Tuesday, June 21, 2011

An Interview with Helena Yaralova, co-star of Five Hours from Paris

(above:) Helena Yaralova in Five Hours from Paris

The Russian Film Festival
The Toronto Jewish Film Festival

Director Leonid Prudovsky’s Five Hours from Paris (2009) is a poignant love story about a divorced cab driver, Yigal, who meets Lina, a music teacher and married woman on the brink of leaving Israel to join her husband in Canada. Neither is looking for romance, but somehow they find themselves drawn to each other, and their conventional lives are radically transformed. As Lina, Russian-Israeli actor Helena Yaralova gives a nuanced but mesmerizing performance.

Helena Yaralova
was born in 1964 in Kiev, into a doctor’s family.

As a child and adolescent, she enjoyed dancing and figure skating, which blossomed into a career beginning in 1987 at the Moscow Sovremennik Theatre.

She immigrated to Israel in 1993.

As an actress, singer and one of the organizers and founders of the Malenki (Russian for “small”) Theatre, she was nominated for the Abraham Ben Yosef Award for Excellence in the Performing Arts.

In Israel, Helena Yaralova dedicated more than 13 years to the Yiddishspiel Theater, and also appeared in films such as
Kedma (2002) by the well-known Israeli director Amos Gitai. She is also the host of the TV program, Female Territory, on the Russian-Israeli channel Israel Plus.

In October 2009, she was in a serious car accident and was severely injured; however, in 2010 she was back to work, performing on stage and in the cinema.

You were in Leonid Prudovsky's short film,
Next Year in Toronto (2007), in which you play a similar role to the one you play in his feature film, Five Hours from Paris. How much were you involved in the development of the character you were to play in Five Hours from Paris?

With Next Year in Toronto, Leonid Prudovsky was training before the big jump. When making this short movie, he was thinking about the character and where he could go with it. The role of the main heroine in Five Hours from Paris was written specifically for me.

When I decided to act in this movie, I wanted to choose my co-star myself. I only wanted to do the movie with Dror Keren because there is a very strong chemistry between us. I knew that with another actor the movie would have been a simple love story, without the passion Dror and I could bring to the scenario of a married Russian woman meeting and feeling a spark with an Israeli guy. I wanted to bring the expression to a higher level—a meeting of cultures and true love. Leonid and a scriptwriter told me that they knew everything about [the male character]. Well, as it was written by men, we initially didn’t have a clue about her. And so I understood that the responsibility for this character rested solely with me. I needed to show the audience that she’s not a simple woman or a simple pianist, but that she’s something much greater……And it seems to me that I succeeded. I love this movie and this image [of her]. I would also like to say that Dror was amazing.

(above:) Yaralova with Dror Keren in Five Hours from Paris

You have made several films with Leonid Prudovsky [Five Hours from Paris, Next Year in Toronto and Dark Night (2005)]. Can you talk about the working relationship that you have developed with him?

When I first received the script for [the short film] Dark Night, I refused the role. I didn’t want to play a Palestinian: this was not me. But Leonid rewrote the script a few times and came to me again and again. In my own mind, I had already decided that I would do the film, although I kept insisting that I did not want to do it. Then one day, Leonid came to my apartment and was talking, explaining, convincing… I was listening to him and thinking, he is so young, so persistent, meticulous in his work and so obstinate. And finally I agreed, surprising even myself. After he left, I got upset as I asked myself, why did I agree? But it was done and I couldn’t change anything. Today, Dark Night is my favourite movie. When we finished working on this project, Leonid asked me if I would like to work with him again in the future. And I answered: Lenechka, in any project, always.

Could you talk about your experience working with Amos Gitai on Kedma

Amos Gitai is very different. He has a special approach to filming. He likes to make spur-of-the-moment changes on the set, which at first, had actors in disbelief and shock. He has his own order of doing things, which to others, appears to be a big mess. From him, I learned that you must always be true to yourself and defend your beliefs, but that you must also respect others and their opinions. I am a very freedom-loving person, but I understood, that when he demanded something from me, I would have thirty seconds to hear his command, [process it] and act.

