Swede dreams

Swede dreams

By Michael Pickard
April 23, 2024


DQ speaks to Spanish star Aina Clotet about her award-winning performance in comedy-drama Esto no es Suecia (This is not Sweden) and her integral role in building the international coproduction behind the series, which she also co-created, co-wrote and co-directed.

Following the international premiere of Spanish dramedy Esto no es Suecia (This is not Sweden) at French television festival Canneseries earlier this month, star Aina Clotet scooped the event’s award for best performance in a series.

The actor’s role wasn’t just in front of the camera, however – she is also a co-creator, writer and director on the show, which is based on an idea from her and Sergi Cameron.

“I feel like it’s been like my baby since the start. I followed every step of this project,” she tells DQ, “but I’ve had the best team next to me. You don’t do anything alone, and I had great co-creators and screenwriters and the co-directors with me.

“But it’s true that from the first day I began with this show, I’ve put all my experience and all my soul into it, and as an actress as well. This is the project I have put more energy, time and love into [than anything else], and Mariana, my character, maybe is the one I love the most because she’s one of the most complex characters I’ve done. But at the same time, because I have created it from scratch, I understood very well what I wanted to do.”

Clotet’s ambition was to tell a story about a woman chasing an idealised version of parenting, one inspired by lifestyles in Nordic countries, but who struggles to maintain her family’s perfect façade as a series of setbacks and tragedies befall them and their like-minded neighbours.

Aina Clotet as Mariana in Esto no es Suecia

The eight-part series follows Mariana (Clotet) and her husband Samuel as they relocate to an idyllic Barcelona neighbourhood, which they believe will be the perfect place to raise their young children, daughter Lía and son Max. They have also swapped roles in the name of gender equality, with Samuel becoming a househusband while Mariana starts a handmade carpet business.

But they soon discover life is not as easy in their natural surroundings as they had hoped, leading Mariana to organise a group therapy session where other mothers (and some fathers) from the area are encouraged to open up to each other and a parenting therapist.

It was a similar situation that inspired the series. Clotet was invited to a real therapy session in her own neighbourhood, where she discovered mothers and fathers all share different ideas of what perfect parenting looks like. “But we all are united by this goal to give our sons and daughters some guarantees for the future, and I thought this was a good starting point for something because we were all trying to be this perfect model,” she says. “We were all full of theories, but we were all very lost in how to apply them.”

Clotet began by writing the bible for the series, and when she assembled the rest of the creative team, they immediately began to explore that sense of fear she recognised in parents, and how fear can be their own worst enemy. “The characters are full of good intentions, but they fail. I wanted to explore failure,” she continues. “But the seed of the series was wanting to laugh at myself, wanting to laugh at my friends. I wanted to put comedy and a critical point of view on to this excellence we are trying to achieve and [look at] how this can bring us to the worst place. You can try to be perfect and you can achieve the opposite result.”

It is their new environment that best exemplifies the double-edged sword facing Mariana and her family, and others like them. They have moved to a new home surrounded by nature, but it sits on a large hill, can be quite inaccessible, has poor Wi-Fi and is plagued by wild boars digging through rubbish bags.

“The neighbourhood is very important because it is a universal concept,” Clotet says. “It is a neighbourhood in Barcelona, but it can exist anywhere. This is a place you move to to have more quality of life. It’s privileged, but it’s not about money. It’s about conscience. They think it is the best because it’s surrounded by nature, because it’s a place full of people who think they’re doing their best.”

Mariana also becomes besotted with her Swedish neighbour, Annika, a single mother-of-two whom she believes represents the ideal parent and the exact values they moved to find. However, when tragedy strikes at the end of episode one, Annika’s life is revealed to be anything but perfect.

That element of the story – and the show’s title – wasn’t part of Clotet’s original idea. But when a real-life neighbour of the star started telling her, “In the Nordic countries, they do things better,” she was inspired to introduce the character of Annika.

In the show, Mariana and her family move to a Barcelona neighbourhood with big ideas about parenting

“One day, I was like, someone should answer her, ‘But this is not Sweden.’ And suddenly we got the title,” she says. “That also concentrated the concept very well, because this is not Sweden. This idealisation doesn’t exist anywhere. Then from the end of the first episode, this series comes to say, ‘OK, these guarantees you have come to find don’t exist anywhere.’

“But Mariana becomes obsessed with this Swedish neighbour. She will become obsessed with trying to approach to her, to try to discover what has happened in that family and to try to see what she can do to avoid that happening to her.”

Another key character is Lía, whose life is disrupted by a new house, new school and new routine and she becomes rebellious and defiant as a result – another sign that Mariana is losing control.

“What has connected a lot with the Spanish audience is the tone and that you never know where the series is going to take you, because it’s always in between comedy and drama,” Clotet says. The show debuted on Catalonia network 3Cat and Spanish broadcaster RTVE Play in November before its international premiere at Canneseries.

“Mariana’s obsession with the Swedish family creates tension, and then you have all the comedy about this contradiction between the theory and the practice of the therapy. Every episode has the title of the therapy session and some advice from the therapist at the beginning, and you will see how Mariana tries to apply it.”

