“Being caught by surprise is the most wonderful thing, in theatre and in life”

Emma Vilarasau

© Eva Parey

Two days after Lali Symon premiered at the Romea theatre, as part of the latest Grec Festival, Emma Vilarasau arrives in the theatre’s foyer before locking herself in the dressing room to emerge as a stand-up comedy star, who will show us her B-side in a play directed and written by Sergi Belbel at Emma’s own suggestion. This is her most recent performance, but she has theatre projects up her sleeve until 2025. This proud native of Sant Cugat has triumphed on stage, becoming one of Catalonia’s big names and one of Anna Lizaran’s successors (a big deal!). She made a name for herself in Nissaga de poder and makes no secret of the fact that she loves audiovisual media (she has also made films). Like everyone else in her profession, she started out with no ambitions other than purely artistic and vocational ones (and that’s no mean feat).

Emma Vilarasau (Sant Cugat del Vallès, 1959) is one of the big names in Catalan theatre. She studied acting at the Institut del Teatre and has performed in more than fifty plays, including Les noces de Fígaro [The Marriage of Figaro], La infanticida, Agost, Qui té por de Virginia Woolf? [Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf], L’oreneta and, most recently, Lali Symon. She has also excelled in the audiovisual media sector, and has become one of the most well-known faces in the country with Nissaga de poder (TV3, 1996-1998) and other series on the Catalan channel, such as Ventdelplà and Majoria absoluta, and, recently, with the series Ser o no ser on Playz (RTVE). In cinema, we saw her in Los sin nombre, Para que no me olvides and La fossa. She has garnered the Creu de Sant Jordi (2015) distinction, the National Culture Award of Catalonia (2017), several Butaca and Max theatre awards, and the Sant Jordi film award (2005).

How did you decide to go into theatre? Was it a calling?

It goes back to a very tricky adolescence because of my physique: I was big, I was chubby, I didn’t like myself at all, I rebelled against everything, mostly against myself. And in the theatre in my hometown, Sant Cugat del Vallès, which I joined because a friend was going, I realised that getting up on stage was soothing for me, and I didn’t care if I was fat or if I was laughed at.

A sort of therapy?

Exactly. It wasn’t me anymore. I started for this reason, and a friend and I both went to the Institut del Teatre. We did the first year and I dropped out because I thought I wasn’t going to make it. I had come from a convent school in Sant Cugat and, all of a sudden, I found myself at the Institut del Teatre. A massive shock to the system! With teachers like Joan Enric Lahosa… I thought: “I’m too shitty to be here”. So I changed to teacher training, and there I discovered that what made me happy was theatre! And I came back. That said, I started doing theatre because I liked it and because I didn’t know what to do… I hadn’t decided. I never dreamt that I would make a living out of it. Even less so at that time.

Nobody ever dreams of it, in this profession. Many of your colleagues have said that precariousness never goes away: one day you’re at the top, and then you’re out of work for a year…

When I started out, imagine there were just the Romea, the Lliure, the Teatre Barcelona, the Capsa and little else! TV3 didn’t exist… I thought: “I’ll do this and then I’ll do psychology or some other degree to eke out a living”. And I was lucky that, as soon as I finished, I got a call from the Lliure theatre. If I could have survived the uncertainty of going two years without any work, I would have chosen another profession. Lluís Pasqual delivered the workshop for postgraduates on my course, a workshop in which a working director directed a play (it was L’impromptu de Versailles, by Molière) with us earning very little, because we were like scholarship holders, but making some money, and we went on tour! It was wonderful: there were Núria Comas, Andreu Benito, Mercè Arànega, Jaume Valls, myself… And then Fabià [Puigserver] wanted to stage L’hèroe [by Santiago Rusiñol, in 1983] and he was missing the young lady. Pasqual told him: “Try this girl, she’s good…”, and that’s how it has been up to now.

One of your masters was the Frenchman Philippe Gaulier, who proclaimed that confusing character and performer is nonsense, and that what theatre should convey is not naturalness, but pleasure.

Yes, I attended his school in 1985: neutral mask, drama, melodrama, tragedy, clown, buffoon…, he covered the whole gamut. He brought out things in me that I had never shown in the theatre: sarcasm, madness, and also intelligence. But he was very tough with his students. Every month and a half or two months, he would tell a few of them that they could leave. Just like that. He felt that there were a lot of unemployed actors in France, very good ones, and that there was no need for a student to be frustrated for 40 years because they would never become an actor. He said to me: “You’re doing what’s expected of you, but I’m not interested in that; it’s just the right thing to do. You’re quick, yes, but that’s it”. I thought: “The usual speech: ‘Be yourself...’”. How do you do that when you’ve been educated in a school run by nuns? The truth is that Pere Planella, at the Institut del Teatre, had also warned me: “You’re very quick, and the directors won’t direct you because they’ll have other work and you’ll be useful to them, and you’ll never go beyond that”. I thought: “What kind of shit is this?”.

