Irma Mali

Irma is a Lithuanian-born actress and model, best known for her roles in the films “The Rhythm Section”, “Searching for Ten”, “Incompatible”, “Normal”, “Unreal Exile”, as well as for her performance in a short scene in the popular series “Game of Thrones”, among many other credits.

Today she is open, lively and genuine in sharing her personal story on how a girl from Lithuania, who worked as a kitchen chef, became model and actress in Ireland and beyond.

How would you describe yourself? Who is Irma Mali?

Well, this is a good question, because I cannot really see myself in any one category. I could tell you about my work or my interests but, at the end of the day, I am just another human being. I cannot define myself as a model or an actress because this is just my job, nothing else.

Who I really am is a very difficult question and, even after all this time, I am still trying to figure it out and find an answer myself. It is not about what I do for a living, but rather about what kind of person I am. Of course, society first of all sees us through the job description that we have and labels us accordingly; however, I do not think this reflects who we really are.

Could you tell us briefly about your life?

I come from Alytus, Lithuania but moved to Dublin, Ireland about 17 years ago and this is where I currently reside.

My father died when I was very young and my mum raised my brother and me on her own. Being a single mother for the two of us was pretty difficult. In order to help my mum, during my summer holidays I would go to the forest to pick berries. I remember very well having to wake up at 3 am as we needed to walk about 10km to the nearest forest. Throughout the day, we would collect berries and later take them to collection points to get paid. Even just a few hours of berry picking will leave you with sore knees, but this was the reality of how I spent most of my summers. With the money I earned I could buy essential school supplies, like a rucksack and pencils, and so help my mother who had to shoulder this burden alone.

Irma Mali - Sometimes when I see what is expected of me in a role, my inner voice tells me that I cannot do it, but instead of holding me back this only spurs me on. I am extremely driven – even if something is very difficult, I will learn it and will do it. I can see that limitations are in our head more than in our abilities.

Although I started working pretty early in my life, it was not by choice – in those days life in Lithuania was not very easy and we simply did what was expected of us. I, in particular, took it upon myself to help our mum make ends meet.

Later, at the age of 18, I went to Vilnius – the capital city of Lithuania – where I started a vocational course with the aim of becoming a chef. From my earliest days I had loved cooking and always been very dedicated to it so it was a natural career choice. Cooking was so instinctive to me that I never really followed recipes, I could just taste a dish and easily tell how to make it (I guess this is what helped me climb the ladder in my career as a chef!).

While studying, instead of an internship (which is the usual stage of the course) I was unexpectedly offered a job in a restaurant. This came as a pretty good deal because I could receive a scholarship and get paid, which meant as I was able to continue studying and had enough money to buy all the essentials I needed. At this restaurant, I ended up becoming one of the main chefs.

Although I love cooking, working in a kitchen was extremely exhausting. My normal working hours were from 8 am to 1 am. I could get a day off or so to study but then had to go back to work straight away. Being a chef is a challenging job and I feel the repercussions from my time in the kitchen on my health up to this day, in particular I have problems with my back. At the time, though, I did not really think about any possible health issues.

How did you come to live in Ireland?

The opportunity to move to Ireland came when I was at the age of 19. At the time, I was working with Marius, the father of my daughter. He settled in Ireland first and invited me to come over and join him there. When this chance presented itself, I did not think about short- or long-term plans or what I was going to do for work. I just went for it and followed my feelings.

I thought I would just get any type of job, for example as a dishwasher somewhere. The only thing I did not want to do was to work as a chef – after my previous experience I knew I had had enough of that. Of course, on the very first day of my new job at a restaurant I was sent directly to the kitchen to work as a kitchen chef! I ended up working in the kitchen on weekends but then got pregnant with my daughter Nikoleta and stopped working half way through my pregnancy.

Moving to a different country was not an easy transition. When I came to Ireland, the reality hit me: there was nothing familiar to us in Dublin, we had no friends or family to rely on, and there was no one we knew that could help us out. Basically, I had to start from scratch. Marius told me that he would find me a job as a model, but I was not very keen on this idea in the first place and also could not speak English, which I knew would be restricting in taking directions.

Irma Mali - When you concentrate on the “here and now” moment, there is actually no reason to fear because at that very moment everything is great. It is only when we look beyond the present moment that fear can creep in.

So how come a kitchen chef became a model?

After Nikoleta was born, Marius persistently tried to encourage me to give modelling career a chance. When my daughter was about one and a half, I gave in. I found my first agency through the Yellow Pages. I looked for a simple, convenient solution – an agency that was closest to my home in Dublin and easy to reach by public transport since I had my young daughter to consider.

