Anna Geislerová: We’re very boring next to Havel and the other dissidents
For decades one of the country’s top movie stars, Anna Geislerová has recently won plaudits for her role as Václav Havel’s wife Olga in the biopic Havel. The film depicts the future president’s struggles in the dissent under the Communist regime as well as bringing to life Havel’s sometimes unconventional relationship with Olga. I spoke to Geislerová about playing Olga Havlová, her own encounters with the Havels and far more at our studio last week.
You were studying about Václav Havel before you were even offered the role of Olga. Why were you studying Havel?
“Well, because I’m a big admirer of Havel, but through the years it becomes sort of like… you just keep saying it and it’s not connected to real knowledge.
“So I thought I should maybe refresh, because I used to read all the plays and the big speeches and everything.
“And then many books have been written about him, so I just thought I should, you know, refresh.”
Was there anything that surprised you or that you learned from those books?
“There was one big thing for me that I didn’t know, which maybe many people didn’t know and which I was happy that I found in the script of the film Havel when I got it later, and that was his so-called signed collaboration with the political regime, which he really regretted [in his biography Michael Žantovský writes that in April 1977 Havel, then locked up for the first time, signed a petition admitting Charter 77 might have been distorted by foreign media and pledged to refrain from public political activities; on his release he continued to work against the Communist regime].
“I didn’t know that and I was surprised.”
You met Havel a few times. Where did you meet him? And what impression did he make on you?
“I can’t really talk about some big meeting or talk or anything, because he was close to people, he was very friendly and open and talkative to everyone, so it wasn’t so unusual to meet him at parties, film premieres, galleries.
“So from time to time I occasionally met him and had a chance to talk to him a little bit.
“We all admired him, we all looked up to him, but when you talked to him he was very ordinary, very nice, very quiet.
“But when you talk to someone you really admire and he’s a politician or an artist, it’s that kind of silly talk sometimes [laughs].”
What about Olga – did you ever encounter her?
“On one of those occasions, I think it was the premiere of a film in the ‘90s, she was there.
“I think she was the one who wanted to leave and he wasn’t the one who wanted to leave [laughs].
“We were talking with him and she was standing behind him and I think she was thinking, Oh please, leave him, leave us, and let us go home.”
Many years later you were offered the role of Olga Havlova in the film Havel. What was the attraction of playing her?
“I really had no doubts when I read the script, which I really liked, and also because of that moment that I talked about before – that it was in the script.
“We were not painting everything to look great – he really failed, more himself than anybody else.
“I liked it – I was happy that I found it in the script.
“So I just said yes. And, I don’t know, she’s enigmatic and it’s hard to play people like that, because you have to keep it inside and not get too boring [laughs].”
Also it’s harder, I guess, if it’s a real person who was living not many years ago and is known to essentially the whole nation?
“It is. But I think her natural modesty helped.
“Because when you start to search, there is just one documentary about her and some others about Havel, and she’s part of it, but you don’t find many camera interviews or videos.
“She was really humble and she absolutely preferred to stay in the background.
“She gave some written interviews, but you can’t really study her because she’s nowhere.
“She’s enigmatic and it’s hard to play people like that.”
“So that helps [laughs], because we all remember her as iconic and a very dignified person and there are not many things that you can really take to use.
“Some people knew about her – and I didn’t – that she had lost [holds up hand]…”
Some fingers – I didn’t know that either.
“Yes, because she worked in a factory and some machine cut her fingers off and so her whole life she was hiding the hand; she used handkerchiefs and stuff like that.
“I didn’t know that, but many people didn’t know. So you have one very good detail, but most people didn’t know [laughs], so if you look in the movie I keep my hand like that, but nobody knows why!”
I didn’t notice it in the film. Olga Havlova is always spoken about as being this strong woman, this tough character from working class Žižkov. But some people watching the film may say, If she was so strong why did she tolerate a husband who was a) unfaithful, and b) really indecisive, at least according to the film?
“They made their life work for them. They just decided to so-called live in truth.”
“My experience in life is really when you meet someone who presents themselves as tough and strong and everything, they’re very often soft, sensitive and fragile inside. They build walls around themselves to protect themselves.
“And I think she was like that. I think inside she was very sensitive, very emphatic – she understood people very well.
“I think the thing about them is that everybody says that he was unfaithful to her, but she also had her life, her lovers, her stories. I think they were perfect to each other.
“That’s the thing. They made their life work for them. They just decided to so-called live in truth, which means, I met someone, I’m with him, are you OK? Yes, I have someone.
“So I think they knew why they stayed together.
“There were no conditions. We common people would say, like, Be faithful, stay at home, no drinking [laughs].
“But it was different. They were very different people and they were authentic to their lives.”
Also I guess they were very intense times. One thing that the film really brings for me is the incredible pressure that the dissidents came under from the Communists. Was there any moment when you were making the film where you got a strong sense of the sheer brutality of the Communists?
“There’s a scene where there is like a concert of an underground band which is really beaten up by the police.
“It’s really brutal and that really felt horrible. Like, if you just imagine, you want to just see a band play and then you end up in prison, beaten up – and then maybe sentenced for a year or two.
“That’s brutal. And then also when you imagine that you are watched all the time, that you really have people sitting in front of your house, that you’re followed by cars and, you know, the secret police. That must have been horrible.
