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Female Gaze: Joy Wielkens

The blonde bombshell, the femme fatale, sirens of the silver screen. For 125 years, we have seen women on the cinema screen, but they were seldom in control behind the scenes. Luckily, things are finally changing. In this series of interviews, inspiring female filmmakers talk about their own work on the basis of film excerpts from other women’s films. In this fourth interview, actress Joy Wielkens talks about the film Selma by director Ava DuVernay.

By Gina Miroula10 January 2022

Portrait of Joy Wielkens, in purple paint on a yellow background.
Portrait by Kiki Weerts

Joy Wielkens storms into Eye Filmmuseum like a whirlwind. “My morning schedule was hectic. The car broke down and is now at a garage in the Bijlmer district.” Once she has settled down, she weighs her words carefully; calm incarnate.

Joy grew up in Osdorp [another district in Amsterdam] with her mother and sister. Aged three, she phonetically sang along to the entire West Side Story album, and imitated Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie with her cousins. Later on she attend the Jeugdtheaterschool [youth drama school] at the de Meervaart theatre in Nieuw-West Amsterdam. “It cost eight guilders to take 12 lessons. My mother noticed my creative side early on and nurtured it.”

After studying at the Amsterdamse Toneelschool en Kleinkunst Academie [Academy of Theatre and Dance at the Amsterdam University of the Arts] Joy worked on a variety of projects including film roles in Sonny Boy and Club Lockdown, the solo theatre piece Papa was a rolling… Nobody and series like Anne+ and Dertigers. She was cast in the film poem Ik Ben (I Am), about the state between life and death, and could recently be seen in the series Diep by the EO [Christian broadcaster] about a theme central to her life: her unfulfilled desire for motherhood.

You picked Selma. What is it that touches you in this film?

“I first saw it at a cinema in Brooklyn, New York. To my left, a person of colour I didn’t know. During Martin Luther King’s final speech the woman grabbed my hand and never let go. It felt as if we had to be there for each other because she knew we shared the same sorrow. It moved me, going beyond the medium of film.”

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Fragment from Selma, Martin Luther King's ending speech

King’s original final speech was re-written for the film, alternating with the original sepia-coloured film. Joy called it “not merely a moment of cinematic genius,” for her it is primarily about the message: how the story reveals systems and wakes people up. “The solidarity and activism, the loss and the repression are prominent. It’s about courageous people who, when push comes to shove, stand up and say: I won’t play this game anymore, I revolt.”

“I keep being surprised that there is such thing as intense hatred based on skin tone. I was moved by how demonstrators in 1965 in Alabama fought for equal rights and freedom. That’s my struggle too.”

When you refer to your struggle; how does this manifest itself in your current life and work?

“I grew up with a single mother in a deprived neighbourhood. This means you constantly have to overcome people’s biases, like: you’re probably not good at learning or a teen pregnancy will make you homeless. After 18 years, I ended up at the Kleinkunst Academie, a society of actors. There I am often confronted with the idea that my own world isn’t visible enough. The struggle entails that throughout my life, I have to consciously or subconsciously keep switching between two perspectives. As a person of colour you spend all day decoding. I know my own world, but know very well what the world you think I see looks like. In a certain sense this robs you of the ability to make the world your own.”

“The struggle entails that throughout my life, I have to consciously or subconsciously keep switching between two perspectives. As a person of colour you spend all day decoding.”

Joy Wielkens

“Recent years have seen a lot of plays that focus on diversity. I think that isn’t always as innovative as it seems. I see makers of colour using expositional theatre to transfer themes like racism to white audiences. That makes me think: more stuff that isn’t for me. My other perspective allows me to see it is groundbreaking for others to suddenly understand what systemic racism entails.”

How do you think films about diversity could be improved?

“I selected Ava DuVernay’s work because it reveals the lack of stories with their own gaze. With that I mean stories that haven’t been adapted to explain something to others, but want to show their own perspective on the world. Such storytellers should be given more room because only that will truly expand cinematic diversity. I’m not talking about a completely white cast with three actors of colour. Diversity is about viewing the world in a different way, on the basis of our personal histories.”

The younger generation seem somewhat more removed from decoding, says Joy. “As if they have been better able to make the world their own. Whereas most people of colour think: I’m angry, but how should I express that?, the younger generation just get angry. Irrespective of whether they are black, white or Asian. If someone calls them an angry black woman then that’s their problem. This shows great progress, if only in the freedom of thought.”

Preceding the interview you told me that to you, being an actress isn’t about being in the spotlights, per se, but more about telling stories people identify with. Which recent project worked well for you in this sense?

“In Dertigers [thirty-odd] I play a woman with friends, a child and a relationship that ends. None of this is about the struggle. We didn’t shoe-horn any Surinamese expressions or habits into the series."

"Life is nice and clean and normal, and it’s also about just going down to the supermarket. People of colour shop too, you know.”

