We recently talked to Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey, who plays the main mermaid Syrena in the upcoming Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. She told us about her mermaid history and what makes Syrena different from mermaids we've seen before.
Mermaids are the big supernatural additions to the latest entry in the Pirates franchise, as they pose a formidable challenge to the various humans trying to get their hands on the mythical Fountain of Youth. The mermaid Syrena becomes crucial to the pirate Blackbeard's plans to gain eternal youth, which forces her into prolonged contact with humans for the first time - including with Sam Claflin's hunky and virtuous missionary character Philip.
To prepare for her role, the Spanish-French actress researched the entire history of mermaid legends, going all the way back to Homer's Odyssey up to such modern works as the Daryl Hannah movie Splash and Disney's The Little Mermaid. She explained that, while mermaid legends were originally about sailors being seduced and killed by sea monsters, they have recently morphed into something a little more romantic, beginning with Hans Christan Andersen's original "Little Mermaid" story.
We asked her what were some of the more unexpected things about mermaids, and here's what she revealed to us:
I learned that mermaids were originally women-birds, and it was a wrong translation that made them fish-women, which is interesting and funny, don't you think? It's so interesting, you can find myths about mermaids all over the world, all around the world. I recently got told that Japanese [legends say that] if you eat a mermaid you could get eternal life. I think that's just amazing because of the story I'm a part of, because they need a mermaid's tear for the fountain of youth.
Bergès-Frisbey said a big part of getting into character to play the mermaids came from the people in charge of the CGI, which create the huge fish tails the mermaids sport int he movie. She also said she got a lot of help from the script, which went into considerable detail about this particular conception of mermaids, and from director Rob Marshall, who helped guide her performance as Syrena. She explained that there are elements from almost every known mermaid legend in the movie, going right back to Homer's Sirens.
And yet, as she explained to us, Syrena and her sisters represent something unlike anything we've seen before:
The mermaids in the movie don't look like any other mermaids we have seen before on the screen. So to find the way they move and it's kind of a range between a human and an animal. I think they're more creature in the form of a woman than a woman with a fish tail. Sometimes they react like animals in self-defense and protection. And because the humans are so cruel — they use the mermaids — the mermaids react. They are magical creatures who are sometimes more human than the people who are properly human.
That said, most of the mermaids in this movie are indeed quite nasty towards humans, with Syrena representing the highly notable exception. She told us why the kindness of Philip helps change her, removing some of her hostility towards humans:
My mermaid is a bit different because she reacts differently. She meets a different person with a good heart. This is the first times she's seen someone like Philip, and I think she takes the risk of taking away her layers of protection based on how Philip reacts. I think this is a marvelous symbol of a relation between two different species that could be a symbol of people from two different cultures, two opposite cultures, and they each find something in the other one and make them find out each person is not that far from [him or herself].
We asked her about what we don't find out about mermaids in On Stranger Tides - whether these mermaids are young or ancient, where they come from, or the big question: could there ever be a merman? But Bergès-Frisbey said she likes to keep things like that mysterious:
I like all the mystery about the mermaids in the movie, like how magical they are, why they live in this place and why they appear. I think every sailor wishes to see a mermaid in his life, so there's such a mystery around them. At the same time, they are nervous to cross a mermaid because it will definitely be the end of his life. And I like this mystery around them, like you don't really know how young they are. I like all the mystery around that.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides opens this weekend.