Thursday, August 15, 2013

Inspired by Dreams

Hèlene Cardona is a poet, actor,
translator, teacher and dream analyst
Photo by John Michael Ferrari

Actress-poet HÉLÈNE CARDONA weaves SHANTINI SUNTHARAJAH a story of a life steeped in culture and the arts. Coordinated by ERIC FORBES

AT VARIOUS TIMES IN HER LIFE, Hélène Cardona was a teacher, a language interpreter, a dancer and a poet. She has appeared in major Hollywood movies such as Chocolat (based on Joanne Harris’s bestselling novel), alongside Juliette Binoche, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Alfred Molina and Lena Olin; the 1999 comedy drama Mumford, with Zooey Deschanel, Martin Short and Ted Danson; and Gabriel Schmidt’s Lunch Break.

If that is not fascinating enough, Cardona is also a dream analyst. “I was introduced to dream work by my acting coach Sandra Seacat as a way to deepen my relationship with the characters I was playing,” she explains. “I found it so fascinating that I kept studying it with several dream teachers and also trained in shamanism.”

Perhaps it is not so surprising, therefore, that she has turned out to be such a multifaceted, intelligent and successful woman. “I grew up steeped in different cultures. My father worked at the United Nations in Geneva and his colleagues were from all over the world.”

Already a world traveller by the time she was twelve, Cardona’s early memories include learning to ski in Gstaad, Switzerland, summers in Spain with her grandparents, and touring Greece and Italy with her parents and younger brother. “At the age of eleven I started riding horses and fell in love with them right away,” says Cardona of her ongoing passion for all things equestrian. “I kept riding when we moved to Paris, and made a point to ride almost everywhere I visited or lived.”

However, hers wasn’t a childhood made up of just travelling and horse riding. There is a whole lot of personal effort and perseverance behind the polished veneer.

For Cardona, the hard work and endless practice required to join the echelon of great performance artists began early on. “I started learning the piano when I was six, and ballet when I was five. I played the piano every day for at least an hour.”

“I enjoyed playing Françoise ‘Fuffi’ Drou in Chocolat
because the character is so playful.”

Unlike many other little ones who are pushed to study music and dance by ambitious parents, she needed no prodding and looked forward to her piano and dance classes with enthusiasm. “It was like a meditation. I loved going to the Music Conservatory in Geneva for piano and ballet classes,” she reveals. “It felt like a world of my own. I graduated from the Conservatory with the second prize in piano.”

Cardona’s achievements aren’t just confined to the world of music and dance. “My father is Spanish and my mother Greek and Irish. At home we spoke French, Spanish and Greek,” she says. On top of that, she also writes and translates in German and Italian. “When I lived in Paris I belonged to a dance company. I’ve always loved to dance and it was exhilarating to perform at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. I started working as an interpreter as a way to earn an income while I was studying at the Sorbonne for my Master’s degree.”

Her gift for language also extends to poetry. “I’ve been writing poetry since I was ten. My first chapbooks were published between 2003 and 2005, and my first book, The Astonished Universe, was published by Red Hen Press in 2006.” Her new book, Dreaming My Animal Selves, was published by Salmon Publishing in Ireland in early 2013. “It’s a bilingual collection of poetry in English and French. It’s inspired by dreams, which play a primordial role in my life, and filled with animals, which appear in my dreams and are a constant in my life.”

While music, dance and language came into Cardona’s life quite naturally, acting seemed to have entered her world quite by accident. “When I was ten, the school decided to stop its regular curriculum and have an experimental programme for a week,” she says. “Out of the blue I picked drama!” However, she only had seven days to explore her previously hidden interest. “After the school resumed its academic schedule the drama bug was left dormant.”

However, it was soon to come back to life. “When my family moved to Paris we had subscriptions to the Comédie Française, the Opera and other theatres. I felt transformed after watching Lorenzaccio, Life is a Dream and so many other amazing plays. I felt that the life I wanted to live was through characters on stage.”

Cardona’s zeal for acting had been stirred but it would be a few years before she would be free to pursue her calling. First, she had to get through the French school system. “The French system has a very rigorous way of selecting the best students through maths. Even though I loved French literature and languages, at fourteen I specialised in maths, physics and chemistry because that was our system. I got into medical school at seventeen and my artistic endeavours were relegated to the background.”

It took a while, but she eventually gave in to her heart’s true desire. “After I left medical school two years later, I was able to reassess my life and focus on literature and theatre again.” It was at this point that she made the momentous decision to move to New York City and attend The American Academy of Dramatic Arts (AADA).

Unlike many other actresses who have to spend years moonlighting at other jobs before getting their first break, Cardona’s talent was recognised fairly quickly and she began to receive offers. “I started performing in plays and recording voices for commercials, documentaries and books on tape and getting roles on TV and film. My first play was Wild Honey, by Anton Chekhov. My first TV roles were on One Life to Live, Another World and the well-known Law & Order.”

Hèlene Cardona
Photo by John Michael Ferrari

The leap to the big screen was next and Cardona had the chance to work on a number of feature films with exceptionally brilliant directors such as Lawrence Kasdan and Lasse Hallström. “I played Candy Heskin in his movie Mumford. Candy is a woman who is beaten by her husband and ends up leaving him. It was raw and emotionally charged. Kasdan is an extraordinary writer and director and the whole cast was amazing.”

She also recalls her time on the set of Chocolat with fondness. “I enjoyed playing Françoise “Fuffi” Drou in Chocolat because the character is so playful. The costumes and hair and make-up were gorgeous. The director Lasse Hallström, just like Kasdan, is one of the best directors in cinema and it was such a treat to work with him.”

Cardona recently worked on Megan Clare Johnson’s Stealing Roses with John Heard and Cindy Williams. “It’s a bittersweet comedy with a social theme. It just won the three tops awards at the Los Angeles Comedy Festival.”

She knows that she plays many roles, not just on the silver screen but in life as well. When asked which role resonates with her the most, she speaks at length about her rewarding experiences in connection to dance, her time as an interpreter and as a dream analyst. However, when it comes to acting, she simply says, “Acting is indescribable. I just love expressing myself that way.”

SHANTINI SUNTHARAJAH is a great Enid Blyton fan. She was inspired to become a writer after reading her mother’s early edition of The Famous Five: Five on a Treasure Island when she was nine. Life, however, had other plans for her, and she ended up an engineer, but the call of the written word proved too strong. Through circuitous and unexpected circumstances, she eventually became a journalist and then a freelance writer. She loves nothing more than to spend hours seeking out words that will perfectly convey what she wants to say. She lives in Kuala Lumpur.

Reproduced from the July-September 2013 issue of Quill magazine


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