Diversity. It’s the driving force found within the community of artists that represent and put forth the amazingly human cinema that is independent film-making. Frankly, in my experience, all of these individuals, no matter what facet of the industry they are involved in, have a passion and fortitude to succeed that would rival even the most successful Hollywood denizens, if not even more so on many, many levels. For these people, the real, down-to-earth art of making a motion picture resounds within their very beings, and the results speak for themselves. Such is the case with our next special guest who was willing to take the time to share about her prolific and highly varied road into acting.
Heralding from the Emerald Isle, aka: Ireland, this Dublin-born actress has truly exemplified perseverance and embracing change, demonstrating a fervor to dive into whatever opportunity arose for her, yet did so with a focus and desire to excel in what would become a myriad of fields and talents. Culminating in her current profession of acting, the roles she chooses are as varied and nuanced as her skillsets, and the payoffs are only just starting to reveal a superstar in the making. Championing independent film while still finding the time to indulge in other creative hobbies, there’s no denying the appeal and charismatic charm displayed by the Irish angel known as Kojii Helnwein.
One Film Fan: Here we have a bonnie Irish lass named Kojii Helnwein. First off, tell us a little about who this talented young woman is and what initially drew you into the entertainment industry overall.
Kojii Helnwein: I was born in Dublin to a holistic healer Mama and touring, songwriting Papa. My parents are a very creative and artistic pair. When I was a child, my Mum was always painting, crafting something, or encouraging my brother and I to create a work of art. My Dad could usually be found with guitar in hand, plucking away at a new song idea or writing poetry at his typewriter.
For much of my childhood he toured around the world with his rock band, An Emotional Fish. I was fascinated by everything involved from his songwriting, to laying down the tracks in the studio, the rehearsal process, to getting on stage; I was in awe. I hounded my Dad to take me everywhere with him. I loved going to his concerts early to see the sound check and watch the crew set-up or snooping around backstage to learn how the venues worked.
O.F.F.: How did you further learn the arts (ie: mentors, influences, and schooling)?
K.H.: I lived in Los Angeles for a time where I worked as a fashion model. I considered it my day job and never expected to have the successes that I experienced.
In Los Angeles it’s quite normal for Casting Directors to seek out “model-types who act”. I was very fortunate to have Jami Wrenn as my agent who has believed in me from day 1. She consistently submitted me for work I never thought I was capable of.
I’m naturally a shy creature and didn’t want to let her down with these huge film and TV auditions that she was submitting me to, so I signed myself up to classes at the Acting Centre in L.A.. After my first class, I had caught the acting bug. I’ve been hooked ever since and studied everywhere I could.
I’m not sure I’ll ever be feel I’ve learned enough. I treat classes and workshops like going to the gym. I’ve had the pleasure of training with so many incredible mentors, especially in Ireland, such as David Scott and Terry McMahon at The IFA Dublin, Gerry Grennel at Bow St in Dublin. I even tried my hand at sitcom comedy with the Actors Comedy Studio L.A..
O.F.F.: In reading your bio, it gives us a picture of one multi-talented individual! Talk a little about your modeling days first.
K.H.: I started modeling later than most. I was 20 years old when a friend secretly sent my photos to the top modeling agency in Ireland. I still don’t know who sent them. The day after I met that agent, I was on the runway for a top Irish Designer (John Rocha), where I met a lot of people in the fashion industry. After that show I was booked solid for the following year so I never really had time to decide if I wanted to become a model or not. In those days I had been working as a freelance Stage Manager working long, hard hours in Theatres all around Ireland.
When I discovered my modelling work paid me more in 1 day than I earned in a week as an SM, I was sold on the career change. I honestly thought it would be something I would work at for a year to fund my music equipment. However, the work kept coming in, the travel opportunities more exciting and 10 years later I finally decided it was time to leave the fashion world behind me. I could no longer pretend that the industry interested me.
O.F.F.: It also lists you as a singer/songwriter as well! How about a little sharing about that aspect of who you are and how you’ve utilized it.
K.H.: I often joke that music is the “Family Business”. Music was like language in our house growing up. I would spend hours in my room writing music on my guitar, composing on the piano, I even trained to become an Opera singer at one time.