The agency accepted me immediately, my career took off and I rapidly became very successful. As a result of signing me, the agency received quite a few offers – contracts for shows, series, etc. The agency were asking me why on earth I did not come earlier – they said I was perfectly suited for this job.

What has been the biggest struggle pursuing your career, and how did you overcome it?

The most difficult part was settling in Ireland. I did not know the language so it was hard to simply communicate, let alone make friends. I will be honest, it was very difficult. When I had my daughter, which happened soon after arriving on the island, I had particular trouble in trying to communicate with doctors. There was no one around me that I could rely on for help. I remembered when going to the doctors with Nikoleta I would dutifully prepare what I was going to say in English but, when the doctor replied, I could not understand anything – I simply had no clue! In those moments I just felt stupid as I could neither express myself nor understand what others were telling me. Language had to be the biggest struggle in general. If you cannot communicate, you are stuck.

As I started modeling, I learned English while speaking to the crew. At first, I did not understand what they are asking me to do in the photoshoots, so they would show me how to do certain expressions for me to mimic them. Now, when I meet and speak to make-up artists whom I know from the early days of my career, we reminisce on how I did not understand anything they used to say to me. That is no longer the case, though – now I cannot stop talking (smiling)!

Another challenge I faced was missing out on opportunities to travel around the globe for work. There were many offers but, as I had a small daughter to take care of, I did not have a lot of freedom. I did manage to go to Japan, Italy and England as part of my work, but could never stay for long and the visits were rather brief.

Irma Mali - Listening to your heart is the most important thing.

Is it true that working as a model is not all glitter and glamour?

Absolutely! All that glitters is not gold. For instance, stylists sometimes have only onesize pair of shoes for you to wear in a show. You may be lucky and get your size but it may as well be size too big or too small. If you simply cannot fit your foot in, no one will force you but if it is just slightly smaller, I usually try to make it work. The thing is you can just about walk in shoes that are the wrong size. However, I do not make a big deal out of it – it is part of the job. There have been some extreme cases, though. I was working in Japan and the only shoes they had were a tiny size. I had to work in those shoes the whole day and at the end of the show I discovered that my toenails had fallen off!

Modelling has also taken its toll on my health. Photo shoots are not as easy as you may think. There were a number of occasions when I came home at 2 am from one show and had to be at the next one, in a different city, at 7 am. A working day can be incredibly long: it takes considerable time to set up the scene, arrange lights and cameras, get your make-up and hair done, and so on. You might not have a chance to get a lunch break or may need to work outside in cold conditions, which makes it all the more exhausting.

How did you decide to go into acting?

I have always wanted to try acting in addition to my modelling activities. These two professions are not as linked as you may think, but I really wanted to give it a go. I did not know anyone working in the acting industry or any courses or schools where I could start. Luckily, I had a friend in England who found an acting course for me there. So, I took that a course and this is how it all started.

A bit later I went on another course with a well-known acting coach Jack Waltzer, who had studied together with Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner, Lee Strasberg and Bobby Lewis, among others. He was a very strict and tough teacher. I remembered during one of his classes I stood up to act out a scene and, in front of everyone, he went: “Models cannot act … but look at her [Irma], she can.” I could not believe he said it! From the standpoint of acting professionals, models can merely look pretty but not act and succeed in this industry. I am not sure why, but in most castings for acting roles if they know you are a model, they do not want to offer you the part because they simply do not think of you as a serious actor. I took this as another challenge for myself – to prove to others that models can act!

After completing several courses, I was just lucky enough to find an agent in England and in Ireland. So, I began going to auditions and getting roles and this is how I ended up in the acting industry.

As with anything else, if you want to succeed, you need to put in a lot of work and effort. Sometimes when I see what is expected of me in a role, my inner voice tells me that I cannot do it, but instead of holding me back this only spurs me on. I am extremely driven – even if something is very difficult, I will learn it and will do it. I can see that limitations are in our heads more than in our abilities. I really liked acting from the start, even if it has not been easy. I now realise acting is really my true passion.

“Sometimes when I see what is expected of me in a role, my inner voice tells me that I cannot do it, but instead of holding me back this only spurs me on. I am extremely driven – even if something is very difficult, I will learn it and will do it. I can see that limitations are in our head more than in our abilities.”

