Spending her life seeking experiences, one Greece based actress tells THEO PANAYIDES that she has always had adventurous tastes
Who is Michele Valley? The surname is Scottish, the birthplace Swiss (Berne, to be precise), the family French-speaking; her city of residence, since 1985, has been Athens. She’s been a film and theatre actress for four decades – but is probably best-known outside Greece for Singapore Sling (1990), directed by Nikos Nikolaidis. Let us note for the record (is it actually important? who knows?) that she plays ‘Mother’ in that film, a madwoman with a hint of the hermaphrodite – and at one point, having cornered the titular detective along with her equally demented ‘Daughter’, she straddles him, rides him furiously, then pees on his face. It is, as they say, a cult movie.
Her tastes – at least in art – have always been adventurous. It was like that in Berne, when she slipped into a theatre at age 13 and auditioned for a figurant’s role (ie part of the crowd) in The Threepenny Opera. “I was in school, I thought it was very boring. Life was very boring. I wanted to – have experiences, you know? To see things.” From her early teens she was always “the little one”, an eternally curious groupie – she acted and painted but mostly just tagged along, a young girl with “wide-open eyes and ears” – on the fringes of Berne’s artistic circles, going to school in the mornings then rehearsing and performing in the evenings and doing her homework late at night, so tired “I was sleeping on my desk”.
Where did it come from, this taste for excitement? Was the family artistic?
“No, not at all,” she replies at once. Her English is fluent but accented, one of her five spoken languages. The blue eyes are shrewd, the same flashing eyes I remember from the big screen. She wears trainers; she’s been walking all day.
What did her parents do?
“Nothing special,” she shrugs. “I mean – let’s not speak about this. I don’t want to speak about my parents so much.”
There’s a bit of a pattern here. Later, I ask if she has siblings and she sounds surprised, as if to say the question is irrelevant. I ask how old she is, and she balks: “I’m over 60, let’s say it like this”. She came to Greece from Paris – where she’d lived for nine years – to be with the man she loved, but prefers not to say who he was. Yet it’s not like she’s trying to block out any painful subjects. She and the man in question are still good friends – though they’re not together, nor is he the father of her child. (She has a son, now 26.) She and her parents never had any terrible ruction, and in fact she remains close to her mother (her father died years ago). Her reticence is more, I suspect, a natural distance, a critical eye that she casts on the world, including her own life – maybe even mixed with an actor’s instinct, as if to keep the mystery alive: who’s Michele Valley?
There’s something else too, a deep sense of seriousness. I can see how she might be impatient with those details of her life she considers trivial or frivolous; like most people who’ve spent their lives looking for authentic experience, she doesn’t seem to have a frivolous bone in her body. She’s very funny in Singapore Sling, but it’s unclear if she knew she was being funny: Nikolaidis has her speak her lines first in French, then in English – riffing on the cheesy old-Hollywood shorthand for exotic foreigners – but her po-faced performance gives no hint that she knows it’s parody (if anything, her seriousness is what makes it funny). She’s in Cyprus for three days when we speak, as a guest of the Images and Views of Alternative Cinema festival, and has proved to be a high-minded visitor; she spent most of the previous day in ancient Curium, and now plans to visit Salamis. In between she’s tramping around Nicosia in the hot summer sun, trying to grasp the essence of the place.
What’s her lifestyle like in Athens? What does she do for fun?
“I don’t have fun.”
“No fun?” I repeat, confused.
“I don’t like fun. I don’t know what it means to have a good time, to have fun. No, I’m not at all interested in this.”
Doesn’t she like parties?
“Not at all.”
Surely she goes out, though?
“I go to see things that I haven’t seen. I go to movies. I go to art exhibitions.”
But going out just for fun?
“No. Why should I?” She tells me of the Greek friend who asked her out for coffee once, and of course Michele said yes (“I love coffee”). The espresso came, she drank it down in one, then stood up to go, much to the friend’s bemusement. Greek people sit in cafés for two hours, she notes in disbelief: “I never have two hours in my life to sit around like this. I mean, it makes me crazy… It’s not in my nature.”
Does she have lots of friends?
“No,” she replies flatly. “I have some very important friends, yes. ‘Lots’ doesn’t mean anything. Nobody has lots of friends – or they are not friends.”
I’m a little flummoxed, trying to take it all in. “Was it different when you were younger?” I venture. Michele shakes her head.
“Never. No. I’m not looking for having a good time. It was never my point. I want to have – to have things happening,” she exclaims, warming to her theme now, “to have experiences, to see things, to hear things. I love music. I love to swim, because it’s incredible… It’s an experience. For me, who was not born on the sea, it’s always an experience, even today, to swim in the sea. I mean, you know, something takes you – many times I cry when I’m swimming because it’s so huger than me, it’s so great. You give yourself to something so strong and big, that could make you like this” – she grabs my arms, to denote paralysis or worse – “in one second! This is not fun, how can somebody say that he’s going to swim for fun? I don’t know, I can’t think like this. And I was never looking for fun.”
