An unflinching look at the intricacies of modern relationships, Paul Haggis’s Third Person celebrated its US premiere at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival. This film marks the first producing project from Israeli actress Moran Atias, who worked with Haggis for over two years to develop the script. In addition to her work behind the camera, Atias also stars as Monika, a fiery gypsy who uses Sean, a sleazy American businessman (played by Adrien Brody), to help her escape a complicated and dangerous situation (which may or may not be entirely true). Atias commands the screen in a bold, daring and utterly honest portrayal of a woman desperately trying to survive in a treacherous urban landscape.
We had the opportunity of speaking with the producer/actress about the pitching her initial idea to Paul Haggis, her intense character research, and why belief in a person is the purest kind of love.
Tribeca: You already worked with Paul Haggis twice before—The Last Three Days and the television show of Crash. How did Third Person come to be?
Moran Atias: I had a small part in The Next Three Days. I remember after I had finished my first few scenes, I had the option of either going back to LA and waiting till they called me for my next shoot or hanging around in Pittsburgh. I thought to myself, “I can pretend to be a busy actress and go back to LA or be here to observe and enjoy the moment.” As an actress, you often do a job and then you’re off to the next job before you’ve really had time to process the experience. You don’t breathe it in.
Paul allowed me to come to the set and watch. So I had the extraordinary pleasure, or gift really, of watching a professional like Paul Haggis direct an actor like Russell Crowe. It was a very relaxing experience for me because I didn’t have to come prepared. I just fell in love with the constant, creative state of mind Paul was in. I saw how he was moving the cameras and how every choice he made affected how the story would be told. After watching him work, I knew I wanted to direct someday, and I knew that I would love to work with him again as an actress. The only way for me to do that was to find a story to tell.
I wasn’t in a position to option a book or an article to develop with a director. I didn’t have the finances or connections. So I started googling “best stories never been told” to inspire me and allow me to be part of the movie as an actress. I looked for a theme that would keep me curious, passionate, and intrigued. It came to one thing: relationships. I was intrigued by the intimate dynamics between men and women and how everything that we experience in a relationship is a projection of something else—our past, our relationship with our parents, our demons, our ego, our work, our fears. There is always this third element in every relationship. It’s not just a raw and natural connection between one person and the other.
Tribeca: So what was the next step?
So I started looking at different dynamics in relationships. When I finally met with Paul for the pitch session, it was a mess [laughs]. It was the longest breakfast he ever had because I basically vomited ideas. I even took a pitch class at UCLA to prepare, but I was just the worst [laughs]. Everybody was surprised because you expect an actress to be confident, but it’s so much more revealing to write than to act.
I was thrilled when he eventually told me that he would spend time to write this script and develop this idea. That was day when I felt like my dreams were coming true because I wanted to work with this extraordinary filmmaker. We spent two years collaborating on the script.
Tribeca: Third Person is the first project you have co-produced. Can you talk about that experience? Would you be interested in developing more projects in the future?
MA: Every day I thought, “I can’t believe this is happening.” You never have a guarantee that a project you’ve been working on and pouring your heart into will ever make it to the screen. Even a filmmaker like Paul Haggis doesn’t have a guarantee, and he’s an Oscar winner! A creative person has to believe in the unseen and the untouched. That’s actually part of storyline of the movie. I think what makes people like Paul very successful is that they have confidence even through the path of uncertainty. When we finally did do the movie, we made yet another transition. As a producer and one of the actors, my experience kept evolving and changing. As we came closer and closer to an actual shooting date, I started to secretly prepare for Monika’s character.
Tribeca: To prepare for your role as Monika, you fully immersed yourself in gypsy culture. What did your preparation process entail?
MA: Well, my research started way before then. During the months I spent in the US, I was in NY and LA spending hours in different libraries trying to read every piece of information I could find on gypsies. The film is not about gypsies, but for me to play an authentic character, I wanted to be as prepared as possible. So I started from the intellectual approach of devouring the culture, books, music, documentaries and other materials about gypsies. There is surprisingly little information available.
Gypsies don’t have papers, let alone a passport. Their flag is not even recognized by the world. The symbol on their flag is a caravan wheel that signifies that they are always on the move. Gradually, I began to understand what the character of Monika could be. However, it was only when I interacted with people in the streets of Italy before we began shooting that I started to get Monika under my skin and create this new skin that I wanted for her.
There is always this third element in every relationship. It’s not just a raw and natural connection between one person and the other.
Tribeca: What was the experience of the street like?
MA: There’s a difference between the sweat you generate from a workout and the sweat you experience from being on the street. You have to soak in the dust and pollution from cars and other people and even the food you eat with no chance of a shower. I wanted to have that sweat, not an artificial sweat. So I threw myself into the life activities that create the gypsy mindset.
I had to see how I could support myself dressed in a certain way with no papers or friends. I had to survive day by day—without using my cell phone, computer, electricity, or cash money. I can’t tell you how difficult it was to beg for money on the streets. I initially approached it from a judgmental place. I live a very comfortable life in Los Angeles and New York, and when you see people begging who look physically suitable for a job, it’s easy to judge them. I didn’t even know how to articulate my request, and I would come home with literally less than a Euro a day.
Once I met other gypsies on the street, and I remember joining them to wash people’s windshields. It’s easier to work in a group. People would honk and yell and spit at me, even though their cars were legitimately dirty and needed a wash. That’s where I started to feel the humiliation I wanted for the character. However, I also wanted her to have this underbelly of pride on screen. After experiencing so much humiliation and rejection on the streets came this urge and need to not have Monika apologize for anything. As a gypsy, you need to support yourself to survive—whatever it takes. I wanted to bring this force of life and energy to the character. If somebody’s offering help, she’s going to take care of herself.
Tribeca: Monika is captivating, enigmatic and repellent at the same time. Is it difficult to play an untrustworthy character? Were there times when even you were unclear about her intentions?
MA: That was a big challenge. I had to find a certain balance of when the audience can believe and trust her and when they cannot. The character of Monika is lying about something, but we don’t know what exactly. I had to distant myself from developing the script when I started preparing for the character. Acting for me is a very visual process. I needed to determine where she went between scenes, but I also wanted to leave cracks in her story so it would have this mysterious layering to it. I felt like an investigator in a way. I should really solve crimes [laughs].
Tribeca: The story between Monika and Sean is the most hopeful in the film. What do you think the nature of their relationship says about the nature of love itself?
MA: We all like to be loved in different ways. I think this story is a beautiful example of a universal need we all have of feeling worthy of love. Here comes a man that treats this woman differently no matter what she appears to be. He chooses to believe in her despite the lies she tells. That’s why I think it is so hopeful and romantic—he’s not trying to change her, which is hard even for me to comprehend. He truly accepts Monika for who she is and, because of that, she becomes her better self. To me, that’s very inspiring.