When Úrsula Corberó pops into the Zoom window for our interview, I hear her bright greeting of “Hellooo! How are you?” before I notice that her camera is turned off. I do a quick check of our time difference and see that it’s early in the morning in Madrid. Too early, in fact, to turn your camera on for a call—we’ve all been there. Her voice, however, swells with energy and enthusiasm. “I took some time off in June,” she shares. “But I’m back now, doing promotions, photo shoots, interviews. It’s been a great week.” That figures. At the time of our interview, Corberó’s latest film Snake Eyes has made its global launch, with the last season of her cult-favourite Netflix show Money Heist soon to come in the following month.
Snake Eyes marks many firsts for Corberó. In it, she plays her first villain, Baroness, appearing alongside Henry Golding in the titular role. The film is also the 32-year-old’s inaugural major Hollywood production and she performs entirely in English, a language Corberó could barely speak till just a few years ago. (Things have clearly changed. While she answers me in Spanish through a translator for comfort, she easily understands the nuances of every question I ask her in English without any help.) As Baroness, Corberó is a vision on the silver screen, and her take on the femme fatale is powerful, explosive and edgy. It’s obvious to everyone watching that this is a Hollywood debut to remember.
But before the flashy superhero movie came a television series that spent its first season on Spanish cable unseen by anyone except for Corberó’s hometown fan base: La Casa de Papel, better known in English-speaking countries as Money Heist. Today, it stands as one of the most successful releases in Netflix’s history. It was the show that changed it all—not just for Corberó, but for the crime-drama genre, in which it presently looms as the gold standard.
For Corberó, Money Heist was pivotal and transformative. It was the project that propelled her in front of an international audience for the first time, subverting the track of her career permanently. Now, five seasons later and on the heels of its series finale, she looks back on the show with a mixture of fondness, wonder and grief. “Something entirely crazy happened with Money Heist. We started it without knowing how big it was going to become. I can’t believe it’s over. Every time they said ‘cut!’ in the final two weeks of filming, I broke down in tears.”
“That’s what I love most about this show—it allows women to actually, truly, mess up”
Saying goodbye to the show Corberó has been filming for the past five years also means leaving behind her iconic character: the enigmatic Tokyo, Money Heist’s charmingly unreliable narrator through whose eyes audiences watch increasingly unbelievable events unfold. Corberó knows well that Tokyo is the kind of character who only comes along once in an actor’s lifetime.
“It’s funny what she has generated in the audience. People either love her or hate her. And I get why. Tokyo is led entirely by her emotions. Often, she ends up in the wrong place. But it is always because she is defending something she truly believes in and she doesn’t let other people have an influence on what she does. So she messes up, a lot, but that’s what I love most about this show. It allows women to actually, truly, mess up.”
She refers to her character with the kind of reverence you’d expect of someone speaking of their mentor. But the impact Tokyo has had on her life and career is seemingly no less profound. Before this role, Corberó’s filmography had been restricted to different genres from the ones she occupies today. “I used to play posh, weak girls in Spain,” she laughs. “I mainly did comedies. And then Money Heist came and I became renowned internationally for playing such a strong character. What people don’t know is that Tokyo was a great challenge for me, but I feel extremely grateful.”
Corberó’s portrayal of Tokyo revealed her new forte: playing women who are commanding, unpredictable and independently motivated. And if her casting in Snake Eyes is any indication, the industry has clearly started taking notice. This is a development she can get behind. “Anything to do with female empowerment, I instantly adore. I just love playing badass women!” she sighs happily.
Her distinctive, gravelly voice reverberates continuously with excitement as she speaks of her work, exhibiting that nearly two decades on (she made her debut on Spanish television in 2002), she has not lost an iota of the passion she started out with. Along with her classic beauty and acting chops, it is likely this very spark that attracted Money Heist’s casting team to her in the first place. But that’s not all she brought to the table—as it turns out, Corberó was, in large part, responsible for one of the most memorable things about Tokyo as a character: her iconic look.
“I think that I tend to be ahead of the feeling process. I often grieve prematurely, before something actually ends”
“I don’t want to flatter myself too much,” she chuckles, “but I went to the costume team with a bunch of references in my mind, like Natalie Portman in Léon: The Professional, Juliette Lewis in Natural Born Killers. We worked together to bring Tokyo to life.” Tokyo’s jagged bob, which takes on several iterations throughout the seasons, became the character’s trademark, cementing Corberó’s position as a true hair chameleon. “Everything we did—my hair, my make-up—was to make my face look harsher and stronger.”
The relationship she shares with her character has been intimate from the very beginning—almost symbiotic. Tokyo gave her the opportunity to explore the boundaries of not just her craft, but also her womanhood. “I knew from the minute I saw the script that a character like Tokyo was a good opportunity to create something aesthetically different from what I had done before. More importantly, I knew that I wanted to feel more dangerous,” she says. “She and I are similar in some ways. We share a survival instinct. But she is more pessimistic than I am and way more brave. She has helped me become braver as a woman.”
“I think that I tend to be ahead of the feeling process. I often grieve prematurely, before something actually ends,” Corberó reflects with a sense of finality. She pauses, then continues as her voice tightens: “I somehow decided early on that I’d bid farewell to the cast, the crew and to shooting, but not to Tokyo. I’ve learnt so many things from her. On a professional level, and as a woman. I’m a little bit stronger because of her. So, I’ve chosen not to say goodbye for now. She’ll live inside me forever.”