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No Greek Tragedy: An Interview with Stathis Papadopoulos

Imran Khan

Greek actor Stathis Papadopoulos was poised to be the next big thing in Greek cinema following his bold and equally sensitive turn in Constantine Giannaris' From the Edge of the City more than 15 years ago. But Papadopoulos' star never ascended the way it should have.

Stathis Papadopoulos never planned a life in the movies, but he seemed primed for it all the same. A Pontic-Greek born in Kazakhstan, Papadopoulos arrived in Greece as a young child who spent his days no differently than any other of his peers. Roller-skating, summer camp, playing hooky from school, and hanging out with other kids were pretty much the norm for the prepubescent. By the time he rounded the curve of adolescence, Papadopoulos had started engaging in far more daring excursions into teenage delinquency (a constant absence from school bought him another year of high school of which he repeated missed classes). Later on, bored with daily teenage life, Papadopoulos managed to secure a part-time job, curiously working as a go-go boy in a night club after seeing a flyer for an audition in the window of a club. It was here, dancing in a cage of a gay club, that the future actor would catch the attention of a film director looking to make a film about dealers and hustlers among immigrant Greek youth. Constantine Giannaris, who was scoping the local clubs and neighborhoods for potential actors, spotted Papadopoulos dancing and approached him concerning the role. In Papadopoulos, Giannaris would find a future muse; intrigued and moved by the young man’s account of life as an immigrant teen, the director decided upon Papadopoulos as his leading actor for a soon-to-be-written script.

If you have never heard of Stathis Papadopoulos, you can be forgiven. The actor had a most promising debut in Giannaris’ film From the Edge of the City (1998), a film that would go on to earn the director a number of awards and award nominations as well as spotlight Greece’s newest talent, Papadopoulos. Giannaris’ film captured a subculture and urban lifestyle rarely depicted in Greek cinema, namely the lives of Pontic-Greeks and immigrants living on the fringes of Greek culture. Papadopoulos played Sasha, a young refugee from Kazakhstan who spends much of his days embroiled in the summery exploits of bored delinquents and dreaming of a grander life of privilege. Sasha’s descent into crime and prostitution not only strains his relationship with his family but also poses serious questions of identity for the young teen. Caught between his cultural ties to Kazakhstan and his home life in the outskirts of Athens, Sasha begins a downward spiral of self-destructive behaviour which costs him his friends and nearly his life. What could have been a run-of-the-mill social misfit film becomes a powerful examination on the struggles of Pontic-Greek immigrants in the hands of Giannaris and, through Papadopoulos, a distressing and moving portraiture of an alienated teenage life. The actor’s unflinching and brave portrayal of a young hustler on the streets of Menidi, Greece courting the middle and lower classes of either sex won him much critical praise. Papadopoulos had matinée idol-looks, but his ability to translate the internalized fears and desires of marginalized youth into palpable screen presence belied the handsome surface of his boyish charm.

For all its praise and notoriety, the film was not without its problems. Life following From the Edge of the City proved to be troublesome and sometimes dangerous for the young actor who, at times, ended up having to fend for his life amidst the homophobic fears the film conjured up in some quarters of the public. Nevertheless Papadopoulos continued whatever momentum he had and steadily worked at gaining entrance into the film industry which had just taken notice of the rising star.

By now Papadopoulos had become Giannaris’ muse and the actor would be appear in the director’s most commercial film, featuring an ensemble cast of some of Greece’s most popular actors. The sensual, summer drama, One Day in August (2001), was essentially a series of episodic storylines featuring an assortment of characters who find themselves caught up in moments of crisis. Papadopoulos plays Fotis, a mysterious, suave hitchhiker picked up by a couple and brought back to their home. There, he drugs the husband and proceeds to sleep with the wife and then makes off with their money afterwards. It was a small role for Papadopoulos compared to his other films, but the commercial success of the film promised that his face would be known outside the arthouse film crowds and hopefully make an impression in the mainstream market of Greek cinema.

