Every once in a while, a TV drama comes along that grips the public imagination. Over the last few years, it has been the likes of ‘Scandi Noir’ series like The Killing, The Bridge and Follow The Money, and most recently a slate of Spanish dramas has followed, most notably the runaway success La Casa de Papel (or Money Heist as it’s titled in English). As the third series of Money Heist debuts on Netflix, the show’s star Itziar Ituño – aka Inspectora Raquel Murillo – talks about why the series resonates so strongly with audiences and why at first she wasn’t interested in the part at all.
TEXT: EDDI FIEGEL | PHOTO © RICARDO GOMES
“When they first sent me for the casting of the part of Raquel, I wasn’t that keen at all,” Ituño tells me on the phone from Madrid. “I thought ‘Ay! Not another policewoman.” Ituño had previously spent more than ten years playing the part of a police inspector in the daily Basque TV drama Goenkale in her native Basque country, and so was consequently loath to take on another similar role. But as it turned out, any similarities were purely superficial. “Once I started reading the script, I saw that it was a very different story,” she explains. “It wasn’t a classic police detective scenario at all.”
Money Heist. Photo © Netflix
Indeed it isn’t. Without giving too much away to anyone who hasn’t yet seen the first two series, a group of, for the most part, rather attractive criminals stage an elaborate heist on the Spanish Royal Mint. It’s a long drawn out affair which involves holding some of the Mint’s employees hostage and gradually various dramas unfold thanks to the interpersonal tensions and relationships between both the gang themselves and their hostages.
Sexism and rivalry
Each character has their own individual motivations, not least the mastermind behind the heist – Salva – who with his beard and spectacles is very much the drama’s low key but highly charismatic, Robin Hood-style anti-hero. At the drama’s heart, however, is Inspector Murillo, who also has her own personal challenges, including an abusive ex-husband who happens to be a colleague in the police force, a mother who is trying to hide the onset of dementia and a young daughter still shaken by the separation of her parents.
As if that wasn’t enough to be dealing with, she also has to face sexism and professional rivalry at work. But she’s an intelligent woman who deals with the challenges as best she can and this was something which immediately elevated the role for Ituño from your average run-of-the-mill police drama. “It’s great when you get a part like that,” she says, “because she’s a very real character. With us women, just by virtue of being women, we’re scrutinised more, especially in the workplace, and we’re not listened to as much. Society does that to women in lots of different ways, so the idea of someone who tries to fight for her own authority and her place in the workplace interested me a lot.”
“She’s also put in this very extreme situation [dealing with the heist and trying to negotiate the release of the hostages],” she continues, “and also has to deal with an attraction which takes her by surprise but at the same time she doesn’t want to be a victim of that attraction.”
The complex nature of victimhood is pertinent to Murillo and was something else which particularly interested Ituño. “You get women who appear very strong, but end up in a situation like that” she says, referring to Murillo’s earlier relationship with her ex-husband, “being mistreated – sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally – so she’s a very real character in that way too.” The three-dimensional nature of the various characters, the strength of the script and the unexpected twists and turns of the plot are what makes the series so compelling and some of that, it emerges, was due to a method of filming which has more in common with American drama series written almost on the hoof, than traditional feature films.
Photo © Ricardo Gomes
“They were writing the chapters as we went along,” explains Ituño, “so there were some surprises in there for me, too. We didn’t know how it was going to end and we were kept wondering until almost the very end! They gave us a framework of the plot outline but without defining it in too much detail, and they gave us quite a lot of space for improvisation, so it was a bit open-ended. It wasn’t like in a film where you film everything in a certain sequence.”
So, how did the improvisational aspect of it work, I ask? “They gave you, for example, episode five and it’s completely written but if something occurs to you that you wanted to add, you could suggest it, as long as it didn’t change the plot line. So you could say ‘Well actually I think Raquel would say this in a different way’ and sometimes the director and scriptwriters would agree and sometimes they wouldn’t.”
Good and bad
Inevitably, with this kind of improvisational approach, each actor will bring their own life experiences and world view to their vision of their character. In Ituño’s case, she had originally studied sociology at university in the Basque country, which she says also helped her tackle the role. “Sociology helped me a lot when it came to seeing how Raquel fits into her social world, in the different roles that she plays whether she’s in police mode, mother mode, daughter mode, or as a woman who’s in love with Salva. We’re not isolated individuals so the part you play in society defines you in lots of different ways and you understand all of that better with the background of sociology.”
The wider political viewpoint of the series is also something Ituño sees as key to the series’ success. There’s an ambiguity to the plot throughout whereby your sympathies are often with the instigators of the heist, rather than their supposed victims and that, says Ituno, was very much intentional.
“Each of the characters has different motivations and is neither good nor bad, and that was intentional, but there was also the idea of showing the injustices of society,” she explains. “Some people have a lot of money and some people struggle to reach the end of the month and so it was a way of showing that and that’s also why you have more sympathy for the robbers because they haven’t got money and when they need more they just do what the bank does – they just print some more,” she laughs. “The good characters aren’t very good and the bad ones aren’t very bad – just like life! There’s definitely an echo of what’s happening in the world right now and I think that’s one of the reasons the series has been so successful. It’s saying ‘We want to live well but let’s all live well, not just some of us’.”
Money Heist. Photo © Netflix
Third and fourth series
Ituño is currently filming a fourth series of Money Heist, which she says is “really interesting”, but in the meantime, as far as the third series goes, she says there are some very compelling new characters and that there’s “another challenge – a bit like at the Royal Mint but this time it’s a much bigger situation. Basically the gang reform for another job but I can’t say any more than that.”
Beyond Money Heist, she has no other plans at the moment. When she’s not filming, she continues to live in her home town of Basauri in the Basque country, the town some 20 minutes’ southeast of Bilbao which she describes as “neither very big nor very small. It’s not a tiny village where everybody knows each other and each other’s business, but you go out and you run into the neighbours. It’s a good place to live. When we’re filming, I rent a small place in Madrid, but when we’re finished, I’m off! Back to my house at home. Everyone has a place where you need to get back to, that’s your place, no?”
As far as the future goes, I wonder whether she ever thinks of crossing the Atlantic like her Spanish predecessors Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas? “I’d need to learn English properly first! My English is terrible!” she laughs. “I was in England last year but I didn’t have time and now we’re filming again so I’ve had to leave it again but you never know in life. You never know where you’ll end up!”
Season 3 of Money Heist aka La Casa de Papel is available on Netflix now.