Interview: Erika Linder's Gender Boundaries

As Erika Linder's first movie role as androgynous lesbian, Dallas in 'Below Her Mouth' screens at GAZE, the out model turned actress talks to Sarah Gilligan about the reality of stretching gender boundaries in the fashion and film industries, the stupid questions she gets asked, and why the scripts she gets offered show a sad and stark reality for female actors in Hollywood.

Below Her Mouth

“People want to put a label on to me to make themselves feel safe in their own gender roles.”

The effortlessly cool Erika Linder is eating an ice cream on a cinematically hot and humid New York day when we connect on the phone. We’re laughing within seconds of the conversation, which typically starts out about the Irish weather. When Erika calls home in Sweden, she tells me, her mother always gives out that it’s “been raining for 14 days straight with no sunlight, and it must be coming from Ireland”.

“She’s probably right”, I say, looking out at the rain on my end.

27 year-old out model and actor Linder, was born and raised just outside Stockholm, until a move to Los Angeles when she was 21, having being booked as one of the first female models in the mainstream fashion industry to shoot as a male model. Her androgynous appeal launched her into campaigns for Tom Ford and Louis Vuitton among others. In the following six years she has challenged the male modelling and gender roles she’s being typecast in by shooting female campaigns and last year she was cast as Dallas in Below Her Mouth, a movie about an unexpected and intense connection between two women that changes the course of their lives.

I knew going into the conversation with Erika that based on her androgynous looks there’s a presumption in the media that she’s tough and stoic in a masculine way, but in reality there’s an owned vulnerability and playfulness about her, a grounded and open authenticity that instantly smashes those boxes and labels.

When we get talking about Below Her Mouth, she laughs, “That was shot so long ago, oh my God, I was a baby when I did it! But I’m really glad and proud that was my first acting role”.

She tells me that through the experience she grew and got more of a sense of what she could do and what she would like to do. The transition from modelling to acting definitely pushed her boundaries.

“When I read the script I was like, ‘Whoa, this is graphic, how am I going to do this; how am I going to create authenticity?”

“It’s a completely different world”, she says. “Like I thought it would be an easy thing to do, but honestly it’s not. Being comfortable on set and in front of the camera, and knowing my beats and where to look, and finding the light – I could take all that with me from modelling. But being in character and finding out who that was within me – it was such a different experience. When I read the script I was like, ‘Whoa, this is graphic, how am I going to do this; how am I going to create authenticity?’ I didn’t know anything about this process, I didn’t know any of the crew or Natalie (Krill her co-star). But I loved the fact that the whole crew were women; it made it way easier to stay in my character.”

She describes how director April Mullen and writer Stephanie Fabrizi guided and supported her through the process, especially considering there are no body doubles.

“It’s all me,” she says. “I think I had four sex scenes. I freaked out at first but then I just went for it.”

Erika does not look at online comments or read reviews of her work. “Oh, no way,” she says amid the hustle and bustle of New York in the background. “I’ve been in the modelling business from the age of 21, which was a good age to start as I had a sense of myself prior to being known through the lens of a camera. So any moments of self-doubt that crept in after the movie was made – people judging my performance, questioning if this will this affect my career –  I just took deep breathes and shook it off, and remembered that stuff doesn’t matter; I am just being me.”

Again the word authentic pops into my head, as it often does through the conversation. Erika is on a roll in terms of getting involved with the work that she feels is most authentic to her and who she is.

“It’s almost like starting all over again, but in a super exciting way,” she says. “Exploring diverse roles and seeing how different directors and producers see me. It’s exciting! I don’t want to do things for money or for fame or because someone else thinks I should do them or because it’s a male role or a female role, I want to do them because it feels right to me.”

There’s a clear sense of how much Erika both knows and trusts herself, even in the relatively unknown of the newness of acting. “You know,” she says, “the first thing I did when I got the role in Below Her Mouth was to leave LA and move back to Sweden for a few months to my family, to my ‘normal’ life, away from the world of photoshoots and actors and models, where nobody cares who I am”.

“Kinda like in Ireland,” I say. “We almost don’t like if your famous.”

“Oh my God, exactly!” she laughs. “I need to feel grounded. It’s so important to me to step out of the craziness of it all. I went to Alaska with my Dad once and didn’t shower for a whole week, it was amazing.”

She takes a deep breath and then laughs, “Don’t put that bit in… no, do. Definitely do.”

I ask her if she is aware or ever reflects on how positively she has influenced others by being authentic in her everyday life and with all her roles, whether it be male/female modelling or her role in Below Her Mouth, or being out. She pauses for a moment and is almost shy in her response. “Eh, not really,” she says. “I guess I do sometimes, when I see people on my social media saying really nice things about my influence in their lives and allowing them access to their authentic expression. It can be different in the fashion world though. I had a conversation with a stylist a few days ago in relation to fashion industry androgyny versus ‘real-life’, lived androgyny…

“Like the Zayn Malik and GiGi Hadid gender non-conforming photoshoot in Vogue?” I interject.

“Yeah, like, what was that?” she says. “There is a difference between being androgynous and choosing to wear a suit or a dress or a checked shirt, or having your hair long or short to get into a career niche or for a photoshoot, versus just having that energy naturally. It’s something that is inherent, you know?”

“Oh, and some of the interviews I experienced after making Below Her Mouth… man, oh man. Like I still get asked questions about gender stuff all the time. People want to put a label on to me to make themselves feel safe in their own gender roles.

“Those questions are mostly asked by guys. You know, when I get feedback from women about the movie or my photoshoots, they’re like, ‘Yeah, it’s about love and it’s hot, it’s realistic and it’s a great representation of female sexuality’. They’re not questioning gender stuff or roles, whereas guys seem really caught up and intrigued by it, needing a deep explanation.”

The plot of Below Her Mouth has a strong message about female sexuality. “It’s what drew me hugely to the role,” Erika says. “The intensity of the relationship between Dallas and Jasmine is palpable. Like, if you fell in love with someone and only had a weekend to spend with them what would you do? Would you let go and take the risk? The movie allows the characters to take the risk of being vulnerable with each other and themselves, to let go and explore how they feel. They both shake off old roles, one with a girlfriend the other engaged to a man, in order to explore their sexuality and feelings.”

“I notice how the roles can be so reductive to sexual ones or secondary parts, with little or no character development.”

We are both aware of the time, mention it, laugh, and keep chatting as our conversation turns to new projects coming her way.

“As I read scripts, it’s very frustrating to see how women are still being portrayed in them. I notice how the roles can be so reductive to sexual ones or secondary parts, with little or no character development. Now I know Below Her Mouth is a vignette into a budding lesbian relationship and has beautifully shot sex scenes, but it is done from a female gaze and in an empowered way.

“I know I don’t have to take any of those other roles, but it still saddens me to see the stark reality for female actors. It just drives me more to fighting for the roles I want to play, whether it’s a single mother, a superhero or an androgynous lesbian”.

Now the time has come to really get off the phone. “Right I’m off to buy art supplies with my girlfriend,” Erika says. “But it’s just so hot!”.


Below Her Mouth is showing as part of GAZE, the 25th International LGBT Film Festival Dublin, at 8.30pm on Saturday, August 5, find out more here

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