But you got over it.

Gaulier came to tell me that what I was doing was conventional. And I saw people doing mad stuff, but I didn’t like them, because it was madness for madness’s sake. But they made him laugh enormously. I came from two years at the Lliure: not everything goes in the theatre, rolling around on the floor and doing idiotic stuff… When the buffoon course came along, I brought out this sarcasm, this madness (things that Lali Symon has, by the way). He congratulated me.

In both theatre and audiovisual jobs, you work with words. You have even said on occasion that the word is the most important invention of mankind.

For me it is. There are many registers, in terms of gesture, body, dance…, but words are fundamental for me. Sometimes there are sentences that, I don’t know how, go right through you. And after all, they are just a few words put one after the other! Why have they stuck in my heart? Or why have they hurt me so much? Or why have they given me so much joy? I think it’s one of the most magnificent inventions.

© Eva Parey

Do you think theatre should be revolutionary, message-bearing, or is it enough for it to be entertaining?

There is everything, but even in entertainment theatre, which is wonderful, I think there should be a wake-up call, something has to be stirred up.

Desclassificats, La cabra o qui és Sylvia?, Barcelona, Tots eren fills meus, Lali Symon…, to name but a few. All these works bear a message, advocate a cause, voice a criticism…

There are two things they must have: one is the capacity to surprise. Being caught by surprise is the most wonderful thing, in theatre and in life: when someone manages to surprise you, it’s… ooooh! You need to have the power to surprise, not as an actress, but in the subject matter, in the way you present it, in the way you deliver it, in something you bring that has never been brought before. And then I believe in social theatre, in the sense that it has to be stirring and questioning, so that the audience doesn’t leave the theatre and can’t even remember what they’ve seen the next day. It’s very hard to do this, and if you only do it so that the audience has a good time for two hours and doesn’t even remember it the following day, maybe it isn’t worth it.

To do this, you may need to have a background, a career, but not everyone can say no to a job. Do you have to accept many projects you are not sure about until you are able to choose the play you want?

It’s really hard. I can say no now, because now I have projects and I don’t think I have that many years left, because I’m getting older and I want to do what I really want to. All my energy has to go into things that I have to be very involved in; I have to really believe in them.

Lali Symon was not only a project that fulfilled its principles, but it was also proposed to Sergi Belbel. Do you feel that you have stripped down…

More than stripped down… Obviously, there’s a part of me and my mother. But we have tried to make it more universal, so that everyone can recognise their mother. The beautiful thing about drama when it’s good is that, although the characters are unique, they strike universal chords. Then everyone can identify with them. Not because you’ve portrayed the typical, clichéd mother, because she’s not, but she’s universal enough for everyone to see their mother. And that’s really nice.

How did you approach it?

Sergi was very generous. He was delighted to have me work with him, so I had to agree with everything he said and did. At the first meeting he read me the whole work, which was great, but he knew that there were things that needed to evolve. This is where I came in, at that first meeting in which we had to tell each other everything: because if I don’t tell you that I don’t like a piece because it will hurt your feelings, for example, then we’re not doing well. Absolute cooperation is needed, as if we had known each other (and we have known each other!) for a long time.

It’s a tribute to old people, to women… and to the theatre…

It’s a tribute to the theatre…

Confusing character and performer was a very fine line here.

Especially to show you her double life. The audience starts out believing they are being told one story and then suddenly they are being told something else. There are many layers. I really like the monologue in which she analyses fiction and reality because that’s what we’ve done. This is not Emma Vilarasau’s real life, no way. This is theatre. It’s fiction.

Lali Symon was your idea. Does this mean that you couldn’t find what you wanted?

No, it was because of the experience I had with my mother, which marked me because it lasted a long time and was very hard, as with any woman. I wanted to talk about that and I looked for existing works. I came to the conclusion that they don’t exist, because nobody has written them.

Is there a lack of female scriptwriters over sixty?

I don’t think there are enough roles for older women in films and series, because the scriptwriters are still very young. When they get to that age, they might contemplate it.

You, such a lover of words, wouldn’t you consider writing?

