As the final season of Spanish drama Vis a Vis (Locked Up) arrives in the UK, star Maggie Civantos looks back on playing prison inmate Macarena Ferreira and how the show changed the landscape of Spanish television.
When Spanish prison drama Vis a Vis (Locked Up) arrived on UK television, it was a landmark moment. A year after the series debuted on Antenna 3 in 2015, it became the first Spanish-language series to air on the UK’s foreign-language streaming service Walter Presents.
Since then, Spain has become a hotspot for acclaimed drama series – a trend that has been fuelled by the arrival of global streamers such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video that not only distribute local Spanish series but make their own too.
The Vis a Vis effect has also catapulted the show’s star, Maggie Civantos, from supporting to leading roles, with the actor having since taken headline parts in shows such as Malaka, Netflix period drama Las Chicas del Cable (Cable Girls) and the upcoming Express, the first Spanish-language production for another streaming platform, Starzplay.
“I remember when I started filming Vis a Vis, it was very hard for me to be the main character because I was not famous,” Civantos tells DQ. “I had support roles [on television] and had been working in theatre, but the producer wanted to take the risk and said, ‘We want her.’ Finally the broadcaster accepted me and said, ‘Let’s try with this actress.’”
The apparent gamble paid off, with Vis a Vis building a fervent fanbase, winning awards and going on to air around the world. Season one introduces Civantos as Macarena Ferreiro, a naive young woman who arrives at a high-security prison. In denial about her crime, she is given a rude awakening to prison life and struggles to cope, particularly in the face of self-appointed prison boss Zulema (Najwa Nimri).
Produced by Globomedia, the show initially ran for two seasons before it was cancelled. Fan protests then led Fox España to pick it up for a further two seasons, before a fifth, focusing on Maca and Zulema and titled Vis a Vis: El Oasis, aired locally in April last year. El Oasis is now set to arrive in the UK, where it will debut on Walter Presents on August 27.
The new series is set some time after the events of season four, when Macarena and Zulema have been orchestrating jewellery, bank and casino robberies and decide to go their separate ways before they kill each other. With one last job in mind, they plan to steal a diamond tiara from an exclusive hotel in the middle of the Almería desert and reunite with some familiar faces from their time in prison to carry out the heist. What they don’t know is Macarena is pregnant and has cut a deal with the police.
Having barely featured in seasons three and four of Vis a Vis owing to other filming commitments, Civantos felt there was an air of unfinished business that left her wanting to finish Macarena’s story with a final season of the show.
“I was in just two episodes in the third season and two in the fourth season, so for that reason I felt it was left open and thought, ‘We have to wrap this character,’” she explains. “I remember when we finished [season four], we mentioned we would love to be able to tell this story between Macarena and Zulema, because they are yin and yang, love and hate. It’s a very intense relationship and it deserves to have eight episodes to speak about it. After a few months, [the producers] called me and said, ‘This is going to happen.’”
When we first meet Macarena at the start of El Oasis, she makes it clear she wants out of her combustible partnership with Zulema and to end her life of crime. But as became apparent in the rest of the series, she discovers she’s not as innocent as she thinks she is.
“She’s trying to be a good girl in a bad world,” Civantos says. “She’s the more rational one in the group. She’s calm and relaxed but she has a lot of rage in her that she doesn’t want to accept. El Oasis is set 10 years after season one and so many things have happened in that time that I wanted to show she is more mature and relaxed but she is still in this very violent world. We can see the Macarena of the first and second season with a few new things. I really like the end because she listens to her heart. She takes a beautiful path.”
Civantos jokes that six years after she first started filming Vis a Vis, she is still talking about the show, which means, “Macarena is always with me.” She didn’t expect the show to become such a hit and admits it has changed the course of her acting career.
“It’s a special project for me,” she says. “In the first season, Maca’s changing, looking for a different life, and in the last episode of season one she realises she’s not the girl she thought she was. Then, in the second season, she has to survive. I really like this TV show because it speaks about how the person you are depends on your circumstances and your surroundings.
“Macarena probably didn’t know she was going to be a killer but she had to be because of her circumstances, and also because she discovered she had something inside her. The environment, the prison, has rules; it’s like a society that shows you how you have to be. So many people empathise with this TV show because it speaks about having to survive in circumstances that are sometimes very hostile. In El Oasis, because we have not seen Macarena for a long time, we wanted to keep a sense of her character and at the same time play with this. She’s more mature, more calm and relaxed and more cold. She’s not very impulsive.”
Both Civantos and Nimri were given the opportunity to ask questions about the direction of El Oasis, and Civantos says the producers were respectful towards the two actors and invited their opinions about the storylines for their long-time characters.
