Discovering America. Freedom, passion and Hollywood for actress Alexandra Callas
The US release of ‘10 Days in a Madhouse’, a movie based on a true story, took place on November 11, 2015. Reporter Nellie Bly pretended to be insane and got herself committed to Blackwell’ Island Asylum and then described her experience. In the movie, nurse Ms. Grupe was Bly’s antagonist. That complex character was played by our fellow citizen, Alexandra Callas. For her, that role was not just a Hollywood debut, but also sort of a mark of fate: everything went smoothly despite the difficulties and complications that often arose during filming of this independent masterpiece. Alexandra Callas is a daughter of famed Soviet sculptor Lev Kerbel. She was a popular author, DJ and anchor of several television and radio programs in the early 2000s. Her trained voice, clear articulation, animated and emotional speech and the ability to present herself were all valuable possessions during those bright years.
Crush and build
A short time ago, Alexandra Kerbel was a known radio personality. The audience associated you exclusively with the media. Now you are a distinguished actress, who made a place for herself in Hollywood. How did that happen?
I decided that I would be an actress at a very young age but failed to enter a theater school, failed the last test by stupidity, and chose a safe detour – the Gosteleradio Continuing Education Institute. What followed was deemed to be a successful radio and television career, but I was very unhappy: it was not what I wanted to do. My heart ached every time I was congratulated on my professional success. I wanted to be an actress. And then I told myself, “Stop being afraid to take the first step! You will grow old waiting!” Everyone tried so hard to discourage me, they said that I was too old for the acting career (I was ‘already’ 20 years old at the time), that my looks were wrong, and that I needed to change the shape of my nose and the color of my hair. But I decided: it was others who said that, but not God and not me. I jumped in with both feet.
What did you do?
First of all, I quit a good radio job and abandoned all television projects. It was very hard to take this step when you have a full-time job, a sizeable salary and you are invited to side jobs as a known radio personality. I thought I would get married, have a baby and quit. I did not care about money; I’d already realized that it was better to be poor but happy. Soon enough I met the father of my future child, got pregnant and my pregnancy leave cushioned my departure. Secondly, I used every contact that I had, spoke with directors and producers, kept on looking and knocked on every door and window possible. In 90% of cases I was politely ‘sent packing’. Perhaps, Alexander Nazarov, an old acquaintance of mine and a creator of the acclaimed television series ‘Better to Be Born Lucky’ was the only one who found time to discuss my acting plans seriously and at length. He helped me build an algorithm of action, introduced me to several instructors and gave lots of useful advice. In the end he told me: “No matter how hard you try, you will be an amateur until you finish school and learn the techniques.” I started looking for theater schools but my pregnancy happened and I had to delay my dream indefinitely. After my baby was born, I got acquainted with the rector of a private school, the Institute of Russian Theater. I was very lucky to have Marina Yuryevna Kaidalova, a God-given talent as my teacher and mentor. Also, I was nervous about studying and still breastfeeding my baby. It appeared that one of the institute buildings was only a block away from my house and my classmates took turns babysitting my baby.
Did your family support you?
My parents passed away a long time ago, I was 20 when my mother died. My father died in 2003, and my grandma passed away when my son was 9-months-old. I still cannot come to terms with it My closest family is my two sisters and their children whom I treat as if they were mine. Certainly, they backed my decision but we live too far from each other. During the first year after my son was born, his father was very helpful; he actually stayed home with our baby although he was very busy running his business. Unfortunately, soon thereafter our marriage crashed against my studies and my passion for the acting career. My former husband is a very good man, yet he wanted a housewife and I could not do that. Thank God, we have a very good relationship and he is always of great help. I got lucky in my third year of school: my classmate’s mother moved from the town of Shakhty to Moscow and I offered her a nanny position to babysit my son. Marina practically became a member of our family, her help was invaluable. In fact, there have always been people who supported me: my teachers and my husband, Russian actor Stanislav Callas. We met while studying; he has been helping me constantly, in particular, in the work on my characters. He is always with me, in the time of joy and in the time of doubt.
