Actors and actresses live through lots of lives, which makes their own life paths quite unique compared to those of ordinary people. In her exclusive interview with Lara Palmer, Varvara Shmykova dwells on being different, keeping cool-headedness in case of success, switching from the ‘actor’ to the ‘commoner’ mode, and questions to ask God.
Lara Palmer: Let’s begin with our meeting in Dubai at the show, titled ‘The Broken Hearts Club’. Could you talk about how it came about and who organised it?
Varvara Shmykova: That fantastic adventure is yet another proof of creative people being unable to take it easy but always feeling like making up something new. Philipp Nesterenko and Elizabeth Paliy, wonderful Dubai- based friends of mine, set up a company — Arete — to enrich Dubai’s evenings with bright cultural events. Their idea was to start with something simple. Exactly what it could be was not clear at all — a fairy-tale-like fetching no idea what from the middle of nowhere. Via Zoom, we decided to stage a show — from scratch — resonating with St. Valentine’s Day. On board, besides Liza, Philipp, and me, was also Misha Shamkov, my comrade-in-arms, co-worker, and classmate on Victor Ryzhakov’s course at Moscow Art Theatre School-Studio. Jumping ahead, I must say all of us being like a hand and a glove, working together was really easy and enjoyable.
We focused on love and relationships: a mother, a daughter, a father, a son, first love, first break-up, teenage experiences, and dreams of a long happy life together in the future. Little by little, Misha and I came up with lines, prompted by our hearts, Philipp and Liza making their contributions too. Having worked out the guidelines to follow, we eventually ended up with a very sincere show for which I am terribly grateful to Philipp Nesterenkoand Elizabeth Paliy. We were insanely lucky to have such a wonderful performance venue and an incredibly creative team, running it. They rushed headlong into the project to provide a perfect stage, complete with a superb light and sound background for us.
L.P.: One of the things I’d like to understand about you is, at the end of the day, film or stage?
V.Sh.: In my case, both a film role and one in the theatre have equal chances of being crowned with success. Choosing between the theatre and the cinema is just like deciding where to go out tonight: to see a ballet performance, hear an opera, listen to some recitation of poetry, or attend a rock concert. All these are just different ways of conveying the same messages. At first, I played in The Young Actors Musical Theatre, then, studied at State Institute of Theatrical Art, and most of my life has been dedicated to the stage format. Nevertheless, my being a stage actress did not prevent me from falling in love with an absolutely different world — the cinema. So, I find choosing between stage and film as difficult as deciding whom I love more — my mother or my father. I love them both but in different ways.
Far from all are blessed with the talent of being at home both on stage and on the screen. Some actors and actresses find the theatre too hard, so they can work only in the cinema. It has to do with what you feel deep inside and the specifics of your talent. I am good at both and feel very happy about it.
L.P.: What’s the greatest aspect of acting?
V.Sh.: It’s a chance of living through different lives. First, for a whole month or even longer, you figure out, take apart, and ponder on the plot of a play to be brought to life on stage. Then, for another six months or so, you plunge into this new story from head to toe, so to speak. It’s a very effective psychotherapy actually.
L.P.: What do they mean saying an actor has taken off — inability to take off the mask and step out of the role?
V.Sh.: There were times when I couldn’t figure it out. Here I am, off the stage — the same Varya Shmykova that I was before I went on stage — taking off my manteau, mounting my moped, and riding home. Then, one fine day, I got it — it happens when you get very deep into a story, literally live in it for a considerable amount of time, and then, discover that for some reason or other, it does not let you go. Once, I played in a show, packed with all kinds of love troubles, and, strange as it may sound, a week before we went on stage, I found myself involved in different squabbles, behaving differently, and feeling suspicious of people around me. A man-woman love story being a hot button for me at that moment, it took me as much time to get out of the story as it had taken to get into it. When you’ve got no problems of the kind in reality and can have an eye-to-eye talk with yourself, you won’t get stuck. You will just play your stage or film role in dialogue with yourself, without turning.
