In this joint fashion portfolio from Document Fall/Winter 2018 starring the Suspiria actress—photographed by Craig McDean with fashion by Grace Coddington—and conversation with dancer David Hallberg, the two compare artistic performance notes.
Most actors might have a glass of champagne or a nice dinner to celebrate landing a role with a director they’d long dreamed of working with. For Mia Goth, who was called three days into a family holiday in Brazil with the news that she’d been cast in Luca Guadagnino’s remake of the horror classic Suspiria, the reaction was a bit different. Okay, perhaps there was a tiny pause for celebration— about five minutes, in Goth’s recollection. Fortyeight hours later, she was on a flight to Italy to begin two months of intensive training to play the role of Sara, a member of an elite—and dangerous—dance troupe at an academy in West Berlin in 1977. If anyone can attest to the dangers of ballet, it’s American Ballet Theatre principal dancer David Hallberg, who has been dancing professionally for 18 years. In his memoir, A Body of Work, he writes of torn ligaments, bone fragments, scar tissue, and an ankle injured so badly that it nearly ended his career in 2014. Following two and a half years of rehabilitation, he was dancing again—and receiving some of the best reviews of his career. Between performances with Natalia Osipova at Sadler’s Wells in London, Hallberg compared notes with Goth about dancing through the pain, the promises and perils of expectations, and the unexpected similarities between their artistic practices.
David Hallberg—Where are you in the world?
Mia Goth—I’m in Harlem. Where are you?
David—I’m in London. I opened a show last night, and I was just talking about how I hate opening nights, actually. I don’t know what you can equate your opening nights to, but there’s just this buzz—an excess energy that is spent. I’m two and half hours from my second show, so it’ll be nice to just go out there and chill out.
Mia—I’m sure it’s incredible. I’m sure you don’t have anything to worry about.
David—[Laughs] Thank you. Artist-to-artist pep talk.
David—So first off, congratulations on the movie. As a dancer, I always go into dance films with trepidation, in a way. But I have to say, the mood of it is so spot-on in terms of the devotion dance takes. I’m curious what your expectations were for being a dancer, training like a dancer, and getting into the mood of what it’s like to be in a prestigious dance school.
Mia—I got Suspiria when I was on holiday in Brazil, visiting my family. I’d been there for about three days when I got the call that I got the job. I was completely over the moon and excited but also absolutely terrified, because as exciting as the job was, I knew I had to get to work straight away. These dancers start training from the age of three and up, so I really had to catch up on the last 15 years or so. I cut my trip short and was in Italy two days later. At one point, I told Luca, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve had dance training… I’ve kind of dabbled in it my whole life.’ I just said anything I could to try and get the job.
“The first week that I was there was really emotional. I’ve never put my body through that before. I felt that if this was going to be my experience the entire time, I didn’t know how I was going to cope.”
Mia—I was so desperate to work with him and be a part of this project. And somehow that worked, so I felt an added layer of pressure and expectation to perform. In Italy, I immediately met all the dancers—there were about 12 of them there—and the choreographer, Damien Jalet. I was so eager to start, because I’ve always had a fondness for dance, but I also came in with a real naivety—I didn’t know anything about this world. But I quickly learned that it’s very much like being an athlete. These girls train, like, ten hours a day, sometimes seven days a week, and it’s so intense on your body. That first week that I was there was really emotional, because I’ve never really put my body through anything like that. And I was scared, because I felt that if this was going to be my experience the entire time, I didn’t know how I was going to cope. My whole idea was, [in order] to understand this character and the film, and [in order] to have a firm grasp on what it is I have to do and to do it in an authentic way, I have to become a dancer as much as possible. So I was in Italy for two months before we started shooting, and I spent all of my time with these girls. I would be in rehearsal with them every day and eat lunch with them. I wanted to step into their shoes as much as I could, because I felt the more I did off-screen, the less I would have to do on-screen, and the more realistic it would be. Everything I learned from them was so invaluable, from how they walk—
David—[Laughs] Totally! The duck walk.
Mia—Yeah. It’s fascinating, how everything comes from the core, how they hold themselves, aches that they’re dealing with…dancers are constantly massaging and trying to ease joints and muscles.
David—What sort of physical transformation did you go through? What aches and pains did you have? I’m curious because I’ve just grown so accustomed to mine. I just got offstage from a rehearsal, and my calf hurts, my back hurts…but I’ve just normalized all of that. I’m curious, two months after you dove in headfirst, what pains you had and what pains you started to normalize.
