Phantom Of The OPERA: The Return Of Cristina Marsillach

After decades in seclusion, OPERA actress Cristina Marsillach returns to the screen in Damian K. Lahey’s small-budget SIMPLE LIKE SILVER.

By Richard David Smith III · @TheSmithsOfSeattle · September 13, 2021, 5:04 PM PDT
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Cristina Marsillach in OPERA (1987)

St. Augustine, Florida. In addition to playing host to the usual crazy Florida Man antics and serving as a setting in multiple true-crime docs, this ancient cemetery-laden city conquered by Spanish explorers in 1565 is home to all the usual quirky Sunshine State sucker snares — alligator farms, psychic centers, biker bars, air-boat rides, chintzy trinket kiosks, magic/crystal/potion shops and, of course, the obligatory ghost tours guided by overly enthusiastic acting school dropouts. Ubiquitous tourist traps aside, it's a uniquely charming southern city where the smell of fresh waffle cones wafts through the air as enthusiastic sightseers (when not consumed by their phones) traverse old brick streets that divide giant moss-adorned trees and centuries-old cemented coquina structures — one of those structures being the remarkably enormous and sturdy Castillo de San Marcos, complete with drawbridge, that sits along the tranquil and sparkly Matanzas Bay. It's the kind of enchanting town center where the architecture transcends time and haunted folklore flies as fast as the monstrous palmetto bugs — and if you happened to be visiting what Wikipedia cites as the "oldest continuously-inhabited European-established settlement" in the Summer of 2018, you just may have also seen Cristina Marsillach walking right alongside you.

Yes, that Cristina Marsillach.

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Famous for her iconic role in Dario Argento's Opera (1987), Marsillach likely needs no introduction to FANGORIA readers. Even so, you'd be forgiven if you mistook the reclusive Marsillach herself as a ghost, seeing as how she walked away from acting completely in 1994. Before her lengthy hiatus, Marsillach was a prolific actress since the early age of thirteen, appearing in film, television, and commercials directed by Sergio Corbucci, Gabriele Salvatores and Martin Scorsese among others. She hails from one of the most prestigious acting families in Spain, her father being famous film and theater director Adolfo Marsillach. Last year, the President of Spain christened a national theater in his honor.

In the years since Cristina stepped away from acting, Opera's reputation as one of the best horror films of the '80s has only grown. However, as special edition after special edition of the film was rolled out, Marsillach was glaringly absent from the supplemental materials — and it was widely known that she and Argento had a frosty relationship (at best) during the shoot.

So what in Dante's Inferno was it, then, that tempted the great Marsillach to come back out from behind the shadows of the Thespian curtain? Was it a shameless nostalgia-exploiting reboot titled Opera - The Encore!? Quite the contrary. Turns out, it was a little black and white indie film...

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Enter award-winning independent filmmaker and screenwriter Damian K. Lahey (Cocaine Angel, The Heroes of Arvine Place). Lahey had been struck by Ms. Marsillach when he saw her in Argento's Opera and Gabriele Salvatores' Marrakech Express when he had been in high school. My curiosity was piqued — I just had to know how Lahey tracked down this elusive living legend. So, I contacted him.

"I was lucky enough to go to an Arts School for high school. And the first script that I wrote was for Cristina as a final project for a class I was taking," Lahey recently told me via email. "It was about a woman who travels abroad and believes she may have seen a murder, but we never really know." Lahey discovered early on that his chances of making that project would be a long shot.

"It was a first-time script that wasn't all that, though the core concept fascinated me. However, by the time I went to film school, the internet was beginning to explode, and I quickly learned Cristina was someone people could not get ahold of or locate. Every few years, I'd poke around online, but the only thing I found was that the legend of her being a recluse was growing. Genre writers of all shapes and sizes had tried to get ahold of her and failed."

As the 30th Anniversary of Opera approached in 2017, Lahey was in post on a short he had finished shooting in LA and wanted to do a small feature while waiting on developments with some spec scripts he had floating around. "One spec script I had that had been hot for a little bit had peaked. It had opened some doors that I'm grateful for, but it had run out of steam. I came across some social media post about the 30th Anniversary of Opera and again: the stories about how Cristina Marsillach could not be found, didn't do interviews etc. I decided I'd find her. People said she was retired — that even if I managed to find her — she wouldn't talk to me."

For a few years in the '90s, Cristina ran the Marsillach Acting Studio. Lahey managed to track down a former student who assisted him with the search, but the trail eventually went cold. No one seemed to know where she was.

As kismet would have it, Lahey's friend, indie filmmaker Jane Spencer (Little Voices, The 9th Cloud) was Facebook friends with Cristina's sister, actress Blanca Marsillach (Flesh+Blood, Day of Wrath), having considered her for a role in one of her projects years before. She sent a message to Blanca on Damian's behalf in which he included his pitch for Cristina. After messaging Blanca his pitch, there was radio silence for months...until out of the blue at 3 am one morning — Blanca messaged Damian saying Cristina was willing to talk about the project.

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"Cristina was very gracious and said she was active and interested in doing the film. She showed me how to use WhatsApp. I had never used that before! Our second conversation was when we really got down to business. There was literally a hurricane happening where I lived. A full-blown hurricane, but I didn't want to reschedule the call, so I spoke with Cristina with this raging hurricane going on outside and the lights flickering and windows rattling."