Papadopoulos once again reunited with director Giannaris for his next film, Hostage (2005). The actor’s turn as an Albanian man who hijacks a bus full of Greek travellers sparked controversy across the country. With his performance came accolades and award-nominations but it was not without the scorn of certain quarters of the Greek public where the Greek-Albanian conflict continues to be a highly sensitive issue. Papadopoulos’ performance required a delicate balancing act of rage and compassion of which he accomplished successfully given the touchy material. Giannaris’ politically-charged film allowed Papadopoulos a deeper exploration of character-driven drama that would stretch the actor’s range between various emotional extremes and this time, as an adult, showcase his potential for leading-man status.

Papadopoulos often used his body in his films as an exploration of gender-politics, employing his physique in daring moments of taboo-shattering and boundary-crossing eroticism. From the Edge of the City spoke of bodies exploited in the sex trade and Papadopoulos admirably carries his oncreen debaucheries with aplomb and dignity, lending his character Sasha a sympathetic yet questionable air of ethics. In Elena Dimitrakopoulou’s short film Secrets of the City, the actor’s wordless performance becomes a series of bodily nuances captured in the simple, everyday rhythms of walking the city streets. Hostage would give Papadopoulos a remarkable gift as an actor - a scene in which his body would at once typify the political horrors of both sex and war; his bare backside, scarred by police brutality, is gently caressed by a curious young woman who finds her disgust and attraction rising in equal measure before they merge in the eerily provocative space of political and sexual tension. Rather than simply become a canvas onto which director Giannaris would project all his ideas of sexual discourse, Papadopoulos turned those projected metaphors into opportunities to explore the issues of Greek youth and identity, pulling from a wealth of personal experience that spanned years of social ostracism, rebellion and a continued struggle to transition into adulthood. This was an approach Giannaris was all-too aware of in his actor and, thus, took advantage of to surprisingly tender effect.

The controversy surrounding Hostage, however, proved to be too much. Papadopoulos’ portrayals of culturally-conflicted youth coupled with his own background as a culture-crossing immigrant mystified audiences; he seemed at once Greek and foreign, traversing ethnic lines in both film and his real life to the point that the actor could never be held to a national emblematic standard of Greek cinema (such as in the case of actor Alekos Alexandrakis).

Papadopoulos’ last film with director Giannaris was Man at Sea (2011), a film about a group of refugees aboard a Greek oil tanker. The actor’s role was diminished to a few scenes of dialogue (in English, which he phonetically learned for the part) which saw him, once again, working amongst a large ensemble cast. However, distribution problems would hold up the film’s release and it currently remains one of Giannaris’ most little-seen films.

Increasing problems with Greece’s film industry, particularly with the economy, meant that the well of film work was beginning to dry up. Papadopoulos found work in film difficult to come by and, in the years following, would move to Germany where he currently lives with his wife and young son. That Papadopoulos could have been a bigger star if it weren’t for the boundaries of culture and economy combined is now merely an afterthought. His films still exhibit the glowing presence of a star in the making and remain a unique document of this gradual transformation. And as Papadopoulos will attest to, a life off-camera can still be far more interesting than the life onscreen and that his own life is anything but a Greek tragedy.

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What was your life like growing up in Kazakhstan and then later, Greece?

From what I remember (and from stories my parents have told me) I was a "wild" child from the moment I was born! Growing up in Kazakhstan was pure freedom for a boy. I could run wherever I wanted (Slavjanka was the small town we lived in, near Shymkent). I knew everyone and I played dangerous games with my friends like jumping into the canal from a really high bridge etc. The first time a newspaper wrote about me was actually in Kazakhstan when I was 6 years old. My parents had sent me to summertime to relax (I was so restless and full of energy all the time that they needed a time out from me!). One day a neighbor said to my parents "your son is in the newspaper!" A reporter had visited the summer camp which had a dancing competition and I won! The reporter took a picture of me and wrote a few sentences about me!

