I Put a Spell on You: A Conversation with Eszter Balint

(Illustration by Kaelin Richardson)
In 2012 I was living in Orlando, Florida watching Hulu's SPOILERS WITH KEVIN SMITH, a movie talk show which featured a segment called "Criterion Corner." On the first episode he recommended a movie from 1984 called STRANGER THAN PARADISE by Jim Jarmusch. I quote what Smith had to say about it in the interview below, but I'll never forget rushing to the nearest Barnes & Noble to purchase the disc, described by Criterion as "Americana at its most offbeat. A nonchalant masterpiece of deadpan comedy and perfectly calibrated minimalism." My favorite part of the movie, however, was one of its three leads, the character of Eva played to perfection by Eszter Balint. 

Born in Budapest in July of 1966, Eszter is a Hungarian singer, songwriter, violinist, and actress. She first emerged as a child member of the avant-garde Squat Theatre troupe before making her cinematic debut in the aforementioned film. She's been directed in pictures by Woody Allen and Steve Buscemi, and her television credits range from MIAMI VICE (1985) to LOUIE (2014). She is an accomplished musician described by several critics as having a "film noir sensibility." She has released several beautiful albums, most recently 2015's critically acclaimed AIRLESS MIDNIGHT

What follows is an archival interview recorded in 2012 when Eszter so kindly agreed to let me ask her all about her life and career after I had fallen down the rabbit hole of her work. When I originally posted the audio conversation on iTunes, I was criticized by listeners for gushing over her work. Well, here we are eight years later, and I'm still gushing. 

Jason Anders: In last week's episode of Hulu's Spoilers with Kevin Smith there was a very cool shoutout of your film in which he proclaims, "Stranger Than Paradise empowers the hell out of you.  It's the movie that made me want to be a filmmaker. It makes great use out of nothing. It's a masterpiece of minimalism. It is "indie film" defined. Even just holding the DVD, you feel some sort of power - there's something kinetic about it. If you watch this movie and then don't want to make a movie yourself, something may be very, very wrong with you. It's THAT empowering a document." It was this recommendation that sent me immediately to Barnes & Noble to buy the movie and every word he says about it is accurate.

Eszter Balint: I think that's actually kind of cool because the people who want to interview me, that's the defining thing that they've known for so long. There's a kind of innocence to you just becoming acquainted with it now, that's refreshing and nice.

Has Criterion's release of the film brought any new fans to your live shows?

Mostly, I think the kind of people who would buy the DVD are already familiar with it. Over the years I've definitely had a lot of people comment on that movie - there seems to be something sort of pivotal about it. I don't know if it's the timing of when it came out, but apparently people were very affected by it, which is cool. I still love the movie. I haven't seen it in so long, but it's a wonderful thing.

It took me a while to get past the initial success of this amazing gift that after a while became a defining thing for me that I had to deal with always being labeled "the girl from that movie." That was a little bit difficult. Now I think so much time has gone by that it's easier to be objectively appreciative of the whole experience.

It's so timeless. Definitely not something I associate with other 80s movies.

That's cool to hear that it doesn't have a dated quality. I like that.

You were 15 when asked by Jim Jarmusch to be in the film. Tell me about the theatre shows that you were doing in New York before being approached for the role of Eva.

My father was a founding member of a theatre group, Squat Theatre, that started out in Budapest, Hungary. The authorities back in the Iron Curtain days weren't fans, so they made it very difficult to do the work. The theatre group eventually decided to leave - which on its own was a difficult thing, but we managed to get out.

We all lived in France for a year and a half, I was ten at the time, and we performed at a lot of festivals, traveled all over Europe, and then settled in New York in the summer of 1977 - which was a pretty crazy, interesting, amazing year to be an eleven year old kid moving to NYC. Looking back, it was an insane time of adventure, but when you're young you think it is normal - no matter what the circumstances are. You do all these shows, people come, it gets written about, everything is at stake when we perform, and it's a matter of life or death. We all lived together in this building next to the Chelsea Hotel and it was a really exciting time to be alive and in the arts. I still have trouble adjusting to the fact that that's not what normal life is like.
I totally relate to that because I grew up in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee where my dad was a musician at several theatre shows where I would run the spotlight, my mom would work the concessions, and my sister would dance onstage. 

I know Pigeon Forge! Dollywood!

I grew up thinking Dolly Parton was our mayor. It was a bizarre place to grow up, but I'd give anything to go back to that time of putting on shows every day. 

That's the magic of childhood, you just sort of live what comes your way as the norm. Sometimes that can be terrible, but sometimes it can be amazing.

I wasn't so much performing my music onstage back then, but I had studied music as a kid. I studied classical violin. Pretty early on I started getting substantial roles in the plays, life just happened me into it. It was not a conscious decision to pursue a career. I later became more involved in helping pick out music for the shows. There was also a period when the theatre group functioned as a night club for bands, which was also incredibly exciting because the early 80s were a pretty amazing time for music in New York. I became the DJ at the theatre. I was just really into music, and it was later that I would start pursing my own non-classical music as a so-called "career." I have a lot of problems with that word.

