Michalina Olszanska is the breakout star of a new film about the last woman to be executed in Czechoslovakia. We sat down with the actress to talk about difficulties and challenges of playing such a complex character.
You might not know the story of Olga Hepnarová, the last woman to ever be executed in Czechoslovakia. In 1973, when she was just 22 years old, she climbed into a truck in the heart of Prague, drove up onto a pavement, and sped towards a crowd of roughly 25 people. She killed eight of them and seriously injured twelve others. Two years later, she was executed by short-drop hanging.
But who was she? And why did she do this? The new biopic I, Olga zeroes in on these questions, shirking sensationalism in favour of a deeper character study. We see Olga as a misanthropic teen and socially awkward loner; it's her versus the world: "One day you'll pay for your laughter and my tears," she writes in her diary, hinting at her act of revenge.
Playing Olga, with her Louise Brooks-style bob, Polish actress Michalina Olszanska chain-smokes her way through the film, capturing the retro-chic of 70s Czechoslovakia and the loneliness of her character. Did she sympathise with Olga? Did it affect her on a personal level? What is it about young female killers that intrigues us?
Olga describes herself as an 'enlightened psycho' in the film. Is that how you see her?
I don't like to think that she was mental because it's too simple. I think she was a very intelligent girl, lost, alone, maybe too intelligent for her environment, for the people surrounding her. That could have been a problem because no one actually understood her or wanted to understand her. I'm not sure that if she met people from artistic bohemia it would have been easier for her - because she was that kind of person, reading all those books. Her mother just wanted her to be a normal girl, which meant something in that era, in the 70s.
How did you get into the mindset of a mass murderer?
I think that every teenager - especially girls - has moments when they think no one understands them. You think that you're alone, that you don't belong to this world. I experienced that, like everyone else of course, but not all of us are killing people. So first of all I tried to dig up my past, my darkest days, what I thought when I was a teenager. I wanted to understand what she must have felt, not to justify her actions. Because what she actually did was suicide, in a way, it wasn't just killing people.
You mean she knew that she would be executed, before she even got in the truck?
Yeah, she wanted that, she was asking for that. So yeah, it's a very complicated suicide, because at the beginning of the film her mother tells her that to commit suicide she needs a strong will, and she doesn't have that, so I think those are the words that she had in her mind her whole, short life.
On a personal level, how did it feel to play her?
The funny thing is, I almost always play the bad guys - the murderers, the monsters, the psychopaths, I don't know why [laughs]. When I play these characters, I always try to find this little piece of human being in them and I try to catch it and hold it close, because otherwise there's no point in playing a villain. When I played Olga I even felt catharsis, because it was my first dark-dark role, and when I tried to understand her it helped me understand myself and people generally. Ultimately, Olga taught me not to look at people and judge them.
We see her writing her diaries in the film. Did you work directly from the real ones?
Yeah, the diaries were real, and also the speeches from the court were real, but everything else in the film was sort of improvised. I also met the guy - her last boyfriend, the tall guy - I met him but he didn't actually want to talk about her a lot. But when Tomas, the director, asked him if I could play Olga he said, 'Oh yeah, she has something in her eyes', and I was like 'Oh okay, thank you, I think?' So that was very important, to touch Olga for this guy, and to see that he actually feels guilty, because he wasn't able to save her from herself.
Did you have any sympathy for Olga and what she went through before she did this?
Yeah, I did. I have been an outsider myself my whole life, the only child of two actors - that's not easy! So I could understand. Also, another thing that we decided to change: she wasn't as skinny as I am in the movie. When I was a teenager, all the girls wanted to be so skinny, anorexic and so on, I've been through that, so we decided to use it as a modern thing attached to Olga. She wasn't like that, but we thought it could be helpful for modern girls to understand what's going on.
Olga had a history of mental health issues but was adamant about not pleading insanity. Do you think she was fully aware of what she was doing?
I believe that. Because what she said is very reasonable, as much as it can be. When she did what she did, at the moment when she was driving the truck, I think she was thinking clearly. Otherwise I think there's no point in making a movie about psychopaths. Because you're not a psychopath, I'm not a psychopath, so I can never sympathise with them. But when I see a girl who could have been normal and then something happened, someone hurt her, then I feel like, oh my god, that could happen to me.
When Olga gets her stylish bob hairdo in the film, it shows a lapse in time, and also maybe a shift in her character?
Yeah, I think so. And it was her real hairstyle, that tomboy look. It shows her character change, because in the beginning of the movie she had long hair, everything that her mum wanted her to be like. Then she grew into this character she ended as. It's really important because I think she wanted to be tougher, to look tougher than she really was, to look more like a boy, just to hide that she's really sensitive and girlish, because she was afraid of everything.
Your character also smokes like crazy, in almost every scene. Was that hard for you?
Well, I smoked before but just a little - with my friends at parties. But after that fucking film, I smoke a lot now! It was a really important thing for me because I think her cigarettes are like a dummy, like a baby. My mum says that we smoke because we're all animals and we feel safe when we're sucking something. It's like we're remembering we're drinking the milk from our mother's breast. Olga was smoking in a very specific way, not like a Greta Garbo, but that helped me a lot, because every time she felt insecure she was doing this.
Do you think people are more intrigued because she was a female killer, which is a rare thing?
Yeah, because we never expect that from a woman - it is rare - and it's something different when you see the weak, skinny girl doing such a thing, than when you see a tough guy. It's like when you see Mathilda from Léon: The Professional, you think, 'Oh, there must be something interesting in that character'.
Text Oliver Lunn