Melia Kreiling: The Classical Actress

TV Features

Melia Kreiling is no stranger to cosmopolitan situations. Although now living in London, the daughter of an American father and a Greek mother, she was born in Geneva and grew up in Athens in a single parent household. Her mother was a jet-setting journalist, and her school was filled with expats from all over the world.

To Kreiling—first seen by most in Showtime’s hit series The Borgias as Jeremy Irons’ seducer and currently appearing in The Bible as Bathsheba—it all seemed quite normal. “My mom’s job was very glamorous,” she says, “but I wasn’t involved in that. I didn’t have some sort of stage mom, in any sense. It just happened that it was a time in Greece where a lot of people her age, at that point, were discovering that they can do other jobs—not just traditional lawyer or doctor. So a lot of her friends were artistic and creative. And she always made sure to remind me that it’s a privilege and it’s a beautiful thing and we shouldn’t forget that not everybody grows up with art in their life.”

Growing up in Athens, she was surrounded by literally thousands of years of academic and artistic ambition. “When your teacher says, ‘Oh, on Friday we’re going to take you to the Acropolis’ and the Acropolis happens to be The Acropolis,” she explains, “you’re in awe of these places, even if you are living next to them. A lot of the times in daily life, you forget. When I visit Greece, I don’t go there and think about the Acropolis. But then you pass by one night, and there’s a full moon and you can see it from where you’re driving and you just have a moment of ‘Wow.’”

Her childhood wasn’t idyllic by any means though—the broken family dynamic is hard for any child to navigate. And it can be especially hard for a sensitive child to find a path in a divorced household. “I had a great childhood and upbringing,” Kreiling says, “but it was all complicated in many ways. With divorce from all sides… it was a complicated childhood. And I think that performance was a perfect escape from what was going on in the house, whether it was good or bad. But it was my space. When I would go to dance class or if I was in a play at school, it was my time and I could sort of calm down there. It probably sounds really self-indulgent. But as a kid, yeah, it had a lot to do with the fact that I had a place to go to where I could focus the way I wanted to focus and I could be the way I wanted to be. And the discipline helped me a lot to escape, but at the same time stay in control of, my emotions and figure things out.”

It all started with dance. “I remember my first year of ballet school,” Kreiling says. “I was very young, like four, but I remember the feeling that somebody was putting down these rules for me to follow, and I enjoyed it because once I got to do the stuff the right way, then I was able to turn without falling. I was able to jump higher while moving my hands in a certain way. It just felt liberating because it was my space. It wasn’t about escaping myself so much; it was more sort of finding some quiet in my head.”

Keiling actually resisted the acting bug for a long time, thinking of herself as a dancer. “The dancing was much more of a challenge,” she explains. “Especially when it’s not ballet. With ballet you can be in a company and sort of belong to that company, and there’s a certain life that goes with it. Contemporary for seven-year-olds is just harder. It was part of a rebellious thing, I guess—towards everyone. I don’t know why I resisted the acting for so long because I enjoyed it for so long, even as a young kid. But yeah. I think there was something about dancing and not speaking. And having people try to understand in a different way than just very obvious. It’s so open for the public and for the audience to just take whatever they want from it and whatever they feel from it.”

But fate intervened, in the form of injury. “When I got injured with dance and it looked like I was not going to be able to keep doing it, my mom and my godfather and everybody just kind of grilled me for a few months while I was in physical therapy for my dance injuries. They said, ‘Just try it. Just go to acting school for a year. Just try it.’ And I knew they were right. I knew this was what I was going to do. I just wanted to not do it just because they kept saying to do it. And so I did it. And they were right. And after I did it for a few months, and after I let it sort of go against it so much, it was the best thing that has happened to me. Admitting that that was what I wanted to do. Okay, fine. I want to be an actor.”

After a time at the London School of Dramatic Art and roles in a couple of short films, she was cast in her first major project, The Borgias, which went on to become a hit worldwide. “Yeah, I was like… huh!” she says. “Okay! So we’re actually doing this then. I’m actually an actor then. I tried to fool everybody when I was there on set but I was the most clueless bunny in the hatch. My face was going, ‘Yeah, I do this all the time,’ and my mind was going, ‘What’s a first AD? Hang on! What’s a wide shot?’ But it also felt incredibly right that it was in a production manned by Neil Jordan with Jeremy Irons in it. And all these other fantastic actors in it.”

She did such a good job seducing Jeremy Irons in The Borgias that not only did the writers bring her character back (“the best thing you could have asked for,” she says), but she was quickly cast in her next role, in the History Channel adaptation of The Bible as the iconic temptress Bathsheba, who leads no less a man than King David astray. But Kreiling wasn’t fazed. “Can I be honest?” she says conspiratorially. “It wasn’t that intimidating because the fact that they were doing The Bible as a whole is such an intimidating concept. Talk about ambitious as a project. So I couldn’t concentrate on whether I’m nervous—and plus there were so many people there, so many characters. It’s really not about you. It’s more about Jesus, really, more than anyone. If there was anyone who should feel nervous it was Diogo Morgado, who played Jesus. You know, I mean, what a task, huh? You only had to get the most important man in history right.”

She’s got several projects coming out soon, including a small part in Eoin Macken’s film Cold and a larger one in James Erskine’s The White Room. But she has her sights set on a long career, and a long exploration of her characters. “I was first introduced to John Cassavettes films,” she remembers, “and Gena Rowlands in them, at a time when I really needed to see them. And whatever she did in those films did something to me watching them. And suddenly made me think of this whole thing much more seriously, something I wanted to invest in. And then I saw Kieslowski’s Three Colors and Juliette Binoche in Blue. But all these things spoke to me because of things I had been through in my life. I didn’t have that. But what I did have while watching these films were actors showing me a reflection of what I felt. And it was relieving. It felt like I was almost kind of sighing that somehow, someone who has no idea who I am has done something that feels exactly like I am feeling right now. And so that type of work really speaks to me.”

Those moments don’t necessarily center around one kind of project, or part. “I don’t have specific characters I want to play or specific movies I want to do,” she says. “I don’t know what those are until they happen. And at the moment I’ve just been working, because I am a working actor. I hope that I’ll stumble upon a few projects that make me do that. I’m not saying in any way that I’ll ever be good like that. That’s not what I’m saying at all. But maybe the effort to do that or to be in something that does that to somebody or maybe that sort of thing, I guess.”

For Melia Keiling, that’s the journey that matters. And her journey that led her from Geneva to Athens to London to Los Angeles, by way of Renaissance Valencia and Ancient Jerusalem, seems to be just beginning.

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