From Hollywood to Greece

Most of the faces in what is one of the most highly anticipated films of the season – Pantelis Voulgaris’s «Brides» (due to open at Greek movie theaters on October 22) – are relatively new, including those of the two main brides, Victoria Haralambidou and Evi Saoulidou, and the lead Damian Lewis, who plays American journalist Norman Harris. But while the 33-year-old London-based actor may not be a familiar face in Greece, he does boast a career both in the theater and on screen. He has appeared in the epic television series «Band of Brothers» and in the 2003 Hollywood production «Dreamcatcher.» It was during that phase of his career that he was spotted by Martin Scorsese (who is one of the producers of «Brides») and Voulgaris, for the role of Harris. While shooting the film in Greece, Kathimerini met with the lead actor and discussed his role and the film. How did you get the role of Norman Harris? I was in Los Angeles doing publicity for «Dreamcatcher» and I heard from my agent in England that I had been offered this film, straight out, without having met the director. I read the script and loved it. Then I was in Paris doing more publicity for the film, and Pantelis (Voulgaris) and Ioanna (Karystiani, the screenplay writer) flew out to Paris to meet with me and I’d already said yes… What part of the film did you find most appealing? I love historical scripts. This is a love story. A very sad love story, but it’s set against a very traumatic and turbulent period in European history, just after World War I and, specifically in this film, [in the context of] Greece’s history and it’s problems in Turkey, in Smyrna especially. The background of the movie is Greece as a poor, war-ravaged and destitute country, whose men all leave to go to look for work – because there was no work in Greece – to America to make their fortunes, and these women, generations of women, who were left alone with no men to marry. So, immigration agencies set up these mail-order bride services and shipped these women by the hundreds and thousands to America to marry strange men. I think it was this backdrop, the love story in this context, that was fascinating. It also has a contemporary resonance because some of these agencies were corrupt and some of these women were not being sent to husbands… They were being put into the sex trade. All through the 1990s, we had the same problems throughout Europe, with women from Albania, Eastern Europe, Chechnya. The sex trade is still there. Somehow, against this rather gloomy, depressing backdrop, Ioanna has created a very beautiful, touching and poetic love story between these two people – between Niki Douka, one of the brides, who has been promised to a strange man, and this American war photographer, Norman Harris, who is a sensitive, noble man, I think, who is also going home because his life is finished in Turkey. Everyone is shifting lives, so it’s in this environment that these two meet. Had you seen any of Voulgaris’s films before you began filming? He sent me two or three of his movies. I watched «Acropol,» but I was in London for such a short time that I didn’t have a chance to see all of his movies. That film did not do well in Greece. I know. And I’ve realized now that I have come here [to Greece] that Pantelis has made better films. When I met Pantelis, I had such an overwhelming picture of a sensitive man, of an artist, and from Ioanna too, that I actually kind of fell in love with them, right there in Paris. I remember it very clearly, we were in Le Bristol, which is a very famous old hotel in Paris, and I was meeting them for the very first time and it was a joy. I knew it right there, without having seen any of his films… What is the difference between working with a small Greek crew and a huge American crew? Not very much because the principles are the same… You have all the same departments, but you may have less people… Maybe the equipment is older, or the facilities are less good. By American standards this is a small movie. But the money goes a long way in Greece. So, even though it’s a small-budget film, elements of the movie feel like a bigger movie because money goes so much further… And everyone on the crew here is very good at their job, very professional… What research did you do to prepare for the role of Norman Harris? I had a lot of stories from Ioanna. I looked at photographs from the era, because Norman is a photographer. I didn’t read about the Greco-Turkish war or about Smyrna particularly, so I focused mostly on what it’s like, the personal experience of being away from home for a long time, taking photographs in war. Of course, these things are very interesting to read, but… it’s very difficult to use them in a performance because when I’m in a scene with Victoria [Haralambidou], telling her I love her or something, it’s a different thing you’re using. It’s an instinct, about people and about an understanding of the situation… What I wanted to know most about was the brides, and the population movements and how the women were treated, because that is what the film is mostly about. The British appeal You have classical training, with theater experience. Why do you think British actors are so popular in the movie industry? Working in theater gives you a discipline that makes a lot of British actors good to work with. A lot of American actors don’t have the theater discipline, but what American actors have is a naturalistic way of being. There is something that an English person can bring; an old-fashioned moral quality to the work. That’s partly to do with being English, maybe, and with having to do classical theater where you’re dealing with things like Greek tragedy, with themes bigger than ourselves, moral themes, ethical issues, betrayal and trust, love, murder of one’s own family and the vengeance of the gods. Maybe this makes you think differently as an actor and you bring that to a film. I’m not sure… What are your expectations for your career in film? If, for example, there are 50 films being made in [a month], five of those films will be good, probably. The other 45 will be OK, some terrible. If you want to work all year round in films, you’re not always going to get the good ones. So you find yourself doing work that you don’t always believe in fully but you’re doing it because you want to be a film actor. This is something that is very confusing for me. If I can, I only want to do films I believe in. If that means there are no films because all the good films are being done by someone else, then maybe I just won’t work and I’ll develop my own projects or do some theater. But that’s in an ideal world. I enjoy the fact that I’m becoming a bit better known internationally, because it gives you more choice. But I have always said, ever since I was in drama school, that I don’t want to be a 45-year-old man walking into the office of a 25-year-old director and saying, «Please, can you give me a job?» I want to have control, be my own boss, and that means being able to make your own choices. So that’s what’s good about what is happening now, because it gives [me] more power, for myself. But do I want total control? Do I want to be Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks? I don’t know if I want to be that famous, or if I’ll have the opportunity. If ever that opportunity came to me, I don’t know what I would do.