“That was very nice because after all this time working with this character you can feel it. You can feel how she is and how she acts,” Civantos says. “I was happy with Maca at the end but I disagreed with the ending to Maca and Zulema’s relationship. I mentioned this but at the end of the day they have their point of view and I couldn’t say anything more other than I disagree. But I really love the ending with Macarena. The story was very fair with her because Macarena has an opportunity to do things better.”
The respect on set also extended to the relationship between the two leading actors. Having appeared in numerous films, Nimri is now recognisable as one of the stars of La Casa de Papel (Money Heist), which returns to Netflix for the first part of its fifth season next month. Although their on-screen partnership is fraught with violence, “I have so much fun with her, she’s super-funny,” Civantos says of her on-screen sparring partner. “She’s a great actress. We treat each other with a lot of respect. We have been partners for six years and lived so many experiences.”
The emotional and physical toil of working on a show like Vis a Vis also means the characters and the stories can often stay with the actors after a tough day on set. Though Civantos says the key to acting is playing with your imagination, “it’s true that you’re also giving your energy and your body to the character. Vis a Vis is a very intense TV show physically – you have to run, you have to fight. You have to be an action actress and that is very tiring. The energy to play the violence is very intense. Sometimes I came back home exhausted, but that’s normal. It’s part of the game.”
Civantos puts the success of the show, not just in Spain but around the world, down to its formula: a mix of emotional and intimate relationships between its cast of prison inmates, plus its violent and action-packed storylines. The show’s thriller edge also marks it out from Orange is the New Black, the US series set in a female prison that debuted in 2013 but has a markedly more comedic tone.
“Another interesting thing that’s very important is its diversity,” she notes. “The characters are very powerful women. Six years ago we started to see this [trend] and now you can find more female characters. Here in Spain, it has become one of the TV shows that is now a reference to other shows like La Casa de Papel [Money Heist]. It has a good combination of action, powerful women fighting and you can see the family dynamics in the prison. Vis a Vis also speaks about universal topics like love and freedom. What happens in that prison happens in society also. The characters also create empathy with a lot of people because they are fighting for survival and the diversity of the characters is very interesting. You can feel closer to one character or another.”
Notably, El Oasis takes place outside the walls of the Cruz del Sur Prison, but Civantos believes the central characters are no more free outside the institution than they were inside its cells.
“One of the ingredients to the success of Vis a Vis was the prison, where the characters are fighting for their freedom. So now what happens when they are free?” she asks. “We play these characters like they are not free. They feel like they are still in prison because they are carrying the weight of the past.”
Civantos will next be seen on screen in Express, from Vis a Vis creator Iván Escobar, which is billed as a gripping and suspenseful thriller based on notorious ‘express’ kidnappings. She plays criminal psychologist Bárbara, who becomes the victim of this new form of violent crime, where people are taken hostage until a ransom is paid, often by the victims themselves withdrawing money from their bank accounts. After her ordeal, Bárbara starts working as a negotiator in cases similar to her own, on a mission to understand why it happened to her and uncover the people who threatened her life and her family.
“I hope everybody enjoys it because I enjoyed shooting it a lot,” Civantos says of the show, which was filmed over five months in Madrid last winter. “My character has to deal with her professional life and her personal life. It’s a mix between a family drama and a thriller, the same as Vis a Vis.
“I picked the project because the character was so powerful and so determined. It’s real, it’s not fiction. Women are like this and, for me, that was important. As an actress, I like the challenge to do different things. In this case, I can play a mother and I really liked the story. I had so much fun and I hope the audience enjoys it.”
Civantos credits platforms like Netflix for propelling Spanish series overseas, as the streamer bought up rights to Vis a Vis and then turned La Casa de Papel into a worldwide hit after it also started life on Antenna 3.
“With Vis a Vis, the audience [in Spain] was very impressed because it looks like an international production on national TV,” she says. “It was the same with La Casa de Papel. Then Netflix started to produce Élite and Cable Girls with a lot of success. In Spain, people are doing good things but not every TV show has had the same success because it didn’t have the same opportunity to be on a platform. It’s the same with actors. You need the opportunity to show your work to other people. If you can’t do that, it’s difficult.”
But despite her own success and an upcoming project set to begin filming this autumn that will take Civantos away from thrillers and back to her comedy roots, the actor remains relaxed about her own new-found fame.
“My life is very normal,” she jokes. “For me, that’s the key. Today you are famous, tomorrow you are not. It’s like life. Tomorrow you might stop working and you don’t know why. I like to be happy with the small things.”
tagged in: Amazon Prime Video, Cable Girls, Fox España, Globomedia, La Casa de Papel, Las Chicas del Cable, Locked Up, Maggie Civantos, Money Heist, Netflix, Spain, Vis a Vis, Vis a Vis: El Oasis, Walter Presents