The Outlook Interview: Oleg Vidov Talks to Michael Scammell; Oleg Vidov, 42, is an ex-Soviet movie star who made more than 30 movies and was a Soviet matinee idol before defecting to Austria last May. The blond, blue-eyed Vidov, whose good looks and popularity have led to his being dubbed "the Soviet Robert Redford," got his first bit part at 16 -- riding a motorcycle in a movie about juvenile delinquents. Shortly afterward, he won admission to the Moscow Film Institute to study acting, and while still a student played a series of romantic leads in Disney-style adventure movies based on Russian literary classics. By the early '80s Vidov was a household name in the Soviet Union. He had married an ex-ballet dancer and lived the comfortable life of a member of the Soviet elite. But acting alone had begun to bore him. Like many actors before him, he felt the urge to prove that he was not just a pretty face and he turned to directing. A short movie about transportation problems in the Soviet Union was heavily criticized for its ideological shortcomings and a feature movie about how the Revolution came to one of the small republics in the Soviet Union was never completed. After his first marriage ended in divorce, Vidov married a Yugoslav actress and got official permission to move to Yugoslavia and work there. Last May he was suddenly given 72 hours notice to return to Moscow. Unwilling to go back, Vidov asked for political asylum in Austria. In August he moved to the United States. Now separated from his Yugoslav wife, Vidov lives in Los Angeles, where he says he feels "very comfortable" among actors and other movie people. He is working intensively to improve his English and looking at parts, but says he won't accept anything until just the right role comes along for his important debut in his adopted country. Michael Scammell is the author "Solzhenitsyn: A Biography" and a fellow at the Wilson Center of the Smithsonian.
Q: What does it mean to be a movie star in the Soviet Union?
A: The official attitude to you depends on whether the movies you star in are considered "useful" or not. "Useless" movies are those that are regarded as pure entertainment--love stories, adventure films, and so on. They are taken note of, but without much enthusiasm. The press prefers to write about movies with Party heroes. One such movie was called "The Communists." It was so boring that they used to bus people from work to see it, but by the time the movie was over the auditorium was always completely empty. Yet they'd spent colossal sums of money on it, and roped in dozens of actors.
Q: How did you live when you were at the height of your success? Did you have a big apartment, an automobile?
A: Of course. But I didn't just ask the government for an apartment, as I could have done. I preferred to stand on my own two feet. I bought myself a cooperative apartment. I didn't want to have to go begging to them to do me a favor.
Q: Is it easy to buy an apartment in the Soviet Union?
A: For me it was easy. My popularity gave me many opportunities denied to other people. The attitude to movie actors in the Soviet Union isn't very different from what it is in the United States. People love actors, they regard them as one of the family. They feel they've shared experiences with them on the screen, and that makes a deep impression on them. I was very well known and the workmen, managers and so on tried to help me. It was a new apartment, which I bought before it was built. The construction went pretty quickly and they all did their best to hurry things along.
Q: Did people used to recognize you in the streets?
A: Yes, of course. It was the usual thing for well-known actors in the Soviet Union. People come up and ask for your autograph, and talk to you in restaurants. Sometimes they'll send over a bottle of champagne. Generally speaking, all doors are open to an actor, right up to the highest level. He can have almost anything he wants. For a director or a scriptwriter it's different. They look at you quite differently, because you're more dangerous. You're a potential threat to the editors, producers and studio bosses. If you come with a questionable project and they allow you to make it and someone in the Central Committee doesn't like it, they can get the sack. It doesn't happen very often, because they take precautions to see that it doesn't, but they can never be sure.
Q: An actor is safe, then?
A: We have a saying, "Keep away from the bosses and close to the food trough." That's where you'll usually find an actor. For the bosses, an actor's just an entertainer. And they feel themselves in charge. The Minister of Films could decide my fate. He could give me work to do, or he could deny me, depending on how he felt, and I was at his mercy when it came to working. However, he couldn't stop me making personal appearances around the country, or stop people from inviting and paying me.
Q. How do personal appearances work in the Soviet Union? Are they centrally planned by the studios or the Ministry?
A. Yes, but it also depended on me and the time I had available. In the Soviet Union there is a central publicity department, which is answer-able to the Union of Cinematographers of the USSR. If they send you out and you do everything they tell you, they take ninety per cent and give you ten. Even so it's not bad. For five appearances you can earn the same as an engineer earns in a month. Many of us used to do them unofficially and keep all the money for ourselves. (We) used to go by plane and helicopter to the most godforsaken and remote places. It was nice, because there were oil workers and miners out there, and their favorite actors would come and it was a lot of fun. There is no part of the Soviet Union that actors don't visit at one time or another. I went as far as the Arctic Circle on one occasion. I felt a certain responsibility toward my fans and liked to meet and mix with them. I think that if American actors ever came to the Soviet Union, the fans would love to meet them too, and would want to drag them all over the place.
