On Wednesday, September 16th, Bleecker Street’s The Secrets We Keep hits theaters. Written by Ryan Covington and directed by Yuval Adler, Secrets is part revenge thriller, part human drama. It tells the story of Maja (Noomi Rapace) a European immigrant and Romani gypsy who is brutalized, along with her family, at the hands of Nazi soldiers at the end of WWII. Years later, she’s settled in the U.S. with her husband, Lewis (Chris Messina) and their son and she’s put the past behind her and moved on. But unaddressed trauma has a way of rearing its ugly head, and when Maja spots a man (Joel Kinnaman) in her neighborhood she swears is one of the Nazi soldiers who attacked her, it sends her spiraling into an act of kidnapping and revenge.
The man insists he’s a Swedish immigrant named Thomas, who has a wife, Rachel (Amy Seimetz), and daughter. As he refuses to waver from his story and evidence that he may not be who Maja thinks he is begin to mount, the line between faulty memory and fact and between justice and brutal vengeance begin to blur. Is Thomas who he says he is? Can Maja’s traumatic memories be trusted? And how far is too far when it comes to finding closure?
Atom Tickets sat down to talk to the cast in two separate paired interviews for the virtual press day for the film and we learned a lot.
For starters, Maja is a vastly different kind of character than we’re used to seeing as the lead in a revenge thriller. Not only the fact that she’s a woman with a dark and vengeful streak, but also that Noomi Rapace wanted to modify her character from her original Jewish origin to make her a Romani gypsy.
‘When Yuval came on board, we had long conversations about how we could explore the same core questions about, you know, revenge and forgiveness and healing and memories, but do it in a more personal way to me. We started talking about how my dad was a Spanish-Roma flamenco singer, and I actually came across the situation of the Roma when I did Sherlock Holmes. Hans Zimmer [the composer] is very passionate about the Roma situation and the rights of the Romas, so he and I started this conversation way back then. I always wanted to find a project where I could shine light on the Roma situation in Europe because so few people know about it. And this seemed like a great opportunity to change – you might know this, but she was a Jewish woman and we changed it to Roma because it was something we wanted to tell. And then we built the backstory of her losing her sister because me, I’m very, very close with my sister. So we really built it around things that are very personal to me. ‘
Because that character was grounded in Rapace’s own reality, and the fact she and Kinnaman are friends from childhood, Rapace was comfortable enough to take Maja to some dark, dark places.
“I just knew that I had to go all the way. Me knowing Joel, me knowing where we wanted to take this,” she explained. “I just knew that I had to throw myself in and allow myself to be unprotected and just trust everyone around me, which I really did.”
Joel Kinnaman spoke about those intense scenes between him and Rapace, expanding on how that comfort level they had with one another allowed them to dive into what might have otherwise been difficult scenes to shoot:
“To embark on a journey like this with a person that you have a deep friendship with, but also, me and Noomi both grew up in the artistic Swedish theater scene, so we really know where our ideals are and what we try to do when we go out on a journey like this. There’s an enormous amount of trust and respect. So we know when we go on a journey like this, there’s never too far or too violent. All there is is go as deep as you can. And of course, Noomi has a lot of deeper depths than I do, so it was a great experience for me to be able to be a co-pilot as she drove the ship deep into the depths of the soul.”
It’s not just that their comfort level with one another helped when shooting the scenes themselves. Kinnaman also touched upon the current state of the world and particularly the movie industry and how it has affected actors not just from a PR perspective, but even on set. “I think this is a time where people in general, but particularly people in our business, are a little cautious, are a little careful,” he explained. “They’re afraid to offend or they’re afraid to say something the wrong way or go too far or be too violent.”
Unfortunately, this sometimes curbs actors from fully plumbing the depths of human experience due to insecurity, which is understandable, he went on. “There’s a lot of insecurity right now that doesn’t really help the artistic process and holds it back from going to the depths that it needs to go, especially in a movie like this,” he explained. Having such a close connection negated any insecurity that might be present between two actors who don’t know each other that well.
The times are changing, and in some ways, Secrets is a reflection of that change. The usual revenge thriller gender dynamic is flipped around. It’s not the man driven by revenge to avenge his love, or his wife being the non-violent half of the pairing. Rather, it’s Maja, as the woman and wife, who drives the vengeance and Lewis, the man and husband, who is a bleeding heart and horrified by violence. I asked Chris Messina what it was like to play with that reversed dynamic.
“I loved it. I loved playing a character that started out so grounded and such a rock, so to speak, for the family and then just completely lost perspective and was brought to his knees,” he enthused. “That was really fun in considering the role and the arc of the character. I loved that it was flipped. I’m done with seeing men play that role.”
Just as much as his excitement at doing something fresh in general was his excitement about getting to play a character he doesn’t usually get to play. As the movie goes in, Lewis gets dragged further into the dark and vengeful path Maja has set him on, and the chance to do something different is what really drew Messina to the role, he explained:
“I think it’s something that, I wouldn’t say easy, but something that I was longing to do. If you do something halfway decent in Hollywood they continue to ask you to do it. Most of my early stuff was playing nice guys so I continued to get cast as nice guys. And it’s nice to have work but as an actor, you know, one of the reasons I got into it was to do different stuff. Had Lewis stayed nice the whole movie, that wouldn’t have been interesting to me. Not that he’s not nice, but it’s that conflict, the gray zone was the most fun about preparing and doing it.”
For Amy Seimetz, whose second directorial feature She Dies Tomorrow was released last month, working as an actor on the set of a movie like Secrets allows her to draw from her experience both in front of and behind the camera:
“They all feed into each other – writing, acting, directing, producing, they all feed into one another and I’ve learned something from every single set that I’m on. I’m fortunate to be able to do all of them. As an actor, it’s informed by my direction just from a technical know-how in terms of just knowing where the camera is, what lens they’re using, that sort of thing. But as a director, it helps to also be an actor to know what communication works for me as an actor so I can communicate better to my actors, as well.”
But sometimes, it’s hard to turn off the director part of her brain when she’s on set as an actor, she confessed.
“It’s an active thing in my brain, because I’m fascinated by it! Do you know what I mean?” she laughed. “I want to see, because I love the tech part and I love the decisions made in crafting a film. So I have to keep a healthy level of interest and then walk away because I don’t want to get into the mix of giving suggestions, not because I think they’re doing it wrong but just because I get excited.”
However, Seimetz added, working with a director like Yuval Adler helps.
“But it’s easy to turn it off when you have a director that you really trust.”
The Secrets We Keep is in theaters on September 16th. Read our review.