We interview actors Alma Pöysti and Jussi Vatanen to talk about their film Fallen Leaves, in which they co-star as two single people in Finland who find love with one another.
Aki Kaurismäki might be twenty films into an illustrious directing career, but his films show no sign of wavering in either their sharp tragicomedy or their invigorating deadpan style. His latest, Fallen Leaves, is one of his best films yet; much of the film’s success and likeability is down to its leads, Jussi Vatanen and Alma Pöysti, who play Holappa and Ansa respectively.
Holappa and Ansa are two single adults living in Helsinki, who struggle with low wages and zero hour contracts, and who both have a depressed, neglected air about them. Through a chance meeting at a bar, these lonely people find a connection with one another. It’s love, Kaurismäki style. The proceeding events of their heartwarming relationship are peppered with devilish wit, gloriously dry humour, and extremely affecting emotional tangents. The chemistry between Pöysti and Vatanen, who are both making their acting debuts in a Kaurismäki film, is remarkable.
Fallen Leaves is undoubtedly a Kaurismäki film—you are just as likely to laugh as you are wince from melancholy with this one—but it is a sum of so many sparkling parts. To celebrate Fallen Leaves’ release in the UK, we sat down with Vatanen and Pöysti to talk about their involvement in the film. Of course, Kaurismäki came up, but there was also time to discuss their characters and how they approached such a unique acting style. Read our interview with Jussi Vatenen and Alma Pöysti below.
Jussi Vatanen & Alma Pöysti on the Unique Style of Fallen Leaves
Thank you for speaking to us today. I saw Fallen Leaves recently at the London Film Festival and adored it. You were both perfect in your roles. I’d love to start by talking about Aki Kaurismäki’s films, and how unique they are in their style and moods. How did you both approach this in terms of your performances? You have to blend very tragic, depressing aspects with a lot of comedy.
Alma Pöysti: We are like a link in a long chain of movies now, so for Aki to make another movie was a big surprise. He had already announced that he’d made his final film, so he surprised everyone, even himself.
As Finnish actors or actresses, we’ve grown up with these movies within our system. When I got the part in Fallen Leaves, I rewatched his movies—not in a copy and paste way, but to get a feeling of them, of their worlds and universes. And then of course everything else was in the script.
What were your thoughts when you first read the script?
Jussi Vatanen: It was very touching and funny. You had the feeling that this was it; there was nothing you needed to invent yourself or as an actor try to add something new to the story. Aki is a master in summarising things. By saying a little, he says a lot, and that was the case with the script too. When reading it, I was very touched, but also laughed a lot!
That’s exactly how it feels watching Fallen Leaves. His films are often quite short, but he packs so much into them. The acting style is always very deadpan, very straightfaced. How did you approach this specific style? Was it a challenge showing the emotions in each of your characters?
AP: You just had to be as pure and honest and sincere as you possibly could. It was a very purifying experience, taking away the layers, the masks, the tricks, and to just stay with the thoughts and feelings of the characters. We had to trust the situation.
In that way, it wasn’t actually that hard, as it felt like we were approaching these people in a very honest and caring way, with a lot of heart in it. It might look very serious, there is still a beating heart behind everything. That is Aki’s heart that is beating for them.
Jussi Vatanen & Alma Pöysti on Playing Holappa and Ansa
In terms of the romance of the story, how did you work together to create that? Your relationship is so believable.
Jussi Vatanen: Thank you. In a way, Aki helped us to achieve this. He had seen some of our previous films and came to this conclusion that these two people would work together well, and that was the case!
Alma Pöysti: I’m not sure how we did it. We just did it!
JV: There are very strong scenes, with lots of emotions, and lots to hold onto. It was quite easy to grab onto and use so many of these things.
AP: You can connect to the fears, the shyness of the characters, to their fear of falling in love, of being in someone else’s gaze. It takes a lot of courage to break out of your own solitude. These two characters are superheroes, as they are so courageous in taking these risks. They are not teenagers anymore. They have been through life, with hardships in their backpacks.
Fallen Leaves is very much situated in our present day: it references the Ukraine war, cost of living crisis, and zero hour contracts. How did these themes influence your characters?
JV: Those are facts that surround the characters, but also us as human beings.
AP: It wasn’t hard to understand. These are given circumstances that form their lives, and also perhaps why we made this movie. It’s important to tell an honest love story that still doesn’t shy away from the rough side of life.
Absolutely. Both your characters find strength with one another in the face of this adversity. What stood out to each of you specifically in terms of your characters?
AP: For Ansa, it was her sense of pride. She has a very strong spine. Whatever job she’s doing, or if she gets fired, she is just a survivor who can take care of herself. I admire that strength.
JV: Holappa is a very solitary man. I totally understand that. He has his bits and pieces in order in his life. When he first meets Ansa, he has to decide whether has the courage to fall in love. He will have to give up his solitary world, which is a really interesting dynamic.
Jussi Vatanen & Alma Pöysti on Working with Aki Kaurismäki
Aki Kaurismäki is a legend of cinema. What was it like working with him?
Jussi Vatanen: It was quite a surprise to have a phone call telling me that Aki wanted to meet me and talk about his new film. Aki doesn’t do many interviews, and although he is a legend, he isn’t a large, public figure in Finland, so it was amazing to meet him for the first time. He was actually real!
Alma Pöysti: He has such a strong integrity and morals when he does interviews. They always have strong messages or have well-chosen words. First you might be a bit intimidated when meeting him, but then you realise he has the biggest heart, and of course, the humour is there. You see his passion for film and his knowledge around it.
JV: It was nerve-wracking when we started filming. Aki uses old 35mm film cameras, and he told us that we would go with one take only for each scene. So on the first week of shooting, I was terrified!
And did he stick to that throughout the filming?
JV: Yeah, that was the goal! After the first week, I got into it. Every scene became very precious. Everyone—the actors, the crew—cared about it so much. There was a lot of concentration, but it was so enjoyable too. Also, you only had to do it once, which was nice!
Thank you for speaking to us today.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Fallen Leaves was screened at the 2023 BFI London Film Festival on 7-15 October and will be released in UK & Irish cinemas on December 1, 2023. Read our review of Fallen Leaves.