Laia Costa is a woman of principle. She has been known to storm out of cinemas in disgust over the way female characters are represented on screen. She rejects interviews with magazines she believes are offensive to women. And she’s lost numerous parts after refusing to film gratuitous nude scenes.
“The nudity made no sense,” she says. “I told them I’d take the jobs but no nudity here, here or here. And I lost them. This was at the beginning when I had no experience. My agent back then was like, ‘Who do you think you are?’”
None of it has held her back. The 36-year-old Spanish actor has become one of the most intoxicating stars of the indie scene, with leading roles as a waitress-turned-bank-robber in Victoria (2015); an LA-dwelling, wannabe musician in the 2018 experimental comedy Duck Butter; a woman desperate for a child in Only You later that year; and this month, a polyamorous hipster in Amazon’s anthology series, Soulmates.
Costa’s chatting over Zoom from sunny Miami, where she lives with her husband and their baby daughter. She puts her determination not to be exploited down to entering the industry later than most. “I was able to make these decisions because I wasn’t 16 when I started acting,” she says. “I was a grown up, I had a whole different life before and was able to be an actor on my own terms. I could work from a place of confidence and not from fear.”
The “child actor thing”, Costa believes, is not a good route to go down. “When you are the lead actor in a project, you are like the sun,” she explains. “Everyone is revolving around you. Being the sun is fun, but you have the duty to give light and warmth to everybody, otherwise the project won’t work. If you’re very young, you don’t realise that. To be the sun at a vulnerable age when you’re still trying to understand who you are is very dangerous.”
Costa became an actor almost by accident. She was 26 and working as an advertising executive in Barcelona, where she grew up, when she joined a local drama class for fun. It turned into a regular hobby, and before long Costa was getting small roles. She took a sabbatical from work to test the waters and eventually left her ad career behind after landing a part – as a 14-year-old girl – in a Spanish daytime soap opera.
“When it all started it was kind of a joke,” she says. “I wasn’t taking it seriously at all.”
Her mother (a taxi driver) and father (an accountant) were “so worried” about her career change, but they came around. “For them,” says Costa, “it’s been a lesson that the world has changed so much. Nowadays, there’s no certainty of anything. Young people have to be flexible and reinvent ourselves with whatever happens next.”
Costa is breezy company. She’s wearing a polka dot shirt and wide-framed glasses, her usually tumbling brunette hair pulled back in a ponytail. While she doesn’t share the intensity of her characters – whom she plays with a breathless, bruising frankness, her face flushed and eyes wet with the threat of tears as her emotions gnaw at the surface – she does share their impishness, with a right eyebrow that’s almost permanently cocked throughout our conversation.
The clashing of Costa’s playfulness and fragility was brought to light beautifully – and viscerally – in Victoria, her first film. The electrifying German heist thriller is a cinematic stunt: almost entirely improvised and shot in one continuous 138-minute take. Costa won three awards for her performance as the title character, a lonely foreigner in Berlin who meets a group of madcap guys on the way out of a nightclub. What begins as light-hearted flirting descends into utter chaos as she ends up being their getaway driver in an armed bank robbery.
“The shoot was so wild and so raw,” says Costa, recounting how the director, Sebastian Schipper, had three attempts at the film, shot between 4:30am and 7am in Berlin’s Mitte district. The third tape was the winner, as the first was too rigid and the second was, as he put it: “Totally out of proportion crazy. Crazy on so many levels that were not productive.”
What was so mad about it? “I have no idea,” says Costa, who never watched it back. “But it was my favourite to film. It went by in what felt like two minutes. I’ve never partied in my life like I did in Victoria.”
The one-take nature of the project made for an unconventional shoot. Costa recounts how in one scene, when Victoria speeds through the city streets in a stolen car, the director was lying in the boot, yelling directions. And in one of the club sequences, Costa was desperate for the toilet. “I couldn’t hold it in any more so I ran off and peed in a little pot in front of, like, 30 extras,” she says. “It’s the only moment Victoria is not in front of the camera.” The set was so dark and the work so high-octane that Schipper didn’t even notice she was gone.
After Victoria, Costa was desperate to make another movie in real-time. That rare opportunity presented itself again in the form of Duck Butter, a claustrophobic lesbian romance about two strangers who spend 24 uninterrupted hours together, having sex on the hour. The film was co-written by Alia Shawkat (star of the HBO comedy Search Party), who also stars opposite Costa, and Miguel Arteta, who directed it. Costa gives an unnerving performance as a desperately sad, uninhibited young woman – Sergio – who is so needy and whose affection is so suffocating that she won’t even let Shawkat’s Naima go to the loo.
“I realised that Alia and Miguel constructed the character of Sergio out of their exes, and it was a mix of really ugly stuff,” says Costa. “I really wanted to do the film, but I thought, ‘Everyone is going to hate this character.’ So I proposed a scene where her mother arrives, and it helps us to understand Sergio’s fears.”
Sergio calls herself a musician – but she has no talent. “She is so LA,” says Costa. “Everyone there has the confidence to say they are something, but you discover later if they’re any good or not. In Spain we are more shy about it. You have to show your talent first.”
Costa plays a similarly toxic character in Soulmates, William Bridges and Brett Goldstein’s sci-fi series that imagines the “soul particle” has been discovered in humans and everyone can take a simple test to find The One. Costa’s Libby is one half of a happily married couple who dabble in meaningless sex with other people. But one day Libby’s phone pings. Her soulmate has been found.
Her husband Adam (Shamier Anderson) is wary – he was up for casual shagging with strangers, but not love. Libby gaslights him straight from the off, calling him paranoid and shaming him into going along with it.
“I’ve never tried polyamory and I have no intention of doing so,” says Costa, who also played a polyamorous millennial in 2017 in Newness opposite Nicholas Hoult. “I don’t think I’d be good at it. It seems very complicated. I don’t know if you can live that way for a long time before it becomes more painful than enjoyable.”
Would she take the test? “It depends whether you’re happy or not,” says Costa. “I would not do it.”
Costa is too busy being in love with motherhood to consider utopian compatibility tests. She and her husband decided to start a family after she shot the infertility drama Only You, co-starring The Crown’s Josh O’Connor. “I was totally sure I would not be able to have a baby,” says Costa. “I put the character’s thoughts into my own skin. I remember right after the movie, I started having pain in my right breast. I went to the doctor and he was like, ‘You’re totally fine. I think you’re just absorbing your work.’”
She needn’t have worried. She got pregnant quickly and “totally fell in love with the process”. “We women are so powerful,” she says. “Our bodies are so powerful.” Her baby was born two months into the pandemic, though, and she wishes that she and her husband hadn’t been forced to tackle parenting for the first time all alone. “My family haven’t been able to smell my daughter yet,” says Costa. “She smells like cake.”
Costa is ecstatic that her next film, the details of which are under wraps, is about motherhood. “Finally, I have something from my own life to give to my characters,” she says. “I really need it. I’ve learned so much in the past year and I’ve really grown up.
“I feel I have expanded mentally and emotionally from being a mother. It’s the first time I have had to be strong. I feel so happy and proud of what we’ve done, the three of us. And with no audience.”
Soulmates is out now on Amazon Prime