How was it to be a student amongst 18-year-olds?
I had to overcome skepticism of my teachers and classmates – I was older than everyone else and married with a child. Many thought that I was a bored housewife who found herself a hobby. And I also had to change myself. I entered the institute on a very high horse – imagine, a popular radio anchor ranked amongst the best voices of Europe. And then I got a ‘B’ at the elocution exam! It appeared that scenic speech was a totally different thing. Besides, I was under a huge physical strain. In my school years I slept one hour a day and caught up with my sleep once a month. I browsed the Internet for any casting call information, filled in questionnaires for every kind of actor databases, took part in auditions, made portfolios, learned from various pedagogues and spent days in the Mosfilm film studio. Once, my teacher invited me and some other students to the ‘U Nikitskikh Vorot’ Theater where she was a director and an actress. She introduced us to Mark Rozovsky. We were extras at first and then we were given parts. I, a sophomore, found myself in a theater. I’d worked there for several years until the U.S. movie casting call.
You have been telling me things few people would dare say. This is a philosophical question: could it be you nature?
Yes, I think so. Our father taught us to be independent, to aspire for success and to make the most of our talents without being relentless. He was a self-made man, a remarkable portraitist and a brilliant sculptor. When someone important from the Kremlin came to sit for a portrait and his aides whispered, “You have been keeping him for 30 minutes now! Hurry up!” my father told them, “You are the masters in the Kremlin, and I am the master here.” I have often followed my father’s advice. I was glad to be promised something but I never really believed any promises and opted to do everything myself when a promise was broken. In fact, the only person in the world who can help you is yourself. If you want something but expect others to deliver your dream could it be that you are not very eager to have it? As soon as I realized that I ventured out to discover America. Many people listen to what they are being told, and the family appears to be the biggest danger. The family discourages you, the family gives advice and tries to scare you by telling stories about failures. You need to be independent. Do not hang onto your friend at a social event, learn how to stand alone and to reach out to people wherever you find yourself. Communication is always a source of ideas. Just look into yourself and decide what you want. You will have to try a lot of things before you make this decision. We tend to narrow our horizons. People rarely think outside the box: they think about being a lawyer, an accountant or a doctor while the world is a much bigger place. You can be a Lego toy designer, or an expert in oil pipeline welding or a geologist. So many wonderful occupations are waiting for you! Thank God, my family never forbade the children to choose their way. Our parents tried to broaden our horizons; they read to us a lot, they told us stories and they traveled with us. We were not told which school to go. Our horizons were broad enough but still all of us chose art. I tried a lot of things. I was a freelancer with the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper at the age of 15 and realized that the media was not my choice. I was a DJ in a club, a modeling agency manager, a businesswoman, which was my most unsuccessful experience, and lots of other things. I was testing my abilities.
As a child, I became conscious of adults being so boring! That was odd: they were kids who had just grown up. Many people lose the ability to see the world through a child’s eyes in their adult life. Those who do not are young even if they turn a hundred. Children do not know that some things may be impossible.
You have said this phrase, ‘passion for the acting career’. Where did it come from? How did you realize that it was your choice?
I was very young, about five years old. I like to joke about this, but this is true. When they were making a documentary about my father, my elder sister and I were asked to draw something with chalk on the asphalt. The scene was staged, with several takes. It was a revelation: movies were miraculous, they were what I always wanted to do. I started watching movies from that angle, I rehearsed, I copied actors and really enjoyed the entire process. Our parents gave us a video camera, and we started making movies. They would have been on YouTube if it had existed back then.
Does it matter where to look for the place where one belongs?
Every case is special. The place has to be comfortable. My elder sitter married twelve years ago and moved to Egypt. She likes it there. My younger sister became the director of my father’s gallery, and this is where she belongs. She is in harmony with herself. Many people come to Moscow to build their career: they spend 10-15 years struggling for survival, they have three jobs so that they could pay the rent and do not starve to death. They furrow their brows in the constant fight for survival and their eyes look grim. Twenty years pass before they realize that they once had a dream but did not notice losing it. This is sad.