To Lahey's astonishment, Cristina was in on his micro-budget film. "She was looking for something small and intimate to get back into things, and this was a perfect fit."

With that established, Cristina was not comfortable traveling to the U.S. alone and wanted someone to come with her to translate and assist during production. That person was Carmen Olmo, who would become the co-producer of the film. "Carmen was such an asset to the movie. The perfect foil for Cristina and me. Like us, she worked hard but was always up for a good laugh. So much fun to work with."

Next up for Lahey was convincing them that they were going to shoot the film in St. Augustine — while pretending they were tourists. "Cristina is a mischievous sort and agreed to it. What are the chances of that scenario not only playing out, but the actress is also down to go to a foreign country and pretend she's a tourist doing undercover filmmaking after not having acted on screen in almost twenty-five years? I think she knew she was doing something that, if pulled off, would not only be a different kind of film but a really good story to tell afterward."

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During shooting, Damian found Cristina to be a joy to work with. "She's everything you could look for in a collaborator as far as an actor is concerned. For me anyway. Self-deprecating. Disciplined. A wicked sense of humor. Cultured but not full of shit. Cristina would send me links to things that were in the wheelhouse of what we were doing. You want to surround yourself with people like that."

Despite being a diehard horror fan and Argento buff (he was even a script consultant on David Gordon Green's aborted Suspiria remake a few years back), Lahey was not interested in going that route, instead crafting the film as a feisty homage to his favorite foreign filmmakers. "Argento is certainly one of the folks we tip our hat to, but when you're doing small features like this, it's best to be as unique as you can. Put your own personal signature on it. Some folks might bristle, but at the end of the day, they'll respect you more."

Simple Like Silver features the geographically linked lives of three tortured souls. Marsillach plays Lucia, who has just been diagnosed with a terminal brain cancer, along with a young, understated Susanna Nelson as confused sexual assault victim, Angela (voiced by Lacy Marie Meyer). Cornering out the trio is an even younger Hudson Sims as Joe, a contemplative kid into Beat generation authors.

"No way was I going to make Cristina carry a picture after being out of the game for that much time. That would not have been fair to her. She needed to be used strategically so her performance would pop more."

Marsillach's restrained, tormented portrayal of a desperate-for-answers Lucia is the burning coal at the heart of this film, with the city of St. Augustine — framed and shot brilliantly by Lahey — serving as the de facto main character.

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"St. Augustine was great. They had no clue what we were doing. Also — there are people with cameras all over the place there. We blended right in. We would actually offer to take pictures of couples that were there on vacation. Cristina said it was good for karma considering what we were up to [laughs]."

Simple Like Silver is a dark existential mystery with a sly sense of humor — and Lahey is in no hurry to offer easy solutions for this complicated triangle of lives. Films of this ilk have a tendency to become self-indulgent and unnecessarily obtuse. Simple Like Silver stands in refreshing contrast to that, coming in at a tight 70 minutes. The glorious black & white cinematography brings the city of St. Augustine and its lush vegetation and crystal water surroundings to life and the chilling score by David Wingo (Maggie, Take Shelter, Midnight Special) is a perfect companion to this twisting cryptic tale.

Having lived in the area and visited St. Augustine on countless occasions, I can say from firsthand experience that Lahey captured the city in a way that almost allows you to skip the trip there altogether.

To be clear, those looking for standard horror movie thrills won't find any in Simple Like Silver. Genre fans with an appreciation of world cinema and flicks similar in tone to Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now, and Jose Ramon Larraz's Symptoms will no doubt dig what Lahey and co. have cooked up here. It's interesting to note that Lahey shot and edited the film himself but gave the credits to two of his best friends from high school, both of whom passed away when they were young. The film was shot in and around the area in which those classmates used to run wild.

No stranger to the festival circuit, Lahey decided to forgo it for this film.

"Completing the picture was already delayed a year because of Covid. There was some interest from some nice festivals in November but we didn't want to be dealing with the release and all that for another year. And we were already getting a very enthusiastic response to it. We all agreed - if we're gonna brave the world with Covid still running loose... it's going to be making another film, not attending a festival that may or may not even happen or have crowds. And that's not a knock on the festivals. They're doing the best they can. This is a very small project and we got more than what we hoped for from it. Best to let other filmmakers have those slots. We're ready to move on."

Lahey says his next project is a more grounded, straightforward narrative. The film is a post-apocalyptic thriller that sees him collaborating with screenwriter Shawn Harwell (Eastbound & Down, Red Oaks, The Campaign) and Jane Spencer, who, as you recall, helped him locate Cristina for Simple Like Silver. Ms. Marsillach will be co-starring and shooting begins in early October in Spain.

As for Cristina, she is currently participating in a documentary about the shooting of Opera.

Exploiter Ponce de Leon claimed to have discovered the Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine. Perhaps, if we're lucky, the great Cristina Marsillach has discovered a rejuvenated love of acting in the same town as ol' Ponce centuries later.

"This business, this grind will break you. These things don't get done without setbacks and betrayals. Shooting with Cristina, Carmen, Susanna and Hudson was everything you want making movies to be — great people, great food and great times. What we pulled off is very rare, and I'm very grateful."

Simple Like Silver is currently available to rent on Amazon Prime and will be available on Blu Ray this winter. Check out the trailer below for Cristina Marsillach's triumphant return in Damian K. Lahey's Simple Like Silver.


Simple Like Silver is available to stream on Amazon, click below to watch now.