Beauty, brains, and strength rarely come in such enticing forms as actress Alexa Davalos. With a performing lineage that includes mother Elyssa (Touched by an Angel), niece Dominique (A Woman Under the Influence), and grandfather Richard (Rebel Without A Cause), the French-born Alexa would make her breakout performance as Kyra, the intergalactic bad girl who more than held her own with Vin Diesel in The Chronicles of Riddick. Showing her sensuality as an object of desire in the Feast of Love, her terror as a checkout girl unlucky enough to be caught in The Mist, and cunning as a murder suspect in the TV series Reunion, Alexa Davalos has always impressed, often in the face of her characters’ strenuous odds.
But no creative challenge will probably ever be as heart-wrenching or death-defying as Davalos’s role as Lilka in the true-life Defiance. An escapee from a Jewish ghetto, Lilka finds unexpected strength as she joins her fellow refugees in hiding from the Nazi death machine. Their place of salvation is a huge forest in Eastern Europe, vigilantly guarded over by The Bielski Brothers Aesal (Jamie Bell), Zus (Liev Schreiber), and Tuvia (Daniel Craig). Lilka soon grows to see Tuvia as both protector and lover, helping him and his unlikely flock stand against the psychological pressures, prowling beasts, and German soldiers who could consume their precious existences at any second.
Where most women in Holocaust-themed films like Defiance are understandable victims, Lilka’s ability to face danger with any man makes her a particularly striking heroine, though one who’s no less womanly in her emotions. It’s the kind of standout performance that will ensure Davalos’s Hollywood ascent — one whose power draws from the kind of harrowing yet life-affirming circumstances that few people could imagine.
Daniel Schweiger: In Holocaust films, women are usually — and understandably — being victimized against impossible Nazi odds, but Defiance couldn’t be further from that, especially in the moral strength that Lilka exhibits. Did that make this a particularly empowering role for you?
Alexa Davalos: Absolutely. We’re so used to seeing the death, the dying, the suffering, the starvation, and all of the things that we know happened, but here’s a story that basically defies all of that. It’s about the will to survive and the will to move forward, and that made Lilka the kind of female role I rarely see. She’s quietly strong instead of trying to shake the world. That kind of enormous tenacity was inspiring to me.
DS: Because Defiance is about such an important subject, did that put pressure on your performance — that you “had” to get it right?
AD: When I first read Defiance’s script, it scared me half to death because it was so real and honest, yet that fear is what draws me to a project. It made me feel like the role is something I really have to take on. So there was that tremendous pressure to maintain integrity to do Lilka justice. I wanted her family to see the film and leave thinking that I had captured her essence.
DS: How “true” is the screen version of Lilka?
AD: Lilka was married to Tuvia for over forty years, yet there are differences between her and the “movie” Lilka. She had a difficult childhood, traveled constantly, and was very well-educated. Lilka also had a brutal relationship with her stepmother. While those things aren’t in the film, knowing the facts about Lilka was important for me.
DS: Were the circumstances in how Lilka met Tuvia the same as in the movie?
AD: Lilka had a stepmother named Regina who had a sister named Sonia. She was married to Tuvia before Lilka ended up with him. Lilka was only fifteen when she met Tuvia and fell madly in love with him at first glimpse, but he was married to her stepmother’s sister, which was a difficult thing for Lilka. So they met well before the forest in real life. It was only after Sonia died that they married.
DS: Are you Jewish yourself?
AD: My dad’s side of the family is Jewish, but I fear saying “yes” because, traditionally, your mother has to be Jewish before you belong to the religion.
DS: It wouldn’t have mattered to the Nazis if you were ten generations removed.
AD: Yes, I would consider myself fully Jewish. To say I’m half-Jewish is kind of ridiculous. My great-grandparents were from Vilna in Lithuania. Luckily, they escaped the Nazis, so immediately I felt a sense of connection to Lilka. And watching women walk by me in Lithuania with the same bone structure really struck me. They kind of looked like my grandmother, so I felt very connected to that place, especially since my father’s side of the family is from Eastern Europe. That made it important for me to tell this story for them, as well as Lilka’s family. And it’s a magical story, in a way, where these people live in this forest for three years and survive. I can’t imagine anyone in our generation having that kind of tenacity. If we took twelve hundred people today and put them in the forest, it would be over.
DS: Did you go through survival training for Defiance?
AD: No, but being in the forests of Lithuania for almost four months was as intense as survival training. It was a very raw and rugged setting. We didn’t have the idea of the luxury of relaxing in our trailers between takes. That allowed us to bond because we were all hungry and freezing together, and somehow we all found humor in that. It was a visceral experience!
DS: When Daniel Craig plays James Bond, he never lets you see the character’s vulnerability, but as Tuvia, we can see how conflicted this man-of-action is. What was it like working with that kind of charismatic actor?