L.P.: How do you pull yourself out of such a state, living in the theatre 24/7? V.Sh.: You’ve got to be able to get out of such a state. What helps me in this respect is following my everyday routine and doing household chores. My son Korney was born in February, but already in April, I had to start working on a new role, always keeping in mind I had a baby son to take care of now. In the theatre, we have the so-called ‘table periods’ when all production workshops en banc and the director sit around a table for five to ten days, reading and discussing the new play to be staged. On such days, I would take Korney with me. Then, rehearsals would come, and Korney would stay at home with his Daddy, Granny, or Nanny. At that point, I would realise I would have only five hours to rehearse my role once and for all, as I wouldn’t be able to return to rehearsing it even in my thoughts. So, I would put all of myself into my work, engaging every single bit of my imagination, creativity, and mental energy, knowing I would go back to being a mom after that, and there would be no second chance for me. Of course, I would keep the leitmotif in my mind, but I would be busy going out for a stroll with my baby, feeding him, doing the laundry, etc. That’s when I realised that it’s actually very easy to be always fully present here and now. You do the work you love, then, leave the theatre house, and just go back to your private life - your husband, your son, and your leisure activities. That’s what the switching skill is all about for me.
L.P.: I know you’ve become religious, faith, hope, and love guiding you in your life now. Are there some inner commandments or, maybe, principles you abide by?
V.Sh.: I’ve always been apprehensive of such big words as ‘commandments’ and ‘principles’. I just try to always do things that are in my line and resonate with me. My inner strength and steadfastness never prevent me from being able to make compromises in favour of somebody else or things like material well-being. In the meanwhile, every time, it proves to be some outlandish story, like in the case of ‘The Broken Hearts Club’. At first, the whole thing was utterly terrifying, completely unknown, totally unclear, unidentified at all, and never ever explored in any way before. There were bags and bags of fears and doubts — more than enough and some more to spare, so to speak. I was here, they were there, while the show was nowhere. On the other hand, that’s exactly what excited and ignited me to want to be part and parcel of it. All things difficult before being easy, it was a classic case of the hands doing what the eyes were fearing. All of us as well as the producers and organisers were in fear and doubt, but in the end, everything worked out well for us. So, the only ‘commandment’ I abide by is: Listen to thy heart, thy intuition, and trust thyself!
Hearing yourself in the hustle and bustle of our digital world, with stereotypes, clichés, tags, labels, and stickers all over it — leave school, go to university, find a job, get married, start a family, and follow a lifestyle — is no easy matter. This pattern gives you no time to stop and look around. Whereas, with most Europeans and Americans, the story is different — upon leaving school, you take a year off to look into yourself and at the world around you as well as to go travelling and talk to different people. Such stops are a must-have throughout your entire life. Every now and then, everyone needs a moment of silence to hear themselves and the beating of their heart.
L.P.: ‘The Chicks’ is a truly exciting series you can watch in one breath. What was the most memorable thing in that period?
V.Sh.: Thanks a million! I’m also a great fan of the series and subscribe to every word you said about it. Even knowing the plot with all its twists and turns, I still cannot but watch it with bated breath, rejoice for the couple, and feel nervous just the same. I don’t know why some performers never watch their projects afterwards. After all, you must look at yourself from outside and assess your work objectively. Besides, how can you fail to enjoy something you once took part in?
We were extremely fortunate in terms of the creative process. It was a company of old friends, so I knew many crew members quite well — the director, the art director, three camera-men, as well as Lena Kazakevich, Yury Nikogosov, Misha Dementyev, and Lyuba. I’m not afraid to open up, yet every time, I cannot help worrying, be it a hall with a sitting capacity of 1,000 or a small filming team of five people.
During the filming process, you sometimes find yourself in rather difficult situations. The story I’m going to tell you about is already well-known. So, there we are, shooting a scene in a flat, packed with consultants, artists, assistants, make-up artists, and costume designers. Outside, next to an entrance, there’s a playback station with lots of monitors, showing images from different cameras. Near the next entrance, there’s a buffet for you to get a cup of coffee, some biscuits, or a portion of porridge. The film crew members are scattered around the yard among the cars, parked here and there. It goes without saying, all that was arranged officially, our administration having notified the local dwellers. At some point, we — Edik, Anton, and me — are in the middle of the scene, having fun, laughing, and, kind of, playing a game. All of a sudden, we hear the sound of a gunshot — a second-floor dweller has opened fire! In the meantime, we are already inside our illusion and cannot quickly grasp what’s going on. Laughing, we cannot believe it’s for real — so surrealistic it seems. Somebody yells, ‘Everybody down! Get out of the room! Now!’ Still, we cannot help laughing hysterically.
We hear more and more bangs, ringing out — the man keeps shooting! Someone calls the police. Our second filming crew, working in town, is about to return any time now. Everybody is trying to get in touch with them to warn them not to, as it’s dangerous around here, nobody knowing what on earth is going on, but they are out of reach.