Who is Michele Valley? Maybe this person, this woman right here – an intensely serious woman looking, above all, to be carried away. It’s not just that life in Berne wasn’t exciting enough, back in the day; it wasn’t transportive enough. I ask about the people who’ve marked her life – the older people she befriended in her teenage years, or theatre director Antoine Vitez (whom she met in Paris), or Nikolaidis himself, who provided her first movie role with Morning Patrol in 1987. What did they all have in common? She thinks about it: “[Vitez] knew so much,” she says at last. “I don’t speak about the attraction. He was an attractive man, for sure, but this was not the point”. What she finds most attractive – most irresistible – isn’t sex appeal but wisdom, something greater than herself; “They are masters,” she says of these mentors. “I always wanted to have masters.” One doesn’t hang out with a master, one doesn’t have fun. One submits, as one does to the sea, or the pull of experience.
Everything she’s done has been tinged with this seriousness of purpose. Her bohemian adolescence makes her sound quite the rebel – up all night with middle-aged theatre people at 14! – but in fact it’s no wonder that her parents were so understanding. “I never had to make a revolution, or to scream and they would lock me up and say ‘No!’ and I say ‘Yes!’ – no, nothing of this happened. Because I was like this, but at the same time I was very correct somehow”. She wasn’t off her head, or erratic, or a wild child. She planned her time carefully, half an hour’s sleep and 10 minutes’ homework. She rebelled, but she did it methodically. Her film roles (even the weirdest and most extreme, like Singapore Sling with its graphic violence and bodily fluids) have been similarly earnest: she values process – “to know the other, to create something, to find a common language” – and has sought a connection with every director she’s worked with. She’ll do anything, however outrageous or explicit, as long as it’s done with “love and trust”.
The problem, alas, is that roles are drying up. Partly, it’s an age thing: “There is this idea that women are interesting, or loveable, or beautiful or exciting as long as they are – how do you say, fructible?” (‘Fertile,’ I suggest, and she nods.) “After [that], they will have no sex life anymore, no erotic behaviour. It’s not true at all!”. That kind of thinking is bad enough – but the other problem, the final nail in her coffin, is that Greece is bankrupt and broken, and Greek filmmakers naturally want to talk about the crisis. Michele has been living there for 32 years, of course, and Greece is her home – “but I am not Greek,” she says simply. “I cannot be representative of the situation now”.
She’s had some work in recent years; Yorgos Lanthimos cast her as the mother in Dogtooth, possibly a nod to her mother in Singapore Sling. Still, she admits, “the financial situation is very difficult… I’m living again as when I was 20 years old, but I have not the same energy. I’m tired, you know?”. Her life is “restricted”; she struggles to afford little luxuries, and does translation work to help pay the bills. “I’m spending a lot of time in front of my computer, breaking my back and breaking my eyes. It’s just not how I thought my life would – end,” she says, pausing grimly before that last word. Still, she adds stoically, “I don’t regret my choices. The only thing I could’ve done is to work a little bit more, in order to save money – but it was not my style… I never dreamed of a big life.”
It’s a melancholy note on which to end (though of course it’s not ‘the end’, not by a long shot), sitting on a hot summer’s day in Nicosia looking back on an ardent, unusual life. There was never a plan; “I always followed the flux,” she recalls dreamily. Living out of one bag as a 20-something in Paris, meanwhile finding her feet in avant-garde theatre. The British man at the Café Flore who offered her his flat for six months, no strings attached. The openness of 70s bohemia, the “hope of love and peace”, the post-war dream of Europe – now curdled and degraded every day on the streets of Athens. (Michele blames her own generation, and worries terribly for her son and his peers.) Her first experience of Greece in the early 80s, when she loved the place but not so much the people. “I thought the men were very macho, I was not used to this. They had these incredible behaviours… At that time, a Greek guy would sit on a chair [and] he needs three chairs – one to sit on, one for the arm, and one for the leg. And then there is one chair left, it’s for you!”.
Greece has changed, we both agree. Has living in Greece changed her too?
“Yes, of course. I am much more open.”
But surely she was open before? She was doing avant-garde theatre in Paris, for goodness sake.
“No, I was not open. I was open in my mind, maybe – but I was also quite dark, and I had my inside stories”. She was always, I suspect, an opaque, intense person: not relaxed, not fun-loving, impatient with convention and banality, always searching for the hope of transcendence. “I think I’m a better person now. I think Greece made me a better person.”
There was always something to Michele Valley, as there is with any effective actor – a presence, a tension, a glimmer of something unsettled. It worked as a flipside to her darkness, an outer proof of the inner yearning that made her recoil from the boredom of ordinary life – “a germ,” as she says, “my personal devil”. They noticed it in Berne, when a 13-year-old got up onstage and, despite zero experience, landed a part in The Threepenny Opera. The British man at the Café Flore saw it too, buying Michele a big breakfast (she was due to take the train back to Berne in a few hours; that encounter changed her whole life) and offering the use of his flat while he was away in South Africa – just because he’d seen something in her, and wanted to help. Years later, Nikos Nikolaidis saw it too, when a casting director sent him a photo of this unknown theatre actress who’d just arrived in Greece; and of course it also appears in her movies, her particular spirit, her own indescribable essence. Who is Michele Valley? That – whatever it may be – is Michele Valley.