Sundance 2016 award-winner The Lure (2016), a period vampire-mermaid absurdist horror-musical, may be the first and only member of its genre, but the underlying mermaid myth at its heart is as old as storytelling. Director Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s story follows two mermaids who venture onto land and take jobs as performers in an underground club in 1980s Warsaw. Besides being a cinematic exercise in hybrid genre and a metaphorical coming-of-age tale, the film is a thematic exploration of the double-sided nature of the mermaid legend. Through the figures of the two sisters, The Lure exposes the duality of the mythical mermaid: Silver (Marta Mazurek) follows a variation on the storyline of Hans Christian Anderson’s well-known The Little Mermaid (minus the Disney ending), while Golden (Michalina Olszańska) embodies the animalistic interpretation of the creature as a dark, vampiric, man-eating reptile.
For stars Mazurek and Olszańska, playing a mermaid was more than a dream job – it was a calling. “We were both obsessed with mermaids since childhood,” Olszańska said.
"Imagine how exciting for us!" Mazurek agreed.
Olszańska even has an ancestral connection to the mermaid figure: "I have a legend in my family that my great grandmother was a water nymph, so I felt it was a kind of destiny." When the two spoke to me soon after arriving for the film’s premiere at Sundance, both were suffering from jetlag and described a haze of disbelief at the level of positive buzz and audience reaction surrounding the screening.
Golden and Silver represent the two divergent views of mermaids that have been depicted in myths and stories for centuries. Silver is the mermaid of Hans Christian Anderson’s original tale and Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989), the sweet love-struck beauty who falls in love with a human man and risks losing both her voice and her soul in pursuit of true love and a pair of legs. Golden descends from the the sirens, who tempted Homer’s Odysseus with their deceptive song and who continue on as vampire mermaids in modern-day blockbusters like The Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.
Mermaid sisters Silver (Marta Mazurek) and Golden (Michalina Olszańska) in The Lure (2016)
Olszańska describes Golden as the more animalistic, instinctual version of the mermaid, while Mazurek calls Silver the spiritual one in search of love. But the two contrasting mermaids can be read as two sides of the same person, two aspects of femininity, or different phases that we all experience. As Olszańska believes, "We are one person in different periods of growing up. The whole movie is a metaphor for growing up. Falling in love, finding our sexuality. I am the one who does drugs, has sex, and so on, and she is the one who falls in love. She wants to get into the humans’ world, to get to know it, but I really don’t. I feel really great as an animal, and I’m developing my instincts. I’m closer to the earth and my nature. I’m forced to [enter] this world, and I really don’t like it." When she sees her sister falling in love and fears losing her to another, she becomes jealous and protective of her companion. "We are animals. The relationship between animals is very strong," Olszańska said.
Mazurek adds, "We are for [each other] everything."
Michalina Olszańska as man-eating Golden in The Lure (2016)
Whereas Golden embraces her nature and instinct, the love-focused Silver falls for a human bass player, refusing even to forsake him when he marries another, and she (according to the laws of the sea, as related by a Punk version of sea god Triton) will turn to sea foam unless she eats her former love. “Because she is more spiritual, her love is so pure, she’s so faithful,” Mazurek said. “She is devoted to him completely. This is a naïve feeling that we all know from our teenage years—when you fall in love with somebody, and he is the only one.”
Mazurek notes that, even as children, Olszańska was “obsessive” about mermaids that were a horror-based form of “monsters,” while Mazurek “was just a huge fan of The Little Mermaid. So the energy of our characters are quite like us.”
For both actresses, embodying the hybrid nature of the mermaid was an intense psychological and physical challenge. On a practical level, it meant wearing extremely long, reptilian tails that the actresses describe as made of “silicon and something sponge-like.” Olszańska said, “They were 25 kilos or something, so we couldn’t move, we couldn’t go to the toilet.”
