Synopsis: A young girl comes to New York to find herself, to take some time off, to take a break … and secretly, to become a star. She settles there, getting some stray jobs for film and TV, supporting herself as a bartender. The years go by and friends and family all wonder: How long is she going to do this? Then, out of nowhere and from among thousands, she alone is selected to star in a big Hollywood film. Sound like a movie? Well, it isn’t. It’s the real life story of Anna-Karin Eskilsson.
When I find Eskilsson she is sitting inside a café, cupping her coffee mug, shivering.
“It’s so cold, I just had to go inside,” she says.
It is quite cold, at least for New York. But Anna-Karin Eskilsson comes from Östersund in Jämtland, near Storsjön. I shudder at the mere thought of the winter temperatures there.
“But it’s different here, it’s like these little freezing tornadoes form on the street,” Eskilsson says.
There’s been a lot about her in the news since she landed the part of Greta Garbo last August, right in front of Uma Thurman and Rachel Weisz's noses. But how did she get here in the first place?
“I came to New York fourteen years ago, straight out of high school. I wanted to get away for a while. To find out who I was.”
She came as an au-pair for a family where the mother worked as an actress ... it rubbed off, and Eskilsson began taking acting classes in the Big Apple. Little by little she built a resume.
“My father works at the local newspaper at home, and my mother’s a nurse, but I always thought I might want to be an actress. But there really wasn’t anything to do about it in Östersund.”
In New York, she says, she’s been lucky. She got small parts in soaps like “One Life to Live” and TV-series like “Sex and the City” and films like “He Outta Be Committed”.
“Living here can be demanding,” she says. “I mean, you know, it’s a big production sometimes just to get to work. But I never thought about going back to Sweden. Theater and film isn’t a choice. For me, it’s who I am. And it’s not really about being successful, it’s just about working, and I’ve been working. Living on acting, however, is another thing completely.”
Yes, living on acting is another thing completely. Fast forward to director Buddy Bregman’s e-mail, which Eskilsson received on her blackberry while sitting at an outdoor cafeteria in Östersund last August. It said simply: “I received your headshot and I liked it. Are you still interested? Here is the script.” Enough to make anyone start panting. Eskilsson, who of course was still interested, flew to Los Angeles, read the script and got the part.
“I think what was different with this particular audition was that I wasn’t afraid. It didn’t really matter to me, because I had nothing to lose and I didn’t think I had anything to gain either, because I didn’t think I could possibly get the part. I was also very tired.”
“But then he called you….”
“Yes, then he called me and said ‘You are Garbo’.”
Then, Eskilsson truly began worrying about what she’d gotten herself into. It was happiness and despair. Who was Garbo? And how do you prepare for a role like that?
“I have read everything about her, and I have seen all her movies. I also walk a lot. She walked a lot here in New York and so I walk where she walked, and I look at the river, which she did. And I am thinking the water probably reminded her of Stockholm. Garbo was a perfectionist; she was very hard on herself, very critical. She felt a lot of pressure, and I think that’s why she left the business.”
Since news broke that Eskilsson is slated to play Garbo, life’s been a bit of a frenzy.
“The interest from Sweden has been enormous,” she confesses.
An unknown Swedish girl nails the role of a lifetime. Real life doesn’t get much more Hollywood than that. But there’s something else, too. Garbo is one of those huge stars, up there with Marilyn Monroe and James Dean and Marlon Brando, with whom we all have, or feel we have, some sort of a relationship. It was part of their talent to make us feel as though we, the audience, knew them intimately. So when a film is being made about one of these icons, we’re very curious to see what actor gets chosen, and if she matches our imagination. They never really do ... how could they?
“Some people have said to me, ‘But you don’t look like Garbo,’” says Eskilsson as she catches me watching her closely. “And then I say ‘No, not now. But just wait.’ We tried on some wigs and clothes from that era, and I was amazed myself. And if I have to, I’ll cut and dye my hair.”
Like Garbo, Eskilsson doesn’t plan on going back to Sweden to live – New York is home for her.
“I wouldn’t mind working in Sweden, doing a part there, but the Sweden of my childhood doesn’t exist anymore. I can get a bit nostalgic about Sweden sometimes, but I love New York.”
The film will be about Garbo's film career, which spanned 20 years, and her affairs with both men and women. The German model Nadja Auermann will be playing Marlene Dietrich, but who will play Mauritz Stiller, Garbo’s mentor and possible lover is still not clear.
“I don’t know yet," Eskilsson says. “We are scheduled to begin shooting in April, but it might be delayed. I don’t know any of the other actors. I just try to focus, to prepare; I read the scrip over and over, I have it in my bag now. I live in this uncertainty until it all starts.”
And such wonderful uncertainty it is!