Olga Surkova interviews Tarkovsky

To the actor, film must be like life itself:
a riddle, a secret, a mystery

This article is taken from the Swedish daily newspaper Expressen, Sunday January 20, 1985. Thanks to Lasse Ulander for tracking down the article for us. Translated from Russian to Swedish by Sanna Witt. Re-translated, into English, by Trond of Nostalghia.com. The article is an excerpt from the original writing by Olga Surkova, first published in Iskusstvo Kino [reference here]. The full Surkova work also made its way into Sculpting in Time.

To me, it is easier to work with film than with theater. In the case of film, the sole responsibility for everything rests on me. In theater, the responsibility of the actor increases tremendously.

When an actor arrives at the set, it is not at all necessary for him to be acquainted with the director's ideas and intentions in their completeness. It is even disadvantageous that he himself shapes his own role. The film actor should act in a spontaneous and intuitive manner under the various circumstances prescribed by the director.

The director's role is only to see to it that the actor is put into the appropriate state of mind, and then to facilitate the actor's remaining totally believable. This can be achieved in a number of ways — it depends on exactly what actor one is dealing with. It is necessary to coach him into a psychological state that is impossible to simulate. The role of the film director is thus to see to it that the actor is on the screen expressing existential truth.

In front of the camera lens, the actor must remain in a truthful and spontaneous condition. He must exist; exist in a highly natural manner. What remains to be done by the director is just the actual editing of the bits and pieces of film, which are mere copies of what actually transpired in front of the camera.

Within the discipline of Art Cinema, it is impossible to reach the level of contact with the audience that the actor's immediate presence would seem to offer, and which is so fascinating within the discipline of Theater. Therefore, film can never replace theater. This was a popular misconception a few years ago — the theater makes possible exactly this intimate and direct connection between the audience and the stage. Film exists by virtue of its ability to recreate, an infinitely number of times, the exact same moment in time. It is by nature nostalgic. In theater, everything evolves, it lives and moves. Theater is another way of realizing Man's need to create.

The film director is in many ways like a collector. His object of affection — the images — is Life itself, forever frozen within a vast amount of — to him — intimate details, pieces and fragments, whether there be actors present or not...

The theater actor may, as Bárret puts it, be compared to a sculptor whose material is snow. The play exists only for as long as the actor is physically present and alive in body and soul. Without the actor, there simply is no theater.

In theater, every actor must individually shape his entire role, from beginning to end, and to shape his emotions in correspondence to the overall idea and context of the play. In film, however, it is crucial that an actor avoids building up his role using his own intellectual faculties. Instead, his sole task is to lead us nearer to life itself, i.e., to be genuine, truthful and natural. Nothing more, and nothing less.

When working on a film, I try to converse as little as possible with the actors, and I strongly resist the actor himself attempting to put his individual scenes into context with the whole, sometimes even with the scenes immediately preceeding or following. In the first scene of Mirror, for example, when the lead actress sits on a fence smoking a cigarette waiting for her husband, I preferred that the actress, Margarita Terekhova, not know the details of the script. That is, she did not know whether the man would return in the final scenes, or if he was gone forever. This was done for the purpose that she at that moment would exist in the same way that the person she was portraying once existed, without knowledge of life's future events.

If the actress had known that the main character's spouse was never to return, she would undoubtedly had in advance let the desperateness of the situation express itself through her acting. At some level, even if just subconsciously, we would have discerned this. She would have disclosed her knowledge of, and attitude towards, events to follow, as the knowledge of such details surely cannot be hidden on the big screen.

In this scene, it was absolutely crucial that no such details be given away prematurely. It was therefore required of Terekhova that she experienced this instant exactly the way she would have done in real life. She must thus hope, mistrust, and then regain hope, without having access to "the Solutions' Manual".

Within the framework of the given circumstances — in this case the framework consisted in the waiting for the husband — she was forced to live through some secret piece of her own personal life, a piece that I fortunately had no knowledge of.

The most important thing within film art is that the actor expresses some condition or another in a manner that is perfectly natural to that particular actor, and that corresponds to his physical, psychological, emotional and intellectual makeup. How he subsequently expresses that condition is completely irrelevant to me. Put another way, I have no right to impose upon him some particular form; after all, we all experience the same situation in our own completely unique way. It is this exceptional expressiveness that is, without comparison, the most important aspect of the film actor.

In order to put the actor into the correct state, the director must be able to clearly sense this state within himself. Only in this way can one strike the correct chord for the scene at hand. It is, for example, impossible to enter an unfamiliar house and start shooting an in advance rehearsed scene — an unfamiliar house inhabited by strangers is of course not able to communicate anything to my cast.

It is the tangible and accurate state of a human that is the central and completely concrete goal in working on any one particular scene in the film — the condition of soul that determines the atmosphere of the take, the main intonation that the director wants to transfer to the actor.

Every actor does of course require his own method. For example, as I already mentioned, Margarita Terekhova was not familiar with the script in its entirety. She merely acted her own fragmented parts. When she eventually clued in to the fact that I had no intention of revealing to her the sequence of events or the significance or context of her own role, she was extremely perplexed... It was in this way, then, that she intuitively brought about the mosaic of acted pieced that I later put together into the complete image.

Repeatedly during my work I have encountered actors that never completely dared trust my conception of the role. They have for some reason not been able to avoid interfering, as they considered my approach to be unprofessional. In such cases I have considered them to be unprofessional actors, and I still do. My opinion is actually that a professional actor easily and naturally, without any noticeably effort, at any turn ought to be able to receive and accept any instruction, and to be spontaneous in his individual reactions within every improvised situation.

Personally, I am only interested in working with that type of actor. Other actors always act in a stereotypical manner, in my opinion.

