The best word for Juliet Stevenson to describe the challenge of portraying such a legendary figure as Mother Teresa in the feature film, “The Letters,” is “daunting.”
“How do you play a legend? What I did is the same as any other role, and I started with the person. I had to find out who the person was behind the legend. The idea was to get her off the pedestal, and that proved a fascinating thing to do,” Stevenson says.
What made it fascinating is that the major storyline deals with how the nun, who committed herself to helping the outcasts and poor in India, was an extremely private person. She only revealed the inner turmoil she felt through a series of letters written to her spiritual adviser, Celeste van Exem (Max von Sydow).
As Stevenson began to figure out how to play Mother Teresa, she saw that not only was this a story of a woman whose compassion took her to saintly levels, but also a woman dealing with a broken heart.
Mother Teresa was convinced God had forsaken her. Stevenson saw in the letters that Mother Teresa wrote about her separation from God in a similar way to a woman expressing her feelings about being abandoned by her husband.
“Her writings about her extraordinary feeling of abandonment by God was the same language as a woman talking about the husband who had left her and her waiting for him to return,” Stevenson says. “And she only told one person about this feeling of grief and isolation.”
Mother Teresa had requested her letters be destroyed after her death, but they became an important element in the Catholic Church’s investigation of whether Mother Teresa should be canonized.
Many of the letters Stevenson is shown writing in the feature film are from the real letters written by Mother Teresa.
One of the toughest aspects of portraying Mother Teresa was that she was such a quiet and stoic person, she never had big emotional swings. It was up to Stevenson, through body language and the tenor of her voice, to show how emotionally and physically tired and drained she was working with people who needed her help, but at the same time didn’t want her there.
In one scene, Mother Teresa sits alone in her room reading a letter that tells her that her mother and sister will not be able to come for a visit. Stevenson wasn’t sure if she should cry or not.
“I finally decided to cry, but just a little,” Stevenson says.
The letters were not the only thing that helped Stevenson find the best way to play the role. Much of the movie was shot in a real slum in Margao, India. Most of the extras were real residents of the poverty-stricken area.
Stevenson spoke no Hindi and the locals spoke no English. That didn’t stop her from becoming close to many of the children.
“I had some very happy days on the set,” Stevenson says. “It helped me play the role, because I fell in love with the locals much in the way Mother Teresa did.”
The connection made it easier to handle the physical demands of shooting in India just before monsoon season. The heat was almost overwhelming at times, but Stevenson knew that these were the same conditions Mother Teresa faced, and the actor used that to help play the role.
In the end, filming “The Letters” was one of the most emotionally and physically demanding roles in her career.
Stevenson is an English actress whose primary work has been on the stage. But she has worked on a large number of TV shows and films including “Truly, Madly, Deeply,” “Being Julia” and “Atlantis.”
Her greatest love is theater.
“I love all types of acting, but I couldn’t give up theater. That’s where you walk through the fire. There’s a new bunch of people every night. It’s quite torturous, but I love it,” Stevenson says.
She considers herself lucky to work in England, where no one is pigeonholed as a TV, film or theater actor. They are just actors, many waiting to play daunting roles.