When I was 13 I found myself in a venue in Dublin City and jokingly quipped with a staff member that I wanted a gig. Ten minutes later the owner of the venue found me and told me to show up a few days later for a lunchtime gig. I didn’t even have a band! I partnered with my best friend asap and taught her to sing some of my songs. That gig turned into an evening show and then we had weekly spots around various Irish venues all throughout our teens.
I have had various bands and musical endeavors over the years. The addictive part of making music for me is the communication between a group of people. I love the close knit connection one can have with other musicians when you are lost in the music together. It’s transcendental.
O.F.F.: You’ve even dealt in your own personal photography, which has been published, is that correct?
K.H.: Yes. I have a huge love of vintage cameras and film photography. I have a collection of beautiful vintage cameras that I found in various places around the world. I started taking photographs when I was a teenager, mostly of people around the venues I played or in the streets of Dublin as we roamed from gig to gig around the city. I used to spend my Saturday mornings in a dark room in the company of a giant pot of coffee and a raw voice from a night of singing and taking photos.
In the last few years I have taken to using the camera to process my acting roles. I found myself lost in the role of Hamlet’s Ophelia. Production of the feature film was a little delayed so shooting self portraits as Ophelia with certain moments of hers in mind helped me to keep the character alive in the down time.
It was at this time that Kai’outi Magazine asked me to shoot a series for them on a particular theme. I showed them a few of the Ophelia images I had already taken and they asked me to continue. In time they published a very nice interview along with all of the photos I had taken for The Ophelia Series to date. Since then I have exhibited three of the photos with a group of artists in Ireland and have a full solo show in the works that will include a short film and music I composed.
O.F.F.: Acting, though, is our ultimate focus here. What was your first primary acting gig, and how did that shape your desire to pursue it further?
K.H.: I shot a lot of commercials in the USA throughout my years as a model. During this time I had the opportunity to shoot a music video/short film with one of my own personal acting and musical heroes; Juliette Lewis. Working with her was an eye opener. I have a huge amount of respect for her fight to become a respected musician breaking out of the Hollywood life. Most people thought she couldn’t do it but she did it. And boy, did she do it well!
I was so impressed by her strength of character, her honesty, her talent and her integrity as a person. As an added bonus, our co-star was Michael Des Barres. Not only did I love him as Murdock in “MacGyver”, I am also a HUGE fan of his music. His band Silverhead and their raw 70’s sound was the soundtrack to many of my adventures. These two heroes of mine gave me so much wonderful advice and encouraged me immensely. How could I not go on?
O.F.F.: Given your theater stage management experience as well, would the production side of film—directing, producing, et al—become a facet of the business you’d like to tap into?
K.H.: Most definitely. I started writing a script many years ago that I often return to and swear I will complete it some day soon. However, I have a lot left to learn as an actress before I divert my attentions to even more challenging endeavors. In saying that, I do have a short in the works to accompany my photography series.
O.F.F.: So, onto your current project, the short film “Radha”. What drew you to this film and/or how did the opportunity come about
K.H.: The Director, Nicolas Courdouan, and his producer reached out to my agent. When I read the script the first thing that stood out to me was the predominantly female cast. I had spent frustrating months turning down auditions for characters I thought were weak, had unnecessary nudity, or were written as just the “Main man’s wife/love interest”. When I read “Radha” my interest was definitely piqued to discover a man had written about two female characters who were people unto themselves.
When I was asked to audition I initially assumed I was going in against a long line of other actresses but when I turned up it was just me. I didn’t realize that Nicholas had the storyboards worked around my photos and already pictured me in the role.
O.F.F.: Tell us, without spoilers, about the character, Radha, you play in it. What I personally loved about this effort was that it did such a superb job at only giving the viewer hints to play with as to what Radha truly IS. Was that a facet of this film that appealed to you? Leaving the viewer wanting more?
K.H.: Radha is a supernatural creature with a deep sense of interest in humanity, and she’s incredibly curious when it comes to Sue’s character in the film. Yes! I loved reading the script and filling in the blanks afterwards. I had so many thoughts as to what happens next or who Radha really is. Obviously we work-shopped it all together and I know the truth of her now. “Radha” the short film is an excerpt from a feature length film that Nicolas wrote, so the fact that it leaves people wanting more makes me excited to see the Feature come to fruition.
