thank you so much, and best of luck with this.

LO: Thank you. This was fun.

TH: Great to meet you.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.