I have stopped loving Moscow for some reason although this is my hometown. The city has changed, retreated inside oneself and lost its calm and openness. I can feel this very intensely. I feel good in place where there is a job to do and people have respect for my profession, for me as an actress. I have always wanted a world-class acting career. The theater is a perfect school but this is not quite my choice, I like sporadic performances which do not become a routine. All I need is movies. No matter what they say, Hollywood is the ‘cinematographic Mecca’. And I was welcome. If it’s God’s will, I will accomplish something here, in Hollywood; I am told that my chances look good. I love Los Angeles and my husband also likes it here very much.
One in ten thousand
Back to your Hollywood story. How did you succeed in the casting?
I was looking for adventure and it found me. I told my European friends and colleagues that I wanted to take part in an international project and they supplied me with information about auditions and casting calls. I also found information about an international casting call online. They were looking for actors to play the parts of main characters of an American journalist’s book. Something happened as soon as I saw that announcement; it was love at first sight. First of all, they needed an actress for the Nellie Bly part, but I was aware that a Russian actress could not play the part of the legendary Irish-born American journalist. However, I could aspire for another big part, the part of the hospital’s head nurse. It was a 90% female casting call, and everyone was asked to record a monolog. My monolog was directed and recorded by Stas. I had to learn to talk with a German accent because Ms. Grupe was German, an immigrant. I sent my recording and they chose me from 10,000 aspirants. The telephone rang early on Saturday morning. It was movie director Timothy Hines; he said I got the part and right away started telling me about assistants, costumes, and the filming process. I was shaking all over. Two months later I was on a plane to snowy Oregon for the production of the first part of the movie. I spent seven weeks there.
Someone from the film crew has told reporters with surprise about your happiness, you taking joy in snow
Yes, it was amazing. The set was inaccessible many times: first a snowfall blocked the roads and then there was a flood. We were enjoying our free time. I was playing snowballs all by myself, enjoying Christmas weather, and my colleagues were shivering and complaining about the freeze. Endorphins overwhelmed me when we were working; it was a non-stop joy, lots of memorable moments and new friends. The movie was made with a six-month pause. Our second location was Los Angeles, and Christopher Lambert and Kelly Le Brock joined us there. I liked them very much. Lambert has perfect manners, men can learn from him a lot. He is a career actor and he is always ready for another rehearsal just to make it easier to work on the set. We once had to play an extra scene without having a chance to rehearse; we improvised and that was very interesting. This a real challenge. This is a chance for every actor to shine.
Where there any other challenges?
I speak English fluently but when we were on the set I realized that I did not speak it well enough because people were using abbreviations and acronyms all the time. There were so many new phrases I’d never heard in my life! I was very nervous at first, fearing that I would be sent home… Time passed and I saw the light. There was another psychologically difficult moment when the Ukraine conflict began. I was very afraid of war. I wanted to go home, to my family.
Ms. Grupe is a villain. How did it feel to play that character?
Wonderful! I loved playing the nurse part. It was a huge work. My teacher, talented Russian actress Yelena Sergeyevna Sokolova, helped me very much. We did a lot of research together, we analyzed, and we discussed particular scenes and tried to understand what was driving my character at each particular moment. Marina Yuryevna Kaidalova joined us. I rehearsed at home with my husband, we kept on playing various scenes and he was any character I wanted him to be. Those moments were unforgettable, beautiful. I am totally grateful to my teachers for their support and their belief in me. They are my close people.
Speaking of my character’s personality … First of all, you create every character from the depths of your own personality. All of us understand that there are circumstances under which anyone can kill, betray or steal or, on the contrary, be noble. It is interesting to ‘pull out’ a certain part of your personality and to play it. Besides, Ms. Grupe is a real rather than ‘comic’ character and her personality was a result of her choice. Practically nothing is known about Ms. Grupe. I visited the archives to study stories of immigrants dating back to those times, their fates and reasons why they came to America, and even found a biography which was very similar to the biography of my character. Probably, it was not her, but I created her story for myself and understood why my character had to be that way.