AD: I think Daniel has an incredible sense of leadership. That’s innately who he is, yet he defies all the laws of whom you think an actor of his stature would be like. Daniel is an extremely strong and wonderful person who’s also humble and grounded. He hasn’t forgotten his roots or who he is, and because he’s the kind of actor who takes everyone under his wing, Daniel has a lot of Tuvia’s personality in him.
DS: Edward Zwick is a director of such great “manly” films as Glory and Legends of the Fall. Did you feel his epic sensibility while shooting Defiance?
AD: Ed is incredibly smart and well-read. He says something and you think it must be fact. Defiance was a labor of love for Ed. He had been trying to make this for twelve years, so when he finally got to direct Defiance, every moment had a tremendous “do or die” feeling to it, which was different than anything I’d experienced as an actress. Ed knows exactly what he wants and is obsessed with the visual details. The movie is a tableau for him, and he casts people that he can trust to let go, as well as accept his direction.
DS: In Riddick, your character outran a bunch of CGI demon dogs, but in Defiance, Lilka faces off against a very real dog that’s a lot hungrier than she is.
AD: That’s an important scene for Lilka, because she’s a person with quiet strength and now she’s terrified. So the idea of her going out there on her own to find food and then confronting that animal is a moment for her to prove herself — more to herself than anyone else. And shooting the scene was wild. You’re in a snow-filled forest in the middle of nowhere, which fuels all of that energy. The dogs were trained to be completely manic, which was really difficult for me to deal with as a person who loves animals — especially when those human-fearing dogs are growling and foaming at the mouth. And carrying that dog back was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life. I was carrying the “dead” weight of a temporarily sleeping dog. After we finished the scene, I stayed to make sure he woke up. I was like a little kid about it and beside myself the whole time. There are a lot more liberties about what you can and can’t do with animal actors in Lithuania.
DS: With a mother and grandfather who have never stopped acting, was performing something you always did?
AD: No. As a kid, I was either backstage with my mom in a theater or in a trailer on location. I grew up very comfortable in this bizarre, circus-like existence, but, as comfortable as I was, I was also aware of the struggles that actors go through. A lot of people who come into the profession with these romantic expectations aren’t being very realistic. And because I often saw the other side of that dream, I avoided acting like the plague at first. I kept hearing, “Are you going to be an actress like your mom? Are you going to be an actress like your granddad?” There was a part of me that got defensive about that, because I didn’t think it was something I would do. I knew how much you risked having any kind of personal life or financial stability. All of that goes out the window when you decide to do this. I asked, “Am I voluntarily subjecting myself to this kind of insanity?” And the answer was “Yes!” But it took me until I was 19 to admit that was something I was going to do.
DS: In Feast of Love, you bared yourself both physically and emotionally. How difficult was that?
AD: I had always said I would never take my clothes off. It wasn’t going to happen. And then I met Robert Benton, who’s divine, in a way. He’s the most loving and generous soul, so I immediately felt that, if this was something I was going to do, this was the time. I fell in love with my character and the story, so I knew that when I bared all, Robert was a safe person to do it with. He’d protect me and make it as comfortable as possible. I can’t speak highly enough about him. He’s extraordinary.
DS: After Feast of Love, you had a gnarly death scene in The Mist. What’s it like getting attacked by giant mutant bugs from the fourth dimension?
AD: It was hilarious, actually, especially since I hadn’t done a whole lot of that surreal stuff. Death by insect! When we shot it, nothing was there, so you’re trying to create fear and panic about something that’s invisible. It brings you back to being a kid in your imagination. You think that something’s after you, and that scares you half to death.
DS: The perception of a lot of people is that Jews went to the Nazis like lambs to the slaughter. How do you think Defiance will change that attitude?
AD: I think for people who knew that Jews fought back would find Defiance to be an empowering film. And for those who don’t know otherwise, I hope that Defiance will inspire them to learn more about the true story. They can read about it in Allan Levine’s amazing book, Fugitives of the Forest. I couldn’t believe these people’s will to survive. So I hope that Defiance brings awareness to the other side of the coin of how Jews resisted the Nazis.
DS: What do you hope that Defiance does for you as an actress?
AD: I don’t really have any expectations. For me, it’s all about falling in love with a project and being as present and open as you can while filming it. But once you get on the plane at the end of filming, it’s out of your hands. It was especially hard to let go after this one, after being submerged in these characters’ realities. Not only was the cast extraordinary, but so were the people of Lithuania. We couldn’t have made this film without them. So in the end, what I can get professionally out of a film really doesn’t matter. It’s all about doing what I love, maintaining my own sense of integrity, and following my heart inside of all of this acting madness, which isn’t easy to do!
Special thanks to Nancy Bishop and Venice Magazine.