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“When the camera was aimed at me, I began to breathe in a different way …”

Exclusive interview with Hollywood actress Alexandra Callas

Александра Каллас
Pictured: Alexandra Callas. Photo by: Stanislav Callas

No matter how many times Hollywood was being called a mechanical conveyor producing human dreams, its attractiveness to the audience, as well as to those who dream of a stellar career, remains inexplicably magical. It is not amenable to calculation with any mathematical formula. Some of these stars suddenly light up, while others are waiting for their Moment for years. Alexandra Callas, actress of Russian origin, is one of the few whose rise to Hollywood success looks remarkably fast but, on the other hand, seems very natural and well deserved. Her brilliant American debut was in the film directed by Timothy Hines, “10 days in a Madhouse”. At this point, Alexandra Callas, according to the US press, is going to be considered for next year’s “Oscars” in the category “Best  Supporting Actress”.

In between the preparation for a new movie role, and participation in the promotional campaign for the movie, “10 Days in a Madhouse”, where Alexandra plays one of the main roles, the actress has kindly agreed to give an exclusive interview to the Kontinent Media Group.

– The way to Hollywood for Russian actors has always been unusual. Immigration may come first. Actor Savely Kramarov wrote a letter to US President Ronald Reagan, in which he spoke to him as “An artist to an artist”. Impressed, the President personally signed the necessary papers for him to come to the United States. Milla Jovovich, thanks to her mother, had started posing for a fashion magazine at the age of 11. Vladimir Mashkov was invited to Hollywood after the film “The Thief”, in which he played the title role, was nominated for an “Oscar”. But, Alexandra, your way to Hollywood was the most ordinary and, at the same time, the most extraordinary. You landed a role, having passed the giant international casting, which for a Russian actor is sometimes harder than winning a lottery. And then came your success: you played Miss Grupe, a nurse-in-charge in an institution for the mentally ill, in the movie “10 Days in a Madhouse”. It was shown at the 68th International Film Festival in Cannes and then premiered in a New York theater on Times Square. On that day, all the tickets for all the showtimes were sold out and now the press reports that in the next year you will,  most probably, be nominated for an Academy Award. Tell us something about the amount of hard work which lies behind such a striking debut in Hollywood.

– I think, that behind any job, in any profession, lies a giant amount of work, if one is doing it with full force and if one loves one’s job. In my case, I think, what lies behind my story, is that there were three factors that came together. First, of course, is a lot of hard work, a long road with hundreds of obstacles, sacrifices, nervous breakdowns, loss, lack of sleep, fights with myself, work to exhaustion… I just always, from the very beginning, wanted to achieve more than there was given to me by circumstances. That is why I worked harder than others, cultivated iron self-discipline, was always looking for new ways to do things, studied a lot, and didn’t allow myself to have days off. I still don’t have many. At the same time, and this is factor number two, I’ve always looked at life as a game and I’m just playing it, never taking anything too seriously. Therefore, I’ve always looked at defeat the same way: well, I fell down, but so what? So, I would stand up, brush myself off, wipe the tears away and would go on. And the third factor is that my favorite hobby is taking challenges. Challenging myself and my circumstances. I think that all of these factors together have led to the fact that I found myself in the right place at the right time, and that never for a moment did I miss the opportunity given to me! I absolutely fell in love with “10 Days in a Madhouse” when I first read about it but at the same time I looked at the casting as at a fun adventure. I’d never expected that they would choose a Russian actress for this role. I didn’t even tell anyone until the very last day that I landed a role! Not even my family, because I was superstitiously concerned that, at the very last moment, something would go wrong and it all would not happen. When I was sitting on the plane, I had this urge to call each and everyone and tell all my friends and relatives that I’m flying out to shoot a film in the United States! But then I thought: nooo, what if I tell them, and something unpredictable happens, or the plane doesn’t… you know, or something else… And then suddenly I was surprised to find that – “Oh, it’s over – I did this film, and it is released. Everything worked out perfectly!”

С сыном Эриком. Фото: Катя Кербель
Pictured: Alexandra Callas with her son, Erik. Photo by: Katya Kerbel.

– Director Timothy Hines, best known for his adaptation of the novel “War of the Worlds” by HG Wells, just like you, realizes his diverse talents: he is a director, a producer, a screenwriter, an editor, a cameraman. Is his manner of work on set significantly different from the manner of Russian film directors, or not that much?