“I keep reading about all the people, like Pavel Juráček and [Ivan] Martin Jirous, and you can see it was a really strong community.
“They all lived very authentically, I would say. Compared to them, we are very boring people. We are just like some kids trying to pretend that they are living a tough life but we are not, we’re just… I don’t know the word [laughs].”
And they were big characters, a lot of these people you’re speaking about.
“Yes, and they kept reading and writing and were so active in many things.
“They were very educated and philosophical and truthful.”
On a lighter note, there’s a lot of smoke in the film. I know you guys were smoking some kind of fake cigarettes, but even still, was it difficult?
“Yes, it was very difficult for me.
“I’ve been a non-smoker for almost 14 years and this lady just brought smoking back into my life, because from that shooting from time to time when somebody has really slim cigarettes I just take it, because I know I kind of liked it when we were shooting.
“But on the set it was horrible, because you have to do it 20 times and you really have to smoke like smokers do – you cannot fake it. And yes, we were sick [laughs].”
It’s amazing how much Viktor Dvořák, who plays Havel, looks like Havel. Maybe this is a dumb question, but did his extreme resemblance to Havel in any way influence how you acted opposite him?
“No. I think it’s not the way he looks, the thing is how he did it and how he appeared.
“But sometimes I blurred my eyes and I really saw Havel. Especially when Havel was older the make-up was amazing and he really, really liked him.
“But I think Viktor just felt like Havel. He really did a great job.”
Obviously since the film came out a lot of people who knew the Havels have seen it. Have you heard any reactions from them?
“From the family?”
“Not especially from his brother, Ivan, no I didn’t.
“But I myself haven’t seen the film yet. I’m saving it. Sometimes I do that; I don’t want to watch it at the opening, or before, but I will go to the cinema by myself.
“And I’m collecting the nice things that people have said – people connected to Václav and Olga.
“My big help in preparation was Anna Friemanová, who was a secretary of them, and she said, Yes, OK.”
She gave you her approval?
“Yes. She said it’s hard for them. She said, It’s not a film for those of us who knew them, so you can’t really approve, but she said it’s great the film has been made and it’s very important.
“Then she wrote me that her husband Andrej Krob – they were the Havels’ friends and neighbours at Hrádeček – said, Olga dobrá, Olga good. And she said, You should be happy, because he never says anything as nice.
“So that I’ve really kept in my heart.
“And also I know that Marta Kubišová has seen the film. A friend of mine sent me a message that she thinks that Olga wouldn’t be offended or something like that. I think it’s great.”
You lived through the 1990s as a teenager and then a young woman in this country when Havel represented a lot of ideals for a lot of people, including foreigners like me. I can’t say it’s a reason that I came here but I knew him before I came here and this was a positive thing about this country. How do you think Czech society got from that point to today, where so many people hate Václav Havel and people like you who support him are called “Havloid”, as if admiring Havel is something terrible?
“[Laughs] I don’t know how it happened. I don’t know.
“When I look towards the Castle [laughs]… if you just held up two pictures of the two presidents [Havel and incumbent Miloš Zeman], it’s just, I don’t know, we lost it…
“But, you know, we still have to accept that it’s a democracy. That speaks about us as a nation, about the powers that influence people.
“Before we wanted freedom and we got freedom. Then we were oriented to economics and then you get frustrated and you try to get out of it somehow and… we have this democratically elected president and government.
“We have to wait until another generation will want to leave that behind. And I hope it’s soon.
“But it’s strange. It’s really strange.”
From what I can see the Václav Havel Library is supporting the film. Do you think this film could do anything to in a sense promote Havel, to introduce him to younger people? Or will it simply appeal to people who were previously fans of Havel, so to speak?
“I think it will bring Havel to a different kind of audience than just his supporters, because I think the story is a little bit made for people to, like, just come and see the story, not come and cry over Havel.
“It even says that it’s a story ‘based on Havel’s life’. So it’s a little bit more of a genre movie and I think that could attract young people and maybe even the people that hate him. They might want to see how…”
To see the weak Havel?
“[laughs] Yes. So I think it’s just a great moment to bring this movie out.”
And what’s next for you, Anna? I understand you’re also playing Božena Němcová?
“Yes. But it’s already finished. We shot it at the same time, so I was switching between Božena and Olga, which was quite hard.
“This weekend I’m going to Uherské Hradiště, to the film school, and we are presenting Havel and Božena, and that’s funny – these strong women are now travelling with me, and I’m travelling with them.
“Just yesterday, to my big surprise, I shot a commercial for a Czech car company, but in the UK.”
“And I’m going to do a film in autumn. It’s a beautiful period movie called Služka, The Servant.”
Is that one set in Vienna? I was reading about it.
“Yes. That’s such a great script and a great character for me. Then I should do a romantic comedy, a Christmas comedy.
“And it’s funny because when I hear myself here now at the Radio talking English – sorry, everyone – just yesterday, to my big surprise, I shot a commercial for a Czech car company, but in the UK.
“And I did it English [laughs], which was very funny, really funny. I would say it as I did, but it would be inappropriate to say the name of the car.”
I think people can guess what it is.
“[Laughs] But it was amazing. It was like, Why have you chosen this Czech accent? And they were, Why? Because it’s funny – it’s nice.
“So that’s my last project.”