When I was almost ten years old we moved to Greece. It was a shock for me because I didn't speak Greek at all. My parents and grandparents spoke Pontian-Greek which is kind of similar but had its roots more close to the Ancient Greek language. So for me it was hard, being at school not getting anything they were saying. And I used to be good at school in Russia. But know my patents had to work to jobs and where never home. I had to repeat a school class and when I was about 12 years old I started to do stupid things. Packed my school bag every morning but didn't go to school... Hung out with other kids etc. this continued until I was fifteen. When I lost a year due to the missed hours... My parents were very angry - they had no idea what I was doing the whole year. Anyway I dropped out of school and my parents sent me to work at construction companies (my father is an engineer).

My friends and I were into roller skating at that time and we used to we're out rollers and roll down from Menidi (our area) till the Omonoia square at the center of Athens! A really long distance (35 min per bus) than we took the bus home from there. I also played roulette, as it was shown in the film. And we started going to clubs with rap music and studying our own dance routines.

One day I passed outside a club and saw they had an audition for go-go dancers. I was shy but wanted to try it -and I got the job! I used to dance in a cage (it was a gay club called "factory", Gregory Valianatos was the owner, he hired me and we are still friends until now. He was and still is the spokesperson of the Homosexual Groups in Greece). I was somehow famous already at this club before my first film, since everyone in the clubbing scene knew me and I could choose any girl I wanted in the club.

How did you get your start in acting? Did you train as an actor or were accidently discovered somewhere?

As I mentioned, when I was 16 years old I started as a go-go-dancer at a night club. Constantine Giannaris was planning to do a film at that time (based on The Wise Boy, a novel by Christos Chomenidis) and he was looking for dancers for some scenes. He picked me and we soon became friends. That's when he became interested in my story, my background coming from Kazakhstan as a Greek immigrant struggling to be accepted and all the problems a young boy had while growing up...and he met my friends and saw how we lived at "the edge of the city", a poor suburb outside of Athens.

Something went wrong with the rights of the book that he was planning to base the film on and the production cancelled everything. Constantine locked himself up at his apartment and did not return my calls - I was very mad, since I thought I was going to play in a movie and now he had forgotten about me. But in truth he sat for two months writing the script for From the Edge of the City, inspired by my story, stories about friends and other people I had told him about, putting other themes that concerned him into the script. So he created a new story giving me the leading role. I was never trained as an actor and even after the first film Constantine insisted I shouldn't go to an actor’s school because he didn't want me to lose my natural acting. He didn't want me to become ordinary and get a certain acting style like actors coming out of actor-factories as he called them. That is also why he likes to mix the casts with professionals and amateurs.

What are your experiences working in the Greek film industry like - how would you describe what makes Greek films unique or different?

My experiences with the Greek film industry are positive in general. Of course there have always been some problems in the organization or with the financing - that was especially the case with our last film Man at Sea. It happened to be starting at the worst time when the financial crisis in Greece was at its peak. Therefore everything was done with delays and month-long interruptions, which was very nerve-racking and did not help to put everyone in the right climate of the film. But in general, I am very proud that I could be a part of these productions. I think all the films I played in are pieces of art, unconventional and meaningful. And they were not made for the masses, they are political in a way cinema should be and Giannaris had the freedom to express himself that way - that is the good side of the Greek film industry: that there is this kind of freedom.

You've done a number of films by Constantine Giannaris. What were your experiences like working with him?

We became friends. I put him through a lot of trouble because I was very young and restless but I always admired his brains and I listened to him during the shootings; he taught me everything. He is a good teacher and has his ways to get the best out of me. Sometimes he would make me so angry on the set that I was so pissed and I would let off steam at the scene realizing afterwards that it was his trick to drive me to the edge and get it done right. We are both difficult characters having our ups and downs, but he became my best man when I got married.

You mentioned that Constantine Giannaris based the script for From the Edge of the City on your experiences as a Greek immigrant coming from Kazakhstan. How close were these experiences he wrote to your real life? What were your own experiences growing in Greece, having come from Kazakhstan like and how were they different from the experiences depicted in the film?