– Oh, you know, all the directors, Russian or not, differ from each other. Every director has his or her own manner of work. But as for Timothy Hines, I can tell you that he is absolutely unique. And I love him very much. We became really close friends. He has just the broadest, deepest knowledge of various fields of life. His personality, his love for humanity are very close to my own; to my attitude to the world and its people. It’s very comfortable for me to work and communicate with him. Although anything can happen on the set, like some tense moments, Timothy Hines is the director whom I want to work with and I will as long as I’m in this industry. He is very focused on the actor. In his films, the story is important, and the rest is also important, but above all it is “the actors’ ” movies. He can endlessly discuss a character with you, the choices and all the nuances of the role. If you suddenly begin to improvise, he would not look at you in astonishment, saying: “What?! Are you sure it is written in the script THIS way?!”. Instead, he would let you perform and, if he likes it, he would not hide his excitement. For any actor, this is a priceless quality in a director. Especially since we are all aimed at one result – to make a good movie that the audience will love.

Picture: One of “10 Days in a Mad House” posters

– After the European premiere of “10 Days in a Madhouse” in Cannes, when the movie was introduced to European critics and journalists, there was a press-conference, where they praised the film. This is a dream-come-true for every actor. Now, do you remember what you were wearing that day? And do you have any secret on how not to get lost in the crowd of celebrities?

– Oh, what was I wearing? I don’t remember. Honestly – don’t remember at all! But I remember that I was quite nervous, and because of that was really hungry. Somehow, I remember it so well. Also, I was very nervous because I couldn’t find an eye-pencil sharpener and was scared because I immediately came out with a silly superstition that, if I don’t find it, something bad will happen to me. And, of course, I found it – right before leaving the hotel for the airport. Now, talking seriously, as for representing a movie at such a festival… of course, it is a totally different aspect of an actor’s life which is an honor and an important part of your job. And before the Cannes Film Festival there was the First International Film Festival in Bentonville, Arkanzas, founded by Geena Davis. All the tickets for our movie were sold out and the film was very warmly received by the audience. We were nervous before the screening because it was the first time we showed the film to the general public. But I remember very well how quickly I found myself totally caught up by the story itself, and how quickly I began to watch it not as a cast member but as any other person in the audience. I was fully immersed into the story and watched the characters, including mine, with great interest. I completely forgot that it was I who played Miss Grupe. I looked at her, followed the story and thought: “Oh, how evil this one is!” So, at Cannes it was easier, in this sense, although the auditorium was much bigger and the audience was more demanding. I’d say, “internationally sophisticated.” However, we had a triumph there, too, and got highest ratings by critics. And then – our premiere in New York City and it felt like a holiday. It was the celebration of our movie, of our work. I met almost everyone whom we had worked with on set. We spent a few wonderful days, we all missed each other so much… As for how not to get lost in the crowd of celebrities at events… Well… I would like to stand out, primarily, with the results of my work as an actor. That’s for sure. And working on it is a true happiness.

– What was it like – to work with such stars as “The Highlander” Christopher Lambert, Kelly LeBrock and Caroline Barry, who plays Nellie Bly – a young reporter who was brave enough to commit herself into a madhouse for her journalistic investigation?

– It was very easy, because they are wonderful people, each of them. First, we started filming with Caroline and somehow became good friends from the very beginning. This is her first role in a big feature film, and – can you imagine? – she was chosen out of eight thousand candidates who were participating in the casting. But, in addition to her talent, she is a very thoughtful actress. In the film, I play her main antagonist, her implacable enemy. Oddly enough, our warm relationship in life helped me to find the right «paints» for my character to resist her character on the screen.

Christopher Lambert. He’s got such qualities, both personal and professional, that working and interacting with him was a pleasure. He is – again, you can change something, or invent, or improvise, – he is always open to a dialogue. There was a day we were finishing filming one of his scenes and he had to go to the airport to fly to another film set. There were only five minutes left before he had to leave. And, despite the fact that the limo was waiting and time was running out, Christopher did not treat anyone like you’d expect from a star in a hurry: he was calm and focused, and gave the other actors the opportunity to perform at their best and not to feel any pressure. So, we filmed really good stuff, and everyone was happy. And we did it within those five final minutes.

