Buenos Aires, 1959. A young woman in a movie theater stares rapt at a racially charged scene in the The Imitation of Life. Her attention is interrupted by the playful jostling of a few teenage boys behind her. She and one of the brawny blonde boys lock eyes knowingly. We've seen this movie before. We know what comes next.
Except that we don't. This rom-com set-up at the start of Operation Finale, out August 29, veers into extremely dark territory, extremely quickly. The girl is Sylvia Hermann (Haley Lu Richardson), and the boy is Klaus Eichmann (Joe Alwyn), the son of high-ranking Nazi Adolf Eichmann, who has evaded capture since WWII. After meeting Klaus, Sylvia's father, a concentration camp survivor, alerts a German prosecutor to Eichmann's presence, setting forth Israel's high-stakes capture of Eichmann depicted in Operation Finale. Sylvia becomes instrumental to the Israeli mission in 1960 — she uses her proximity to the Eichmann family to confirm Adolf Eichmann's identity (in real life, Sylvia had known the Eichmanns since 1956). We spoke to Richardson about her charged role in this compelling historical movie about the very worst of humanity.
Refinery29: The movie’s action begins with a close-up of your face. What was your headspace like in that scene? How’d you get your face right?
Haley Lu Richardson: “That was the first scene I shot on my first day of work – I was nervous. In the script, it’s written that this would be the opening of the movie. I was aware of that, but I tried not to put too much pressure on it, because then I’d be focused on how I look on camera and other things don’t actually matter to the emotional core of the story. Even though the first connection between Sylvia and Klaus is so charming, it’s also so chilling and bizarre because of what they’re watching on screen. It’s an intense, horrific thing they’re watching as part of the movie The Imitation of Life. This sets the tone. They’re cute, but something’s wrong.”
The role of Sylvia almost reminded me of your role in The Edge of Seventeen. You also channeled a teenager in that movie.
"A very different teenager."
Exactly, but you’re a teenage girl falling in love in both movies. How does being a teenage girl in Operation Finale compare to being a teenage girl in The Edge of Seventeen?
“I’ve been thinking about that a lot., I did all the research I could about the era, what life was like then. What the woman’s place was, how women spoke. All of those things. But the most important thing that I focused on while filming was the basic human experience that had nothing to do with what time Sylvia was in. Just the emotions she was feeling. I think that it's all relative. In The Edge of Seventeen, my character had a very different intensity of things going wrong, but the stakes that she felt inside were similar. It’s all relative. That’s what I focused on – Sylvia’s emotional experience as a young woman and as a human."
There are so many harrowing scenes in the movie, but a particularly electrifying one comes when your character attends a Nazi meeting with Klaus.
“Isn’t that horrific? It was the most jarring thing. I was there in person, and it felt so real. It was awful. I don’t want to do that again. Glad we didn’t have to reshoot that scene.”
What was the mood on set like?
“It was awful and loud. Every one of those actors and extras were so committed. They were really doing all that in the scene. I don’t know how Joe [Alwyn] did it. He had to watch that and hear that, and respond like he was into it. I’m glad that I was playing a character on the opposite end of the spectrum. How I felt being there as me was more in line with how Sylvia felt.”
I always wonder how actors play Nazis —
“Yeah, the bad guy. And real, evil bad guys. I don’t know if I could do that.”
Right, how they separate their character brain from their real brain.
“I’d have to go to therapy for sure.”
What was acting alongside Joe Alwyn like?
“I really liked acting with him. He’s really a gentleman. A sweet guy. He’s really focused and cares a lot about his work. I also love being surprised by how actors end up portraying things. When I read the script and I imagined the role before I was on set and met Joe, I imagined Klaus being colder. Joe managed to do this thing where he made Klaus warm in moments, even though he ends up following in his father’s footsteps. You have glimpses of empathy for him. You think he’s a little bit charming.”
Right, you hope he won’t be what he is.
“Yeah. When Sylvia goes to the Eichmann house and confesses her identity, you almost think, for a second, he’s going to say it doesn’t matter.”
That’s part of Sylvia’s journey. Learning that love isn’t enough.
“That really hit me watching the movie last night. When Sylvia and Klaus break up, nothing actually changed about either of them. They are the exact same people. They have the same personalities, same souls. Everything that they fell in love with is still there. The only thing that tears them apart is a new label. That was heartbreaking.”
Did you hang out on set, or was it so tense because of how heavy the movie was?
“[The] set was tense. But I have a hard time being intense all the time. I would talk in between [takes] and make jokes. I can’t do it any other way. I haven’t learned how to function and perform in any other way. Every actor is different. Some people would really stay in their space, go to the side, and stay focused.”
You mentioned this was your first time playing a historical figure. Are there any other historical figures who you’d like to play?
“Actually, it would be cool to do something futuristic. Play an alien or something. I really like aliens.”
Yeah, you can get off this planet.
“That would be good. For a day, or for life. My boyfriend [Jane the Virgin's Brett Dier] and I always say that as soon as there’s an option to go into space on a shuttle, we’ll volunteer."
You can post about it on Instagram as you go.
“Yeah, I’ll live-Instagram going into space. I actually never really do Instagram stories. I can’t really get into stuff for some reason. My boyfriend and I make stupid videos together. That’s what social media is for. Just to be yourself. I feel like a lot of people take it very seriously. It makes me sad. I try to do stupid, fun things on there.”
As a public figure, do you ever feel like it’s your responsibility to show that being goofy is an okay way to use Instagram? To show we don’t have to be so serious all the time?
“Just in general, the best way to lead in life is to set a good example. It’s more powerful to show through actions than endless paragraphs. I try to be the best person I can be. Anyone who cares about watching my Instagram videos maybe will see that and say, 'Oh, she’s having a good time. Maybe I’ll have a good time and be nice to people, too.'”