Q: Were unofficial appearances allowed by the authorities?
A: No, it was rather dangerous. We used to call them under the counter appearances. They can punish you for it, prevent you from getting certain roles, stop you from working. But you do it anyway, because that's what the people want. It's only natural. A big star, for instance, isn't going to fly to Tomsh to make an appearance when he or she can get the same for appearing in Moscow. But if the fee is two or three times as much, then it's worth it and the person will go.
Q: Did you have an automobile?
A: I had several at different times. Usually it was a Volga, which was a medium sized sedan. When I got married, my wife had one and I had one. It cost about 15,000 rubles at the official price. That's $15,000 at the official rate of exchange, meaning double in real terms. And on the black market, where many people had to buy, it costs double. So you could pay up to $60,000 for such an automobile.
Q: How much did you earn in a good year?
A: It's difficult to say. I never worked when I didn't feel like it. I used to turn down lots of movies. Even so, I suppose I earned about 15,000 rubles (approximatedly $30,000) a year.
Q: It doesn't sound much to me.
A: It is by Soviet standards. A good engineer earns about three and a half thousand rubles. Maybe writers and composers earn more, but that's about all.
Q: Does it depend on your popularity and on box office receipts?
A: Not on the box office, but popularity can help. Basically it depends on the bracket the Film Ministry assigns you to. Any extra you earn depends on personal appearances. If it's income and security you're looking for, then it's much better to be a party bureaucrat. You have bigger and better automobiles, bigger and better apartments, cheap food, a dacha, better health care, trips abroad. My wife, for example, used to fight with me because she wanted me to join the Party, take classes at the party college, and with the help of her contacts become a party boss. We would have had a much better lifestyles, and for her that was elementary logic.
Q: Was it more flattering to her to be the wife of a bureaucrat than the wife of a movie star?
A: She was flattered to be married to a movie actor, but she was a realist, and from the point of view of having power and influence, an actor was no good. My wife liked to have a lot of money--that was her chief characteristic--and she was very tough and militant in her views. She was one of those people who talk all the time and won't listen. We used to fight, and in the end, after six years of marriage, we divorced.
Q: You spent most of your childhood in Alma Ata in Central Asia. Were there many movie houses there? How often did you go?
A. Alma Ata is a pretty big city on the Chinese border. The population was about 600,000 when I was there, and there were several big movie houses. I went as often as I could, mostly on weekends, but since I only had enough pocket money for one show, I used to watch the other shows through a hole in the fence. Apart from that we had winter theaters, which were just like theaters everywhere. There was no television in the fifties in Alma Ata, and in our house we didn't even have a radio.
Q: What movies can you remember seeing there?
A: We were all mad about Tarzan in those days.
Q: Which Tarzan?
A: Johnny Weissmuller, of course. I also remember an American movie called "Indian Grave" and another called "Island of Suffering." Gary Cooper was my favorite actor. I can also remember Bette Davis and Greta Garbo.
Q: Why did they show so many American films in those days? Weren't they unpopular with the authorities?
A: No, they came free of charge, because they had all been captured from the Germans during the war. They were shipped back to the Soviet Union and shown all over the place. They also showed German films. We were all bowled over by "Spartacus" starring Kirk Douglas, and especially by the fact that Douglas was a Russian.
Q: How did you know he was Russian?
A: Simply by word of mouth. Everybody knew it. Just as we knew that Yul Brynner was Russian and had been born in Tashkent. We were very proud of that, and people even used to applaud when they appeared on the screen.
Q: How old were you when you decided to become an actor?
A: It goes back to early childhood. I didn't know I wanted to be an actor, I just wanted to be around the movies in whatever way I could. I started out as a kind of general laborer. I was invited one day to try out for an part. At the time I was working in a hospital in Moscow. I had the idea that I might want to become a doctor. The director asked me what I did and I said: "I'm an orderly." What does that mean?" he said. I told him I looked after patients, carried them about on streetstretchers and so on. "Ah, that's just what I need," he said. "People like you are in very short supply in the movies."
Q: What was the part you tried for?
A: Actually it was the lead at first. They had about forty people there, and when they'd looked at us all they said (was), "You're good, but you're too old for the part." (I was) sixteen. The movie was about juvenile delinquents and the main part was the leader of the gang. In the end I had one scene. I drove up on a motorbike, gave some flowers to the gang leader's girlfriend, she jumped on the back and we drove away, with the gang leader watching us from the background. It was supposed to underline his sadness and isolation, but when the movie came out the scene had been cut. My neighbors were particularly indignant about that, the women especially. They all went to see it because of me. Luckily I made a fleeting appearance at the end so they went home satisfied. Q: What happened after that?