Mia—Well, I lost a bit of weight, just from being on my feet all day, dancing. That was quite immediate. Dancers are so lean, and I kind of walked in feeling like an alien
in the room. Then as my body started to transform, I did start to feel more like I belonged in that world. In terms of physical pains and aches, I don’t have the best feet—they kind of lean inwards a bit—so I don’t have the best posture. So when I would dance and do the moves, I injured my feet quite a lot, and I would get bruises and cuts, because they wouldn’t support my body properly. And then just general…
David—General muscular stuff, right?
Mia—Yeah. My lower back would hurt a lot, my legs… it was just very intense. But it’s kind of like going to the gym—you end up wanting that soreness, because you feel like you’re doing something right.
Mia—And that’s what I spoke with the dancers about a lot—the fact that, yeah, you’re sore, but you dance through the pain, and eventually you don’t even feel it anymore. It just comes with the territory of being a dancer. That was quite an odd idea to wrap my head around, but once I started doing it a lot, I understood what they meant, and I kind of just went with it. There was a mental exhaustion, as well. That was a huge thing for me, because our entire dance was done to beats. We had a graph—four sheets of paper—and we were all a color. I was red, and then there was yellow, blue, and green. Each dance move correlated to a number on the page. So not only were you trying to learn the dance and make it fluid and try to express yourself in the right way, but you had to remember each beat. Apparently, that’s quite an old-fashioned way of learning dance, and choreographers and dancers don’t really stick to it anymore. Even the dancers struggled with it. It’s also just exhausting. Sometimes you’re trying to have a breakthrough and get to the next level of how you dance, and you just can’t get there. It was mentally exhausting trying and trying and going over and over again. It takes a lot of passion and commitment and patience.
David—Yeah, learning choreography—I’m sure that was a side of your brain that you had to exercise. Even as a professional dancer, I want very quickly to get over the moment where you have to learn the steps, because then you can layer the steps and the choreography.
Mia—Right. Then you can begin to focus on the more nuanced aspects of the dance.
Mia—I never really considered how poetic contemporary dance is. If you have your fingers tense, that’s going to deliver a different type of message than if your hands are relaxed and in more of a romantic gesture. That really blew me away, how much you can express yourself through your body.
David—It’s so true. I want to talk a bit about fear. I think for any artist, there is such a devotion to what you do—and, I think, a calling—but what comes hand in hand with this is fear. You wanted this role so badly, and you wanted to work with Luca so badly, and you get the call in Brazil, and they say you’ve gotten it. Then you have this surge of elation and excitement. When does fear come into play? For me, if I get a big opportunity to dance with a company, or a role, I’m so excited, but there’s this undercurrent of fear and doubt that comes into play, as well.
Mia—Absolutely. The fear kicks in pretty much as soon as I find out I get the job.
“Every film you’re on, it’s your first and last opportunity. If you don’t perform, you’ll never work again—I genuinely feel that.”
Mia—I have a moment of elation and adrenaline that lasts maybe five minutes. Then I start to think, ‘My God, how am I actually going to pull this off and get away with it?’
Mia—And maybe people find out that actually I wasn’t even meant to be a part of this to begin with. So I deal with that by going into overdrive with my rehearsal and my prep. That’s the only thing I can do. I think that as an actor, you try to do as much preparation as possible beforehand, so that once you get to set and start working, you just let that all fall behind you and hope that with all the preparation, some sort of magic will happen that you haven’t prepared. That’s really where the special moment in filming and creating scenes comes from—the unexpected moment. I’m pretty much terrified until we start shooting—absolutely terrified. Sometimes, not on Suspiria, but I’ve been on other films where I’ve done my first scene of the movie and I’m convinced I’m going to get fired and they’re going to send me home.
Mia—It’s something I have to combat on a daily basis. But I also think it’s not debilitating—it’s healthy. If I felt like, ‘Oh, I’ve got this, and it’s nothing to worry about,’ then I wouldn’t have as much reverence for what I do and respect for the craft and the people that I have the chance to work with.
David—That’s so interesting. I have to say, what you go through as an actor is exactly what I go through as a dancer. I was onstage last night, and the curtain was about to go up, and I was thinking about who would be in the audience and who I am potentially going to dance with in the future, and if I don’t dance well tonight, I won’t get the opportunity that they are offering me in the future.
David—You’re not alone. These mind games are so unbelievable, you know?
Mia—They’re so powerful. I deal with that all the time. Every film you’re on, it’s your first and your last opportunity. If you don’t perform, and if you don’t give to the caliber that you want to give at, you’ll never work again. I genuinely feel like that: ‘If this doesn’t go right, I’ll never have the chance to do what I love again.’ So there’s that extreme pressure to perform at an optimum level.