And thanks to him, I have already experienced the red carpet, thousands of spectators and a luxury hotel at the Cannes Film Festival – the dream of every movie actor.

(above:) Yaralova in Amos Gitai's Kedma

Can you talk about your training and experience at the Moscow Art Theatre?

I went to school at the Moscow Art Theatre studio, and after my graduation, worked at the Sovremennik Theatre. This theatre is one of the five best among numerous Moscow theatres. That’s where I gained the classical old school experience—that’s where the Stanislavsky system was born and developed. It was conceived as a venue for naturalistic theatre. That’s where everything began. By the way, Habima (one of the best Israeli theatres) started from The Moscow Art Theatre. Study is a process, and without a structured educational process there are no positive results.

What made you move to Israel?

During the time I worked in Moscow at the prestigious theatre, I became a movie actress and had a baby. Everything was fine, except for my marriage. I got divorced, and knew that I needed to find my purpose in life. There was no Zionist motivation. I was an only child and pretty naïve. However, the moment had come for me to make a decision. My grandmother and aunt had already moved to Israel by that time. This was around 1993. People were able to travel to Israel as tourists, but they would come back and say, it’s impossible to live there—it’s a spa à Shangri-la. I decided to visit this country with my child, as a tourist, just for two weeks. From the very first day, it appeared to me that there were disadvantages and advantages to living in Israel. I came back home, filed the application and… The funny fact is that I was right about both the advantages and disadvantages which were waiting for me.

Can you talk about how you were able to adapt to Israeli culture, and Hebrew?

There one thing I realized about Israel – either you accept this country the way it is, or you don’t. [The country] mirrors your attitude and if you accept Israel, it will accept you as well.

The same thing with the language. At first, it seemed that all my efforts disappeared like water in the sand. For example, when a house is being built, one starts with digging a hole and then the foundation is poured before the house is actually built. And so when I thought that everything was disappearing in the sand, I soon realized that I was building a base. When I heard Hebrew and its intonation, I found it to be very logical. There is a lot more to this language than meets the eye, in terms of speaking and understanding. I love languages - Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew, all languages. Every language has its own philosophy. “Ya" (the Russian word for “you”) begins with the last letter of the Russian alphabet. In Hebrew, the word “Ani” (the Hebrew word for “I”) starts with the first letter of the alphabet. Here is the difference between Russian and Hebrew cultures. In Russian culture, there is no respect for the individual, and the letter in the alphabet expresses it. In Hebrew, on the other hand, the person gets respected; it is more positive and it is reflected in this letter as well.

Can you talk about the type of training that you received during your years at the Yiddishspiel Theatre?

I was very lucky to find myself working in this theatre. My Dad and Grandmother spoke Yiddish, but we didn’t use it at home. I was born in Kiev and didn’t want to speak Yiddish, as I didn’t want to seem different among typical Russian girls.

For the past 13 years, I have worked on learning Yiddish. It is an amazing language which has so many words that define happiness and misfortune. It is similar to the words used by [Inuit] people to define snow. They are not just words, there is depth in their meaning.

I acted in many plays in this theatre but one day I woke up and knew that I needed to do something new for my soul. [So in 1997], my ex- husband, Michael Teplizki, and I decided to create a new theatre: the Malenki Theatre. Today this is a well-known theatre, which has received various prizes from the Israeli academy.

Do you find that you still get typecast in Russian-speaking roles?

What roles should I play? This is the reality: I play Russian characters. I cannot play a pure Israeli woman: Why should a director cast me for that, when there are so many remarkable Hebrew-speaking actresses? Once I was asked to audition for the role of a typical Sabra from Jerusalem. But the people who were born in Jerusalem speak differently than people from Tel-Aviv. I wasn’t accepted for this movie. But I was cast for a different film, where the director decided to change the character from the Sabra Yael to the Russian Elena. I can work on my accent every day and get the perfect “r” and “het”—but what for? I prefer to stay with my Russian-speaking roles because again, I have a right to choose what I want to do.

(above:) Yaralova in a production of the Malenki Theatre