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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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....