How Actress Eva Melander Became Sweden's Most Famous Troll

Border-Publicity Still-H 2018
Courtesy of Meta Spark and Karnfilm

The star of 'Border,' Sweden's foreign-language entry for the Oscars, talks about prosthetics and politics and how dog videos on YouTube inspired her latest performance.

All acting, by definition, is transformation. But there are very few recent examples of that Jekyll-into-Hyde film alchemy quite so eye-popping as Eva Melander’s performance in Border, which opened in select theaters on Oct. 26. As a customs enforcement officer named Tina who’s blessed with a super keen sense of smell but cursed with a hard, disfigured face, the 43-year-old Swedish actress is simply a different person onscreen.

Though perhaps "person" isn’t quite correct. Border, which is directed by Ali Abbasi (Shelley) and is Sweden’s official foreign-language film Oscar entry, is steeped in Nordic mythology about trolls and whether they live among us. Tina meets a man (Eero Milonoff) with an uncanny resemblance to her — and that hurdles the narrative into many dark places. 

The Hollywood Reporter recently caught up with Melander during a stopover in New York — before she returned to Stockholm to star in a production of Richard III (she's playing Richard!) —  and talked to her about her remarkable onscreen transformation, as well and a slew of other subjects, including how she found inspiration from dog videos on YouTube.  

What was it like for you to first see yourself in the mirror as Tina?

I felt quite sad at first, actually. Because I was glimpsing how hard it would be for anyone who was not normative looking — or didn’t think that they were. But then I went outside in public with all the prosthetics on. This bus pulled up near me and a huge crowd of teenagers got off. And as I walked through the crowd, everybody looked at me and bought the reality of it. Some of them seemed a little scared. But more interestingly, many more of them were overly polite to me — and in their politeness I could see them getting uncomfortable and not wanting to show it. Smiling but not making eye contact. It was a clue to me about how outsiders are treated.

Describe the process of applying the incredible makeup that you wear in the film. How long did it take to put on?

It was four hours every morning to apply and an hour at night to it take off. There were nine prosthetic pieces, including on my eyelids. Plus dentures, which helped to push my mouth out. It felt like the ultimate acting challenge. I think the only part of my face not covered by silicone was my upper lip.

I’ve heard that you went to YouTube for some help on how to make the most of your upper lip.

Dog videos, yes. As it usually is in acting, you have a restriction and then you have to be creative. Tina experiences much of the world through her sense of smell, and you know how a dog’s upper lip and nose go together, right? I watched how dogs are always sniffing, all the time. I also gained 40 pounds, muscle and fat, by overtraining my upper body and eating every hour and a half. That caused mood swings and difficulty sleeping, which in its own way was a help. 

Really? So your grumpiness onscreen was real? 

Sometimes it was. Actually, on the very last day of filming I felt so exhausted. We'd filmed for two months. On that evening I fell into a deep sleep, and when I woke up the next morning, I was in that foggy state before you’re totally aware. And for a moment I wasn’t sure if I was finished being Tina — or if was going to be Tina for the rest of my life.  

Oh, interesting. Did your brain take a moment to consider the latter scenario? 

My brain was saying, “If I’ve morphed into Tina permanently, just get on with it then.” The shoot had been very tough, and by that point I had moved the goal post so many times that I wasn’t even really feeling things.

Did you construct a backstory for Tina?

Sure. There’s sequence in the short story where Tina is a teenager and she connects with a boy in school, who also likes her a lot. They get a little bit drunk, and they’re laying down in a field. And the boy, in a polite but obvious way, rejects her. It’s devastating. It’s not in the film but I kept that moment in my head while we were filming.

Your director, Ali Abbasi, was born in Iran and he’s been subjected to the Trump-era travel ban. To what extent is Border a political film? 

When I heard that Trump was doing it, I called Ali at once and said, “I feel so sad about this. What should we do?” And we talked and have decided we’d just make things work, in terms of promoting the film. So we are. But Ali should be here sitting next to me right now. He thinks about these issues a lot, and so do I. How can you not? But what Ali has done is so incredible because he’s made an odd love story between two outsiders, yet he’s addressing themes in the film which connect to the worldwide situation today, with what’s going on in America and Sweden and Europe. 

You’ve done a lot of work on TV in Sweden. Do fans recognize you and approach you? 

More and more they do. But I benefit from being a character actor. In America, you do have a range of character actors, yes? A character actor isn’t just Steve Buscemi, right?

It’s a wide range.

[Laughs] He’s wonderful, by the way. But, yeah, I don’t want audiences seeing me as an actress. I want me to see them as the person I’m playing. And so often when I’m approached by a someone who knows my work, they thank me for the parts I’ve played. Not because I’m an actress, I hope.

What are some other transformative performances that you’ve admired? 

I’ll never forget Cate Blanchett and what she did in the Bob Dylan film [I’m Not There]. It’s astonishing. She’s also in a movie called Coffee and Cigarettes, where she both plays herself and a cousin of hers, who comes to visit. That’s one of my favorite things ever. Everything you need to know about an actor’s power to transform, it’s there.