Ana Ulara (middle) with I'm an Old Communist Hag co-stars Luminita Gheorghiu and Marian Ralea.
Romanian actress Ana Ularu was too young to experience much of her home country's communist era. Born in 1985 in the country's capital Bucharest, Ularu has spent much of her professional career both at home and abroad starring in films such as Outbound (2010), A Very Unsettled Summer (2013), as well as TV's The Borgias. In Stere Gulea's I'm an Old Communist Hag, she plays Alice, a Romanian expat who returns home to visit her parents with her American fiancé.
Their happy reunion quickly becomes complicated, with the generation gap widened by cultural disparities. Her 60-year-old mother Emilia (played by The Death of Mr. Lazarescu actress Luminita Gheorghiu), who is famous in the neighborhood for her communist nostalgia, is asked to participate in the production of a documentary chronicling festivities organized by the communist regime. While Alice and Alan appear to have life in the prosperous West going their way, Emilia begins to sense there's something amiss.
I'm an Old Communist Hag screens this Friday as part of the Film Society's upcoming Making Waves: New Romanian Cinema series taking place December 4-8. FilmLinc Daily spoke with Ularu about the generation gap that is still prevalent in Romania—something she has learned more about while making the film and working with Stere Gulea, Luminita Gheorghiu, and Marian Ralea, who plays her father. The actress, who was a “Shooting Star,” an annual group of up-and-coming actors spotlighted at the Berlin International Film Festival, talks about her upcoming roles, which includes turns with American stars.
FilmLinc: What lead you to I’m an Old Communist Hag?
Ana Ularu: I hadn’t read the script before I went in to audition, but the director Stere Gulea is a huge legend in Romania. He also directed one of my favorite Romanian films: The Moromete Family, an adaptation of a great Romanian novel that also starts Luminita Gheorghiu. It was a great honor to audition for him. I got the part and was really interested in the conflict between Romanian generations. It was a great relationship to explore.
FL: I thought there would be a generational gab between people who lived primarily in the Communist era versus post Ceaușescu. Has there been any of that similar disconnect in your family?
AU: No, I didn’t experience that generational gap, as my parents were artists who both worked in theater, and film so for them the transition was very smooth. This period was the thing they had looked forward to forever. They had their subversive undertones. They were and are still very young in spirit. With the family in the film, however, and many others in Romania, especially whose children go abroad, this gap does happen. It was very interesting for me to explore that aspect [of life in Romania] that I never knew.
Ana Ulara and Luminita Gheorghiu in Stere Gulea's I'm An Old Communist Hag.
FL: How was it working with Luminita, who I gather you had admired for a long time?
AU: I consider Luminita a friend of my mother’s and mine. We had previously done two short films together, and to have her play my [character's] mom was incredible. She is an amazing actress that I love and a wonderful person. This was one of the most relaxed film sets I’ve ever been on as both she and Marian Ralea are very funny and make you feel at ease. This is how we were able to build the relationship you see on screen.
FL: Your character Alice and her fiancé Allen go visit her parents in Romania. They have the veneer of prosperity with their iPhones, nice clothes, and rental car, but you begin to see there are problems. And in fact, they're struggling because of the financial crisis. This is certainly something people in the “West” can relate to…
AU: This stems from the difference in cultures. For many years the Western world, particularly America, was perceived by Eastern Europe as being unconditionally wealthy. Alice is reluctant to talk about her problems. She’s not looking for help or a hand out but wants to feel close to home when things are unstable. It is this entire game of hiding how low you are and trying to maintain an appearance of unremitting prosperity and happiness for your parents but crumbling under the pressure of it all. It comes from pride. You wouldn’t want your parents to think you’ve gone off to make a better life for yourself and you have failed.
FL: The veneer is hard to hide though and Alice's mother wants to figure out a way for her daughter and soon-to-be son-in-law to save their home. There's a great scene in the movie when Alice’s mother's latent Communist leanings come out. She didn’t say it was the best time in the world but they did have food in the fridge and there weren’t homeless people in the street. Is that as a common refrain in Romania when looking back?
AU: Well I think for some older people but not all… It’s strange as it’s such a painful and oppressive time for all of us that it’s hard to hear people getting nostalgic about that time. I started to understand those feelings as I was shooting the film, particularly the first time I watched it. Then I realized people over 50 had lived half their lives in one way and found it hard when forced to adapt to something else. I understood how that rift can leave you bewildered as you lose grasp of everything you know. Even if the alternative is a better world. All of your youth, all your most beautiful memories as a child, falling in love, making a family, stay within those dark times.
This is what we wanted to say more than anything. Stere Gulea is one of the most fervent anti-communists you’ll find. He has made documentaries about the topic and was somewhat of a dissident during the communist years. This film doesn’t in any way reflect that vision. He just wanted to tell a story about someone who isn’t nostalgic for the dogma of communism or the political aspect, she just associates it with her youth.
FL: I was going to say I see this movie as being about people who want to look back at their lives and emphasize the aspects they would like to remember fondly…
AU: Romanticizing of course—people want to romanticize what was wonderful. The speech around the table that Alice's mother gives, even though it’s coded with people not doing this or that back then, is a mask. She is trying to say what she says in the end: “I have left everything that I was in the communist period. I can’t just forget it.” She doesn’t in any way support the evil aspects of communism, it’s just half of her life—the best half—is there.
We shot that scene around the table in two days. On the first day the scene had a certain tone, but our wonderful director, who is so flexible and able to change his mind—which I see as a sign of intelligence—said he felt the tone we had adopted was maybe not the best one. The scene is not about people being at war with each other but understanding each other and celebrating their tenderness.
FL: That actually leads into my next question. What was it like working with Stere Gulea in formulating your character?
AU: I was excited to work with Stere, but it actually surpassed my expectations. It was one of the most relaxed and beautiful film sets I’ve ever been on and he was one of the most attentive film directors. He loves actors and his writing being dragged into their stories. At some point he thought the actors were stealing the characters away from him by moving away from the initial script. He nearly had a fit of pride but decided it was best to have the actors create the characters as they come.
Another one of the beautiful things was the little personal details. Some of the paintings in Alice’s room are mine and Alan and I rewrote some aspects. There was great symbiosis between us.
FL: How long was the shoot?
AU: About a month. I shot two weeks in total.
FL: I know you’ve been working on films outside of Romania, and with some American actors like Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in Serena and Harvey Keitel in an upcoming project. You were one of the Berlin Film Festival's “Shooting Stars” as well. And since then you've done drama, sci-fi, thrillers, etc. What attracts you to the roles you choose?
<p>AU: Story. And a character that is unexpected. In many ways, I’m looking for actors, writers, and directors who break cliché. I like original work that I can sink my teeth into, and having things that challenge me so I am worried for a while until I fix the problem—like a math problem.
FL: What do you have coming up?
AU: There's an American film called Thursday, which is in post-production now and will be in festivals at the beginning of next year. Also Index Zero, an Italian science-fiction film in English that just premiered. It is touring the world right now starting with its country of origin. Also we’re hoping to get distribution for an English film called Camera Trap that I shot in Nepal and the Isle of Man in England.