For the cinematic poem Ik Ben (Mirella Muroni, 2019) Joy talked a lot about what grieving means. “My lead is a person of colour and we see the story through her eyes. Mirella immediately stopped my decoding. She said: “You are Joy, the actress, a woman of colour and you have lost a loved one. If you feel that, so will the audience.”

Joy struggles to assess her performance more when it comes to TV and film than when theatre is concerned. “For a play, I will rehearse for days on end; it’s a completely different creation process. I seldom feel I nailed it doing film. More: oh, oh, shouldn’t they have picked another take? For me the nailed it feeling is more to do with choosing roles or consciously rejecting them.”

What makes you consciously say no to a role?

“I recently auditioned in Antwerp for the Greek tragedy Trojaanse vrouwen at the Toneelhuis. I was asked for the role of Andromache. In a major scene, Agamemnon takes away my baby, casting the child down from the towers.” In 2021, in the series Diep, Joy discussed in detail her desire to have children and whether she will ever be a mother. “I was going to have to play losing a child for two hours. Afterwards, I went home and thought: I am enshrouded by this huge desire. I shouldn’t even want to try to play this role 50 times. It’s too close to the bone, too raw. Perhaps in four years’ time, when I am in a different phase of life.”

When does a strong dynamic develop between you and another actor?

“As soon as I lose myself in a scene, can forget about technique and notice my opposite number doing the same. Actors really construct scenes. You get the script and start preparing. You become immersed in the former and staging: what do you say? What do I say? When do I grasp your hand? Then you have to let go of all of that, because it has to become second nature to you. It definitely shouldn’t appear contrived. I always trust my feelings, my intuition. I get to work and decide: I have all the information. Now nothing else matters, let’s do it!”

“Sometimes you stand across from one another and are utterly flabbergasted. You lift each other, raise each other’s performance. Actors are a strange breed. It’s like a spiritual battle: the boundary between the ‘real’ and the ‘fake’ is pretty nebulous.”

“Actors are a strange breed. It’s like a spiritual battle: the boundary between the ‘real’ and the ‘fake’ is pretty nebulous.”

Joy Wielkens

“Imagine we are playing lovers and we aren’t getting along. It’s with that idea that we have to open up to each other, allow the other in. If you don’t, the message won’t get across. The fact that you are on set and stare at someone for a while, is very intimate. As if your plug goes in my socket and vice versa.” These are the “magic moments” in the set’s bubble, says Joy.

How do you determine whether a project contributes to your growth as an actress?

“A few years ago, I decided to make my choices more activist in nature. Nina Simone once said: ‘It's an artist's duty to reflect the times in which we live.' I know I can sing and dance, but I want more."

In her solo piece Negra (about the search for black identity) and Papa was a rolling… Nobody (about growing up without a father) it didn’t matter who was in the audience. “When I played in Gorinchem to a white audience, people were just as moved at the end.”

Joy doesn’t go out demonstrating. “Of course I have my Zwarte Piet is Racisme [Black Pete is racism, reference to St. Nicholas’ Day traditions in the Netherlands] T-shirt, but I don’t wear it on the bus all the time. If I think about the brave people in Selma, then I know we share the same disposition. In a play like A Raisin in the Sun I use myself as a tool. My ‘being there’ creates visibility. Activism has many faces.”

Which roles do you think are lacking in contemporary Dutch cinema?

“I would like to see more films from science fiction to costume dramas with strong Black leads. I look forward to a time when I no longer have to decode, no longer fret about the old lady clutching her bag more tightly when I stand near her at the department store. Or a casting agency that thinks: wouldn’t it be fun to invite some people of colour to the audition?”

Joy is of the opinion that some change has been achieved over her 20-year career. “Casting has become more diverse with more room for a wider range of stories.” Even producers and broadcasters are starting to get it. “There is a gradual shift underway.”

Which films will you be appearing in in the near future?

“This past summer, I shot Onder de blote hemel (Lilian Sijbesma) with Rifka Lodeizen. Rifka plays a neurodivergent mother, who lives at her father’s campsite somewhere on the Veluwe [an extensive dune and heathland area] with her daughter. She can hardly raise the latter. The daughter seeks intimacy with my son. I play the functional mother, a guest at the campsite and provide a framework for her daughter’s chaotic world.”

Set photo of Onder de blote hemel
Film still from Onder de blote hemel

Joy will also be seen in Club Lockdown (Ashar Medina, 2021). “My first horror film. It’s a bizarre film about two people meet in secret during a lockdown. What starts out as an exciting romantic date, descends into slaughter: a direct response to the long closure of clubs and the bankruptcy of many a club owner. A great project. Who wouldn’t want to run around an empty club screaming for a day to a banging soundtrack?”

Looking ahead, Joy would like to do a project about childless women of colour in their 40s. “As a human and a woman, this theme is very close to my heart right now. I encounter it a lot: friends who can’t either. All beautiful, talented and successful. I’m not sure exactly what I am trying to say yet. Perhaps I just want to tell the story with smile and a tear and that’s enough: a strong start.”