There were some parallels to my life at that time (especially the part with the friendships and how me and my friends in real life were having fun). Other parts like the prostitution were fictional in order to depict the problems of trafficking and the exploitation of the human body in general which were themes Giannaris was interested in. And he had met a lot of young immigrant boys at the Omonoia Square in Athens who were junkies and also young immigrants who sell their bodies.

The story with the female prostitute was similar to a story I had heard from a friend whose father had brought girls from Russia to Greece...I told it to Giannaris and he came up with the idea of integrating that to the plot.

The problem of Sasha having to deal with his family while growing up was quite similar to my own experiences (strict father, myself working at construction companies but preferring to work as a dancer, etc.).

The aspect of not being recognized as a Greek was also similar to my own experience, since I had problems at school being called "the Russian" even though I grew up as a Greek in Kazakhstan. Therefore I preferred to hang out with kids of my own background.

Can you tell me something about working with an ensemble cast as an actor starting out? What was it like working with a lot of other kids your age at that time, being a new actor? What favourite experiences do you remember most about making your first film working with your cast mates?

While shooting the film I didn't realize what it meant to do a film and what impact it would have. It was like a great holiday experience than. Some of my fellow cast mates were friends in real life; also others had been picked at a big casting Giannaris had scheduled in Menidi, the area I used to live in, the actual "Edge of the City", so I knew them. It was really fun and since I had the leading role everyone admired me and I had special status. The professional actors were nice and I learned from them, especially from Giannaris who guided me through the shootings. It felt easy and I was confident - maybe more confident because I did not know what impact the film would have later.

From the Edge of the City is a very brave film to start with, especially as a new and young actor. A lot of scenes deal with very confrontational topics concerning sexuality. What kind of courage did it take for you to do some of these scenes dealing with sexuality as a young actor making his first film? Also, what do you think these topics of sexuality taking place in the film say about the youth culture in the story of the film?

I was very young and was not thinking too long about taking the role or not. I was confident about my looks and didn't have issues with nudity. Having worked as a dancer (go-go boy) at a club, I was a little over my head at that time. And I never thought that the film would do that well, travel around the world, etc.

The youth culture in this film reflects the situation young immigrants used to and still have to face in Greece; selling their bodies for money, trying to gain something using their youth and their looks. Twenty years ago there were the Albanian or the Russian boys at the Omonoia square, ten years ago it was the Pakistani and African boys, and today you can find the Afghan boys on the same square selling their bodies. It is somehow a never-ending thing…Like the first step for young immigrants -especially for those who came without their families to Greece.

Do you remember the reaction the film received by the public and press? If I remember correctly, From the Edge of the City was submitted as a nomination for the Oscars? After making this first film, what new things happened or changed in your life at the time?

The first time I realized that this movie was special and that it would actually change my life was at the premier at the Thessaloniki Film festival when I heard the loud applause and got goosebumps. After that the interviews came one after another and the pictures in magazines and newspapers, the free parties etc. It was really exciting. I could go to every club for free and everyone wanted to be my friend. But there were also very negative reactions. Especially from the Pontian (Greek-Russian) community. They thought it was a very dishonoring thing I did, that I showed a picture of my "kind" and that I shouldn't have. These people were/are also very homophobic and hateful. I almost got beaten up once when I showed up with Kotsian (my fellow cast mate) at another area where Pontians live. Suddenly we were surrounded by a group of ten or fifteen big guys telling me that I was a shame for our "kind". Me and Kotsian started running! Panagiotis, the boy who played the one falling in love with the gay DJ in the film had to change a neighborhood because of the one sentence he had said in the film (where he admits to have had passive sexual intercourse for money and because of kissing his co-actor). His life was threatened after that. And he didn't want to remember that time for years. He also chose not to play in films again after that.

What bothered me for years were the looks I got from many people and the whispers whenever I appeared somewhere. Sometimes people approached me only to pop the question after a while to see if I am gay. That used to make me mad also.