As for Kelly LeBrock, – when she appeared on the set, it was like sunshine. She IS sunshine, and I absolutely loved her! On that day, we were filming the most heartbreaking scenes of the film. We were all very depressed because all of the events in the film are real. Those women, our characters,  really lived and really suffered. They were the victims of the times, of the system in which they found themselves. And because we all played these scenes with a clear understanding that all these horrors, the pain and despair, that these women experienced had happened in reality, that THAT was, actually, their life; because of that, from all those thoughts, we were all very down and sick emotionally that day. But then Kelly appeared and immediately felt the overall mood. She started talking to us and, within a blink of an eye, immediately cleared the atmosphere as if some vital energy was poured into our veins. I am still wondering how she managed to do it but she just seems to be such a person – a very light hearted person.

Спектакль «Отдельная книга» (фантасмагория по произведениям Н.В.Гоголя), театр «На Раушской». Александра Каллас (справа) в роли Дамы, Приятной Во Всех Отношениях. Слева: Ирина Рудоминская в роли Просто Приятной Дамы
Pictured: A fragment of a performance “Separate book” (phantasmagory on Nikolay Gogol’s pieces), “Na Raushskoy” Theatre in Moscow.  Alexandra Callas (right) as a Lady, Pleasant-in-every-respect. Left: Irina Rudominskaya as Just-a-nice-Lady.

– Your ultimate film is an acute social drama, and your character, Miss Grupe – the main nurse of the mental hospital, – is seemingly very far from those roles that would be more suitable for an outgoing, constantly smiling extravert Alexandra Callas. At the same time, the image that you’ve created on the screen, is believable in every detail. How did you find the right “tune” for your character, and what in your search was the most difficult?

– Well, first of all, the search was interesting because all the characters that you create are taken from the depths of your own personality. So I had to delve into the dark recesses of my own soul. In addition, of course, I learned a lot of biographies, all the information that I could find, on wardens of concentration camps, to understand their motives. I was wondering why a seemingly ordinary girl, all of a sudden, hardens up that way? Why did brutality intoxicate Miss Grupe? Why did my character chose the side of evil every time, and why had she absolutely no compassion for her unfortunate wards?

It was quite a task to speak in a German accent. It was very funny to me when some of my Russian friends, who saw the trailer, said arrogantly: “Well, well, your English is a disaster: you’ve got  soooo heavy a Russian accent! You can tell right away that this woman is not an American.” And I reply: “Oh you “experts!” Of course, the woman out there is not an American: she is a German. I’m playing a German woman and she has a German accent. And you think you caught me!” (laughs). Other friends of mine, who are from Germany, say that my accent sounds as it should. Thank God. ‘Cause I was slightly worried about what they’d say.


Кадр из фильма «Святая Блаженная Ксения Петербургская» (Александра Каллас в роли Ксении)
Pictured: Film still from the film, “Saint Xenia of Saint Petersburg” (starring Alexandra Callas as Xenia).

– When did you first feel the attraction of the movie camera? Do you remember that moment?

– I remember very well that when, for the first time, the camera was aimed at me, I began to breathe differently. Just… something had happened. The camera “looked” at me, and all of a sudden something shifted in me and I realized that my life would never be the same again. Although I also love the theater. I would go to the theater very often as a child with my family but I always imagined myself performing on the stage, not sitting in the auditorium. I was dying to go straight there, to the stage, and it was a real torture for me to know that no one would let me. It hurt me a lot –  why am I sitting in the audience? My place is there! Give me the opportunity to be there! But then I chose cinema although it misses some of the theater’s charms. The camera has a magical effect on me.

– You possess a variety of occupations and skills: you’re an actress, an art historian, an artist, a television and radio host, a model, you sing, ride horses, fence, play musical instruments, travel to take classes from world-class coaches – in Prague, Paris, Vienna. This zest for life, a thirst for new knowledge and experience – is it something genetic that you’ve got from your father, a world famous sculptor Lev Kerbel? Or from your sisters – a kind of intra-family competition, the desire to stand out, to be the best of the best?

– Oh, no, we have never had any form of competition in our family. We were raised that way. What we always had was (and is) enormous mutual support. We have the following rule: whatever we would do in our lives, we would never ever compete with each other. And we’re lucky, because my sisters and I – we have chosen different occupations, although we are all in the arts. Our parents have given us much support, and now we, three sisters, are the strongest fans of each other’s art. As for hobbies: who said, and where did it come from, that you should only do one particular thing in your life? I like to try new things and then decide: this one is mine and that one is not. And we are all like that. It is an ordinary feature of modernity – people are capable of doing a lot of things at once and get carried away with more and more things, and have multiple talents and the capacity to implement those talents and develop them.

