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Pernilla August's challenge: Being an immaculate Mary

Friday, November 12, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Few - if any - actresses can say they've played the mother of two different miraculously conceived children twice in one year. But that's the unlikely typecasting Swedish actress Pernilla August faces.

August played Shmi Skywalker, mother of fatherless Anakin, in "Star Wars: Episode 1 The Phantom Menace." Now she's "Mary, Mother of Jesus" in tonight's movie on NBC at 9.

 
    TV PREVIEW

"Mary, Mother of Jesus"

When: 9 p.m., Nov. 14 on NBC.

Starring: Pernilla August, Christian Bale

 
 

In a phone interview last month from Stockholm, August said the "Star Wars" role helped prepare her for "Mary."

"I knew how it was in a way," she said just after a stage performance of "Indian Summer," which she described as a small show of singing and poetry. August said she's sure "Star Wars" helped her get this role, and acknowledged the similarities with a laugh. "It's so weird, isn't it?"

August was offered "Mary" just 10 days before filming began this summer in Budapest. Though Mary is the title character, she's played by two actresses. Melinda Kinnaman plays young Mary and then August takes over mid-way through. Sharing the role with another actress was easy for August because she brought Kinnaman to the project.

"We're best friends and she was my suggestion," August said. "Her parents are American, but she's Swedish, too. She's played my sister and daughter before in plays that I'd done in Sweden. It was so natural for me."

What wasn't natural was speaking so much English, especially in a production filmed in just six weeks of six-day work weeks.

"That made me nervous because I've never played such a big part in the English-speaking language," August said. "Sometimes it's very good because you don't have time to get nervous. You just jump in the cold water and swim. That's what I did."

August said she spoke slower than those around her, including co-star Christian Bale, who plays Jesus. "But I felt it worked for me," she said.

"Mary" marks August's first American TV project, and she described it as the best learning experience she's had to date.

"When you work so fast you have to be open all the time," she said. "As an actor, that's so important for me. You feel your intuition."

August said she's not religious, but has faith there's "something out there." Making "Mary" wasn't her first experience with the virgin mother, though she's at a loss to describe her relationship with the mother of Christ.

"Mary herself has been very important for me in my life," August said. "It's very hard to explain, but she's been with me for a couple of years. I've been thinking of her more and the way she struggled, her strength and the way she never turned her struggle into bitterness. That is so wonderful and so constructive."

The relationship between Mary and her son was another draw for the actress.

"She was much stronger than I thought and she's been so important for Jesus," August said. "Jesus wouldn't have been what he was without his mother. I don't know if it's Mary or the script, but Mary was pushing him into things he had to do. She's always beside him. She's much more important than I thought. From the beginning for him she's also a teacher."

"Mary, Mother of Jesus" was executive produced by Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Bobby Shriver, who August got to meet on the set. She described Eunice as "a wonderful, wonderful lady. She's really burning for this story, it's so important to her and that gave me so much courage."

Though she's not yet been offered a role in "Star Wars Episode 2," it's expected Shmi Skywalker will be back. In "Episode 1," Anakin promised to return and rescue his mother from slavery.

"I don't know anything about it, but I would love to [come back]," August said. "[Anakin] has to come back and save Mommy."

In August's acting career, saviors are everywhere.



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