For me acting is made even more difficult because I have dyslexia, so reading and memorising texts are very difficult. I have truly chosen one of the most challenging professions for myself! Not only do I have to work in a language that is not my native and deal with having dyslexia but also, being known as a model, I have to go the extra mile every time to prove my abilities in this field. However, it also made me realise that in life you should do what you really like, and enjoy it, the rest will follow.

Irma Mali - We need to go through some negative experiences in order to learn and value what is positive. It makes you more grateful for what you do have.

How would you describe a typical casting audition?

Directors are looking to see if you can take directions given on the spot, and how you act in a specific situation. When I say ‘act’, in most cases people tend to think that you need to act in a certain way but what you actually need to do is live through the situation as if you are really in it, as if it is your real life. If you just act, then you are not genuine, not real and not an actor. Audiences will not believe you are in a real situation unless you act as if it is real, and you have to imagine that something is in front of you when actually it is not.

“When you go to a casting, you sit on a chair in front of dozens of judging eyes staring at you and have to imagine that you are, say, driving a car. You must make it as convincing as possible, so that everyone present believes you are in a car and not just sitting on the chair.”

How did you get a role in the television series “Game of Thrones”?

Well, it happened through my agent. My agency sent me to the casting and I got the job. I did not really know what type of show it was. I remember early one morning as I was driving to work and talking to my friend who asked me “Do you even know what Game of Thrones is?” I said “No”. I had never watched or even heard of it before. I think the first time I started watching the series was a year or so ago.

Since you are very talented in cookery, are you still involved in it in some way or another?

Many people try to encourage me to open a restaurant or a bar. It sounds like a good idea but it is not all that easy to open your own place. Besides, I do not think I would like to open one right now. I do not believe that, in reality, I could just go in there, bake a few muffins or so and go back home. It would be hard work, a lot of dedication and incredibly time consuming. I do not reject this idea altogether and keep telling myself that I will open a place but when I get to my 50s. What I want now is to enjoy my time with my children and do what I really love. What happens later, we shall see. Maybe when I run out of acting or modelling offers, I can start thinking about opening a restaurant or, if an opportunity comes up, do something related to travel and food.

If you knew then what you know now, what would you do differently, if anything?

If I had the knowledge I have now, I would visit psychologists working with self-analysis in order to find some answers about myself and try to understand who I really am and what I really want to do. I think it would have made everything a bit easier and simpler. I have recently discovered self-analysis therapies, which are helping me to view the world differently and realize things that I have not been able to see before.

Other than that, I would not change anything. I think we need to go through some negative experiences in order to learn and value what is positive. It makes you more grateful for what you do have.

“[…] We need to go through some negative experiences in order to learn and value what is positive. It makes you more grateful for what you do have.”

I am also looking at the present times and feel so grateful that most of us have it all – we can eat whatever we want, we travel anywhere we like, we are free to follow our dreams. I hope people will wake up after this current pandemic [the 2020 global outbreak of COVID-19] and realise how well we live our lives and that we have enough of everything.

How do you feel living in Ireland now: still a foreigner or more like a native?

Now I have tamed Ireland so well that it sometimes feels like I was born and raised here. I know the streets of my city, the culture of this country, and the quirks of the Irish people. I know how to communicate with the locals and I get their sense of humour. I have spent most of my adult years here in Ireland. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this country has become my own.

Sometimes I find myself in a funny situation when my boyfriend and I are driving somewhere and he, being Irish, asks me where he needs to turn, even though he has lived in Ireland all his life. I still manage to surprise him with my knowledge of the streets of Dublin: I will show him how to get home quicker and tell him the street names so he knows them for the next time! Everything feels so close and familiar to me in Dublin that I cannot imagine living somewhere else now.

What are the most important values to you in your life?

The biggest value to me is to be present in the moment. I am learning how to be here and now. This seems particularly important today with all that is happening around us. I can see people’s thoughts running on fear but we need to concentrate on the present moment and remind ourselves: “I am healthy now and everything is okay. My children and I are healthy and we are all happy right now. I am spending time with my family and enjoying the present moment because tomorrow might never come.” It is pretty hard to be present (and perhaps even impossible to maintain such a state of mind all the time) but we need to try and convince ourselves that we do not need to be anywhere else but right here and now.

What is your biggest fear?

The way I see it, fears are 99% about the past or 99% about the future, but never about the present. When you concentrate on the “here and now” moment, there is actually no reason to fear because at that very moment everything is great. It is only when we look beyond the present moment that fear can creep in. We can easily fall into a trap of fears and “what if” scenarios about money, job security, etc. but we are not magicians and we cannot know what is going to happen tomorrow, so I think it is more important to focus on what is happening now.