And of course there were many false friends after the movie who wanted to benefit from my presence.

But I have a lot of true fans because of From the Edge of the City all around the world. In Greece it still happens that people congratulate me for this particular film (even though I have done others too). Even after a lot of years people called me "Sasha" on the street. But it is also a film that touched my generation. And I am so proud that it travelled almost everywhere and that it is still remembered.

The best thing that came out of the whole thing for me was that I became "infected" with the acting virus! I wanted to continue playing in films ever since!

Firstly, can you tell me what your ideas and thoughts were when you first received the script for Hostage? What were your ideas on the story on the character that you were going to play in the film?

At first I was given the part of the young addict - one of the hostages. I started learning my part and we went into rehearsals. I was fascinated by the script and was curious to see who would play the leading role and how he would manage. But Giannaris had a big problem he hadn't seen coming: he could not find the right guy to play the hijacker. He organized big castings, searching for a native Albanian immigrant (he also tested Albanian professional actors for this part but was determined to go with a non-actor). The problems he faced whenever he had found someone who could fit was that the Albanians were either horrified by the long lines they had to learn by heart or by the theme of the script. Especially the part of the male rape was something they weren't willing to do. So the cast was complete except of the leading part but we still had to start rehearsing! So whenever we were doing a scene Elion was in, I was asked to fill in. This continued until Giannaris was convinced I should do the part! I was very excited of course. I hadn't had the chance to be in a leading role since From the Edge of the City and I wanted to give my best!

The film's controversial subject matter dealt with the political and social tensions between Albanians and Greeks. When you approached this role, did you feel uncomfortable with the delicate subject matter? Did you have any concerns that you were representing a social dilemma that might cause some offence among certain groups? Or do you feel the social lines in the film have been somewhat blurred and somewhat ambiguous?

I wasn't thinking too much about how the film would be received later. My only concern was to be as realistic as possible. It was a challenge to play someone who really existed and had come to the edge as he did. And that was all I was thinking about at that time.

As an actor in this film, most of the time you are stuck on a bus - a rather limited space. Also, you have your hands full with a gun. This limits your movement as an actor in terms of body language. Therefore, in this film, your movements and the space around you have been restricted and limited. What kinds of challenges did that present to you as an actor?

The conditions were really tough. We were stuck in a bus all day with the cast and the film crew in it; it was August/September - still hot in Greece. I had to hold a grenade most of the time (my hand started to hurt after a while). Sometimes I had the feeling that everything was closing in on me, pushing, no air, and I needed a minute to get out of the bus. It was pure pressure but it made me feel closer to how Flamur (the real hijacker) must have felt like. It was like getting a glimpse of how he must have felt. I know it sounds weird but there were moments I felt him through me...Like only seconds and I got really scared and needed to take a break and get off the bus.

The events in the film were based on a true story. Did you research into the story behind the film and the man you portrayed in the film? If so, how did you put that information toward helping create your character?

Before we started shooting I watched the footage from the TV channels together with Giannaris. There were moments the reporters had filmed when the true events occurred, like Flamur talking to the police and the reporters through the bus window. I actually found this footage again a few months ago on YouTube from an Albanian TV show where they analyze true crimes, etc. And they also used scenes from our film to reconstruct the true events.

When I first saw the material with Giannaris I studied Flamurs gaze, the way he opens his eyes while trying to convince the police that he had been set up. Also his body language. But that was all. Then I just imagined I was in his place, where I was innocent and wanted to take revenge. When we were shooting in Albania we went to visit his grave. It was a very intense chill I had there, especially when they translated to me what was written on his grave. Again I had the feeling I had in the bus from time to time... It made me uncomfortable and I wanted to leave.

Another challenge for me was, of course, the parts were I had to speak Albanian. I had a very good teacher, my co actor Laertis Vasiliou who is Albanian. He spoke the lines for me on tape and I listened to them every day while taking the bus to go to the rehearsals/shootings. That's how I learned them. And I still know them by heart.