No, writing is very serious! I can say what I think works and what doesn’t about something that has already been written, but writing from a blank piece of paper? No. It’s a beautiful craft and it must be preserved, and we must appreciate authors. They are sometimes undervalued…

There was a golden age, ten or fifteen years ago, for Catalan drama, for playwriting and directing, with the TNC’s T6 project, with a company of nine actors and actresses.

It was a major project but it was shut down due to a financial setback. Because the Beckett theatre, for example, already offers support to young playwrights, but with limited funds, obviously. And to have a place where an author could think of a show with nine characters and do so with good actors, because they could be paid… that’s what authors need. They write good plays, but, to premiere them, they have to write them for two or four characters.

Is this the work of public theatre?

I believe that the TNC should plan to feature a local playwright in the Sala Gran at least once a year, and provide them with the means to do so. It has been done; Albertí did it with Guillem Clua’s Justícia, for example. But if not, how do you help the country’s authors? It’s true that there are small theatres in Barcelona and companies that support local authors and wonderful things emerge. Take La Calòrica, which has become a great place! It’s marvellous.

Does Barcelona, or Catalan public theatre, take good enough care of its authors, and of its theatre?

I think it does, but it’s a delicate matter! A public theatre has to assume the responsibility, if they want to write plays for more than three characters. The Villarroel is doing some really important work with local authors and it is a private theatre that is venturing a great deal with premieres such as Amèrica, by Sergi [Pompermayer], last season.

Guillem Clua’s L’oreneta, which you performed in with Dafnis Balduz in Catalan, was premiered outside Catalonia and was even seen outside Spain before shown here.

When I found out that Carmen Maura [who performed in the Spanish version] wasn’t doing it here, I asked to do it and, luckily, they were delighted. But I don’t think we Catalans perform much in Spain, I wouldn’t know why. I’ve done El sueño de la vida, with Pasqual, at the Teatro Español in Madrid [2019], and that’s it…


Because I have a job here and it has always been easier. When Nissaga de poder was made, there was a point when I could have made the move, because Nissaga broke new ground. It was very powerful; I became a familiar face to audiences. In Secrets de família, which was earlier, I joined towards the end of the series. The thing is that I had two young children and I didn’t feel like leaving. There wasn’t so much competition and there weren’t so many platforms. It was a bit easier then (or maybe the opposite… I don’t know). This depends on each individual’s ambition: some people claim that what they aspire to is to be known by millions of people, so fine, go to Madrid and then to Hollywood. But I like the job I have here.

You have worked with almost all the great directors in Catalonia, seasoned and upcoming ones. Do you have any favourite directors?

I’ve worked with all of them! And you learn loads from the seasoned ones, but also from the upcoming ones. Pere Riera, with Barcelona [premiered in 2013 at the TNC, based on the fascist bombings of the Catalan capital], did a wonderful job as an author, yes, but he directed it brilliantly. He led me to do things I had never done before. And I also had a great time with Infàmia. Favourite directors? I have a bond with Lluís [Pasqual]… I’d like to carry on working with him. I think he’s one of the people who know the most about theatre and you learn a great deal from him. I would work with him evermore. But also with Belbel, and with Mestres. And with David Selvas, we got on so well in Tots eren fills meus [which premiered at the Lliure this year]. I’d love to work with him again, and with Riera, and Sílvia Munt…

© Eva Parey © Eva Parey

Women too, of course, although far fewer.

And Magda Puyo, and Carme Portaceli… You learn different things from everyone. An actor must adapt to the director and vice versa. Each director has a different language and sometimes it’s hard. You ask yourself: “What the hell are they asking me to do now? What are they talking about? Now I don’t get them…”, but you have to adapt, try to understand them, because we have to create something together.

One of the actors you’ve worked with, both in theatre and in television series, is Jordi Bosch, your husband.

I met Jordi when I joined the production of L’hèroe [1983] and he played the hero’s secretary. He had already been in the previous production. But we didn’t hook up until Les noces de Fígaro [1989]… [Laughs].

What is it about working with your other half that ends with your other half?

No… It’s a bit obsessive sometimes, but we had two children right away, one after the other, and that puts a stop to a lot of nonsense. The time we saw each other, which sometimes was short, because I was filming or he was filming, we talked about our children. Much better! And now, in the last few years, when we have worked together in Caiguts del cel, and in La cabra… We are older now, we are alone, the children have flown the nest, and it’s a pleasure to talk about theatre at home. It’s a pleasure because we both enjoy this work. We make each other better; we give each other our point of view. It’s great when we don’t work together, because he comes to see you at a rehearsal or on a shoot, and from the outside he can tell you stuff, because he is able to say them properly. It’s important to know how to say things, isn’t it? In this job we are so vulnerable that we immediately bounce back. It’s nice to be told things properly, and when the time is right.

