To the list of unlikely places where the gods of stardom have discovered their angels - the soda fountain at Schwab's Drugs (Lana Turner), a New York pizza parlour (Natalie Portman) - it seems we must now add the back-flap book photo. For that's where the Mexican director Carlos Reygadas stumbled upon the bestselling Canadian author Miriam Toews, seeing in her visage staring out from a copy of A Complicated Kindness something mournful and broken and perfect for his new film.
Which is how it came to pass that Toews will make her silver-screen debut later this month in Reygadas's Silent Light ( Stellet Licht), which is being honoured with a gala red-carpet world premiere as one of the 22 films in competition at the Cannes Film Festival.
Never mind that Toews is not an actor, and that she'd never before been on a film set. Never mind, either, that the film's dialogue is in low German, a language Toews doesn't speak. Reygadas, who picked up the Camera d'or at Cannes for best first feature in 2002 with his directorial debut, Japon, rarely uses professional actors, so it wasn't all that off-the-charts that he should cast an unknown from the middle of Canada. As for the language barrier, well, there's always phonetics.
It all began when Reygadas was in Germany about a year ago, looking for actors (that is, non-actors) for his film, a love triangle set among the Mennonites of northern Mexico. A leading advocate of Plautdietsch, the archaic German dialect that originated in the country's lowlands, gave Reygadas a copy of A Complicated Kindness, figuring he'd enjoy its story of a Mennonite teenager growing up in small-town Manitoba. He did enjoy it, but he was even more thrilled when he turned to the author photo at the back.
"I got an e-mail from Carlos saying, 'I like your author photo, I read your book, and I think you might be right for this part,'" says Toews over the phone, sipping white wine in the backyard of her Winnipeg home one evening this week. She still sounds incredulous at the turn of events. The e-mail, she says, continued with this: "'My name is Carlos Reygadas, I'm a filmmaker. Do you want to be in my movie?'"
"I hemmed and hawed," says Toews. "At first I said: 'That's hilarious, flattering. Thanks but no thanks, I'll pass. It's not really my scene, not at all.' Then I started discussing it with my husband, my family, my friends. I Googled [Carlos] And I thought: I dunno'. Well, maybe ..."
"I hadn't heard of him before he e-mailed me," Toews admits, "though I might have heard of Japon. He sent me his other films, and I watched them. I love them, I thought they were beautiful, I thought he was very talented." And Reygadas was very persuasive. "He said, 'Just imagine: northern Mexico, it'll be beautiful, it'll be a bunch of us living in these decrepit, abandoned farmhouses, shooting this movie. It'll be an experience of a lifetime.'"
And it was, even with all of the rattlesnakes in the area where they shot, outside a small Mennonite town in Chihuahua. "Every time we'd shoot a scene, they'd always have to clear the place of rattlesnakes," she says. "I don't really care. We had an anti-venom kit."
Toews plays Esther, a mother of seven and the wife of a Mennonite farmer (Cornelius Wall) who, "against the law of God and man," according to an official plot summary, falls in love with another woman (Maria Pankratz). She still doesn't know exactly why Reygadas chose her for the role. "I guess he just thought somehow I looked the part of Esther - this spurned, rejected woman - which is kind of funny because I'm a pretty happy-go-lucky person. Well not so much, but relatively. I didn't think that I had that sort of sad countenance. Maybe I do, more than I know."
Even though she was nervous in front of the cameras, Toews says there was something relaxing about being a cog in someone else's machine. "Normally I write books and that's my life, and here I didn't have to think too much about creating my own characters, my own story. It was kind of nice to be part of Carlos's vision and just follow directions. So that was a relief, and the collaborative aspect of it was also fun compared to the solitary existence of writing."
And she discovered some similarities to her own work. "I inhabit the characters in my writing, for sure, I become the characters. So in that way I guess it felt like a natural thing to be wanting to do. I'm not sure I succeeded at any level," she says with a self-effacing laugh, "but it certainly felt like, 'Here we go, this is something I'm familiar with attempting to do.' Whether it's successful or not, who knows? But it was a familiar process."
Still, the Plautdietsch did give her troubles. "It's not a language I speak at all, and I told Carlos that from the beginning. I don't speak it, my mother does. I hear it infrequently. He said, 'Aaah, no problem, you can pick it up.'"
"My mom thought it was very funny and ironic," she continues. "Before I went out there, to Mexico, she'd sit me down at her kitchen table and try to help me with the pronunciation of some of the Plautdietsch. I'd say something over and over and then she'd sigh and shake her head and say 'okaaaayyy ... let's move along.' Eventually she'd start laughing uncontrollably and we'd have to quit."
And how does she sound on film? "I don't know, I think I've been dubbed," she laughs.
She's serious. "Yeah, I'm pretty sure Carlos mentioned that. Because I couldn't get the hang of it, because the accent of the Plautdietsch, the wording and phrasing is different in Mexico than it is here." The news, she says, "was a huge relief. I was just mangling the language."
Then maybe it's just as well no Mennonite newspapers are going to be able to buttonhole Toews along the red carpet and quiz her on her Plautdietsch: She's decided not to make the trip to Cannes. There's just too much going on back home, she explains. Her teenaged daughter is heading to Central America, and Toews was already scheduled to be in Toronto for a friend's wedding at the same time as the festival.
"It seems absolutely ridiculous, not to go to Cannes," she admits. But it's an awfully long trip from Winnipeg. And besides, "I would be nobody there," she says, laughing. "I'm not even an actor. The whole thing is just a fluky, one-off thing. I would probably have to convince somebody to get into the screening of the film that I'm in. They'd say: 'What are you doing here? Imposter.'"