Fedir Stryhun: “A Film Is Always a Lottery”
He is one of the most famous Ukrainian actors and played quite a number of film roles. He can talk about his stage impersonations and to wax nostalgically about people he used to know for hours on end. They are the legendary Ivan Mykolaychuk, Leonid Bykov and many others. The audience remembers him for his part in the popular film The Lost Letter based on Nikolai Gogol’s short story. He brilliantly played the part of Cossack Ivan and his brother Andriy. Our today’s issue of BulbaNEWS features an exclusive interview with actor Fedir Stryhun.
You were close friends with actor Ivan Mykolaychuk. People say he often acted as a “battery on the film set.” In particular, during the shooting of The Lost Letter, he would come up with something unbelievable that would otherwise be difficult to achieve following director’s instructions. Can you recall any of such cases?
I can tell you hundreds of stories about how this film was made. Ivan had a motto: “You shoot a film despite everything!” When there was no budget for a full-scale shooting, Mykolaychuk would come up with a trick that would make the episode look even better than if it had been fully funded. For example, the enchanted lake scene was to be filmed in the botanical garden in Sochi. When they calculated the costs, they saw that we would need to triple our budget for the film. Then Ivan said: “Why would you do something like that? I’m going to find you a lake here.” There used to be a hydroelectric power station and a dried bog in Krasnogorivka (Poltava Region), where the shooting took place. He came up with the idea to pump water into the bog. It took a week to fill. When we all came to see it, we were in awe – it was so beautiful. So we filmed the enchanted lake scene there. This is how Ivan’s cinematographic vision helped us out. He had another peculiar feature. His first take always turned out to be the most successful. Whenever they tried to shoot more takes, they would always turn out worse and worse. He was an actor of the first take.
There was an interesting episode in your biography: something related to stealing a copy of the The Lost Letter film footage?
You need to understand that the film was banned from release and stayed on a shelf for seventeen years. So Ivan got this idea that it could get lost and then no one would be able to find it. So he came up with the idea to steal a copy of the film and keep it until better times. That’s what we did. It was all a joke with a noble purpose behind it.
People say Sergey Paradzhanov especially liked this film?
It was his favorite. Despite being banned, the film was shown at the studio – to delegations, to guests. Once, we bumped into Paradzhanov at the Dovzhenko Film Studio, and he started shouting: “Look! The two geniuses walking! They don’t even realize how genius they are! They revealed Gogol’s secrets! You have no idea who you are.” He started hugging us and he was sincerely happy that we made such a good movie.
Who was Ivan Mykolaychuk to you?
I had few friends in my life as close as Ivan was. Every time I came to Kyiv on some business, I would stay at his place. We used to stay up late talking. Ivan often read me his new scripts – first drafts. We never had an argument throughout all the years of our friendship. We felt like we were from the same village. Our companionship was based on songs. He would start humming some melody and I would catch up immediately, and vice versa. Sometimes he asked with astonishment: “How could it be that I’m from Bukovina and you’re from Cherkassy Region?” We were always united by songs. I liked him a lot. I clearly saw all his flaws and vices, but his feature number one was his talent.
In addition to his talent, which of Ivan’s features did you like most?
Ivan was never ashamed of being Ukrainian, never ashamed of his mother tongue. He never felt inferior; he was ever so dignified. Ivan Mykolaychuk, like Sergey Paradzhanov and Oleksandr Dovzhenko, is a great Ukrainian for me.
Film industry put you in touch with many talented people of that time. One of them was Leonid Bykov – a Ukrainian actor and director. What do you remember about him?
Whenever I met Leonid Fedorovych, I felt that I knew him since we were kids. It’s a pity that he had to leave the set of The Lost Letter when he fell off the horse and broke his leg.
All the films with his participation were very popular. We immediately hit it off with him. He was a good man. He and my wife co-starred in Maksym Perepelytsia. He would always send us greetings with friends, kept tabs on our theater work. He was a modest and sensitive actor. I haven’t met a more modest or sensitive man in my life. Whenever we met I always cheered up and things went better for me throughout the day. Everyone adored him at the studio. My heart would skip a beat every time I thought I was lucky to know such a person as Leonid Bykov. He was a naturally talented actor. He liked to play football with village boys. It made him so happy. His jokes were always up to the point and we remembered those years after he told them.
Ukraine submitted the film The Guide for the 66th Film Festival in Cannes. You also played a part in that film, didn’t you?
Yes, I did. I got a call from the director – Oles Sanin – and was offered a part. I respect Sanin a lot, but I agreed to give my response only after reading the script. Frankly, I was contemplating refusal because I didn’t have time. Oles sent me the script. I was captivated, you don’t get that many quality scripts these days. The story, on which the film was based, turned out new and unexpectedly interesting. (The Guide is based on real events about 200 kobza players who, in 1934, were invited to an alleged Academy of Science symposium in Kharkiv. Instead, they were all taken to the woods and shot to death.) I agreed to be involved. I felt at ease working with his team, my scenes were filmed in three days. I have very warm memories of that shooting.
You once called cinema a firebird. What did you mean by that metaphor?
When you work in a theatre, you’re always engaged in a creative process. You perform on stage, you work on your part, you rehearse it dozens of times. In other words, you improve your acting skills. Cinema is different. You never know whether you will be cast or not, what script you will get, what director you will work with… It is all a kind of a lottery. When you’re lucky to be part of a real “crew” who want to make a high-quality film, you become a happy person, it is as if you guessed a number combination and hit the lottery. Cinema employs your talents and skills you received in college, from your professor, from your cooperation with a theater director. Cinema is in a hurry to employ all of this, there is no time to stop and analyze it.
Text: Lesia Kinchura
Photos courtesy of Fedir Stryhun and Archives of Maria Zankovetska Ukrainian National Drama Theater