Laia Costa: ‘Sex is usually never just about sex’
The Spanish movie star of the moment on revealing sex scenes, her big break and coming to acting later in life
Laia Costa: "I’m sure I had emotions on the set of Only You that I have never experienced in real life." Photograph: Stephane De Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images
Laia Costa became an overnight sensation in 2016, when her unscripted, largely improvised performance at the centre of the nerve-wrecking Berlin heist thriller Victoria earned her a Lola for the best actress at the German Film Awards. She was the first non-German to win one.
“When we were shooting it we thought no one was going to watch this movie,” says Costa of director Sebastian Schipper’s international hit. “And the way we shot it meant we had no idea if we would ever finish the movie. If it started raining or the camera fell over, we were f**ked. We had no idea if we were going to actually achieve what we set out to do.”
Upon finishing that film – which was shot in one single continuous take (the second of two takes was used for the final cut) by cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen across 22 locations with three sound teams and six assistant directors making sure that no random civilians stumbled into the shot – Costa turned to Grøvlen to ask if she’d ever be involved with another project like that one. “No,” came the certain response.
He was right. Kind of. Costa hasn’t landed a second 134-minute single take movie. She has, nonetheless, become one of the most sought after talents in the indie scene, appearing alongside Nicholas Hoult (Newness), Mia Wasikowska (Piercing), and Antonio Banderas (Life Itself) in movies made across Spain, Russia, Germany, Argentina, Italy, the United States and the UK.
“I think Victoria opened the door for me to the international market,” says the 34-year-old. “All of the roles I’ve been doing so far in English were not written for a Spanish girl. They were written for an American or English actress. Of the six movies I have done outside of Spain, only one was written for a Spanish woman. There’s something really beautiful about that. There’s a film-making community that are looking for a very specific thing and they’re not really worried about your mother tongue. And there are so many other ways to communicate that aren’t language.”
Today. The Catalan star is in London, taking a break from shooting Isabel Coixet’s new series Foodie Love for HBO, and on promotional duties for the much-admired romantic drama, Only You.
“So I’m actually shooting in Spain for a year,” says Costa. “I was really scared to work in my own language. And now I’m suddenly surrounded with English people again and I’m worried my English is going away.”
Only You, which sees a Spanish arts council worker fall for decade-younger student (God’s Own Country’s Josh O’Connor) only for the relationship to flounder as the couple faces infertility issues, has been praised by Variety for bridging “realism and romanticism to stirring effect” and by Harper’s Bazaar for “quietly challenging received wisdoms about trying for children.”
The first feature from writer-director Harry Wootliff has earned many comparisons to Andrew Haigh’s cleverly calibrated relationship dramas, Weekend and 45 Years (indeed, the three films share a producer in Tristan Goligher). Only You, however, is far more sexually explicit than Haigh’s work. That’s something of a vogue in Costa’s resume, arriving after last year’s erotically charged dramas, Maine and Duck Butter.
“Sex is usually never just about sex,” says Costa. “What I really love about Only You is that through the sex, you can see a lot of story that isn’t spoken. Sometimes the sex is part of a big argument and sometimes it’s about someone being powerful and sometimes it’s an expression of love. Intimacy is a very important concept in this movie but I also think that you can see intimacy in the arguments. And that’s much more difficult to convey because you can while you can have sex with a stranger; it’s harder to have an argument with a stranger. Because it doesn’t hurt in the same way.”
Laia Costa Bertrán had completed a PhD in communication and international relations in Barcelona before she relocated to Berlin where she worked as an executive accountant in an advertising agency for six years. At night. she took an acting class with her sister, Noemí Costa: it was meant to be a change of pace from sport, which had previously dominated her life, until Victoria came along.
“I had my evenings off because I was done at six,” she shrugs. “So I started doing some classes. And then I got a few acting jobs. Honestly? I was kind of ashamed because I didn’t really think of it as a profession. It hadn’t interested me before. I was playing basketball for 17 years, training four days a week, and playing at the weekend. So I was not really into movies. It was only once I started working as an actress, I thought: holy shit, I better start watching movies right away if I want to talk to other actors and directors.”
At 34, she notes, she’s hardly the youngest breakout star in cinema. But she wouldn’t have it any other way. “I think it’s a very good thing that I didn’t start to be to act until I was already grown up,” she says. “Because you look at the professional slightly different. I really want to make sure I’m doing stuff I’m very proud of. You invest so much energy and emotion when you’re working on a movie. At the end of the day, you need to make sure it’s worth all that. I’m sure I had emotions on the set of Only You that I have never experienced in real life. When my boyfriend saw the movie – and this was the biggest compliment ever for me – he told me there were moments when he couldn’t recognise me. I finished the movie and I thought: this is my best role ever. I wrote to everyone telling them!”
Only You is released July 12th