Mazurek added, “The hard thing was staying in this tail about six or more hours. So when we put it on, we couldn’t get out. When they put it on, four men were carrying us from one place to another.”
Psychologically, the mermaid nature meant pulling themselves in opposing directions. As mermaids, Olszańska said, “we are basically animals. We move like animals, we think like animals, but the problem is we feel like humans.”
Learning to play a mermaid also entailed a long process of rehearsals with actors and dancers to explore the psychological and bodily aspects of mermaid-hood. Smoczyńska said she and the choreographer built a “physical vocabulary” for the mermaids. The choreographer gave practical instruction as to the way the actresses moved and walked, so that their movements would reflect the feel of that "other sphere, other world, the underwater world."
They also rehearsed through exercises based on embodying other animals, such as tigers or crocodiles. One of Mazurek’s greatest challenges was obtaining the strength of the mermaid: “I needed to work very hard to have this animal energy and strength,” she said. She spent time at the gym, running, and devoted herself to the physical aspects of the role. “Even if my mermaid was spiritual, I needed to find this because I am a mermaid, so I am an animal. It was quite hard because I had to be this animal who wants to be a human. So it’s complex.”
Another key challenge was learning to view nudity as a natural, non-sexual state of being. “It was very important to feel our nudity not as a sexual one because animals are always nude,” Olszańska said. They had to imagine a nudity that was cut off at their lower halves. “We don’t have our genitals. When we have tails, we have a hole in the tail, but when we are humans, we are like dolls.”
Silver (Marta Mazurek) and Golden (Michalina Olszańska) prepare to perform an an underground Warsaw club in The Lure (2016)
Mazurek especially found the nudity challenging. She describes a great deal of stress as she prepared for the nudity in the film, but in the moment of filming, she fell naturally into character. "On the set it was just fine. I was so stressed before this sex scene. Then when the camera started, and I was playing, I felt normal. It was a great experience for me [to get] rid of stress and shame and just be Silver and forget about everything else."
It has been a long road for the two young actresses, as even the casting process was itself a form of extended pre-rehearsal. “It was so long, like two years or something,” Olszańska said. At first, "[Smoczyńska] wanted the mermaids to be young, like twelve, and my agent didn't want me to go to the casting because I was too old. I was twenty-one." A year later, the production held a second casting, and the two actresses were chosen. "I tried to look as young as possible, a 20-something girl pretending I’m eleven: very creepy."
Mazurek recalls that the casting morphed into a deep reherasal process, during which the actresses practiced dancing, singing and working under the direction of acting coaches. The process also emphasized the connection between the two sisters, Olszańska said. "They were trying to match us as well as possible. It’s hard to have a relationship in a movie like real sisters, and our relationship had to be a very strong one. We were working on it very hard."
While Olszańska and Mazurek had been in two movies together previously, they had never acted extensively in the same scenes and were not friends. "At first, we didn’t have this close relationship," Mazurek explained. "We were scared of each other. We knew we need to play sisters, and at first we didn’t feel it so deeply because we are so different. And then we had this process, working together, and it was so moving and overwhelming."
In their personal lives, the actresses also evolved along with their characters, feeling that they experienced Golder’s and Silver’s turning points through the performance. "For example, I look very fragile at first, but I have a strength inside," Mazurek said. "Michalina looks like she is a tough girl, but she is a sensitive person inside also."
Now that The Lure has played at Sundance and won a a special award for its Unique Design and Vision, the actresses view the film as a once-in-a-lifetime chance that was also a personal fate. "We don’t have fantasy movies at all in Poland because it needs money. So this was, like, the first one ever," Olszanska said. "We felt that this was the only opportunity for us."
"Yes, I felt it was written for us,” Mazurek said. "I couldn’t imagine what it would be like if we weren’t in this movie. I cannot imagine, I cannot even think about it. I would be dead."
"I would hate those actresses,” Olszańska said.
"But really we were very much into mermaids."