Spanish actor Marta Milans – the star of Álex Pina dramas El Embaraco (The Pier) and White Lines – discusses her journey from Ibiza to New York, how she connects with the characters she plays and her partnership with La Casa de Papel (Money Heist) creator Pina.
As a speaker of seven languages who initially studied art history at university, Ibiza-born Spanish actor Marta Milans could easily have found herself in a very different career. Yet the love of performance she discovered at an early age never left her, and after moving to the US to study acting at New York University (NYU), she continued to develop her skills before making her bow on Broadway.
A role on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit then became the foundation for a screen career that has since included parts in TV series such as Killer Women, The Mysteries of Laura and No Tomorrow.
Milans landed on the big screen in 2018 with Hitman Redemption, followed by hit superhero movie Shazam! the year after, before she returned to Spain for two series from Àlex Pina, the creator of La Casa de Papel (Money Heist).
First, she played Katia in El Embaraco (The Pier), the story of a woman who discovers her late husband had been leading a double life with another woman and their child. Then came Netflix series White Lines, Pina’s British-Spanish production set on the island of Ibiza, where a British woman arrives to solve the mysterious death of her DJ brother who disappeared years earlier. Milans played Kika, a member of the powerful Calafat family who run many of Ibiza’s famous nightclubs and also benefit from the island’s illegal drug trade.
In 2020, she also appeared in Los Favoritos de Midas (The Minions of Midas), another Netflix drama about a wealthy business who is blackmailed by a mysterious organisation.
Speaking to DQ at the Monte Carlo Television Festival, Milans recalls the beginning of her collaboration with Pina and moving to the US and reveals what she’s working on next.
Marta, you grew up in Ibiza. What was it like filming White Lines there?
It was amazing. I was filming Shazam in Canada and my agent in Spain called me and said, ‘Have you seen this show called Money Heist?’ I said, ‘No,’ and I watched it and I thought, ‘This is not done in Spain. Who is this person? How do they make this show?’
Álex hired me for his show The Pier for a Spanish network called Movistar+. Then we did the show, but it wasn’t on an international platform so not many people saw it. Alex and I became very close, creatively speaking. He allowed me to do a lot with the character I played. Then he said he was going to do a new show called White Lines and asked if I would play a role. He had me read the description of the character and I said, ‘Alex, did you just Google my biography and give her a new name? Because it’s basically my life.’ He said, ‘Do you mind?’
I went to school in Madrid but all my wonderful childhood memories of happiness are from Ibiza, with my parents and my siblings. To be told I would get to be there and get paid to act, and then to come home to my own home, it was an absolute dream come true.
How has the Spanish TV industry changed in response to hits like Money Heist?
Radically. I left Spain when I was 19 to go to NYU to study acting. I really wanted to make my career in the States because I had a problem with how the industry worked in my country. When I left, it was very divided; I just didn’t like it. And I loved watching movies made in New York and LA. I wanted to be on Broadway and I worked very hard until I was on stage – it was one of my bucket-list dreams come true.
Over the years as I continued to work in the States, I was the first Spanish actress to do a TV show for a US network and the first Spanish actress to be in a superhero movie, but I really missed home. I’m very close to my family and I would go back and think, ‘I want to work in my country.’ I would go back for specific jobs, and then around the time I met Álex and I saw Money Heist, the transformation of fiction in Spain had been revolutionary.
Netflix has an office in Madrid and I have so many friends from Hollywood going to make shows in Madrid. It makes me so proud of my country and the people in the business – we have incredible crews, incredibly hard-working professionals. When I did White Lines, the crews were half-Spanish and half-British, working in difficult conditions. It was really hot during the summer in Ibiza and Mallorca, and I had make-up artists with buckets of ice for the lipsticks so they wouldn’t melt. It makes me very proud to work on both continents and in both businesses. It took me a long time to get here and I’m very happy to be where I am.
When did you know you wanted to be an actor?
My grandmother wanted me to be a violist – I started playing when I was three years old – but I did not like it at all and I couldn’t wait to not do it. At the music academy, there was a Christmas show that needed someone to memorise a lot of text. I was eight, and not so many kids that age want to study, but I said I’d learn it and audition, and I got the part. I never looked back.
