By Miia Pirttijärvi
When I meet with Los Angeles-based Finnish actress Nina Sallinen at a diner near Penn Station in Manhattan, she tells me that I’m her second meeting of the day and she still has two appointments after our interview. She’s in New York showcasing her one-woman play, Poor Poor Lear, and her days are crammed full of work-related meetings before she heads back out to L.A. Despite her busy schedule, she never gives the impression of being in a hurry.
While I order a chicken sandwich for lunch, she opts for coffee and apple pie. She asks the waiter whether the pie comes à la mode and we spend a few moments discussing the random fact that in the U.S the phrase inexplicably came to mean “served with ice cream” instead of the direct translation “in the style.”
Nina was born in Sweden in a town near Stockholm where she spent her early childhood. Her family moved to Helsinki when she was seven. She tells me that in elementary school she would put on plays she wrote in front of her entire class. She went on to study at the Kallio High School of Performing Arts in Helsinki, and later graduated from the Theatre Academy with a Master’s Degree.
Nina has been involved in many different productions both in Finland and oversees. She started out as a child actress in the Finnish National Theatre at 14. After graduating from the Theatre Academy in Helsinki she worked at the TTT (Tampereen työväenteatteri) –theatre for a while before continuing her work as a freelance actor in Helsinki. She has done several theater productions as well as some television, for example Tuhlaajapoika (1992) and Jäitä hattuun (1994).
After crossing the pond approximately 15 years ago she decided to try her luck in the theater circles of Chicago. Over the years Nina has taken part in many theater groups in both Chicago and L.A. Poor Poor Lear saw its American premiere in 2000 after a producer saw a clip of the play in Finnish and suggested that Nina translate it into English. She has performed the play in several locations, including Finland, Chicago, Los Angeles and Macedonia. At the moment she lives with her husband and son in L.A. After her New York showcase, she would eventually like to bring the play to New York for a longer run.
When asked about the highlights of her career, Nina says she can’t point out any individual productions, as all of them have been so different. Some have given her amazing experience as an actress and some have given her lifelong friends. However, she says that theater is the art form she’s the most familiar with and the most passionate about. “Theater is my home.”
When I ask Nina how she came to live in the U.S, she gives a self-conscious laugh and proceeds to tell me a story that would make for a fantastic script. At the age of 16, she spent a year in Iowa as an exchange student. During that time she met her future husband and they dated throughout that year. When her exchange was over Nina returned to Finland and the two lovebirds lost contact. At that time, long-distance relationships were not as easy to uphold as today, and the two had no contact for almost a decade. Nina was actually engaged – twice – during that period of time. Nina says that all of a sudden her high school sweetheart just popped in to her head and she started wondering what ever happened to him. She decided to contact him, and they started keeping in touch again. They subsequently met in New York, and decided to get married after just two weeks.
Unfortunately Nina had to return to Finland where she had a permanent role in a play. Her contract was ironclad and there were only a few ways one could get out of it before the play would close. One of these was military service, and the other was pregnancy. Nina and her husband knew they wanted to have children, so they decided to start right away. Nina got pregnant and was released from her contract – and at the premiere of Poor Poor Lear in Finland, she was five months pregnant.
Mixed candies and theater traditions
I’m curious to know what kind of a relationship Nina has with Finland as a Finn living abroad. “I think I have a romanticized image of Finland,” she admits. “I don’t think I’ll ever live there permanently again, I’ve been gone for so long. But I’d love to do some work there.”
She says she misses different things at different times. Sometimes it’s the food, sometimes it’s Finnish Christmas traditions. She also misses her friends, and traditions in the local theater scene. The one thing she seems fairly passionate about is the lack of proper mixed candies in the States, especially the movie theaters. “The candy selection at movie theaters in the U.S sucks!” Nina exclaims spiritedly.
She tells me that there’s a big difference between Finland and the U.S when it comes to theater. The recruitment process is different, and in the U.S people become actors through all kinds of different paths whereas in Finland the traditional way is going to the Theatre Academy at the University of Helsinki and building your career on that. “Here it doesn’t really matter if an actor is highly educated or not, unless he or she wants to teach acting.” The options for actors differ even within the States; for example Chicago is more focused on theater, while in L.A the business is mostly about movies and TV.
Next we discuss the reason that brought Nina to New York: her one-woman show. Poor Poor Lear is a dark comedy surrounding a veteran actress who decides to perform Shakespeare’s King Lear as her farewell performance. The diva begins to see the similarities between the lives of herself and King Lear and question her decisions in life. Nina says that the play came about after she and co-writer Katja Krohn brainstormed for months talking about their fears and interests concerning acting.
“Before this play I always found interacting with the audience to be very awkward. So of course in Poor Poor Lear my character is extremely interactive with the audience.” Nina laughs. Nina was pregnant at the time and Katja already had children, so the question of whether it’s possible to be a good actress and a great mom at the same time came up. There is no direct answer to that question, but in Poor Poor Lear the main character is a mom who chose her career over her family.
“I feel like this choice between children and a career is one that women have to make more often then men,” Nina says.
One of the other themes of the play is aging. Aging can be a touchy subject to older actresses. Nina uses the word “useless” to describe what many actresses feel like when they get older. Even though the play deals with aging, it does not venture into the theme of death or dying. “In the end the character never learns from her mistakes – well, maybe she does momentarily learn from them, but she keeps going back to her old ways nevertheless.”
I ask Nina if she sees her future self in the character of the old actress. “That would be my nightmare!” she exclaims. “She’s so lonely and not very emotional.”
Nina says that putting on a one-woman show has helped her mature as an actress. She finds doing Poor Poor Lear much livelier and flexible than other plays, since every night is different. “The audience plays the second role, so every time is different for that reason alone.”
New York tips
Nina tells me she very much likes New York and frequently visits the city. She usually stays with friends while in town, and recommends wondering around the city exploring different neighborhoods.
“Last time I stayed with a friend in Harlem and now I’m staying in Brooklyn. There’s so much to see, I don’t know if I can recommend just one place. I really like Brooklyn though, for example Greenpoint and Williamsburg, I’d never really been around there before. I would say try to avoid Times Square – if you haven’t seen it before, spend half an hour there and be done with it. It’s just so artificial and busy.”
Nina says she especially likes New York because it’s a walking city. “You can’t walk anywhere in L.A.”
Towards the end of our interview, I ask Nina if she has any pointers for aspiring foreign actors trying to start a career in the States. She laughs and says that there are probably better people to ask because she’s still learning after 15 years, but she says that most importantly one has to consider him-or herself a business. Actors need to be able to market themselves. Nina says she’s always been bad at that.
“The difference between Europe and the U.S. is that here you need to push yourself onto people. You should also take accent reduction classes and be proactive.”