Interview: “The Swimmers” actress Nathalie Issa on representing the migrant story
Even when a story is happening halfway around the world, it can be instantly relatable. Take “The Swimmers” (now streaming on Netflix), about two Syrian sisters who try to save their family by escaping from their war-torn country to Europe, joining a migration of hundreds of thousands, crossing part of the Aegean Sea in a broken inflatable raft and then walking hundreds of miles toward safe haven in Germany.
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“What people should really know is nobody is happy to leave his country,” said Lebanese French actress Nathalie Issa, who stars in “The Swimmers” as Yusra Mardini, one of two real-life sisters who undertook the journey less than a decade ago, even jumping off their overcrowded inflatable dinghy so that it would not capsize, and later competing in the 2016 and 2020 Olympics. “If people are leaving their country, it’s because it’s necessary, and everybody deserves to have a safe life and to be alive.”
The 24-year-old was speaking about the parallels between the massive migrations of people from Africa and the Middle East to Europe and Latin Americans to the United States, as thousands are showing up to our southern border each day to escape hardships in their own countries and to seek out a better life.
“These people are like everybody else, and they should be welcomed, and they shouldn’t face racism,” Issa said in a video call from her home outside of Paris. “They shouldn’t feel like they’re inferior just because they were unlucky to were to be born in a country that is not safe, and that is poor. There’s a place for everybody everywhere.”
The story of “The Swimmers,” which opened at the 2022 Toronto Film Festival, is full of real-life drama. The Syrian civil war has already claimed the lives of several friends of Yusra and her older sister Sara, as well as their parents, younger sister and a cousin.
The girls’ father is their competitive swimming coach and has Olympic aspirations for them. The war lands right in their pool—literally—when a bomb crashes through the roof and lands in the water next to Yusra during a competition. It’s one of several events that actually happened in real life.
That’s when the family decides that the two sisters will go with a cousin to Germany, where they will apply for a program to be reunited with the rest of the family. The journey took a month and involved being smuggled onto the Greek island of Lesbos on an overcrowded dinghy. Alone at sea, the weighed-down raft begins to take on water, and the engine stops working. The two sisters—Sara is played by Nathalie Issa’s real-life older sister, Manal Issa—jumped into the water and swam for hours in rough waters the rest of the way, helping to guide the dinghy to shore.
Once transported by Greek authorities to the mainland, they made their way more than 1,000 miles, much of it on foot. Along the way, they dealt with untrustworthy smugglers and unsympathetic Europeans who wanted the foreigners out. Eventually, a German swim coach (played by Matthias Schweighöfer; “Army of the Dead”) took on Yusra as an athlete, and she joined the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team, competing in Rio in 2016 and Tokyo in 2020.
“The [pool] bombing was really a quite shocking story for me,” Issa said. “It’s something that touches you and something that shouldn’t happen, and I was glad when I saw this scene, how we shot it. A lot of people when they see the scene, they are really shocked, and they are triggered. It just shows the how war is really a monster. … People are just here, having their life. And then a bomb comes, and in a second your life can change. [Yusra] could have died. It’s one of the things that have happened to her that are really triggering and can be traumatizing. The crossing itself. … They were nearly dying, when the dinghy was overcrowded. What they lived was really, really traumatizing, and it happens to so many people, and unfortunately, so many people don’t make it.”
Issa’s own immigration story doesn’t rise to the dramatics of Yusra Mardini’s, but there are similarities. She was 8 and Manal was 13 or 14 when her parents left Lebanon during its own civil war for France in 2006, where their father had studied and worked before.
“We didn’t take a dinghy; we didn’t put our lives in danger. The French embassy took care of everything,” she said. “We were in a big boat filled with thousands of people, and we went to Turkey, and from Turkey we took a plane. Really all safe.”
Issa called their situation lucky but also sad.
“It was quite sad for me to leave my country and to get used to a new country, new culture, a new language,” she said. “I don’t know if you’re lucky or not.”
Manal Issa has more acting experience than her sister, getting a head start in it. It was she who was cast first in the role of the elder Sara Mardini. When she found out from director Sally El Hosaini that the role of Yusra had yet to be cast, she suggested Nathalie. The younger sister had a couple of short film appearances to her name when she was 17 and 19, but she didn’t think it would be her career.
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Issa was studying literature at the time—she has goals of publishing a book as well as acting in theater—and was reluctant to audition at first. One major concern Manal and Nathalie Issa shared was that neither one considered herself to be a good swimmer.
“Yeah, we were scared,” she said.
But her reaction to Yusra’s story gave her courage.
“When you feel attached to something, and when you want to put your best at it, you don’t even think any more about your fear, and you just want to try to face it,” she said. “So when I fell in love with the character of Yusra, and when I had so much motivation to play her, it was necessary for me to know how to swim. It was the motivation and made me even stronger because I was eager to play in this movie, so it’s kind of helped me to face my fear. Now, I really enjoy the water.”
Manal and Nathalie Issa spent two months training in a pool to prepare for their roles and some of the scenes in the Aegean—the daytime ones—were actually filmed in the sea in Turkey. The nighttime scenes were filmed in a studio pool in Brussels, Belgium. Other locations included Turkey (for Syria) and London (for Berlin).
Before shooting began, Issa spent a couple of days with Yusra Mardini in Hamburg, Germany, where Mardini was also preparing for the 2020 Olympics at the time. The two shared their lives and forged a connection, which Issa said was important for her to play Mardini.
“What Yusra really wanted me to do is not only to represent her, but also through her story, to represent what happens to a lot of refugees,” Issa said. “So it was really important for me to learn as much as I could [about] the experience of refugees and to make it as authentic as possible. And also, to share her passion of swimming, I had to learn to love the water to be able to understand how she feels with it, and to understand why the character loves, so much, the water.”
Part of that was listening to a lot of Sia—an artist whose music Mardini specifically asked to be included in “The Swimmers,” Issa said. The film includes songs like “Unstoppable,” “Titanium” (with David Guetta) and “Alive.”
El Hosaini had Issa create a playlist of motivational and emotional songs that helped ger her into character. The playlist likely included her own favorites—she loves ‘80s music and sad-girl artists—“I really love Lana Del Rey. I’m looking forward for her album”—but Sia was the key artist in terms of preparing for the role.
“Every time, listening to Sia, it reminded me a lot of Yusra,” Issa said.
The actress had to take her mind to some dark places for such a dramatic role. Twice in the film, Yusra is sexually assaulted. She nearly succumbs to exhaustion during a nearly four-hour swim while in the sea, and there’s an ever-present specter of not surviving.
Who can forget the heartbreaking image of the 5-year-old boy whose body washed ashore in Greece in 2015?
“We always had in our mind the people who didn’t make it. We always had in our mind all of these people that struggle in their life,” Issa said. “Being in the dinghy really, really made me realize how much hard it is, and how dangerous it is. And so I’m really glad ‘The Swimmers’ is here because it really puts a light on the story of millions of people that should be heard and seen by so many.”
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.