– Does it help in acting?

– It certainly does. And not only in acting, I guess, but in any other profession. The insatiable curiosity for life. This is very important, in my opinion. In general, I think you have to live in the present and enjoy every moment. I’ve had different times in my life: moments of strong “ups”, and just terrible moments, and the moments of slack when I would not know what to do next. When you have the “up” moment, – enjoy it, breathe it, live and create. And always have some kind of a backup plan, that’s what I’ve always had. And it always worked.

– I know that you have another project which is just about to be released. I don’t even know how to identify it: this is sort of an audio book, but not quite. Could you tell us what kind of genre it is and in what role we will see (or rather hear) you this time?

–  Oh yeah! Very soon you will hear my voice as the Sleep Fairy in a fairy tale called “Who Stole the Moon?”. By the way, you are the first ones to hear about it. It is an audio book but not in the conventional sense, – this is a new genre created by the Chicago publishers, “Windy Press”. They called it “interactive musical children’s books”, but behind these seemingly ordinary words lie completely new possibilities. When you download this book, you can read it and turn over electronic pages, and view the pictures, and click on the characters and they will talk; or you can turn the pages and listen to the text on every page; or you can simply listen to this as a bedtime story without any interruptions. There will be not only the actors’ voices but also beautiful songs. Also, within these books there are games that a kid can play and a lot more. So, everything that your child might want is in one “book”. When I was offered to join Windy’s team… it was fantastic! This work has all the elements that I love. It is something new, something incredibly interesting, something that I’ve never done before, a new genre. I felt the urge to get to the recording studio immediately. I was so impatient! I have voiced over hundreds of commercials, documentaries, all kinds of stuff, but this work is something totally different: different approaches, different content – something in between audio books and radio plays, but broader and richer in capabilities. And I wanted to do everything, all at once: voice over, sing, talk – whatever. I hope that we have established a long and pleasant cooperation. I really like what they do.

Because I am a mother myself, I can’t wait to see my son’s reaction to me as a fairy tale character. I have to tell you, he constantly begs me to participate in a children’s movie. I can predict that very soon, when he grows up to the “Harry Potter” age, he will scold me, (with all the childish naivete), saying: “How come, mom, that you haven’t played anyone in “Harry Potter”?” Indeed, a very good question: why haven’t I yet?! (Laughs). But, in my new project, I was able to work with the official voice of all the audio books about Harry Potter, Jim Dale! And I’m ready to shout out loud about it at every street corner because it is so exciting!

In Russia his name is not widely known, while in the English-speaking world he is a true legend. At one time, his producer was Sir George Martin, who discovered “The Beatles” and turned them into stars. Jim Dale was his first protege before them. ​​Sir George had an idea to make “a new Elvis Presley” out of him, but the tantalizing prospect was outweighed by theatre. At about the same time, Dale was invited by Sir Laurence Olivier himself to join the Royal National Theatre. And Jim chose the theater. Then, in the world of voice acting, he reached incredible heights. He is the first narrator inducted into “The American Audio Publishers Hall of Fame” and was also inducted into “The American Theater Hall of Fame” for Lifetime Achievement in the Theater. Of course, to work with such a master is an honor and also a challenge. As I’ve already said, I love challenges.

Постер к сказке "Кто украл Луну?"
Pictured: A poster to the fairy tale, “Who Stole The Moon?”

– What feelings did you experience when you started this job?

– First of all, I was completely enchanted by Jim’s voice! His performance, his ability to deliver the printed word that fantastic way. It blew my mind. He knows how to draw the whole imaginary world with only his voice and can transform into any character. There are literally HUNDREDS of voices in his artistic “collection”. My son, Erik, is also absolutely mesmerized by Jim Dale. Now he can’t wait to get this new, or rather, completely updated and enhanced version of the book “Who Stole the Moon?”, this time with my participation. I myself cannot wait either! I just want to clarify that there was a first version of this book-app but now it is greatly expanded with many new features added, including my character – Sleep Fairy. In the English version I perform along with Jim Dale. And in the Russian version with the popular actor Vladimir Vdovichenkov who was nominated last year for the Academy Award for “Leviathan”.

