Politics & Culture

How This Model and Actress Puts the Environment First

Juana Burga speaks out on her love for Mother Earth and how she translates it into her modeling and acting.
Reading time 7 minutes

At 26, Burga went from starring in fashion spreads to playing the lead heroine in a post-apocalyptic movie, The Unseen. But being a model and actress is not enough for the Peruvian model. During her time filming in Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina, she saw real environmental issues that were affecting local communities. And playing a refugee woman made her feel stronger about helping people who have gone through what she experienced while on set. Adding "activist" to her resume, she's determined to use her career as a microphone to speak out on world issues. She also spent two years traveling around Peru supporting local artisans to promote sustainable fashion with Nuna Awaq. We talked to the model turned actress about her work for the environment, her new movie, and what it’s like to be a young woman who’s doing it all.

(Right image courtesy of Max Papendieck) 

Your first movie was released last year. How has the transition been from modeling to acting?

Juana Burga: That transition was very unexpected. It was something that I will never expect to have so quickly into my life. And with a character that is so strong for a first timer, to give me the main role, the lead role. I was very thankful and honored to be chosen for this movie. How my transition began, it was intense, because I needed to prepare myself mentally and physically for this role. But it was a beautiful transition as well, to find out different things about myself and what I’m capable of. To play a refugee woman in time of an apocalyptic situation, it’s a very powerful character.

 

In The Unseen, the woman you played, Yaku, is searching for clean water on a dying Earth. You’re also involved with an NGO with a mission to protect the ocean. Is this cause something you’ve been passionate about throughout your life?

Yeah, I’ve always been passionate about supporting non-profit organizations, especially where these organizations go with the things I really connect with, which is planet earth. I have so much respect for nature and for all the resources that we have. My life, my career, and my decisions are affected by my passions. I’ve been supporting Parley for the Oceans, which aims to redesign plastic, because plastic is one of the biggest issues right now for our ocean. This goes a lot with the decisions that I take, especially for this movie, which talks about water issues. We see so many other countries being affected, not being able to access a main source of survival like drinkable water. We don’t realize the problem until we are actually in there. In the movie, I was a refugee girl and I was experiencing those issues, so my vision changed completely. It made my passion to support these organizations even stronger.

What was your biggest challenge when filming the movie?

I had so many challenges and it occurred from the moment I said yes to this adventure. When they gave me the role, they only had three months to start filming the movie. I had to prepare while I was in New York working and living here — to transform myself from having access to everything in a second, into a situation where I do not even have access to drinkable water. It was a very difficult situation that I experienced as a woman and as a human: being an 18-year-old refugee girl, finding out that I’m pregnant, and fighting for life. It was extreme just thinking about all the emotions and going to the film locations in Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. Bolivia was interesting. Once we arrived in Bolivia, we realized that people are experiencing problems with water. A month after we finished filming, they declared Bolivia in a state of water emergency. When my partner in the movie said, “what is the meaning of war?”, I said, “this is war.” Because when we were supposed to get food, water, and have a beautiful life, we were instead getting bombs and denied access to anything.

You’re also involved with promoting sustainable fashion in Peru. Do you think that the current state of fashion has gone to that direction?

Well, the changes are starting to begin. I’m really happy that so many brands are trying to change their way to become a little bit fairer. I saw that Gucci went fur-free, and you see so many people being involved, so many organizations promoting sustainability. I was thinking in which way can I make fashion and this idea of sustainability come together. That’s when I came to this project called Nuna Awaq, which means “soul of the artisan” in Quechua. It’s an initiative that derives from the passion and admiration towards Peruvian artisans. We want to empower artisans of different communities in Peru and allow them to improve their quality of life, by spreading their textile, training them, supporting their sustainable work, and creating new work opportunities. But also, our main goal is to create a certification center. When you graduate from school or university, you receive a certification so you can work and get properly paid. Right now, artisans are not considered as workers, they are more of a hobby than proper work. For the past two years, I’ve been doing this research in Peru, doing interviews, travelling to many communities to rescue different techniques of knitting, to show different ways to mix different fabrics, and just kind of putting everything in a very sustainable way, not just for the products but for the workers. The artisans are the engine of sustainable fashion, so we have to protect them, we have to empower them.

"It’s so important to speak out about your passion and to not feel trapped just because you think they’re not going to give you the opportunity."

All the recent news in the entertainment industry have about inequality between men and women. What’s your take on this, and is there a difference with this state of equality in modeling and acting?

I think it’s a great opportunity for us women to show them that it’s not your sex or where you come from, or what your skin color is. So many women in the film industry don’t have the same opportunities a male could have. There should be a decision to start making movies that empower more females in stronger roles, instead of just being secondary roles. Right now, we have seen so many talented women who are being recognized, and I’m so proud that we’re all standing up and are open to speak up. It’s so important to speak out about your passion and to not feel trapped just because you think they’re not going to give you the opportunity.

 

If you had to choose one career, would you prefer modelling or acting?

I think they go together, but if I had to choose it would be acting, because of how much you can tell through a character. It’s something that I’ve experienced now, and I feel so strongly about it.

 

Do you have plans to work on another movie soon?

I have three different propositions for movies right now, and I’m actually filming my next movie in May. But right now, I can’t share the details about them. [Laughs] I really want to continue doing this! I’m so excited.

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