What were some of the reactions to the film after it was released?

I was expecting something like the success of From the Edge of the City and more... After we were done shooting I was not in a good shape and had to take some time off. I went to the Ukraine for five months and unfortunately missed the premier in Athens and at the Berlinale. When I returned I was disappointed and surprised that the film did not do so well at the cinemas (in fact it went fantastic on DVD later - maybe because many Greeks were prejudiced to go to cinema and watch a film with this kind of theme). I myself watched it in two or three different cinemas to see the reaction of the audience and I have to say that the audience was mostly Albanian. The reactions I got from the Albanians were the best! People congratulating me on the street, coming up to me and talking to me in Albanian! I didn't get a word they were saying and they wouldn't believe that I was not Albanian! These were funny moments.

When we had the premier at the Thessaloniki Film festival I was again nominated for best actor in a leading role (as it had been with the From the Edge of the City) but once again I didn't win the award. But when my name was announced that day the applause was so loud, that I believed for a minute that I could win it.

You made some other films, like Man at Sea and one other called One Day in August. I understand that Man at Sea had trouble with distribution. What happened with One Day in August? And can you give some detail into your role in the film for One Day in August, playing the hitchhiker and what working on that film was like?

Dekapentavgoustos (English title: One Day in August) was a film that went really well at cinemas and on DVD on a more mainstream level. Giannaris chose to work with professional actors (everyone except myself and my friend Kotsian who played the young burglar and had also played in From the Edge of the City, and also my sister who played the "Angel", the girl who helps the burglar after his fall/death). These professional actors are well-known from Greek television series so they drew a wider range of audience to watch the movie. The director of photography was also a very well-known director who used to do a lot of commercials, so it was a totally different style than the documentary and edgy style of the film before. I was serving at the army at that time so I wasn't really around at the time of the preparations. It was my second big film (meanwhile I had a leading role in a short film called Ta Mystika Tis Polis (Secrets of the City) by Elena Dimitrakopoulou, which won an award at the Drama film Festival). Once again I was very happy to be participating, even though I really wanted to play the role of the young burglar but, as Giannaris had told me, I was too old for this part. Besides, still being at the army at that time didn't give me a lot of time for rehearsals. When we were shooting I had more time and I even worked as a production assistant at the scenes where I wasn't needed as an actor, which was also nice. I played Fotis, a young guy who the childless rich couple takes with them on their road to vacation. Fotis is the one who will cause the whole mess, get the woman pregnant, drug the husband, rob them and disappear. The name Fotis means "light", which is kind of ironic because obviously he is not the innocent boy he seems to be at the beginning...He is more like a little devil that starts a fire and disappears afterwards.

I really enjoyed working with my co-actors Emilios Heilakis (the second time, since we had done From the Edge of the City together) and Amalia Moutousi who is great actor and a wonderful person, very serious and grounded. I learned a lot from them.

Have you ever thought of crossing over to make English-language films? Were you ever presented with the opportunity to make films in the US?

I wasn't presented with the opportunity of working as an actor in the US -it would be amazing of course. But the last film Man at Sea was actually in English! So that was something I hoped would open doors for me, even though my English is not that good. I practiced my part in English and gave my best. But as you know we had some problems with the distribution so I don't know how the film will travel outside of Greece/Europe.

What projects do you have planned for film in the future? Are there any upcoming films you have? And what kinds of roles would you like to explore?

I haven't planned anything new yet. Since the financial crisis in Greece I moved to Berlin, Germany, with my wife and son and I am working as cook at a Mediterranean Restaurant. Unfortunately this doesn't leave me enough time to go to castings or search for something here in Germany as an actor. But I still have connections to Athens and hopefully there will be offers when the economy is again stabilized in order to allow more film productions to work again. My plans for the future are to have my family's base here in Germany and to travel to Greece as often as possible whenever an interesting film project comes up. I also plan to return to Athens in a few years. But for now this is the best solution for my son. As far as the roles are concerned I am open to do anything that sounds interesting to me!

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