By the way, both the English and the Russian versions come in “one package” together with many other languages, narrated by well-known artists from different countries. All are in one book. Simply press the button and choose the language in which you want to listen to the story. All subsequent interactive books by “Windy” will be released in the same, multilingual, form. And you will find me in those future books, too… By the way, my next project with “Windy Press” is even a more amazing adventure: it will be the world’s first ever (!!!) electronic musical. Can you imagine? Another new genre, or rather, the logical development of the previous “invention” by “Windy”. It will be “Puss in Boots”, the tale by Charles Perrault.

– “Electronic musical”? That sounds promising! So, the question immediately arises: will you sing?

– Of course! For now, I can’t disclose the details, but – yes, I will, I will sing a lot. “Puss in Boots” will be just the first release in the genre of the e-musical, and will continue with “The Princess and the Pea,” and many other stories as well. And, because I am offered to become “the face” of the whole giant project, (yes, this is also new information, that I’m revealing today for the first time), I will, apparently, sing, and sing, and sing! (Laughs). And it excites me a lot! I have sung in a lot of stage performances and I do love to sing. But anyway we agreed that, if it turns out that I will not be as good at singing in a musical as I think I am, I will then just voice over the speaking part, and the songs will be performed by someone more talented. I’m just kidding. I hope to please your ears with my beautiful, bird-like singing (Laughs).

– You said that you were offered to become the face of the whole project. What is that about? What will be your responsibilities as “the face” of the thing?

– Well, you know, we are discussing this right now. The offer is there but I haven’t signed yet. I would say, the function of “the face” is to introduce this new genre of e-musicals to the world; to represent the entire project; to be associated with it and to make it associated with me. The whole idea of the “e-musical” is very simple: it is a modern way to introduce children to literature. This idea is delightful to me and seems very correct. It is really modern and combines the best of all kind of books: paperbooks, audiobooks and e-books, too. Besides, my son, for example, loves watching cartoons in different languages. That way he compares, memorizes and thus learns. So, it is obvious that “Who Stole the Moon?”, as well as further interactive books, have this excellent educational side. Being “the face”, I will be more than happy to praise it. Because I see that it works. And by the way, “Windy” is going to release not solely children’s books. There will be interactive books for adults, too, with some completely new and very interesting “features.” I’ve said I “ALMOST” agreed to become the face of the brand, but this “almost” doesn’t come from any sort of doubt about the project, it is just that we must technically “settle” some of the nuances. I have a lot of film projects planned ahead and doing movies is an absolute priority for me as an actor. On the other hand, the electronic interactive musical is almost a theatrical genre which, at the same time, doesn’t conflict with any film shoots I might have scheduled because it is not a live stage performance. It is being recorded in a studio. That is, it is pretty flexible. I am not tied to a certain time or to a certain place. The most important thing is that there are great people in “Windy Press” and we get along so well. I think, we will be able to build a collaboration that will be comfortable for all parties.

Александра Каллас. Фото: Станислав Каллас
Pictured: Alexandra Callas. Photo by: Stanislav Callas.

– Do you see your life as a series of coincidences, or is everything in it interconnected, and is each event a consequence of the previous ones?

– I think every event in my life is a consequence of all the previous ones. When I look back at many of them, I see the connections clearly. In addition, there were moments… failures in my life which happened when I had been losing or incorrectly choosing my goals. However, as soon as I had a clear goal and was sure about it, and knew that I really needed it, then I’d begin to walk with great strides toward that goal. Now I have big plans. I have told you about some of them. This would be the collaboration with “Windy Press”, in particular, working on “Puss in Boots”. And, of course, filming in large movie productions. From what I am allowed to disclose right now, I’m going to work on a new film with Timothy Hines and Caroline Barry. I am very excited! I can’t wait! They have become very dear to me. I’m so happy because working with them is like a holiday for me, a real gift. I can not go into details before they are officially announced, but… there are plenty of plans. Let’s hope that it will all happen in the best way.

You can follow my news by subscribing to my official Facebook page, and on Twitter (AlexandraCallas) and Instagram (alexandracallas). And, of course, go to my website: www.alexandracallas.com.

Questions by Marina Kucherenko and Julia Batkilina

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