When René Clair once was asked about his work with his actors, he answered that he didn't work with them, he just payed them. This paradoxical and somewhat provocative thought contains within itself deep roots in the unique relationship that exists between director and film actor. And in the cynicism apparently contained within the famous French director's words, there is embedded a deep respect for the acting profession. Here is expressed a deep trust in the competent professional. Work must be done by the director only with the kind of person that is not well-suited to be an actor.

But what can we then say about Antonioni's work with the cast of L'Avventura, about how Fellini and Bergman work with their actors, or Orson Welles in Citizen Kane? Behold, they don't appear to work at all! One simply gets a feeling of unique truthfulness with the characters. But this is a qualitatively different, and unique to film, truthfulness, that in principle is to be distinguished from expressiveness in the theatrical sense of the word.

The film actor must have an innocent and naive personality, he or she must be honest and frank. He should not be prone to unnecessary brooding, but rather to simple trust... As soon as he starts to philosophise over his part, his role in the film and its overall realization, he — in my opinion — immediately loses some of the most valuable and most fundamental. Not even the director, who knows exactly what he is reaching for, knows the result ahead of time.

When actors with an analytic, reasoning disposition know the whole scenario, they presume that they have knowledge of the final film, or at least they desperately try to imagine it in its final form, as if it was all about a theater piece and that they have just begun rehearsing a role for the theater. This is where they commit their first error.

The actor who believes that he knows how the film ought to be, begins to give form to his own ideas of the role, which turns out to be fateful to the film in its totality. Whether he wishes to or not, he undermines through his acting the very idea of film acting and film art as such.

As I have already pointed out, different actors require different methods — at times one and the same actor requires different methods in different cases. Here, the director must be innovative in his attempts at reaching the desired results. That reminds me about Nikolaj Burljajev, who played Boriska the bellmaker's son in Andrei Rublov. During the shoot I was forced to continually through the assistants let him understand that I was extremely unhappy with him and that I might have to re-shoot the scenes using a different actor.

It was necessary for me to infuse within him the sensation of an impending disaster and to have him gripped by uncertainty. As an actor, Burljajev is exceptionally unconcentrated and artificial. He has an affected temperament. I still don't think that I in his case succeeded in reaching the results I had desired with this film. He does, after all, not act on level with my favorite actors in the film: Irma Rausch, Solonitsyn, Grinko...

To clarify what I mean, we can consider Bergman's film Shame. There exists hardly one single episode in that movie where the actors "betray" the director's idea. It is completely hidden behind the character parts' living lives, dissolved within it. They act in complete agreement with these circumstances, without trying to get across some idea or indicate some attitude towards the present.

One cannot summarily describe these people as good or bad. No, it is all considerably deeper and more complicated than that — just as in real life... I would not, for example, categorically claim that the main character (von Sydow) is a bad person. Maybe they're all both good and bad. But that is not what is important.

The most important thing is that no suggestion of bias is allowed to exist with the actor, and that the director makes use of the circumstances to explore the multitude of Man's choices — and not to merely illustrate some a priori preconceived idea.

Notice Max von Sydow's harrowing portrayal of the part. It revolves around a very fine human being, a musician, sensible and kind-hearted. After a while it becomes clear that he is actually a wretched coward. This is the way it can be in real life, but note that not every courageous person is a good person, and a coward need not always be bad. Yes, he has a weak character and his wife is considerably stronger than him, even though she is afraid as well.

Her strength is sufficient to overcome the difficulties. Max von Sydow's hero suffers from being weak and vulnerable and to not be capable of bearing his part of the difficulties, which he by all available means attempt to avoid, crawl away from, shield himself from with his hands — but naively and honestly...

When life still forces him to defend himself and his wife, he is immediately transformed into a creep. He loses the good that once existed in him, but becomes at the same time in this his new quality a necessity to his wife, who now looks to him for protection and salvation — this in spite of the fact that she earlier on despised him. He hits her in the face and and screams at her to get lost, but she crawls after him. One begins to discern the wisdom behind the ancient proverb on "the activity of evil, and the passivity of the good."

But in what a complex manner this is expressed! At first, Bergman's hero cannot even behead a chicken, but as soon as he finds means with which to defend himself against life, he becomes a cruel cynic. One who fears nothing. He acts, kills, and doesn't lift a finger to help his fellow human being.

We are dealing with the fact that one must be an upright man in order to feel disgust and dread in the face of such atrocities. When Man loses this dread he loses his spirituality, his spiritual faculties. In this case, it was the war that provoked this kind of animosity in these people. War becomes just a device used by Bergman to communicate his view of the human condition.

In another one of his movies Through a Glass Darkly, it is illness that plays this same role. To tie all this in with our discussion about the role of the actor, I want to point out the fact that Bergman never permits his actors to themselves be "above" the kind of circumstances into which the characters of their parts are injected. This is very important. In film art the director must breathe life into the actor — not convert him into a megaphone for his own ideas....

To the film's audience, the significance of what is happening to the person in each film frame is shrouded in darkness, and each person remains — as in real life — a spectacular secret, one which in principle can never be fully explored. In theater, on the other hand, it is the ritual itself, the stage play and the idea behind it, that in its final expression must remain an infinitely attractive and still incomprehensible secret.

In theater, it is the director's own idea that is at the foundation of the cast's acting. In film, the origin of the acting must be hidden, as film art reflects human life, which of course is largely impossible to comprehend. The theater actor fills a function in an intellectually constructed ritual. The director's thoughts are transmitted through the tangible presence on stage of the person playing the part. In film, every instant fixed in time must contain something of the very essence of real life's innermost being.

The cinematographical paradox consists in exactly this, that a living soul is reconstructed in a cold, mechanical mirror....  end block

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