David—Yeah, but I also think that’s why you truly care. I feel like the stress that will never go away for me as a performer is what keeps me on the edge of what I expect of myself. It’s a double-edged sword, isn’t it?
Mia—Yeah. I’ve seen actors on set with their phones, and they’re messaging in between takes, and I’m blown away that they’re able to have such confidence in themselves to do that. Maybe that works fine for them, but I couldn’t imagine doing that. When I’m on set, I’m completely focused and just trying to get this done right and pay respect to the fact that we all get to be on this film set. It really is such a luxury to be able to go off and make a movie for three or four months out of the year.
David—Yeah. I want to talk about limits. I think for an artist, limits are something that can be self-imposed, but I believe when you break through certain limits, you realize more of what you’re capable of. I think when I have broken through those limits is when someone has pushed me beyond what I was capable of. I’m curious where you are with your own limits as an actor, and when you feel like you’ve had a breakthrough with limits that you’ve put up yourself, and whether you’ve done it or a director or fellow actor has helped you do it.
Mia—I think limits are connected to what we were just talking about: fear. I think you pass your limit once you become comfortable walking into an uncomfortable situation, where you don’t really know if you’re going to be able to do it or if you’re actually going to get away with it. In those realms of uncertainty, that’s the only place that you grow as an artist. If you just remain in a comfortable place, it’s a slow death—you just die, creatively. One of the things that I loved about working with Luca was that he really did push you. I’d never really had that sort of collaborative relationship with a director before. My character in Suspiria is quite unlike me, and that scares me, too. There were times on set when I would do something and be pretty pleased with how it came out, and Luca would come up and ask for more, whether that be in terms of emotion or even bringing it down. It was frustrating at times, because I didn’t know if I could do it. But I trusted him so much that I would give it, and sometimes I’d have to do it again and again, and then eventually we’d have a breakthrough and get to a place where the scene took on a whole other meaning and became so much more elevated. That’s one of the most invaluable experiences I take away from working with him—how he taught me to trust myself in moments where I doubt myself. He taught me to lean in towards that, to actively search for it.
David—That’s amazing. I think that can be said for me when I’m being choreographed on. I was working with a choreographer yesterday, and the way he pushes me is sometimes so uncomfortable, but I think the results [that come] through that discomfort are so much better than when you feel like it’s gone well. And I think for an artist, that’s when you realize that you’re capable of more, but it might not always feel comfortable, per se.
Mia—Yeah. And at that point, you have to put your ego aside.
David—Absolutely. It’s so true.
Mia—You have to just acquiesce and be vulnerable and hear what he has to say, rather than thinking you always know what’s right and you have all the answers and ways to move forward. What’s so wonderful is that when people push you like that and ask for more, at a very base level it’s because they believe in you so much. There’s something really comfortable about that, when you have such a master as Luca who believes in you to such a degree that he feels he can ask you for more. Then you actually start to feel very empowered by it, too.
“In those realms of uncertainty, that’s the only place that you grow as an artist. If you just remain in a comfortable place, it’s a slow death—you just die, creatively.”
David—Yeah, and then you just keep making breakthroughs.
Mia—And you get into a rhythm, and you are trying to find different ways around a scene, how to tackle it and find a truth to it. It’s also just really fun when you get to set and every day is exciting, because you don’t really know what’s going to happen. Those are the best kinds of sets to be a part of.
David—It’s funny—I don’t know the acting world as well as I know the dance world, and I feel like there are so many parallels in terms of how you prepare for something. Whatever medium it is, there’s this journey that you go on that’s filled with doubt and fear and expectation and your own limitations. I completely agree with what you told me: The more you dive in, the deeper you dive in, the more you commit, the better the result you will have when you need to rely on it the most. For you, that’s when you walk on set, and for me, it’s when I walk onstage.
Mia—I agree. Dance and acting are very, very similar. Dance is an incredibly emotional art form. With that and acting, there’s nothing to hide behind.
Mia—It’s just you in dance, and in acting, your body is your vessel—that’s how you express yourself. It’s just had such an impact on me. I’ve got such an admiration for what you do, and for dance in general.
David—Thank you. It’s a mutual respect.
Model Mia Goth. Hair Orlando Pita using Orlando Pita Play. Make Up Francelle Daly at Art+Commerce. Manicure Megumi Yamamoto at Susan Price Agency. Photo Assistants Nick Brinley, Nicholas Krasznai, William Cudd, and Maru Teppei. Digital Technician Nicholas Ong. Fashion Assistants Madeleine Jones and Desiree Adedje. Tailor Lucy Falck. Hair Assistant Livio Angileri. Make Up Assistant Andrew D’Angelo. Casting AM Casting. Production PRODn. Post-Production Dtouch NY.