Who were originally your influences in classical music?

My father was a really big influence, as were his partners in the theatre group. My grandfather as well - he was a visual artist, a great painter and incredibly prolific, and very well known in Hungary. His father had been an intellectual and journalist in the arts, so it's a long lineage of artists on my father's side. These people were all a huge influence on me because they were taking their art very seriously, which is not to say humorlessly, but they just lived for their art. That shaped my world view at a very early age to some extent.

In the later years, when Squat Theatre became a center at the time for other artists to come perform and be in the audience, it became sort of a cultural hangout. That sounds pretentious. It was filmmakers, artists, writers, and musicians gathering there and it was pretty exciting.

At what point in all of this are you approached about Stranger Than Paradise

Jim saw me in a featured role in a play at Squat Theatre - we used a lot of film in the plays and I was in those as well. That played a role. John Lurie, who was in one of our house bands, The Lounge Lizards, may have suggested me for the role. I knew Jim casually, who was also in a band at the time that I saw at other clubs. I don't remember the exact moment of being approached, but it all seemed natural. Everybody was doing stuff back then, amazingly.
(Stranger Than Paradise, 1984)
Was the idea of starring in a movie overwhelming, or did it seem natural since you were already onstage and in films?

I was already in a few student films as well, so it all seemed very organic. That's not to say that I wasn't scared shitless. Of course I was. I was when we performed plays as well. It was a combination of on one hand taking it for granted that this is what I'm asked to do, what I'm supposed to do, and what's expected of me, and on the other hand a tremendous amount of insecurity. It went hand in hand.

Was your family supportive of the idea?

It was a combination of things. Of course, my father was incredibly proud of me. I really idolize the theatre for its values, but there was a lot of snobby judgment coming from people in general - not about the movie per say, my father was friends with Jim and he loved the movie. But being supportive and nurturing wasn't one of the main agendas of the theatre. I was very precocious and probably acted pretty cocky and self-confident, so maybe people saw that and didn't feel I needed their support.

Did it ever cross your mind while on set that you were making something that would have such a huge cultural impact? 

Absolutely not. It was really just one more project of many. No one had any idea what that movie would become, so it was kind of a shock to us all. We were making it casually on a shoestring budget,  fleshing out the script in rehearsals at Jim's house, which served as his office at the time. It was a modest effort that turned out to just hit at the right time. We didn't anticipate that.

It's beautiful for me personally now that I am old enough and wise enough, and enough time has passed, that I can actually appreciate it. At the time I didn't want to be put in that box as being known for this one thing that I was a part of, now I've graduated from that phase.

You were also directed by Woody Allen in Shadows and Fog

A really funny story, actually. My meeting with him was one of the more hilarious moments of my acting career. My agent called and said that Woody Allen wanted me to audition for his next movie and I was really nervous. It was this really dark room in the catacombs of the basement in this hotel in Central Park West where I am waiting for Woody to come in. When he arrived I couldn't even see him because is was so dark in there. He extended these nervous, slightly clammy hands and said, "Thank you very much," and left. I got a call an hour later from my manager at the time saying, "Woody loved you!" I just thought, "Wow, that guy is really intuitive." His instincts function on a plane higher than I can ever understand.

It was a very tiny role and I had no communication with him. There was no hang, no getting to know him. He was very secretive about the script. I don't know if he still works like that, but at the time no one was allowed to read the script before you showed up on the set. It was an abstract experience.

I was also in a Steve Buscemi movie that I'm really proud of.
(Trees Lounge, 1996)
Trees Lounge (1996) is such a wonderful film, one that I have read is very close to your heart. The song you wrote for it is beautiful. 

Aww, thank you. That film has such a great pace that you don't see in movies so much anymore. I did another independent movie during that time which only got a very limited release, but I'm happy with Trees Lounge having been the last film I really did that was of any importance before I moved away from acting altogether.

You've explained it as a "self-imposed exile from a Hollywood that managed to extinguish whatever small flames of passion I ever held for the film industry." 

That sentence has definite validities to it. Living in Los Angeles and really giving it a try to do it for a living was so not suited to me and my personality. If things came easier my way then maybe it would have taken a lot longer to feel like this isn't really, truly me.

It was a struggle. I didn't fit easily into any sort of mold. I was trying so hard for something that I didn't truly want. I found myself auditioning for things that I was dreading to get, things I wouldn't have been proud of. I grew up in a different way where people were very creative and doing their own thing and not just told what to do by others. I guess I was a little bit spoiled because I was privileged by having grown up in this extraordinary theatre group that did really exceptional work, and then having been in a few exceptional films, it was hard for me to just become part of the grind. Just the whole system of living out there and trying to get work by hustling and promoting yourself, trying to get script breakdowns and finding out what's out there, having agents and managers... it just wasn't my world. I know this sounds snobby, and I don't mean for it to.