Irma Mali - When you go to a casting, you sit on a chair in front of dozens of judging eyes staring at you and have to imagine that you are, say, driving a car. You must make it as convincing as possible, so that everyone present believes you are in a car and not just sitting on the chair.

“When you concentrate on the “here and now” moment, there is actually no reason to fear because at that very moment everything is great. It is only when we look beyond the present moment that fear can creep in.”

When fear does enter my head from time to time, I try to deal with it straight away and blank it out because I realize it has nothing to do with the present moment. Too much of our life is concentrated on memories of the past or possible scenarios about the future. But, in fact, the future is just an illusion, which may or may not happen. We can and should dream, but we cannot live with a fixed image of what the future will hold. What we should do is learn how to live in the moment.

Irma Mali - When you concentrate on the “here and now” moment, there is actually no reason to fear because at that very moment everything is great. It is only when we look beyond the present moment that fear can creep in.

What are your future objectives, if any?

I have recently bought a book “Now, Discover Your Strengths” written by Marcus Buckingham. The book offers a test that has helped me find out my personal five strengths as a human being. It is very interesting to learn more about yourself through this kind of test. I believe it could help me shape the direction of my future plans and see how I can match my strengths with what I like to do. I am confident I could do anything as I am not afraid of hard work, but increasingly I like to focus more on what I really like to do.

As you know, a model’s career is pretty short and acting could be a bit like a lottery – it depends on whether I get picked for a role or not – so my current plan is to keep searching for different options and possibilities of what I might like to do next.

I believe that life gives you what you need when you are ready for it, and when it is your time. When people ask me about what I am going to be when my modeling career is over, I always tell them that I will know what I need to do next when the time comes. Right now, I am working as a model and getting paid, so I do not need to worry just yet about what I will do when that ends.

What would be your recipe to achieve what you are aiming for?

Listening to your heart is the most important thing. In most cases, we listen to our head, which tells us that we need to get a prestigious job and have a lot of money to be successful.I believe that this is wrong. We need to listen to our heart and it will tell us the way.

“Listening to your heart is the most important thing.”

I can give you a personal example. My daughter loves dancing and has been dancing all her life. I have tried to prepare her for the future by explaining that people will tell her that dancing is just a hobby but that she should not listen to them, because if you really do what you are passionate about, the money will follow and it will be enough for what you need.

The most important thing is to do what your heart wants. You can be anything and anyone in life as long as you put a lot of effort and hard work into it. Just remember to ask yourself “why am I doing this?” – is it because of money or because you enjoy it? You must do what makes your soul and heart happy.

“You can be anything and anyone in life as long as you put a lot of effort and hard work into it. Just remember to ask yourself “why am I doing this?” – is it because of money or because you enjoy it? You must do what makes your soul and heart happy.”

What matters to you on a more global scale?

Education plays a big role in my life right now as I am raising two children. We are all smart – each of us in a different way – but not all of us can do what the education system requires of us. Imagine a situation in which various animals, such as elephants, crocodiles, mice, and lions, are sitting in a classroom and they are told that they will learn to climb trees. It is not hard to see that, say, elephants will have some serious trouble to keep up! This perfectly illustrates the problem with traditional education. Some of us are physically stronger, some are more creative and others have some different attributes, but we are all in the same class and taught in the same way.

I think this creates unnecessary anxiety for children. It fosters the idea that if you cannot do one or another thing (in other words, if you do not meet specific expectations), then you will inevitably follow a certain path and end up a certain way. I think the education system should give children freedom and allow them to focus on what they are really passionate about. I do see some changes happening but it is a very slow process.

A particular example of something that schools fail to teach about is feelings – how to recognise our own feelings and understand why we feel the way we do. I strongly believe that we need to learn who we are as human beings. If we learn about ourselves first, then we will know what we want to become – our hearts will tell us.

Another thing on my mind is the global pandemic situation. As a result of this crisis, we have come to realize that what we truly need is the basics: people who work in supermarkets, rubbish collectors, doctors, firemen, and policemen. These are the essential people and services that are the most important in our lives right now, not bankers, traders and so on. Lately, we have been somewhat lost and think that fame and money are the true values that we need to achieve. What this current situation shows us is that, actually, money is worthless. All that we really need now is related to our survival. I do hope that once this is over, we will re-think our values and follow our hearts more.

Irma Mali - Listening to your heart is the most important thing.

DETAILS

Name: Irma Mali
Industry: Acting and Modelling
Country: Ireland

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