“Even his hair is expressive” says my friend Susanna when she hears I will interview Martti Suosalo. He has played a wide variety of characters, from the comic to the tragic, on stage and in film and somehow he always manages to make us believe he is that character.In Finland, he is widely recognized and liked. He is a shy man, who loves to observe. And observe he does with a capital O. A great actor, he tells me, is a great imitator. I am intrigued. I meet him to discuss how he gets under the skin of his characters, how he prepares to go on stage and if he ever forgets who he is in the middle of a play.
When and why did you decide to become an actor?
My grandfather had been an actor in many cities; Vaasa, Pietarsaari, Rovaniemi. I am named after him, so there was a Martti Suosalo in the theater before me. I never met him as he died before I was born. But my great aunt Tyyne was an actress. She looked after us when we were children. She talked to us about the theater. I probably did not pay much attention to the theater stories then but this all came back to me years later, when I decided to become an actor. Tyyne-täti I am sure sowed the seed in my brain.
I remember my childhood in detail. When I meet my friends they are surprised at the amount of details I remember. They can’t remember with such granularity at all. But you see, we moved around so much that every time we went from one city to another, everything was fresh and I was experiencing things anew with a different pair of eyes. I have photographic compartmentalized memories from each of the stages of my life based on where I lived: Rovaniemi, Turku, Oulu, Helsinki.
When I was 17, I was withdrawn and everyone was worried. I was lousy at school. I remember in particular that at one point I was interested in literature. I got a new notebook and I thoroughly enjoyed writing my first four essays. Then came the fifth task: write about your best friend. I got at it again and thought I had written yet another inspired piece. But the teacher sent it back with big red ink marks: “You were supposed to write about your friend not about you”. After that something happened; I was afraid and uninspired at school.
There was a theater course going on and I decided to join. A friend of mine had read somewhere that the theater needed some young actors. He convinced me to go to the audition. There I met people who became like family members to me. They guided me and gave me self-esteem.
How do you prepare for a role?
Someone calls me about a role. I enquire what it is and look at the work. The first time I read a script is the most important; I reserve enough time so that no one interrupts me. I immediately start visualizing it in pictures. I start seeing my character and the angle for presenting it. For example, when I read Uncle Vanya, I saw exactly how I would play him. I very often portray a character like I envisioned him in the very first reading. We have this amazing computer on top of our heads, which is loaded with characters or archetypes we observe in our lives. I tap into that computer.
When I was in theater school we practiced writing descriptions of characters we observed. We found characters in our everyday life. Now this is automatic. My head is full of them. I was taught by Jouko Turkka. He was an amazing genius of theater. I remember how he taught us to observe and look at the world. One exercise, for instance, was to look at how the tongue of a person running to catch a tram looks as she finally catches it. Which way does the tongue lean? Building a character requires a lot of observation; from the outside in. Acting is all about observation and imitation. Some people are great at this. Babies usually are amazing imitators. The best actors are great imitators.
My first role was a guy called Manuel Esteban Alveiro de Jesus y Fuente. People still call me Manu. The poor chap was impotent and there I was at 17 acting him!
After the army in 1983, we founded an acting group and with our performance we won a Youth Art Award (Nuorison Taidetapahtuman Palkinto). I had tried twice to enter theater school and had not managed to. Jouko Turkka was the rector in the Theater Academy and he took me in after that.
How do you get under the skin of a character whose life is so different to yours?
When Shakespeare wrote Hamlet he was not writing about the Danish crown and the plights of a prince. He was writing about human attributes. When I get into a character I have to find these existential human issues, which we all share and speak to all of us.
How do you prepare to go on stage?
If I have a 7 pm show, I eat at around 3:30, 200 grams of meat and light carbohydrates. I go to the theater and I take a nap between 5 and 5:30, then I go for a run. At 6:10, I am back and I put on my role clothes. I don’t have a shower, which would relax me too much. After I put my clothes on, I go through the beginning of the play usually walking briskly in circles and after that, when things are technically in place, I have a little stool where I step up and down the last 15 minutes before I go to stage. I normally enter the stage drenched in sweat!
Do you momentarily forget who you are on stage and become that person you act?
Yes I do! This work is like a hook. There are moments when you can even admire what is happening as you act. Sometimes I can feel the whole audience and almost forget I am acting. It is difficult to explain but when you practice well, when you are on the stage, things run like a train and you don’t need to think. You are in the flow and things happen fluidly.
Soccer player Zinedine Zidane says in his documentary that on the field he can suddenly hear a conversation of someone in the audience. He is so present in the moment that he can isolate a small whisper in a crowd. When I heard that I got goose pimples. The same can happen to me. There is amazing peace. Nothing bothers me. I can also hear a whisper.
You have done cinema and theater. Which do you prefer?
I prefer the theater. In theater, you deal with people, the audience, much more. I get a lot of energy from people. In theater, the actor has more independence. On film, there is much more editing and consequently you can’t compose as much as an actor. There could be, for instance, a person who is very funny on stage but falls flat on film. Silence is very important in a comic role – if a scene is cut too short or the rhythm is wrong, the humor will be lost.
How does playing a role impact life outside the stage?
Normally, I am able to isolate life and work quite well. But there are instances where I can feel there is an involuntary reaction from playing a role.
I once played Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamasov continuously for months. I played Alyosa, the youngest of the brothers. The play is physically demanding. It takes five hours and has two breaks. It started at 7 pm. Alyosa is a character that suffers throughout the play. When the play started to run, I was once walking with my dog on one of my free evenings and I noticed I started to cry. I was confused. The same happened a few nights later when I watched a sports program and there was a horse trotting competition. Why was I crying? I later understood my body was simply programmed to cry at that time during those weeks!
My wife, (documentary film maker) Virpi Suutari, says that when I am playing Gogools, Diary of a Madman I become a bit paranoid the day I act! I have heard of an English actor who played Smike in Nicholas Nickelby and caught lung disease like his character! One needs to be careful not to take things too far…
Where do you get your inspiration from?
Everywhere! When you program your head in that way, you find inspiration everywhere. I don’t use my own will so much. I let things happen.
I often do plays throughout Finland and I love to travel by train. I can observe people, talk to people, listen to their accents and observe what drives them.
I also get a lot of inspiration from my wife. She is my muse! Her work has fed my work too – because what she does is essentially portray people.
The most underrated value is?
Serving others; service to others; desire to serve.
The most overrated value is?
Definitely own will.
What’s on your reading table?
I read rather little. Books have too much of an impact on me. I have a photographic and very visual head. As soon as I start reading my mind starts racing. I never get beyond the first sentence, as I am imaging and visualizing everything.
The last book I read was a Stockholm island map. I memorized it fully and did not need to consult it all while we were sailing!
Do you have a life motto?
Everything gets fixed!
Image: Osma Harvilahti