Regressing to a past life finds Pedro Alonso filling the sandals of Filipo, an ancient Roman warrior. In an autobiography unlike most others, the actor—I’m referring, of course, to Alonso’s present-day proceedings. There are details a journey towards spiritual liberation; how the encounters with a rebel leader (think Neo from The Matrix) open young Filipo’s eyes to a hidden truth. Oh, and a troubling trade-off: to serve the system or to serve his principles.
For a man robbing the Royal Mint of Spain, this soldier’s dilemma is easily answered. After all, the desire to illegally print billions of euros doesn’t betray much love for the system. In Money Heist, Alonso plays Berlin—a character driven by a strict code of duty. So committed to the plan, in fact, that he opts to stave off a SWAT team by himself while the rest of his crew try to escape.
Alonso lives many lives—on-screen, in regressions, through his words and paintings—and he lives them all at once. Yet, in his eyes, they all seem to be one and the same.
“I try to work with my own nature,” Alonso describes the process of playing Berlin. He pauses, to clarify that he’s not a killer or pervert. “I’m not so tremendous nor terrible, but all of us have shadows and areas of light. I try to find the resonances, the notes that are innate to me. And I go deeper and amplify these aspects.” It’s a melting pot born from introspection. “I begin cooking it up like soup. I paint using references, fill in the blanks with my intuition. In some moments, I pray, in my own way, to try and figure out the mysteries. It's about putting myself in a place to disappear in the role.”
Alonso’s method is one of self-discovery. It doesn’t call for him to transform into a character but, rather, to find the character within himself. He sleuths through the script. In search of lines (or the spaces between them) that connect with him on a visceral level. “I approach it like an investigator would. Trying to shine a light. To find meaning behind what’s happening in my pure present—as an actor and as a human being too. I always want to discover the angle of view in a role that offers me the opportunity to grow as a person,” Alonso says.
“Sometimes, it’s not exactly in the script. I have to find the right perspective which allows me to bring something alive in the role. Without that intimate connection, I wouldn’t be able to channel the right emotions.” By way of his method, Alonso finds some roles to be simply out of reach. “There are actors who play almost the same character every time, and I admire them. Then there are others who have the ability to play different characters, and I admire them too. For me, it’s important that there be an esoteric meaning in the opportunity to play a role. I don’t believe I can play all sorts of characters.
“But I prefer not to anticipate what’s going to happen in my career,” he interjects—not for the first time during our conversation. Alonso is enamoured by the idea of being present.
It’s a trait which he has picked up over his time spent in a red jumpsuit and a Dalí mask. “Berlin is in the pure present,” he says. “He’s in no rush to know what’s going to happen next. That has been a good lesson for me.” Alonso’s unexpected return for the third season of Money Heist (albeit in flashbacks) helped solidify his indifference towards the future. “I died, and then I continued playing the role,” he explains. “I’ve realised that it’s best not to anticipate.”
Each time that it’s brought up, Alonso speaks about Berlin’s death as if it were his own. “After my death,” he says, “I had a new opportunity to live the process on another level.” As it turns out, his close association with the character—which birthed his excellent portrayal in the first place—would now become his primary obstacle. In playing a younger version of Berlin, Alonso would have to strip him down of qualities which, so far, he had firmly committed to. “The best parts of the role disappear in flashbacks. I spoke about that with the writers. I told them, ‘I’m going to die and I don’t know if I’ll be able to sustain the role after that.’”
A jump into the unknown then—accompanied by a fear of critics, but balanced out by a relentless search for personal growth. “For me, the miracle is that I received the support of the public,” Alonso recalls the aftermath, yet again endorsing his thoughts on anticipating the future. “This difficulty, this handicap—it offered us the opportunity to uncover hidden parts of the role and paradoxically, these hidden parts were more luminous than the ones already known to us.” It takes a lot to elicit sympathy for an egocentric narcissist with a tendency for misogyny and murder, but as the story goes so far, Berlin’s set to bow out a fan favourite.
Coming up on the final season, Alonso says, “We’ve put together all the different aspects of the role here. I pray, in my way, to be able to offer the spectators an explanation which makes them perceive the entire journey of the character.”
As the curtains close, for good this time, Alonso isn’t one to seek comfort in familiarity. “I understand that in life there are cycles. Everything has a beginning and everything must have an end,” he reflects. “I feel like this is a good time to close off this amazing experience. What happens after this is going to be a new cycle and we’ll see what that entails.”
A Netflix project under wraps, a documentary about shamanism on hold, but most imminent is Alonso’s role in a movie by Oscar-nominated director Rodrigo Sorogoyen. “If Berlin is super sophisticated, the role that I’m playing next is the opposite,” he says. “[The character’s] rudimentary, irrational— almost a brute. It’s a very different role and I’m beginning to feel the fear creep in because I don’t know what’s going to happen with my process. I’m very thankful for the opportunity though.”