How did you end up speaking so many languages?
I was born in Spain, I went to a British school and learned English, then I went to German school for seven years, and I learned French in school as well. I went to university in New York and learned Italian really quickly because my grandmother loves classical music and she used to tell me I had to learn Italian because it’s the language of music. I thought, ‘OK,’ and I learned it in three months. Then I thought I would learn Portuguese because it’s so easy – but no. Now I’m studying Russian because my grandmother teased me by saying she speaks one more language than I do. It’s been four years of me being like, ‘This is really hard.’
Was moving to the US like you imagined?
When I moved to New York, I had two careers – one in art history and fine art, and theatre and acting at the same time. I thought that if I didn’t become an actress, I’d become the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Moma. It was very impressive to be in the city I dreamed of being in all my life. When I did my first Broadway play, I brought my mother from Spain for opening night. She knew how much I dreamed to be on a stage performing and just doing this job I love so much.
Then I did Law & Order and thought I was ready for Hollywood. But my manager said, ‘No, you have to get a few more jobs.’ She knew very well that LA is a tricky place. You have to have strong self-belief because going there can be very daunting and scary. You’re always comparing yourself to the person above you, and the race never ends. Everyone is doing the same job. I found that to be extremely disorientating and claustrophobic.
Then [Hellboy star] Ron Perlman, one of my dear friends, hired me to do a movie [Hitman Redemption] with him a couple of years ago and he is now one of my mentors. Actors need to have a good family and the support of their friends to not lose their grounding.
What is it like working as an actor in Europe and the US?
The work is the work. When the cameras are rolling, it doesn’t matter if you’re doing an independent movie in Bulgaria like I was doing last January [Stoyan] or you’re doing a $200m superhero movie like [Shazam! sequel] Shazam! Fury of the Gods with Helen Mirren and Lucy Liu. You have to be present and make sure the character lives within you. I learned that very early on. You need to be telling a story and conveying the truth of your character. If you forget that because you get blown away by all the other sparkle, you’re in trouble.
How do you approach different roles?
I read a character and find the things that speak to me and think about how I would make the person close to me. I’m a firm believer in always having a part of your soul in your character. Some actors think they can remove themselves completely, but I don’t know how to do that. I just know how to do it the way I do it.
In the case of Shazam! [in which Milans plays a foster parent to six children], for example, it was so close to who I am. I love children, I hope I’ll be able to have children very soon and I’m used to being around little kids. When I was cast in the role, it was organic. It felt like I deserved to be in that spot, not because of the size of the movie but because of the type of character. Kika from White Lines is also close to who I am.
What are you working on next?
I just finished Shazam! Fury of the Gods, which is coming out in December. We were very lucky because we were scheduled to premiere in 2023 but we have been brought forward. Now it’s December 21, 2022, right before Christmas. We were actually scheduled for December 16, the same day as Avatar 2, and we were really not happy about it. We said to [studio] Warner Bros, ‘Please, why do you want to kill us?’ So thankfully we’ve been pushed back one week and I can’t wait to see the movie. It’s a much bigger movie than the first one; there are a lot of special effects and some beautiful moments with my family in the film, so I’m very happy about that.
I also just finished a collaboration with HBO on a show called The Idol, with The Weeknd and Lily-Rose Depp. It’s written and created by Sam Levinson, who created Euphoria and is a brilliant mind and a brilliant artist, so I’m excited about that. There’s a lot to look forward to. After two years of Covid, it has been hard to bounce back and also feel like you’re back in the room with people. You don’t have meetings [in person] anymore, you have Zoom meetings. I like human beings and being around people.
What can you reveal about The Idol?
The premise of the show is based on the story of a cult leader. Lily-Rose Depp plays an up-and-coming musician and gets involved in the life of this character played by The Weeknd, Abel Tesfaye. It’s going to be ground-breaking – there are moments of comedy and it’s dark as well. Cult leaders give me the heebie-jeebies.