A: I stayed on at Mosfilm, first as a kind of general assistant and then as a lighting technician, and after about a year I got into the Moscow Film Institute. There were 400 applicants for a single place, and I got it.
Q: What was your first big part?
A: It was in "The Snowstorm," based on Pushkin's short story. I played the lead, a young officer by the name of Vladimir, who is poor and falls in love with the daughter of some rich merchants. Vladimir and the girl arrange to be secretly married in church, but Vladimir is overtaken by a snowstorm, loses his way, and arrives late to find that his bride has been married by mistake to someone else. He almost goes mad, returns to his unit at the front and is killed in battle. It was very romantic.
Q. Is it usual in the Soviet Union for a young and inexperienced actor to get such a big part so soon?
A. It happens. I was in my third year by then. But students weren't supposed to accept roles in feature films while they were still at the Institute. I was told that I had to chose between the movie and the Institute, and of course I choose the movie. After that I did "An Extraordinary Miracle," based on a play by Egeny Schwartz (a Soviet dramatist). It's a fairy tale and I played a bear. The story is about a bear that turns into a man. He can do anything he likes except kiss a princess, because if he does he will be turned back into a bear again. In the end he does kiss the princess, but by a miracle remains a man. The moral of the story is that true love can work miracles.
Q: Was there one particular movie which established your reputation and made you into a star? Or did it happen only gradually?
A: In a way it started right away. "The Snowstorm" was very, very popular. Generations of Soviet schoolchildren had grown up on Pushkin's fairy tales and naturally they wanted to see the movie as well.
Q: What else made your name?
A: My biggest success was undoubtedly "The Red Mantle," a Swedish-Danish-Icelandic co-production in which I was given the lead. I spent three months on location in Iceland, two in Stockholm and one month in Copenhagen. The biggest shock for me came on the day of my arrival. I didn't even have a visa. The Soviet officials simply stuck me on the first boat and off I went. When I got to Stockholm for the press conference nobody asked me for the visa or even my passport. This was unthinkable for a Soviet citizen. I couldn't get over it. The same thing happened in Iceland and Denmark.
Q: What was the subject of the movie?
A: It was about the Vikings in the twelfth century. There were lots of battle scenes, hand to hand fighting and that sort of thing. We had to recreate a whole world, and I found it extraordinarily interesting. There was also a love story, of course. The people working on the movie came from six different countries. Our working language was English, and that's where I learned it, in fact, because I had forgotten everything I learned at school.
Q: What part did you play?
A: Prince Hagberd. The movie was based on an ancient saga about Hagberd and Signet. It was a sort of Scandinavian Romeo and Juliet. The role was just perfect for me. It gave me a chance to put everything I had already learned into practice and to make a giant step forward. I was singled out by the critics when it was shown in Cannes, and the movie had enormous success inside the Soviet Union. The Russians have a special regard for the Vikings, based on the fact that they played a role in our history too. This film that made me a star. In Leningrad the lines at the box office were so long that they called out the mounted police to deal with them.
Q: How did all that popularity affect you?
A: Well I didn't have much chance to find out because as soon as "The Red Mantle" was finished I went off to Yugoslavia to play in "Battle on the Neretva." I was a Partisan called Nikola, who gets typhus and dies. Among the other actors in the movie were Orson Welles, Yul Brynner, Kurt Jurgens, Hardy Kruger, Franco Nero and so on. Yul Brynner used to talk to me in Russian. Hardy Kruger had worked in the Soviet Union and used to tell me about his adventures there. He was particularly struck by our monumental sculptures, which he compared with the works of Nazi Germany.
Q: What did you feel about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia?
A: It was a shock, and for me just like a slap in the face, because I was very much in favor of what was taking place in Czechoslovakia, and believed there could be a positive resolution of the problems there. The breakdown was very painful for me.
Q: Did you experience any unpleasantness in Yugoslavia as a result of what was happening?
Q: Yes. I was refused service in a restaurant and told to go to Prague if I wanted a meal. There I could have everything I liked without asking. I said okay and went somewhere else without making a fuss. The man who said it has no idea who I was and in fact I agreed with his sentiments.
Q: Did any of the other actors or movie people say anything to you?
A: No. I was on good terms with everybody and there were no remarks or problems. Later I was in Prague as well, and again had no problems. I did my best wherever I went, and people's attitude toward me was always fine. I was in Japan once to attend the premiere of a Soviet-Japanese co-production, and people recognized me and were very friendly. And in Vietnam, which I visited with a Soviet delegation in 1976 or 1977, they had seen this film, "Moscow, My Love," a love story. I played the part of Volodya, a Soviet sculptor. I was recognized in the street in Vietnam, and the women used to call out, "Volodya, Volodya, Volodya!" It was very pleasant. Movies are people's friends. Through movies we get to know other countries and other peoples, and we find out tht people think, and feel, and dream about the same things everywhere.