The Summer of Sangaile's Aiste Dirziute on Finding Her Purpose

Wednesday


Photo courtesy of Rokas Darulis
"I've always had a hunger for life," says Aiste Dirziute from Lithuania one snowy evening in January. The up-and-comer has had quite the whirlwind year since making her acting debut in The Summer of Sangaile, opener of the 2015 Sundance World Cinema Dramatic Competition. Written and directed by Alante Kavaite, the love story revolves around Sangaile, a sullen teenager with big dreams coaxed out of her shell by the vibrant Auste, played by the newcomer. Like her character in the film, Aiste is multi-passionate. Unlike her character, she struggled to find her purpose in life.

A trained pianist, the younger Aiste gave serious consideration to a life in music and attended a conservatory. The self-described perfectionist realized she could never be the best, however, and with her introduction to bands like Nirvana and The Beatles, Aiste felt the need to try something different. After a brief return to music, learning the jazz piano at age sixteen, she moved to the capital of Vilnius for college, where the search for her true purpose continued. Exploring avenues in which to marry passion with vocation, she indulged in a variety of subjects: "I love history. I love philosophy. I love psychology, books-- many things."

Along the way, the voracious student also studied journalism, photography, politics and singing before discovering the one area that could satisfy everything she wanted: acting. "For the first time in my life, I felt that feeling of being full. It wasn’t so easy for me in the beginning,” she admits of her younger years. Aiste then applied to the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre and was initially rejected, but she held fast to her goal and triumphed.


Photo courtesy of Rokas Darulis
It was at the Academy where she was first spotted for the role in The Summer of Sangaile. A casting director scouting at Aiste's school invited her to audition. She was destined for the role. “There are so many coincidences in this movie and while making this movie," she says. The casting director asked Aiste to sing a song the actress knew well; it was a song she had performed for the entrance exams to the Academy. She was also asked to sew, a skill she learned from her mother.

Then there was the biggest coincidence of all: Julija Steponaityte. When Aiste saw Julija, who would go on to play Sangaile, she was shocked-- the two had been good friends years before. They’d met as thirteen year olds through a local social media website and spent summers together in both Vilnius, where Julija lived, and in Aiste’s hometown. The kids lost touch, but after seven years of silence their bond remained intact and they instantly took up where they had left off. Their chemistry was undeniable-- exactly what the film needed for its on-screen lovers.

The best thing about working with Julija was being reunited, an experience Aiste describes as a monument to their friendship. Julija, a photographer specializing in color grading, currently lives in Paris, and while they may not see each other as often as they’d like to, the pair have spent time together while promoting the film internationally. Aiste is still traveling with Sangaile when we speak, and is set to attend the Trieste Film Festival in Italy. Since Sundance, she’s visited the U.S., France, Russia, Croatia, South Korea and Turkey, to name a few. Traveling has been a wonderful experience, but also exhausting. Discussing the film with a wide array of people from all over the world has left Aiste with “so many impressions and emotions.”

A scene from Low Roar's"Nobody Loves Me Like You" (courtesy of Rytis Seskaitis)
Last year, Aiste was recognized as a European Shooting Star, an award acknowledging Europe's best young actors at the Berlin International Film Festival, joining previous honorees Rachel Weisz, Daniel Craig and Oscar winner for The Danish Girl, Alicia Vikander. Aiste's award is especially moving because she is the first recipient from Lithuania, a distinction she feels has also helped shine a light on the Baltic nation’s small, but dynamic film industry. Aiste says, “It was and still is an extremely huge honor and opportunity not only for me, but for actors in Lithuania and from East European countries. So many people think that we can’t speak in English, or that we are so Slavic or something. But not at all. We are very European, open people.”

Wanting to portray her role as authentically as possible, Aiste prepared for the film’s love scenes by watching the Showtime series The L Word, about the trials and tribulations of a group of lesbian friends from Los Angeles. She has many friends who are gay and bisexual and felt an obligation to perform the scenes accurately, not relying solely on her imagination. Lithuanian society is still largely conservative, and the film met with some controversy, but it was also embraced by the younger generation. “We are more and more on our way to becoming [tolerant of homosexuality].” Having claimed its independence from the Soviet Union twenty-six years ago, Aiste points out, “We are still very, very young.” Sangaile’s reception at Sundance, and its overall critical acclaim, have made it difficult for people to ignore the movie because “the whole world said yes.” The spotlight is on Lithuania, and it is basking in the afterglow.

On the set of Low Roar's music video (c. Rytis Seskaitis)
So, what does an intelligent young actress with lots of interests do in her spare time? She reads. A devotee of Virginia Woolf, her favorite tomes at any given moment depend on her mood. Aiste, who is currently reading I am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, has recently begun penning a column for a Lithuanian magazine in which she recommends books to teenage girls.

As for a favorite literary character? That would be Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, reveals the old soul with a penchant for the classics, including works by Dostoevsky, Camus and Argentine novelist Julio Cortázar. The heroine oft-described as the female Hamlet, Hedda "is so deep and so strong,” says Aiste. And what of her long ago devotion to music? Does the desire to play ever reappear? The poised performer, who stars in the hauntingly beautiful video "Nobody Loves Me Like You" from the Icelandic band Low Roar, says her appreciation for music manifests itself in the desire to play a singer, jazz pianist and the like. Off-screen, she plays only for herself. “It’s like singing in the shower.”

Visit Aiste Dirziute on Twitter and Instagram.

 

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