10 Days in a Madhouse is a movie about women, about the time when they were second-class citizens. A good wife stayed at home, and her husband was in full control. It was impossible to commit a man to a mental hospital without a court order, statements of witnesses and a doctor’s opinion. And it was easy to commit a woman just because a man said so. In those times, it was difficult for women to make their way in life and to build a career. And my character is an average woman, moreover an immigrant. People who had nothing had a chance to survive by doing the hardest work. Dozens of immigrants were ‘worked to death’ at factories. It was not easy to work at an asylum either. That island accommodated not only the asylum but also prisons, and quite often inmates were hired to look after insane persons. Ms. Grupe was not a prisoner, she was simply a survivor. She badly needed that job. She also saw American women who came from decent families amongst her patients and felt superior to them. On the other hand, she saw immigrants just like her and involuntarily tried to distance herself so that it never occurred to anyone to compare them. It was definitely not the idea she had about her life in America; being a woman, she had ambition to be loved, to have a husband and to quit that terrible job. As soon as you grasp her motivation, you realize that she was not a bad person. She just made a wrong choice and could not understand that. When Nelli Bly comes to the asylum, she confronts my character. They have a lot of traits in common but Nelli puts them to good use, and Ms. Grupe minds her own benefit and harms people around her by doing so.
What are your relations with the actress who played the Nelli Bly part?
We are great friends. Caroline Barry is a rising Hollywood star, this is her first big movie and, being little known, she succeeded in a colossal and complex casting just like me. We feel alike about many things. She is very nice and talented. And she is a workaholic, just like me.
Us vs. Them
How does the acting in Russia differ from the acting overseas?
The differences are huge. First of all, everything is streamlined here, in America. Every person has a place and a duty. You know well which person to approach in every situation. I had my trailer and my personal assistant, and it was arranged so that no one talked to me during production, I was isolated. It’s not good if an actor is unable to concentrate on one’s part for 15 takes in row. An actor needs to grow into one’s part. This is why the actor needs space for quietly concentrating on one’s tasks. Complete isolation is good for the movie: the work is harmonious, the emotional atmosphere is good, scenes are played rapidly and smoothly, and, in the end, investors’ money is spent wisely. I think this is one of Hollywood’s secrets.
The second secret is that everything here is multiplied by the American dream: no matter who you are, you can achieve anything. I like it very much that America shows profound respect for the work of every person, even an extra. The movie industry is a miracle industry, and everything there needs to be miraculous. The ability to do so is an important factor. Here, we often lack respect for work. Just think about one awful phrase: ‘a bit part actor’. The movie production process in Russia resembles of a tangled ball of yarn; everyone has a duty, everyone is responsible for everything but in the end… Although a structure which, they say, used to exist in the Soviet era has begun to reappear lately.
Yet Russian cinematographer has its fortes. What is it that Hollywood lacks?
We have wonderful instructors and brilliant career actors and you can always learn from them. Our theater is a wonder! True, some may say there are theaters and actors everywhere. But you have more chances to see a well-trained actor who can make a huge input in your movie rather than an amateur in a casting call here. Lots of special effects and crowd scenes have lately appeared in Russian movies under the influence of Hollywood. But the forte of European (including Russian) cinematography is a movie based on a story and top-notch acting rather than a big budget and special effects. Russia should not chase America, we can never catch up with their budgets.
Did the international political situation have an effect on the attitude of the Americans to Russia? Did you feel it?
Absolutely not! The attitude is very friendly. They are well disposed to Russia and the Russians, and regular domestic problems are their agenda, just like every average person’s. By the way, every American I have met has some relation to Russia – either friends or family members live there or they have worked there or they are learning Russian. All of them know a few words in Russian.
The premiere has taken place. The movie is planned to be nominated for Oscar. What are you doing now?
Before the premiere, we had been engaged in promotion, attending events and meeting with the press. Now I am negotiating my participation in new movies.