Jun 2 2014

“Theatre saved my life” – Sergi López on accidental movies and playing bad guys

If you have seen Pan’s Labyrinth, then you might understand some trepidation at the thought of meeting Sergi López. In Guillermo del Toro’s dark masterpiece, he plays a twisted sadist who enjoys torturing people with knives.

The real life Sergi is fortunately not dressed in an intimidating military
uniform. In fact, he has a large grin and buoyant air often only found in children. The overall effect is one of affable charm, and it’s impossible not to smile back.

Sergi is in town for the London Spanish Film Festival Spring Weekend that brings four of his films to the big screen and spotlights his long and varied career.

We begin our discussion with a bizarre mix of languages.

“You’re the one who speaks English,” he says with a slight frown. “My English is not so good.”

I explain that I speak some Spanish but not well enough for an interview. He tests my French and, on hearing my atrocious accent, decides that his English is really quite good compared to my linguistic abilities.

Asked to describe himself in one line, Sergi considers the question cautiously, but seems pleased with his final proclamation: “Quite simple Catalan man whose life was saved by theatre.”

Clearly fond of his hometown Barcelona, where he still resides now, theatre was indeed his saviour. A poor student at high school, his parents wondered whether he would ever do anything with his life.

“One day, I had a revelation. I was doing amateur theatre, and when I decided to do it… ding! It was like a light. And I felt that I would work in theatre for one year after that, and one year after that, and one more year, and one more year. And the dream just kept running.”

Theatre became his passion and he pursued his dreams to France, where he trained at a theatre school for two years. At no point did it ever cross his mind that he would become a film star: he fell into cinema quite by accident.

“I was doing theatre, and in the office to the school, there was a little piece of paper that said: “We are searching for an actor who has a Spanish accent for a feature-length movie.” And it was funny to see what a casting was like, because I had never done a casting before. I went to the meeting with the director just to see what would happen, but without really thinking about making cinema, and the director chose me for a movie. And after, a second movie, and after – the same director – three, four and five.”

This was the beginning of a prolific career in French cinema. After finishing acting school, he returned to Barcelona but his work saw him cross the border many times. “Even in France, a lot of people think I’m French or I live in France, but I never lived there.”

With over 60 films to his name that span multiple genres, I’m intrigued as to what motivates him to take on a part. Interestingly, he prioritises personal involvement with the story far over any admiration for a well-written character.

“When I started to work in theatre, I knew nothing. I didn’t know directors, I didn’t know actors. So the only thing that I could grip was the story. I did it like this in the beginning. And now, I know more people and I know more directors. I read a lot of screenplays, but I stick to the same idea. When I read something, I don’t read my character. When you read a story and it grips you, and you read fast, and it touches you or says something to you. Or maybe it’s fun, or maybe it makes you cry. I never choose my character. Even on the contrary – sometimes I read things where they propose me a really good character but the story was not very good. I need to believe in it.”

But you have a reputation for playing villains, I point out. Surely you must be pulled in that direction?

Sergi laughs. “You know it’s funny because – I don’t know exactly the number – I have done something like 60 or 62 movies. Within these 62, I played a villain maybe five times. That was Harry, un ami qui vous veut du bien, a film from France, and it went to Cannes. Pan’s Labyrinth – it goes to Cannes, and around the world. It’s a really great movie. And another movie in Spain that a lot of people saw was Sólo Mía. I was a man who beats his wife.” He half-winces as he says it.

I probe a little further as to which role in his career has been his favourite. “I don’t know because they’re like your children, it’s difficult to say… For different reasons, on some shoots, all the team were like a family. So for me these characters are important. But you know what? The bad guys are really funny to play. There’s something really ludique [playful] about it. If you can imagine a child’s game, when they play the wolf, ‘grrr’, who eats the little baby, ‘ahaha’.” He gives a wolfish grin. “It’s really amazing to play.”

Time is ticking and I want to ask many more questions, such as what’s it like to work with Guillermo del Toro, who he describes as “a monster. He’s really very clever, very intelligent, very brilliant. It’s incredible.” Instead, I ask about that scene in Pan’s Labyrinth, the one scene that you will remember if you remember nothing else about the film: the scene where Captain Vidal sews up the knife wound in his cheek that makes him look like a lopsided Joker. Typically, Sergi found that scene pretty amusing too.

“How we shot that scene? Well, it was really funny. They put a kind of plastic here on my face, with a cut in the plastic, and when I took the needle, I was pushing it in the plastic, but even the guy in front of me with the light, looked at me and groaned. He knew it was just plastic but it was really impressive!”

He laughs again. What’s really impressive is Sergi’s boundless enthusiasm for his profession. With four films forthcoming this year, it won’t be long before he tops 70 credits to his name. Yet I suspect that many people like myself are hoping for a few more villains, and I can’t help but wonder whether, secretly, Sergi is too.

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