23 January 2024
An extract from an interview with Chulpan Khamatova by Sergei Nikolaevich
Chulpan Khamatova performs in Latvian. If you think about it, for an actress of her standing and fame, this is a feat in itself. And she performs brilliantly. Not a single person in the auditorium of the New Riga Theatre would suspect that Latvian is not her native language. But this is a choice she has made, not to remain silent, but to learn a foreign language and so maintain her freedom to perform in what are quite challenging and somewhat contingent circumstances.
In fact, Alvis Hermanis’ new play ‘Land of the Deaf’ concerns just this – it deals with one person’s victory over enforced mutism. Literal mutism, that is, rather than figurative. Moreover, ‘Land of the Deaf’, which is based on Valery Todorovsky’s film ‘The Country of the Deaf’ (1998) and Renata Litvinova’s story ‘To Own and Belong’, is about trying to change your own destiny. Chulpan Khamatova spoke to Sergei Nikolaevich about this in an exclusive interview for Spektr.
– If I may, Chulpan, I’d like to ask you a couple of off-topic questions. Many of your colleagues have left Russia in the last two years – famous, more established actors as well as quite young ones. Everyone follows their own path, of course, but even so, what do you think are the prospects and outlook for Russian actors in the West these days?
– It depends what your expectations are on leaving… I left absolutely convinced that I’d end up working here as a driver or courier, and that I’d have a really tough time of it. But then, I’d still have freedom of choice, the freedom to say “yes” and “no” when I felt I needed to, and freedom of expression. Not being able to work in my profession for a while was the price I’d have to pay. I was prepared for it. But then a miracle happened: I was invited to the theatre. I became an actress at the New Riga Theatre, no less. And gradually the realisation dawned that even with things as they were, I could keep working in my profession – I could go on stage. I go on tour a lot, as well, and recite works by Russian poets. That gives me great pleasure. What’s more, I can see there’s now a huge demand for verses like this among my compatriots scattered all over the world. It seems like they need to make contact with Russian poetry as well. I say this because if you are prepared for the worst, then anything good and positive will come as an unexpected and welcome gift. And, you know, it’s easier to start from scratch. But if you head off in the hope of forging some sort of international career then you may be sorely disappointed, because Russian actors aren’t exactly trending, to put it mildly. And things clearly aren’t about to change for some time.
– An obvious advantage of the acting profession is that while you can’t change anything about your role, you can rewatch your films now and then. Over the years, has there been any change in the way you see some of the historical characters you have played in your films? Dr Elizabeth Glinka, for example?
– Oh, that might be taking things too far… No, I don’t watch my films. I don’t have the time and, to be honest, I don’t particularly want to. In the case of Dr Lisa, I knew her personally. We helped her Foundation by taking in poorly children when she asked us to… I can’t imagine what kind of relationship we would have with her now if she was still alive, but my attitude towards the woman I knew and even played in the film has not changed at all. I actually think it’s a terrible deceit to get people like Lisa mixed up in all this sort of agitprop, slapping her on the wrists and demonising her. She shouldn’t have been made to face all that righteous anger. Children are children and they need to be saved. It’s the people who use them for their own nefarious aims who should get all the grief.
– “She was in Moscow by the very early morning but, after the war, she came back a totally different person to the one who left.” That’s a line from Renata Litvinova’s story “To Own and Belong”. Can you imagine going back now?
– No, I don’t think about it. I don’t allow myself to think about it because it I find it very painful. I start navel-gazing. I try not to think about going back at all. It would be wonderful if it happens one day, but I don’t even want to daydream about it right now. I do still have dear friends there, but many of the people I thought of as close friends have ended up on a completely different side of the planet, with different ideas about good and evil. Now, I really don’t see how we’ll meet up and what we’ll talk about.
Now to the matter of returning to the newly restored building of the New Riga Theatre. There have been so many different stages and theatres in your life. What feelings are you going to take away with you from the former tobacco factory, where you made your Riga stage debut almost two years ago in the play Post scriptum?
– We’ve been in the process of leaving this place for so long now… I imagine that one day, when I drive past this building, I’ll no doubt sigh nostalgically. But we haven’t even moved out of here yet. Anyway, a theatre isn’t its four walls, after all. Or rather, it isn’t just the walls. It’s the people who work within those walls and seek to somehow captivate their audience, and, with a bit of luck, to surprise and delight them. They rehearse in the mornings and give performances in the evenings… The story of my life. The people, these shows, they’ll move to another stage, one more spacious and more comfortable than the stage we’re performing on now. That’s all there is to it.
Translated by Lindsay Munford