Monkeys Shine

Julianne Nicholson took a chance in the middle of nowhere. It pays off

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Monos
Now playing
Roxy Theatre

For those who wish to stray off Hollywood’s beaten path but still want narrative and substance, you can’t do better than Monos.

The intense Colombian film follows a group of teenagers recruited by the revolutionary army as they struggle to “protect” the American woman they hold hostage. With little supervision or boundaries, the Monos squad crumbles under the weight of responsibilities, power plays and a warped understanding of discipline. The fact they’re armed to the teeth makes their volatility lethal.

Directed by Alejandro Landes, Monos doesn’t go the route of the child-soldier subgenre. Each character transcends their circumstances; the atmosphere is oppressive, but there are laughs to be had and beauty to be taken in. The most obvious reading of the title is the Spanish meaning — “monkeys” — but it’s worth mentioning that in Greek, “monos” means “alone”.

The closest the film has to an audience surrogate is the prisoner. As La Doctora, Julianne Nicholson is both an “other” and one of the group. Nature and bullets don’t care about subtleties like the difference between captors and hostages.

Better known as Tonya Harding’s coach in I, Tonya and lengthy stints in Boardwalk Empire, Masters of Sex and Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Nicholson is so consistent that one may overlook how good she can be. Imagine being August: Osage County’s MVP among the likes of Meryl Streep, Benedict Cumberbatch and Julia Roberts.

Over the phone, Julianne deflects praise for her physical endurance while making Monos, but it looks and sounds rough. “We were shooting in very raw conditions. I was in the mountain for three weeks, and three more in the jungle. No electricity, no refrigeration, no phone. You’re at the whim of nature.”

There is a scene featuring you at the mercy of a very fast river. What were the logistics?

My river scenes are nothing compared with what the kids do. I would go into the water and two guides in a kayak would paddle in and get me at “cut”. I had a little life preserver around my waist and I’m a pretty good swimmer, so I wasn’t afraid of the water.

While on location, were you and the Monos kept apart to amplify the antagonistic relationship?

A little bit. I was in my own tent and they were all together in one living space. At the same time, they were young and mischievous and wanted to engage with me.

Did you play the character as written on the page?

I played her as interpreted from the page. When I asked Alejandro about particulars, like where is she from, what’s her job, how long has she been captive, he would reply, “we don’t have to worry about any of those details, I want you to think of it as a fairy tale”. He didn’t want it to be about that war [Colombia’s ongoing conflict with revolutionary forces], but a more universal experience.

How long do you think your character was kept hostage?

Five to six months. I read this book by Thomas Hargrove who was kidnapped for about a year and a half and kept a diary on little scraps of paper he was able to hide on his body. When you imagine at what point are you mad about being kidnapped or you feel your freedom is gone, those feelings happen immediately. Then they change with the day, the hour and the amount of time [you spend in captivity]. You read Ingrid Betancourt [FARC hostage for six and a half years] and it’s a whole other thing.

Since you bring up Ingrid Betancourt, has this experience helped you understand her or Hargrove’s choices while in captivity?

I can’t presume to know what it’s like to be in that situation. At the end of the day, I could get out if I needed to. I felt happy to have the opportunity to think and learn about that experience — being in that environment informs that — but it’s like having kids. Unless you have them, you can’t know what’s like.

In the movie you seem game for anything. Did you draw a line at some point?

No. I was careful and thoughtful. It was scary to be underground because you start thinking about earthquakes. [In the movie] there’s an explosion inside the cave. I didn’t want to do that more than once. It’s like walking a fine line: Trusting the people you’re with, balanced with the 20-plus years of taking care of myself. Alejandro and I talked all the time and I never felt forced or pushed to do anything.

What did you learn about yourself making Monos?

I’ve never done something so physical. I felt proud, lucky to have a strong, healthy, capable body. Also, that quiet time was really special: you can check out, unplug and get into nature.

Is there something you wouldn’t do in your future?

I couldn’t name one thing, but I like to be aware of what I’m putting out into the world, stories that matter. There’s a lot of garbage out there.

Look for Julianne Nicholson as Marilyn Monroe’s mentally ill mother in next year’s adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ fictionalized biography Blonde.