TRT World interviews Valentijn Dhaenens, an actor in the film “Stranger in Paradise.” He welcomes migrants with unusual techniques: first rejecting them, then embracing them.
TRT WORLD: You are known for your roles in fiction films and TV series, why did you accept to play this role in the documentary “Stranger in Paradise”?
VALENTIJN DHAENENS: Aside from film, I spent most of the time in the theatre writing, directing and playing my own shows. I tour these shows all over the world. I made three shows with big political content (BigmoutH, SmallWaR and Unsung). The director of Stranger in Paradise, Guido Henderikx asked me to play this part because he was familiar with my theatre work. I was scared and attracted at the same time by this project. But we did a few sessions and I started to feel it could also be, in a way, my film in the sense that I could agree with all the decisions of Guido and that I would be able to write my own speech in a way that I felt comfortable with.
Acting in a fiction film and being part of a documentary as an actor must have posed some challenges and differences. What were those?
VD: The hardest part in the filming was the first part in which I would have to disappoint the people that just arrived in Europe, explaining they’re not welcome. Most of all since I felt they forgot almost immediately that I was only playing the part of the not welcoming Europe. Since their situation was very real and since they were still full of adrenaline having survived very recently this dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean Sea, they forgot almost immediately I was only playing a part.
In “Stranger in Paradise”, you were the only actor while the other characters were real immigrants. How were you able to be in character?
VD: As an actor I’m a person, as most actors, with great empathy. I felt like helping them while I had to play opposite them. They also were a bit like my audience. It’s very hard for me not to please an audience.
Was playing such a blunt character towards real people with real issues difficult for you? How did you manage to do it?
VD: I had no other option. I agreed on doing this film. I agreed on the script. I discussed every decision in the film endlessly with the director. We couldn’t do endless retakes without losing the spontaneity of the people in the classroom. I was just thrown in front of the lions but I knew exactly what we had to do. I remember being an emotional wreck the first three shooting days. While playing a tough guy I felt like a sponge, sucking up so many emotions the people displayed. After a day or two, I built some distance and had to build a wall to cope with these emotional encounters. I guess a human being adapts very swiftly. Just as I imagine people dealing professionally with the rough side of life find a way to deal with it on a day to day basis, to be able to have a personal life.