INTERVIEW: Melina Juergens Talks ‘Hellblade’, Mental Health Representation In Video Games, And Her BAFTA Win
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is “an exceptional piece of experience based gaming” and after recently having experienced it for the first time, we reached out to Senua’s award-winning motion capture actress, Melina Juergens, to chat with her about her experience making the game, how Ninja Theory approached mental health representation, and her BAFTA win last year!
Firstly, I just want to say how much I loved your performance as Senua, you really made the character so raw and relatable and got me rather emotional at times and really enhanced the experience!
Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed my interpretation of Senua 🙂
I understand that you were working as a video editor for Ninja Theory on Hellblade, but had you ever considered acting before this opportunity came up?
The opposite actually. I always ran away from opportunities like that because I was terrified to perform in front of people. Even back in School when I had to do presentations in class, I sometimes called in sick to avoid speaking in front of the whole class.
Did you find that you were drawn to the character, was there anything in particular about her that spoke to you in any way?
Yes, I think we are quite alike in many ways and that’s probably the reason why I accepted the role. I was just being myself for most of the parts. We both suffer from mental health issues; we’re both fairly introverted but at the same time driven by a stubborn warrior spirit which motivates us to keep on going.
As well as being strong, Senua is such a complex character, were there any methods that you used to get into her mindset?
To get into Senua’s mindset I listened to other peoples lived experiences. We worked together with a group of people from “Recovery College East” who gave me an insight of their experiences with serious mental health issues and psychosis. This information combined with my own mental health experiences was a good mix to get inside Senua’s head.
Senua is such a strong female character; did you draw inspiration from anyone, fictional or otherwise?
Talking to people with lived experiences gave me huge inspiration. It takes incredible courage and strength to overcome serious mental health issues. It takes a true warrior spirit.
The game did make me very emotional at times and there are so many heavy moments. Considering the subject matter and her mental state, did you find playing Senua difficult at times?
Yes, it was very draining at times, because I had to constantly get into a very dark zone in my head. I tried to remember the pain and traumas that I’ve gone through in my own life and connected those emotions to the scenes in Hellblade. Looking back at it now I think it was actually quite therapeutic to let all these emotions out in front of everyone. It helped me a lot with my social anxiety.
Have you considered doing more acting, mo-cap or venturing into live-action perhaps?
I’m not actively looking, but if good opportunities present themselves I will definitely give it another go.
How did you find the mo-cap experience? Did you find it challenging at all?
Full performance capture felt like I was in my own bubble, and I think it actually helped me overcome my fear of performing in front of people. I was in a full body suit with helmet, blinded by LED lights shining into my face, so I didn’t really see much of my surroundings. Sometimes I also had headphones taped to my ears which meant I also couldn’t hear the people around me very well. This might be problematic for most people, but for me it felt like I was in my own little world, if “I can’t see them then they can’t see me” sort of feeling. This gave me a feeling of safety and made it possible for me to open up and perform. Director Tameem Antoniades also tried to keep the team on set as small & intimate as possible to make me feel comfortable.
Have you played the game since it was released? If so how did it feel to see yourself transformed into a CGI character?
I have played it twice from start to finish after it came out, but because I am also Ninja Theory’s video editor, I have been working a lot with a lot of Hellblade footage beforehand. I was involved in the entire project from start to finish, from creating behind the scenes Dev Diaries to Hellblade trailers and of course all the acting side of things. By the time the game came out and I played it, I had already seen most of it, but it was great to see all the pieces of the puzzle coming together in the end creating a very unique experience.
Congratulations on winning the BAFTA for Best Performer last year. How did it feel to be recognised in such a way for your work?
It was shocking. I never thought I would achieve anything like this in my life, and I also never really planned on being an actress. It was a huge honour and recognition for a very meaningful project that my team and I put a lot of lifeblood into. This award also represents all the voices of people with mental health issues, who have helped me prepare for the role, and whose voices have been heard through Senua. This wasn’t just an acting job, this was a life changing experience for me and many others involved.
How was the experience of meeting Andy Serkis when he presented you with the Game Award for Best Performer? Did he give you any words of wisdom?
I’ve actually met Andy a couple of times before, as he has been involved in other Ninja Theory projects, but I was very happy to get the award handed over by him. He is a pioneer in the world of Mocap and his work is super inspiring to me. I think I remember him being a bit shocked behind the stage because he remembered me as a video editor, not as an award-winning actress. That was quite funny. And he sent his regards to the Ninja Theory team.
Personally, Hellblade was an amazing experience that actually made me understand how my brain works sometimes in relation to anxiety and depression. I wanted to know if the game spoke to you?
I suffer from various types of mental health problems and I feel like the project has helped me a lot by addressing these issues and removing the stigma that surrounds it. Other people have told me similar things, that the game has helped them to open up about their conditions and that through playing Hellblade others can emphasise better with what sufferers are going through.
After the success of Hellblade, how important do you think it is for mental health issues to continue to be represented in gaming?
I think it is extremely important. It is a topic that needs to be spoken about, not just in games but everywhere, especially within families. So many people are suffering in silence because they fear of what others might think of them. I felt the same, and I still feel a bit uncomfortable to talk about it now, but I made it my mission. I want to speak about it because I know it will help others that are going through same or similar things. It is affecting way more people than we think, and I felt that the more I open up about my mental health issues, the more people open up about theirs, and we can help one another.
Being a part of the gaming community, I have seen a lot of love for Hellblade and your work. What kind of response have you had from fans?
I have to say it’s been 99% positive, to my surprise. I expected a lot of backlash but people have really connected with this game, which is great. And this just puts to show how many people connect with mental health issues and how important this topic is. We have actually released a trailer with some of the responses we’ve had from players, which were incredibly touching.
Finally, this is actually a question from one of our followers, so I thought I would end with a fun one! The game being very focused on Norse Mythology, do you by any chance have a favourite Norse God or Goddess?
Fafnir, the beast I fight in the bowels of Helheim because it reminds me of my dog 😀
We’d like to thank Melina once again for taking the time to answer our questions!