When you see someone on the cover of a Criterion Blu-ray, it's easy to assume they are able to pick what they want to do as working actors. 

Oh no, that's a Kodak moment - which is an old fashioned analogy now. After this film, it was a lot of struggle, coming down to earth, and trying to make ends meet. It wasn't easy and it wasn't like I automatically got offered all these great roles in great movies. Nothing like that.

It's all for the better. I'm not even sure that the highest level of actors get to do what they really want. Stranger Than Paradise's reception as a film was way beyond anyone's hopes and expectations, but for me personally, as a ticket to stardom - no, it was a real struggle.

Is music your main focus now?

Yes, it has been slowly simmering over the years more and more. I never quite parted ways with music, it was always somehow a big part of my life. For a while I actually studied classical singing, thinking that I might want to do something with that. While living in Los Angeles I took some music courses again, which I hadn't done since I was a youngster. As a kid I took music theory, choir, sight reading, ear training, piano - and then I realized that classical music was definitely not where I'd be going with this, but I was still interested in the basic foundations of music.

It was a really good time living in Los Angeles in the 90s when I turned around to commit myself to music fully. It's where my heart was. Songwriting especially. Words have always played an important role, I've been writing, scribbling, and journaling my whole life. I like to think of myself as a reader. So the combination of words and music just clicked for me and made sense.

Now I'm not sure it makes so much sense because it's so hard! Talk about a difficult way to function in today's world with all the changes. It's always been difficult to be a musician, with the digital age changing the rules of the game completely (plus a recession) it's now ten times as hard. You've got to be really crazy to be trying to do this today.
Do you feel with today's technology it is easier to succeed as a musician, or more difficult?

It depends on the person, but for me it's harder. I drown in the sea because skills that I have not acquired are competing and promoting, it's just not where my interests lie. Being a mother I have limited time, and writing and being a musician for me is very time consuming. I don't just roll out of bed with the confidence to grab my guitar and write a new song every day. There's a lot of time that goes into practicing my instruments, singing, and writing my lyrics. My lowest priority is being a self-promoter.

How many children do you have?

I have one, he's eight and half. You give up your life but there's an incredible reward. I've been very unproductive for my standards since I had a kid, and that's okay. I have had a lot of other issues in a pretty tumultuous eight years. Without going into too many details, I am bringing up my kid. That's the kind of time commitment that spills over in these invisible ways into every minute of your life. You're not necessarily shoveling coal for twelve hours a day, but even when you're doing nothing you're still standing by. It's a very large chunk of time.

Where do you see yourself looking ahead to the near future? 

I've had an incredible amount of disruptions and distractions - just real heavy life stuff that we all have to deal with sooner or later (as I like to say, "no one escapes") - but I've had a concentration of it the last few years. Right now I'm coming out of a personal health issue, too.

I would like to see if I can get my next album out in the next six months to a year. I have a lot of the material done, but not all of it. I'd like to get back into performing. I feel like I have a little more air to breathe now after the last few years of intensity. I want to alternate good work habits, which haven't been my forte with having a child, and all this other stuff that constantly distracts me. I do always have this little exit strategy, which is if it becomes too hard I will still keep doing it for my friends and channel my energy towards writing. Writing is something I am passionate about and is a lot simpler in terms of not needing to organize rehearsals with and depending on other musicians, and also finding the money to pay them. I've been incredibly fortunate to work with my favorite musicians, but in this day and age it's very difficult to be a musician and thrive. I'm going to really give it a shot for the next two years, but if it becomes too exhausting to make it work then writing short stories and prose is my exit strategy.

... I may miss music to much to do that.

What are your favorite things to read?

I read a lot when I was younger. Being a mom cuts down on your reading time a great deal. I love poetry, short stories, and novels. I go through phases of non-fiction, like books about how the brain works. I'm also interested in Buddhism.

What do you love most about making music?

I think it's performing live with someone else. When you're in sync with someone else, in the zone and communicating something to an audience, it's a beautiful, wonderful feeling. Music has often transformed pain and struggle into a glimpse of something transcendent that matters more than those little tunnels we can get ourselves into.
What I love most about your music is that it is so authentic, you feel that direct connection...

Authentic, that's a great word! That's what I strive for. If that comes through, even a little bit, then I feel like something's working. It's my little guidepost, even though it's not always easy to know where authenticity is. It's just a thing that I'm chasing. That's something I feel that I got from my incredibly fortunate upbringing. My family strove away from artifice, which maybe explains why the world of "trying to make it" as an actor in Hollywood didn't quite click for me, I don't know that authenticity is the highest value in that universe. "Direct connection" is another good one, thank you for coming up with all these words! I hope I translate in a way that resonates. You are totally making me not worry about the exit door.

Vist Eszter at EszterBalint.com.