“Once you become a stranger in the world, slowly it becomes like something sweet in that you don’t belong to anyone. Slowly, you feel like a character from the Steppenwolf—Hermann Hesse. Loneliness, but at the same time you feel power.”
interviewed by Mitja Bokun // photography by Aljosa Rebolj
I can tell you interesting stories about a man (me), who first leaves his homeland, the country of his birth, Croatia, and then flees to Serbia, where I was in the time of the war. Because of the war I left home, leaving behind my entire life, theater, film, and all because of political disagreements and my desire not to participate in this scourge. I came to Slovenia with the intention to act in the Slovenian language, but with no success. My wife told me that if I felt the need to work in a foreign language then we must go to London. And so we did. When I first arrived in London I was very fortunate. I was there for just a few days to visit my friend Anthony Andrews who invited me to be his guest together with my family. My intention was to find Vanessa Redgrave and make “Wake Up World” to help Sarajevo Milče Mančevski, the director, who had been looking for me all over Yugoslavia, since he did not have my contact information. Finally, he found the number of the house in which I lived in Slovenia and my mother-in-law gave him Anthony’s address. Milče organized a meeting with a young filmmaker from New York, who gave me the script to read and told me that it would soon be filmed in Macedonia. I read the script that night and then I read it again. I really liked it. This was the scenario for the film “Before the Rain”. The next day, when we met again, I let the young filmmaker know that I thought the script was wonderful and he told me that he had written this role specifically to me. Needless to say I was quite surprised. “What do you mean, you haven’t ever met me before,” I replied. He said that he was a big fan of the movies of Živojina Pavlović. I had appeared in five of “Žika’s” films playing the main roles, so I was in some way Žika’s actor. So, I agreed, and later I filmed “Before the Rain” with Pavlović.
I’ve been in London since that time and I was, infact, fortunate to work in the with theater Vanessa Redgrave as was my wife Alenka, who is a theater director. Ironically, although I was one of the most recognizable actors in Yugoslavia, I was unknown in London and without money, without anything. Even after “Before the Rain”, I still was broke because the movie not yet been released, which usually takes a year. I remember that I went to auditions for some minor roles, some for only a few words in the entire production. I remember one audition when a young director said, “I adore you. I saw you in “Manifesto“ (a film by Dusan Makavejev, which was filmed in Bled, and starred the actors Eric Stolz and Alfred Molina) I watched that movie and I love you as a film actor.” I looked at him and I was thinking, “Well good, now I’ve got this role”, but then he said to me, “Okay, can you read these few lines from the script?” I looked at him and said, “I can not.” He asked me why. I simply got up and left. I couldn’t do it, for this small role, to say these few words. I had had enough of these auditions. And then there was an audition for a role, which I did not want, but I went anyway. The director, Phillip Noyce, was looking for actors in London for the movie “The Saint” (which would star Val Kilmer and Elisabeth Shoel) and I got the small role of a Russian general. At one point Royce looks at me and says, “You know what, here take this script. Can you come back in two days and be prepared to play Tretiak? He is one of the main roles, an antagonistic, Russian billionaire”. I worked feverishly to prepare and conducted the audition. Then he told me Paramount (Pictures) wanted Anthony Hopkins or Maximilian Shell. “But I want you,” he said. About 10 days later he contacted me and said, “Paramount liked your Russian” and so I got the role and my career begin in earnest.
It has always been difficult in that no matter in how many roles I get and no matter the caliber of the directors I work with, including such icons as Stanley Kubrick, and regardless of the great critical responses and awards I receive, I have never
become a mainstream American actor. I’ve always been considered a foreigner. I know that I am a foreigner, in part because of my accent, and I will always speak with an accent. It’s just that you are a foreigner and that there is nothing to be changed. Although America is quite tolerant and open, nevertheless it is still quite a chauvinistic attitude. In the meantime, I lived in London and traveled to America, when I was filming movies. Once, when I arrived in America in 2001, I came as a Slovenian citizen with a Slovenian passport and therefore I did not need an entering visa. However, I could not get a work permit, actually I could get it, but to gain a work permit takes at least 16 days. I had an immediate casting for a big TV series “Las Vegas”. I got the role in the series. My agent popped opened champagne —problems solved! I accept the role, but attorneys found that I do not have a chance to get a work permit faster than the 16 days and therefore would not be able to start filming the series because of that, so I lost one of the biggest roles of my career.
When I went to London in 1993 I was 45 years old. Now I live in Rijeka and constantly travel. I came back home because of my children and I got a sense that they were losing touch with their heritage. Both were born in London and I saw that over time they were losing their ability to speak and understand Croatian. I very much want them to be connected to the their roots. We have been back here for 4 years and we will stay in Rijeka at least until the autumn, and then we’ll see — maybe we will move again! I’m happy that I’m home. I am addicted to the Adriatic Sea. Nature — this to me it is something very important in life. Now, my girls are speaking better Croatian, which is also important. My older daughter has just finished college and the other is studying in Vienna at the English College and the third is finishing high school. When the youngest one graduates, my wife and I are considering leaving once again. We may go to Slovenia or to Belgrade where my father, who is now 101 years old, is living. In that way I can see him more often.