In the end, everything turned out quite prosaic — a retired cop had got drunk by 2 p.m. and was irritated by our activities, interfering with his precious rest. The search of his flat revealed seven combat weapons. He had fired his Saiga hunting rifle.
The shift over in the evening, I was still laughing while recalling the incident until some crew guys told me about that Saiga gun. Thanks God, the gunman hadn’t aimed at anybody, shooting randomly, just damaging a car headlight and hitting a tiny outbuilding in the yard. Later, we saw that bullet hole — an impressive one indeed!
L.P.: When ‘The Chicks’ series was released, you woke up famous. What’s it like to be recognised? How has it changed your life?
V.Sh.: A while ago, I watched ‘Babylon’, featuring Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie who usually answers the question this way: ‘I was born a Star!’ I have a similar feeling about myself. Despite my shyness, this is exactly how I present myself in all my shows and projects. Even if I have just a couple of phrases to pronounce on stage or camera, I do it as if I were Faina Ranevskaya in her best years — The Queen of The Episode. I don’t mind playing even small roles. Actually, it would be too farfetched to say I woke up to find myself in great demand. Popularity is all very well, but acting is still never child’s play or a piece of cake for me, and I often feel afraid and much excited, facing the unpredictable. I never know what kind of spectators will come to see me and in what mood they will be. In the meantime, it’s of vital importance to strike an open and sincere dialogue with them, which requires a special state of mind and heart.
L.P.: Many are sure to read this interview thanks to the next question: How can we learn to accept and love ourselves as we are, with all our peculiarities, freckles, extra kilos, non-standard smiles, and suchlike features? What’s the shortest way to becoming body positive?
V.Sh.: Many see me on Instagram, but it must be kept in mind that representing only 10-15% of my life, it’s a distorting mirror. As to accepting yourself the way you are, you do it every day, and it’s just like catching that fleeting momentary feeling of happiness. A show Misha and I once played in has an episode where I talk sincerely about accepting your own appearance. When we were writing it, I had no premonition it would become such a trigger for me, even though it’s actually a story from my childhood — me thinking myself unattractive, with lots of boys and girls around calling me names and bullying me.
It was 20 years ago, but speaking about it, I still start trembling deep inside. I remember that little girl, looking so different from the others — running around like mad, her hair sticking in all directions, and her voice sounding rather unusual. Her non-standard appearance causes curiosity, but oftentimes, people are not prepared to accept it as something normal, a standard cover-girl image ruling their minds.
It has taken me 20 years to realise that being non-standard is actually my outstanding kicker. Nobody else has such a sense of humour, manners, habits, and body shape like mine. So, I am truly one of a kind — outstanding rather than non-standard! That’s what is interesting about me.
Now, I can handle everything, knowing my worth as well as how to present myself and not to become a pushover. Nevertheless, despite all this big talk, every time I come across a hater’s comment on my Instagram page, I cannot help feeling upset. Anyway, Olga Buzova’s words express it best of all: ‘Live here and now! Have fun! You’ve got only one life!’
L.P.: Speaking of people worth quoting, can you think of a person from your past you’d enjoy talking to and sharing a cup of tea or a glass of wine with?
V.Sh.: I’d really like to talk to some of my long-gone relatives, my great- grandfather whom I never saw for one. I’m 31 years old, and it’s probably time I got interested in my roots. My husband Danya’s genealogical tree is very branchy, going back all the way to the year 1800, and he knows all about his ancestors, having recorded his grandmother’s memories and copied his great-grandfathers’ memoirs, left for their sons. So, Danya has gone much farther in understanding who he is. And I’ve still got a lot to catch up on in this respect.
I’ve got to figure out where I — ‘Varvara-the-Cat, killed by her curiousity’ so many times ever since early childhood for being interested in everything and wanting it most — actually come from. Being quiet, keeping a low profile, modesty decorating a girl — all that is definitely not my cup of tea. What exactly has been driving me all my life? Whatever it is, I am really happy this backbone of mine has remained unbroken and unbeaten but grown and become strong as a rock, so there’s no way it could be broken now.
L.P.: Are there any questions you would like to ask Life, God, or the Universe? V.Sh.: Not so long ago, Kseniya Anatolyevna Sobchak asked me a very good question from ‘The Simpsons’: ‘If there is a God, why then, all kinds of awful things keep happening? ’ Still, I am a firm believer in justice. No matter what! Yes, there are questions that we’ll be trying to answer only by knocking on our hearts’ and Heaven’s doors while living with our souls filled with love, notwithstanding any trials, troubles, or tribulations.