In many parts of the world, you would never need to explain that Tove Jansson was the creator of the lovable hippo-like creatures named the Moomins. In Jansson’s native Finland and neighboring Sweden, she is as well-known as Walt Disney and her characters as beloved as Mickey Mouse. And her influence extends well beyond the borders of her home country, with the Moomins universe exists in nearly 50 languages and as many cultures.
Jansson lived from 1914 to 2001, her fascinating life spanning almost the entirely of the 20th century. But the new biopic “Tove” (her name is pronounced TU-vey) focuses on a 10-year period, beginning as World War II was drawing to a close in 1945. The film, the fifth feature by Finish director Zaida Bergroth, depicts Jansson’s romantic relationships with men and women, and the unexpected personal and creative endeavors that led to her ultimate success as an artist.
Classically trained Alma Pöysti portrays Jansson in film, having played her three years earlier on the stage in a Swedish-speaking theater in Helsinki. There is a unique connection between the actress and her role. One of the key moments shown in “Tove” features the 1949 theatrical version of “Comet in Moominland,” a production at the Abo Svenska Theater in Helsinki. Here is the kicker: Among the cast members of that stage play, more than 70 years ago, was one of Pöysti’s close relatives.
“It was my grandmother,” Pöysti told TheWrap’s Joe McGovern as part of TheWrap’s International Film Screening Series. “You see, my grandparents, both of them were actors and they were very close friends with both Tove Jansson and Vivica Bandler, who is Tove’s great love in the movie and in real life.”
When Pöysti discovered that she had landed the role in “Tove,” she went to the cemetery where both her grandparents and Jansson are buried. In fact, according to Pöysti, Jansson and her grandparents are buried close to each other.
“I got the phone call. I jumped on my bike and I got some roses for these two powerful women and went to the cemetery to somehow say hi and blink to them. And then I got some champagne and celebrated in the spirit of Tove,” Pöysti said.
On top of the personal connection, Pöysti looks remarkably similar to Tove Jansson, and according to director Zaida Bergroth, the actress impressed everyone while auditioning for the role.
“I also see the resemblance but the more important thing was that when we did our tests and auditioned Alma, I could somehow imagine that she could really be behind all these fantastic worlds that Tove Jansson created. Because [Jansson] was an exceptional woman and you had to find an actor who you believe could have created all these wonderful stories, who would have that kind of an imaginary world that you would somehow be convinced about that,” Bergroth said.
“The way Alma did all those things that we tried out, I loved how she brought tenderness to the character. The intelligence was of course important, and that kind of depth, but also the playful side was really important to me. I’m so happy that Alma accepted this role because this film really lies on her shoulders,” added Bergroth.
Bergroth also had high praise for her cinematographer Linda Wassberg, who shot “Tove” on Super-16mm film and gave the movie a fresh, alive feel despite its 1940s-50s period setting. In preparation for shooting the film, Bergroth and Wassberg studied the visual styles of Todd Haynes’s “Carol” and Lars Von Trier’s “Breaking the Waves.”
“We were trying to find the balance between the raw and the beautiful, the poetic with the dangerous and edgy,” the filmmaker said. “We looked at many biopics too, but we were like, “Nope, not that style.’ It often becomes stiff and that was the thing to avoid.”
“Tove” is the Finnish entry for the Best International Feature Film at the 93rd Academy Awards. Watch Joe McGovern’s full interview with director Zaida Bergroth and Actress Alma Pöysti above.