That Clotet would play Mariana on screen was never in doubt, having developed the character herself and knowing exactly how she would play her. She also relished the opportunity to steer Mariana between the show’s comedy and drama beats.

Mariana’s husband is played by Clotet’s real-life partner Marcel Borràs

But her love for her character runs deeper than most connections actors might feel towards the people they embody on screen, chiefly because she has been an integral force in ensuring Esto no es Suecia could be made at all.

The series was originally set to be a local affair, with public broadcaster Televisión Española (RTVE) backing the show as the first original commission for its streaming platform RTVE Play. But when development stalled, Clotet took her initial plans to the Torino Film Lab’s Next TV Series initiative, where she was able to develop the project further. Feedback from an LA-based producer also convinced her that the show’s universal themes could appeal to international audiences.

Esto no es Suecia was then selected to take part in the pitch competition at the Göteborg Film Festival, where the project was put in front of commissioners from across Europe. Subsequently, SVT in Sweden, YLE in Finland and NDR from Germany boarded the project, which is produced by Spain’s Funicular Films and Nanouk Films together with Sweden’s Anagram. 3Cat was the final piece of the puzzle, with further support from Catalonia’s ICEC (Institut Català de les Empreses Culturals) and the European Commission’s Media Fund.

“That allowed us to make the series possible, because it was so complicated,” Clotet says. “It can look like, ‘Oh, it’s just a camera following these characters,’ but it’s full of kids, it’s full of outside locations and it has a mix of professional actors with non-actors. So it’s very ambitious, and they allowed us to make it.

“Maybe if Televisión Española hadn’t stopped the project at that moment, we would have never gone abroad and we would have done something smaller. At that point I was crying for two days, and then I found a way. Now I can say it was smart to take that option.”

Clotet and co-creators Daniel González and Valentina Viso also wrote the series, with Clotet co-writing episode one before González and Viso took on the other seven episodes together.

Clotet was a ‘triple threat’ on the show, writing, directing and acting

Behind the camera, Clotet partnered with Mar Coll (Matar al padre) to define the show’s visual style (which has a hint of mockumentary about it), its colour scheme, casting and locations. Sara Fantova and Celia Giraldo also directed episodes.

“I worked so much on the show that then when I had to act, I was more worried about the direction than the acting,” says Clotet, who helmed episode one. “But my fictional daughter was amazing. It was the first thing she had done but she was not looking at the camera. She was not nervous. She didn’t want to do the same thing twice.

“When I was acting, I have a lot of experience so I could jump from one thing to the other quite easily. I found it really exciting and challenging. But I didn’t have time to check every shot [when I was directing] because we didn’t have a lot of time. We shot everything in 13 weeks and sometimes I just had to look at the DOP [Nilo Zimmermann] and ask him, ‘Is it good?’”

Having created Mariana from scratch, she also found freedom in playing the role. “Before shooting, I was so stressed as I had so many hats. I thought, at least in the acting part, try to take risks. Just try to go far, because you don’t know how many times in your life you’re going to have this opportunity to play a character you have created,” she says. “This is something I feel proud of, to have been brave enough to jump into the pool.

“Mariana, she’s not an easy character. From the beginning, you can feel she’s complicated. She goes to uncomfortable places, and this tone was very important to the show. It’s always changing, from drama to comedy all the time. For me, this is the tone that life has. Life is a mix of comedy and drama, but it’s not common to have a character that can flip from one place to another. That was fun as well as difficult.”

Clotet’s performance was helped by the familiar face she starred opposite: her real-life partner Marcel Borràs (El inmortal, Galgos), who was cast as Samuel. Their existing relationship ensured Mariana and Samuel have an easy, authentic chemistry on screen, although Borràs’s busy schedule – he is also a theatre director and was already committed to filming a starring role in a Movistar+ series – meant his scenes had to be wrapped during the first six weeks of production.

Young star Violeta Sanvisens could only be on set for four hours each day

Furthermore, the production had to grapple with Catalonia’s strict rules regarding working children. Violeta Sanvisens, who plays Lía, could only be on set for four hours each day, meaning she spent a total of 54 days shooting her role in the series.

“This was the thing that made me most nervous,” Clotet admits. “This is not a movie where you just need her for 10 or 12 days. This is a series, and she has to do very complicated things. But it’s been great. I remember calling her parents and telling them, ‘You’re going to help me, right?’ And they were like, ‘Yes, of course.’”

Clotet’s thoughts have naturally turned to a potential second season of Esto no es Suecia, though nothing has been confirmed yet. “We have taken a lot of care [making the series], and if we do a second season it is because we are going to take the same amount of care,” she says. “We are lucky to be surrounded by public broadcasters that are maybe a little bit more patient and respectful. I really appreciate that, and they have been really supportive with our demand in terms of content. Maybe [there will be more], but it’s not going to be fast.”

In the meantime, Clotet is directing her first movie, and she says she would love to continue working as a triple threat – writing, directing and acting.

“What I have done in my whole life is acting, and I love acting. Maybe I will try to be more selective with the characters I’m doing and keep trying to do my own projects, because I really enjoy writing and directing. Now I appreciate just acting, because I don’t have to think that much, but I would love to keep directing and writing. I will try to combine those things.”

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