It is often said that actors do TV to become famous and make money. Have you ever done TV to make money?

Many actors do it to earn a living. But I really like TV. First of all, because it’s fast, it’s not like rehearsing for months. [Snaps her fingers]. You have to be quick to do TV, which doesn’t mean you don’t have to work hard, you know. I used to prepare the sequences very carefully. I worked loads at home and I’d get there and in no time at all I’d be shooting, especially soap operas and some series. It’s a very different language and very rewarding. I had a great time making TV!

After several years, you have gone back to making series, not on TV3, but on RTVE (on the Playz channel) with Ser o no ser, of which they have already made a second season, about a trans teenager, which also has a pro-transgender note.

An actor is a person committed to their moment and to their society. Not only are directors and authors committed, but actors are too. So, if you can get involved in projects that can do something…

I don’t know if you have ever feared censorship. Plays and films have been cancelled in various parts of Spain.

I’ve never had that fear. I am confident that here, in Catalonia, they aren’t going to censor anything, but what is happening in terms of censorship isn’t serious, but extremely serious. To hear the word censorship again, which we thought we would never hear again… I experienced La torna [a controversial play that parodied a military trial] in the 1970s. I was at secondary school and we went out into the streets, and they imprisoned members of the theatre troupe Els Joglars! And we thought that, after democracy was instated, we would never hear this shitty word. And now we hear it again. It’s… I don’t know, it’s so infuriating.

And fear?

The right always does the same thing. The left makes laws, establishes rights so that people can choose if they want to be trans, if they want to have an abortion, can choose their life. The left simply gives you the opportunity, but it doesn’t tell you that you have to have an abortion. If you are a Christian and you don’t want to have an abortion, you don’t have one. Full stop. The problem ends there. The right wing either forces or censors (which is a form of compulsion, without people seeing it). Why the hell don’t they let people decide what they want to do with their lives. And whoever doesn’t want to, won’t become trans. It’s really shocking. They always do the same thing. Enough of telling us how we should live!

Much has been achieved in the struggle for civil and social rights, but could it all come to nothing?

It’s happening all over Europe, it’s not just here, why is it that after a few years of left-wing rule the right has to come back? I don’t know what criticism can be made of the left, which no doubt can be made, you know. The thing is that when people play with falsehoods, with lies, with insults, and it doesn’t matter when it is proven that what you have said is a lie…, we are not doing well. When a woman was murdered in July in the Tirso de Molina square in Madrid, Vox immediately came out to say that the murderer was an Algerian, when a Spanish man and woman actually killed her. You can’t go around slandering with no consequences. That’s what Trump did. This is what is being eaten up by a whole group of people who believe it. “They steal our jobs, they create insecurity…”, they always claim. My goodness! You should be able to apportion blame. You pay a fine for being an asshole and then see if you do it again.

There is also danger with women.

All the equality policies, which have been fought for so hard, these bastards are trying to get rid of them because it turns out that gender violence doesn’t exist, because there are also women who kill their husbands (you see!). The patriarchy has been exercised for thousands of years and it is deeply entrenched in some people. And losing the power they have over women is very upsetting for them and they will try to do anything to hold on to their share of power, including over women. I can’t understand the women who vote for Vox. Anyway, we are in a democracy and you can vote for whoever you want.

You say that here we are a bit far from that, but in Ripoll there is an extreme right-wing town council.

Yes, fascist pro-Catalan independence activists. There are fascists everywhere. It’s true that I think Catalonia, like the Basque Country, has become quite different from Spain. We have been different for a long time in many ways, which doesn’t mean that we are better, of course, but we come from another culture, from another tradition, and I doubt very much that the far right could rise here.

As it seems that censorship doesn’t have to come about… what projects have you got?

I’m happy, because I have projects until 2025. Now, what I can already talk about is Ifigènia, adapted by Albert Arribas and directed by Alícia Gorina at the Lliure from April to May next year. Pere Arquillué, Albert Pérez and Pau Vinyals will also be involved. I can’t say much about the other projects: one will probably be with Mestres, at La Villarroel… and it will be something very special for me, in a different sense from Lali Symon, but really special…

Do you have any challenges pending?

There is a challenge that is very hard to achieve because it’s huge: The Seagull, by Chekhov. I hope I don’t die without having done it, so it’s about time.

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