Ivan Shvedoff: Prague-based actor is “Mr. Eastern Bloc” in Western movies

Ivan Shvedoff, photo: Ian Willoughby

Actor Ivan Shvedoff moved to Prague at the end of the 1990s from his native Saint Petersburg. Since arriving here he has extended his filmography greatly, with roles in a number of Hollywood movies and Czech productions such as Mamas and Papas. Shvedoff is also big in Germany and Austria, where he does a lot of TV work. When he stopped by at our studios, my first question for the Russian actor was what led him to move here in the first place.

Ivan Shvedoff,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“Toponymics. I lived 30 years of my life in St. Petersburg on a street which is called Prazska, meaning Prague St. And the first apartment I rented here from a friend of mine… I just went to see the apartment and I said, what is the name of the street?

“She said, it’s Krymská [Crimean]. I said, is it? What about Petrohradská [St. Petersburg] and she said, it’s just around the corner. So that’s destiny and the irony of life.”

Is there a lot of work for foreign actors in Prague?

“There is some work, because the Czech film scene is expanding somehow and the stories they’re writing here are involving more and more reality nowadays.

“That means there are some English, French, Russian, German-speaking people, Vietnamese – it’s all part of today’s Prague life, right?

“Mainly I’m cast as Russian or let’s say ex-Soviet Union. But I also work a lot… for me, Prague is more like a base. I work mainly in Germany, or through my German agent.”

I saw a photo of you on the cover of a German TV magazine – you must be quite well known there.

“That’s true. Well, some people recognise me.”

And you were on the famous show Tatort, the Sunday evening crime serial that’s really huge in Germany. I presume being on a programme like that brings you more recognition, or as much recognition, as being in a movie?

“You’re absolutely right. I’ve done some films before. If you just look at my filmography…”

It’s a very long filmography.

“Yeah, there are some… numbers there [laughs]. I did some critically acclaimed movies, some good movies. But actually people start to recognise you from TV, of course.

'Tatort',  photo: Czech Television
“After Tatort, people were saying, oh you were on Tatort, congratulations! I have to say, the quality of Tatort is high.

“It’s a kind of recognition. If you are on Tatort in any position – actor, writer, director – that means your life is going well, you’re an established filmmaker.”

You’ve also been in some Hollywood movies, like the most recent Mission Impossible film, and with stars like Jude Law, Gary Oldman and Michael Caine. Have you learned anything from working with big name stars like that? Is there anything that you’ve picked up from them?

“Of course. First thing, never refuse to give your autograph whenever you’re asked to. Or never refuse to take a photo with people who want to take a photo with you.”

So, be nice.

“Yes, be nice! They’re your audience [laughs]. Without that, you lose them, right?

“I would give you an example. Tom Cruise was Mr. Nice Guy. I remember we were shooting in Prague and there was a school in front of the set.

“All the kids of course came out and were watching the shooting. In their lunch break, one of them came to him with a camera and said, excuse me Mr. Cruise, can I have a photo with you? And he said, yeah.

“Then came a second and third one. Actually, I can imagine myself, if I were him, saying, OK kids, now everybody, the school director and the guys from the canteen, we’ll just do one photo all together and that will be it, because I have my break, let me have some lunch.

“He didn’t say that. He was taking photos and signing for every single pupil. It was great.”

Have you any particularly standout memories of actually acting with any of these big stars?

Michael Caine,  photo: Manfred Werner,  CC BY-SA 3.0
“Yes. Acting with Michael Caine. I had a small scene with him in a film called Bullet to Beijing. I was very nervous and my English is not perfect.

“I was very much concerned about my lines and I said to him, Mr. Caine, could we go through the lines? He said, call me Michael. He said, don’t call me mister! So what should I call you? Call me, Michael; I’m Michael.

“It was very surprising to me that somebody like that could be so approachable.

“I can imagine that celebrities and these big time actors try to keep some distance in their private lives, which is perfectly understood, because otherwise they would be annoyed every second.

“But on the set the people I’ve worked with have…I’ve never felt some distance or that they’re pulling away. It’s like, OK, I’m big, you’re not, but we’re both doing the same thing. We are colleagues here.

“That was nice and it’s also something for me to remember whenever I become Michael Caine [laughs].”

You’re accent isn’t so strong. Do you get some directors asking you to kind of emphasise your Russian accent, or to speak in a stronger Russian accent?

“[Adopts stereotypical Russian accent] No, it is impossible to emphasise my Russian accent because it’s already at its top. If I minimise it, then I lose all my jobs.”

That’s how you act, like that?

“Well, sometimes yeah. They say, you haven’t been going to bloody Oxford, you have to speak like ‘real Russian, give me a real Russian’.”

Do you sometimes find yourself playing a kind of generic East European? I saw in your filmography that one of your characters [it was in fact a movie] was called The Albanian.

Brad Bird,  photo: Nicolas Genin,  CC BY-SA 2.0
“That’s true, but in The Albanian I wasn’t Albanian, my friend was Albanian, the main character, and I was Serbian.

“If I try to list all the nationalities I’ve been [laughs], then I would have to mention me being Russian, Ukrainian, Belarussian, Serbian, Polish, Czech, Chechen, Lithuanian, I was Dutch…”

So you are the Eastern Bloc, basically. And Holland.

“Basically. I’m the guy with the problem. Whenever they need a guy from the east, which means problematic, that’s me.”

Do you have a problem with the stereotype that they’re asking you to act out?

“Well. I don’t know. Yeah. I do. There are stereotypes, of course, and that’s actually what storytelling is based on. Sometimes – I don’t know if this is an appropriate word to use on the radio – it pisses me off. It does. But I can live that, as long as I’m getting paid for that.”

Is there any particular director that you have enjoyed working with especially?

“Oh yes. I would have to mention the German directors Achim von Borries, Hans Christian Shmidt and Hartmut Schoen. They’re wonderful directors.

“And I will never forget working with Brad Bird, who I think is a genius. I’m talking about the director of Mission Impossible, who also directed Ratatouille, for example, which is genius.

“If you think about what human civilisation has achieved in the last two centuries: the launching of a man to the moon, or building the Golden Gate bridge, or nuclear reaction – I would put Pixar movies in this category. And Brad Bird is one of these genius people doing this.”

You were telling me you were a dialect coach for Matt Damon on the first Bourne movie. Why did he need a dialect coach?

“Because the story takes place in Russia, as far as I remember. I’m not sure…”

Robert De Niro,  Matt Damon,  photo: Thore Siebrands CC BY-SA 2.0
But doesn’t he play an American?

“Yes, but he’s a secret service agent who’s supposed to speak different languages fluently.

“He tried his best. We didn’t have much time to practice, because he was mainly busy with all the fighting scenes and training that stuff.

“I have it too now, myself. I have a role in a German film, a criminal comedy. My character is a Slovenian secret service agent working for some nonexistent European agency and I’m supposed to speak different languages.

“We speak English and German in the movie, but besides that here and there my character is dropping lines in French and Japanese – that’s what I’m learning now.

“That’s why everyday starts for me with: [launches into Japanese lines that translate as ‘By the way, that’s a beautiful kimono – but I’d rather get to know what it conceals’].

“I still have a month and a half ahead of me to make it sound really good. But that’s one of the reasons why I like this job!”