In the depths of a Brazilian river, the actress and filmmaker found the role of her lifetime.
In 1989, my professional life began to fall apart. I had been a successful actress for many years, at one time considered the new darling of the Royal Shakespeare Company. I wasn't a star, mind you, but I'd never been out of work, and with every job I was moving up the ladder. But all of a sudden the offers of work dried up quite dramatically—and everything else came crashing down.
My failing career began to affect my personal life, too: Sting and I had been together for several years and had two children, yet I stopped enjoying their beautiful faces and the home I was so fortunate to live in. I felt as if I didn't deserve any of it. I was convinced I was a failure.
One afternoon, I had to call the staff at the Rainforest Foundation, a charity I'd co-founded with Sting earlier that year. We had been deeply moved by what we'd seen on a four-day visit to the rain forests of Brazil, learning about the Kayapo villagers and how they suffer because of the destruction of the forests. We had started the foundation as a way of doing something to help them, though we hadn't been very hands-on leaders. That day the staff asked if I would like to check on the progress of our programs in Brazil. I was at an all-time low in terms of my confidence, but I reluctantly agreed.
After a couple of days in remote areas of Brazil, I realized I was holding back, being very quiet, mostly just watching other members of our team talk to the villagers. I was still consumed by what was happening with my career. That was when a group of little boys came up to me and asked if I would join them on a boat trip. I said okay, and they rowed us out to a sandbank in the middle of the Xingu River.
As we made our way back to shore in the little boat, five of the boys jumped into the water again. The translator explained that they had to swim in a particular direction to avoid being swept away by the Xingu's strong current. I liked the idea that they were challenging nature, and before I knew it I had jumped in, too. I immediately felt the surge of the current beginning to take me. As I started toward shore, a thought came into my head: "If I make it, I will change my life. I won't wait for the phone to ring telling me whether or not I got a part any longer." I didn't want to be subject to somebody's whim, told that I was too fat, too thin, too old or too anything. Why should I let others decide what I could do?
Just as I had to swim to the best of my ability right then, I knew I had to take charge of my life. It was with that realization that I finally emerged from the river—relieved, to be sure. I happened to look at my reflection as I was getting out of the water, and I remember thinking, "God, there's a beautiful woman." That image and the memories of my swim—its frightening and uplifting aspects together—have stayed with me.
The Kayapo Indians needed $1 million to protect their land from being sold to loggers, and I quickly made it the foundation's goal to get that money, which we did. I realized success was not about convincing other people I was right for a part; it was knowing that I was doing the right thing and quietly getting on with it.
In time, I became involved with human rights issues and documentary films. I felt I had something to communicate and realized one way to help was by producing documentaries—the perfect role for me, it turns out.
In 1990, I opened our production company, Xingu Films, naming it after the river that gave me back my sense of self.
Trudie Styler's Xingu Films recently released Green Fingers on video/DVD and will release Me Without You, starring Styler, Anna Friel, Michelle Williams and Kyle MacLachlan, in the United States this year.
Published on March 15, 2002
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