Contemplating the blank canvas ahead of him, Alonso draws parallels between acting and painting. “Many years ago, I discovered that when I read literature written for painters, I understood it better than the texts written about being an actor. I connect better with the sensibility of the painters. It aligns with the way I process information. This has allowed me to approach acting more intuitively,” he shares.
“I try to play my roles the way I’d paint. When you’re in front of a canvas, you can have a plan but the most incredible thing is to be open to accidents. When I paint, I mostly use my right hand. But I’ve discovered that when I do this, my brain forces me to be precise and controlled. It isn’t interesting. So I’ve started using my left [hand] to mess up the strokes, after which, I try to reconcile the painting. I like painting in an impulsive way and using these ‘mistakes’ as opportunities.
“The same goes for acting. If I’m playing a sequence and something unexpected happens, it can be a gift. It’s more mysterious. It’s more authentic. If you demand control, you’d see it as a problem. But if you’re open, it can be the best thing— you stop trying to anticipate moments and instead, find yourself connected with what’s happening right now.”
Further connecting the dots between his artistic endeavours, Alonso quotes Italian sculptor Ignazio Jacometti—“I paint so I can see better.” Through his sequences, musings, paintings and past lives, he discovers pieces of himself—each one helping him hone in on a greater puzzle. “I discovered these treasures in my adult life and it was a surprise for me. I began to paint when I was 33; I started writing, the way I do now, six years ago at 44. I’m not a professional painter or writer but I enjoy both. I recognise myself in my work. It’s difficult to be absolutely clear but these are the lenses that I try to regulate with more and more precision—to be open to the mystery, the infinite mystery.”
Though he stumbles upon contrast and conflict, across characters portrayed and disciplines pursued, Alonso views such qualities as being intrinsic to life. “I try to be the person that I am, with all my paradoxes.”
All of the original Money Heist series is now out on Netflix.
Photography: Monica Suarez De Tangil
Styling: Sara Fernandez Castro.
Originally published on 7 December, 2021.
While researching her role for a new film Past Lives, Greta Lee watched a South Korean reality show in which a celebrity is reunited with a childhood sweetheart. Being confronted by your first love is, unsurprisingly, a physical experience. “It’s initial shock, terror, a look of death, then ecstasy, joy and a desperate, deep sadness, all within a matter of seconds,” says the 40-year-old Korean-American actor on a video call from Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband, the writer Russ Armstrong, and their two sons.
It was a specific feeling she needed to tap into for the romantic drama from writer-director Celine Song, which is out now in cinemas and was released earlier this summer in the United States to considerable critical acclaim. The film charts the story of two friends from South Korea: Nora, played by Lee, and Hae Sung, played by Teo Yoo, who were separated when Nora’s family emigrated to Canada. A couple of decades (and relationships) later, the pair reconnect for an intense week in New York.
Before Nora and Hae Sung’s reunion was filmed, Song asked the actors not to interact. “Admittedly, at the time I felt like, ‘Oh, this is kind of hokey and manufactured,’ but I’m glad we went along with the experiment, because it really helped me hone in on the biology of longing and what it does to your body,” says Lee. Yoo and John Magaro, who plays Nora’s husband Arthur, actually met for the first time on screen; for months, Lee had acted as a “conduit” between the two, a distance that Song encouraged. “She’s supremely manipulative,” Lee jokes.
Taking on Nora, a nuanced romantic lead, “felt really, really radical at the time—and very nerve-racking”, says Lee. While she was starting out as an actor, doing theatre in New York, the roles available for Asian-Americans were scarce and, as Lee points out, she wasn’t cut out for stereotypes: “I was not very good at playing a lab technician or a doctor.” Later, however, she proved very cut out for scene-stealing turns in Girls, as the clueless and cut-throat gallerist Soojin, and more recently as Maxine in Netflix’s time-bending hit Russian Doll and Stella in The Morning Show, which is about to start its third season. In 2025, she is set to star alongside Jared Leto in the third instalment of Tron.
Central to Past Lives, says Lee, is the Korean concept of in-yun. Not precisely translatable, it refers to the time-spanning connections between people: if you meet in this life, you encountered each other in a past life. “Now that I’ve done the movie, I can’t not see in-yun everywhere,” Lee says, with the air of a recent convert to a niche religion. “You and I have in-yun now,” she says, pointing to me. “You can have in-yun with a chair,” she adds, pointing at her chair. Wherever you stand on the idea—as Nora says in the film, in-yun is “just something Korean people say to seduce someone”—it’s an effective way to raise the romantic stakes; both balm and delusion. “It’s really a coping mechanism, isn’t it?” says Lee, cheerily. “We’re all just trying to make sense of the injustice that we only get to live once.”
This interview took place before the SAG-AFTRA strike.
Originally published on Esquire UK