Alina Tomnikov has appeared in many notable Finnish films and TV series such as The Grump, Deadwind and The Unknown Soldier, along with Catherine the Pretenders in Russia. Yet it is the eponymous role in the TV series Blind Donna that is set to propel her into living rooms Stateside. First Look Media’s streaming service, Topic, recently picked up the North American rights to the 10-part dramedy, which was a winner at the MipCom Diversity Awards in Cannes last year. The series follows a blind woman’s quest for love after her boyfriend leaves her, with each subsequent date she goes on being, literally, a blind date.
The Helsinki-based actress took some time out of her busy schedule to open up about languages, Finnish film and choosing between being a white-tailed eagle and cockroach.
Congratulations on your success with Blind Donna.
I’m very proud of the project. Of course, it’s not my idea; it’s that of producer Liisa Akimof, director Heikki Kujanpää and screenwriter Mikko Reitala. When I got the role of Donna, we developed it together for one year. They wanted to get a young female point of view [from me]. They were very open. The story got richer as a result. It’s very nice to see Donna travelling the world. Even though it feels a long time ago, as I’ve done so much since then.
Playing this role was exactly what I appreciate about making art. I consider myself a storyteller, and I am working towards a dream that I will someday be able to tell my own stories.
What role of yours has been the most difficult to say goodbye to after shooting has ended?
I would say Donna. We were filming and working so intensively for a couple of months that when we were done, even though it was my birthday, I felt empty. I was tired but so happy for what we had done. On the other hand, I like that things have a beginning and an ending as well. An end is always an opportunity for something new.
Are some roles easier to portray than others?
Sometimes before you start a project you may think that, oh, I already know this character or have seen them before – that’s my mum or aunt – or I really can identify with them. Other characters can feel more complex, in terms of their emotional journey, or force you to maybe learn a skill or something. But you never really know, really.
Then again, something that may seem easy at first, when you read a script or look at the scenes for the next day, can turn out to be not so. And sometimes six pages of dialogue with complex movements can go nicely. It depends, you never know. Sometimes, when a character feels so much like me and I can identify with it, it is difficult. It is sometimes harder to play something so close to you, as maybe then you start to go into your head, [thinking] ‘I wouldn’t do this or that’, which is not so good.
Robert De Niro apparently knows he understands the character he is portraying once he has decided on the shoes his character wears. How do you know you’ve discovered the essence of each character?
I agree with him, of course. For me it is one of the most exciting moments to try out the clothes that the costume designer has chosen or done. It gives me something about the character. The process of knowing her starts from there. From the clothes, of course, the shoes are very interesting. Sometimes I’ve been in the situation of going to costume tryouts when I haven’t decided how I should play this character, but when I see the costume it just clicks. I also like it when I understand what she fears, what makes her laugh. That’s also when I know the character.
What do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t a professional actor?
Hmm. Maybe a therapist or a language teacher at university. A therapist, because I am interested in people: their mind, personality, self-image, life stories and feelings. It is great to listen to different people, have conversations and be of help if necessary. At the same time, for me it is a path to understanding myself better.
Moreover, I love different languages and cultures. I speak Finnish and Russian as my mother tongue and know English, Swedish and German, but I always get excited when I have a chance to speak something else than Finnish. I consider languages to be a pathway to understanding other cultures. In my opinion, rich cultures are the finest feature of human beings.
As you have grown up in two cultures, what kind of an asset that has been in your life?
I think that it is easier for me to face and bond with people from different cultures. I respect greatly every culture, but at the same time I have a somewhat relaxed attitude towards all cultures’ manners and characteristics.
As I speak Russian as a mother tongue, it has opened several doors for me in Russian productions. I am currently filming a TV series there, in which I have a major role. Besides, being able to speak Russian in Finland, it has been fun to dub voices for different films and series.
Who’s your hero?
My father. He is my best friend. We have a very similar temper, thus communication between us is sometimes even too intense. We are both emotional and sensitive, but at the same time also strong and fiery. When I travelled to Moscow for the first time to film, my father was the one I took with me.
You had a role in Euthanizer, the Finnish entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards. What sort of experience was the production like?
I have a funny story! One day Teemu (Nikki, the director) sent me a message that he was working on a full-length film and was wondering if I would like to play Catwoman in it. I had previously worked with him, so we knew each other well – he is a great guy. In addition, I was aware that he creates really interesting and sometimes hilarious perspectives in his work. Therefore, I said yes, without a doubt. My first thought was that I’d wear a superhero costume and break into a bank as Catwoman or chase bad guys. After a while, I discovered that it was not going to be like that. It’s better that way, as Euthanizer is a really peculiar and great film. It is grim, but gentle.
How do you start your days?
I always stand up straight away when my alarm goes off. I open the wardrobe and get dressed based on how I feel that day. I usually just grab the first items that come to mind. When I leave home, I’ll often go straight to the set or rehearsal, where I need to change into my costume.
Occasionally I prepare a breakfast for myself, but sometimes I just leave the house and take some bread and coffee with me. I love hotel breakfasts and, when on a work trip, I spend way too much time at those.
If you could play any animal in the world, what would it be and why?
I can’t decide! Maybe I would like to play a white-tailed eagle. It is so fascinating when it comes to its nature and way of life. Secondly, playing a cockroach or something could be interesting. I am interested to know what is going on in their head and what is it like to be despised by all and to live hidden from all.
Are you able to watch yourself on screen once a film is out?
I don’t want to watch myself while I am still filming. I become self-aware and start to concentrate on things that are not relevant. Of course, if the scene contains choreography and the director wants to show me the playback, I look at it. But I really don’t want to see or hear my voice when the process is still ongoing. I like to see the completed movie or TV series. It’s very hard, and I watch it with a pillow. I eat and stress. But still seeing the whole picture is very important to me. As an actress, I tell a story and I want to see it as a whole. The story comes alive when you see it with images, you see the director’s vision. But, it’s hard to watch. In these moments I try to tell myself that I trust this director, and I trusted them when I accepted this role. They wouldn’t let something go through that they didn’t like.
If you could work with any director, living or dead, who would it be?
That’s the hardest question. There are so many. Intuitively I would say Christopher Nolan. I really like and appreciate how he invents his own worlds. I am really interested in the human mind. In every film of his, he tries to tell a story about the human mind. They are so complex and, at the same time, so genius. I haven’t met him, but watching his films I feel that he is interested in humans and people and he loves actors. That’s my interpretation.
I would also like to work with Alejandro González Iñárritu. The Revenant is such a physical film. I would love to have a chat with him and work with him. He has a very, very interesting mindset.
What could the rest of the world learn from Finnish films?
Maybe that it is not necessary to always tell a large showy story to be able touch people. Sometimes an insightful portrayal of a relationship over a weekend or some small casual chain of events is the most universal one.
What advice would you give to young people hoping to become actors?
Listen to your intuition. Be brave and remember that courage is not about successes or results.