O.F.F.: The film had a very Neil Jordan-esque “Byzantium” feel for me. Is this more cerebral/haunting horror style something you gravitate to more as an actress?
K.H.: I do have a penchant for the darker genres. I tend to gravitate toward anything that draws on the deeper side of life though not just horror or supernatural, I am a fan of dark dramas and thrillers also.
O.F.F.: That dance sequence alone was just flat out creepy yet undeniably mesmerizing! What was it like to experience those moments when filming?
K.H.: The dance sequence was the one aspect that almost convinced me to turn down the role. I am no dancer. I was terrified that I may have lacked the ability and stamina to pull it off.
Once I met our choreographer, Dagmara Jerzak, all my fears dissipated. We work-shopped the scene, choreographed each movement, and came to understand the character so much in our work throughout a week together that the extras on set assumed I was a trained dancer on the day, which was the most humbling of compliments I could imagine.
O.F.F.: How was it working alongside fellow actors Sue Walsh, Gerry Wade, and the others? How about with director Nicolas Courdouan?
K.H.: I mostly worked with Sue and Nicolas, both of whom were amazing. Sue brings such a natural sweetness and grace to her roles that is hard to turn away from. Nicolas is incredibly patient and freeing to work with. He has this ability to make actors feel very safe and free to create while still making sure we’re all on the same page.
O.F.F.: What is currently on the horizon for you film wise?
K.H.: I have recently wrapped filming a couple of projects and I’m currently prepping for my next. I’m not allowed to disclose the titles of any yet, but one was a stunning and emotional Short film shot on the West Coast of Ireland. The other is a Feature Film starring a couple of my favorite actors from the USA. Both are set to be released next year while my next project will hit Irish TV screens in the Fall.
O.F.F.: Independent film is such an incredibly prolific, passionate, story-telling, character-based genre. How important is it for you as an actress within this medium that indie film get a better level of exposure, promotion, and support from the greater film-going audience around the world?
K.H.: Incredibly important! As much as I love losing myself to a Hollywood blockbuster or superhero flick, I am far more inclined to delve into Independent films. They have an incredibly honest connection with the viewer. Many independent films simply don’t have the budget to create effects that separate the audience from the screen. Some of the best I’ve seen ranged from sixty seconds long to full feature length. The simplicity and ingenuity of the independent filmmaker can create a very personal and raw experience, and these films deserve to be seen by as many people as possible. It can be heartbreaking to see so many talented filmmakers go undiscovered.
O.F.F.: Ok, everyone just LOVES me for this classic closing question—what is YOUR favorite film of all time and WHY?
K.H.: Just ONE!!? I can’t choose just one film.
I will always return to the original “Oldboy” or “Requiem for a Dream”. “Irreversible” was on the top of my list for a long time. I love it when a movie hits me in gut. If I find myself unable to shake the memory or feeling of a movie then I’m hooked on it.
With such a level of enthusiasm, dedication, and striving to constantly grow in her chosen art, much less in nurturing her other hobbies, is it any wonder the doors of chances earned have swung wide open, along with newfound options and as yet to be discovered opportunities, for this consummate actress? As the film-going public, we can only sit back, take in the wonderful body of work already presented, and then wait with bated breath at what is yet to come, ideally tempered with a sense of excitement and anticipation of what roles, what stories Kojii Helnwein has to provide to us for our enjoyment. She stands as another example of the creative forces residing within indie film, and we can only help by promoting these artists as their films are released, guiding as many eyes to them as we are able.
Like I am always doing without any regret, I would once again like to extend a heartfelt “THANK YOU!!” to Ms. Kojii Helnwein for finding the time in one hectic shooting schedule to entertain this interview for OneFilmFan.com. I do genuinely hope we all look forward in expectation to what comes next for this gifted star of Ireland! From what this reviewer has seen so far, it should be nothing short of wondrous.
As always, this is all for your consideration and comment. Until next time, thank you for reading!