Stratos Tzortzoglou the last student of Karolos Koun is coming back
Exclusive Interview with Katia Sotiriou for mytheatro.gr
The name Stratos Tzortzoglou is embedded in our collective consciousness as the synonym for ‘’Jeune premier’’, the actor who has been defined not only by some of the most iconic theater roles he hines he made, but the one that radiates talent, beauty and deep understanding of the world. I met him as portrayed on stage but also by the fame he gained so early in his career. However, focusing on his celebrity status would be unfair. Still, one cannot resist being drawn in by his charismatic personality. Not the one displayed on the numerous covers of magazines.
I met him at the GreekTheatre of Art (Theatro Technis) Karolos Koun, at the opening night of ‘’Roberto Zucco’’ directed by Angela Brouskou. We scheduled an interview for a few days later. Impressively straightforward, vigorous and direct as he was, it felt more like a conversation than a typical interview – a truthful account of an extremely interesting and fascinating life. Our conversation began with a personal “confession” of mine and continued at its own pace. Besides, when you come across a man who talks about life with such passion and zest, there is no room for codes and conventions.
K.S.: Whenever someone asks me what is the one play that has moved me the most I always say ‘’Death of a Salesman’’, directed by Jules Dassin.
S.T.: Actually, I was not supposed to do that play. Jules Dassin was looking for an actor of about 35 years old, looking broken, because the character of Biff is like that. It was Costas Kazakos who suggested that he should see me. At the time, ‘’Our Town’’ had just completed two years of successful run and was possibly going for a third year, but I got a bit tired, so I felt I could not continue. Meanwhile, I was offered the leading role in the play ‘’Stella with the Red Gloves’’ by Iakovos Kambanellis, but again I did not want to do it because it was trademarked by Giorgos Fountas, I just did not have the courage to say the famous line ‘’Go away, Stella! … I’m holding a knife’’. Then Katia Dandoulaki offered me to play in ‘’The Seagull’’. At the same time I too had something in mind. In the end nothing came of it and suddenly in late August, early September I found myself without a job, when all the theater companies had closed for the season. It was then when I read ‘’Death of a Salesman’’. Ι would ‘’kill’’ to play this role, for one and only reason: to talk to my father. When I got my start in theater, 30 years ago, In Loula Anagnostaki’s ‘’The Sound of the Gun’’, through the character of Mihalis, I was reliving my resistance, my anger, my love and hate towards my mother. Now, it was about admitting to my father our fragility, it was about accepting who we are. So I finally went to Dassin, but when he saw me he told me that I am too young and good-looking for this role. I then spoke with Kazakos who suggested we should first do a read-through, which was not at all what I hoped for, the last thing I wanted to do was to go through an audition. Back then I needed to feel loved by the directors I was working with. Every time I thought I was being rejected I froze up and then I did not want to work with them. Anyway, we did the first read-through, and my acting was horrible. Really horrible. I was loud. Dassin then asked me ‘’is that the way you’re going to do it? Can’t you talk normally?’’ I said ‘’No.’’ I was shouting every line. We reached the second part and got to the scene with the father. At that point I forgot everything, and played my heart out. I thought I was going to be kicked out, anyway, and that my father would never have the chance to see me, so I did it for myself. And, then, I looked at Dassin, tears were falling from his eyes. He told me it was the second time he ever cried in theater. When the play was staged, for me it wasn’t just a theatrical performance but a ‘’conversation’’ with my father, my blood. When that happens, you go beyond acting and theater becomes the vehicle for expression of the deepest thoughts and feelings, some of which, oftentimes, you do not realize are there or you may never discover, not even during performances. My father came to the theatre 190 times, as many times as we played it, to all the performances. However, he never actually watched it, he only listened to it from the lobby, because he was a heavy smoker. That’s the way we came closer. He was a working class man from Piraeus, my father, a sailor, the ‘’Querelle of Brest’’ type with tattoos – and we hardly ever said ‘’I love you’’ in our family. But through this play, I found a way to tell him ‘’I love you’’. If there is any worthwhile reason at all I became an actor, so far, I believe it is to connect with my mother through ‘’The Sound of the Gun’’, and with my father through ‘’Death of a Salesman’’.
K.S.: Have you felt this ‘’connection’’ with other plays?
S.T.: In every play I communicate with someone. In ‘’Our Town’’ I was ‘’talking’’ to my first crush, to whom I never confessed my love because I was too shy, and instead I played it cool. So, there was this feeling of unrequited love because I never got the chance to be with her. Every play ‘’opens’’ something inside me, even wounds from the past. In ‘’Roberto Zucco’’, one of the characters I play- Brother- has nothing to do with my life, but at the same time he has several traits I am familiar with. I remember, when I was a kid, my father used to bring home all sorts of people. He used to take me to Dafni- Attica’s Psychiatric Hospital- and told me to never forget those people who need a cigarette. He was an extremely generous man, he helped people who didn’t have anything to eat, he picked up hungry stray dogs, and one time he brought home a couple of drug addicts he had found on the streets. Our home was open to everyone and I grew up in this strange “University”. Through my parents I had the opportunity to interact with the whole society, the good and the bad. This gave me the possibility to acquire a wide consciousness, and not to judge others based on whether they are ‘’lower’’ or ‘’upper class’’, successful or not. I even met someone who had escaped Korydallos Prison, and during rehearsals I told Brouskou that I once knew a ‘’Zucco’’, who had climbed up the prison walls and threatened to jump off. There are certain aspects in ‘’Roberto Zucco’’ I am very familiar with. The Brother character is a combination of all these individuals, which I incorporated into the role, by making him as substantial and truthful as I could. You can do this in Bernard-Marie Koltès’s play because it’s a nonlinear narrative, a nonlinear performance. That’s the way people are, also.
K.S.: Tell us about this play.
S.T.: In the play, Zucco is just a boy who lost his way and though he’s a good kid, he first kills his mother and his father, and later on a police officer and a child… Eventually, he develops a taste for murder. It is an elegy on our weaknesses, on deviation. It doesn’t try to scare us, it tries to make us understand that we cannot judge others. It is a heartrending play, full of compassion that shines through all this brutal and senseless violence. All these characters who revolve around Zucco and lead a wretched existence are actually more corrupt than he is, and they push him towards becoming an angel of death. When Brouskou chose me to play five different characters, I drew upon some of my experiences as a child with people like these I used to know. The one character I am unfamiliar with, is the old man at the metro.
K.S.: I think the scene with this character is your peak moment in the play.
S.T.: I try to channel my father. He passed away in 2003… In fact, to be honest, when I address Zucco it’s like talking to my son Alcibiades, telling him that anyone can lose his way, anytime. Telling him to have consciousness and be considerate. Talking to my son, brings a dimension that is beyond acting, it has a different energy.
K.S.: In fact it is a scene through which Koltès reveals his own feelings.
S.T.: Indeed, I think here Koltès is talking to Zucco. It is a parable about life, about the things we take for granted, like going to the station every day. As the old man says, he spends more time in a metro station than in his own kitchen. And suddenly, nothing is the same.
K.S.: How did the meeting with Angela Brouskou occur?
S.T.: Parthenope Bouzouri saw me perform with the Bijoux de Kant theatre company- with whom I have worked twice- so she contacted director Yiannis Skourletis. Initially we were going to do Phaedra’s Love by Sarah Kane and I was going to play Theseus. In the end Brouskou offered me these roles in Roberto Zucco. In fact, at first I thought Ι was going to play Zucco, I didn’t realize how many years had passed! (laughs).
K.S.: We may say that ‘’Roberto Zucco’’ signals not only your stage comeback to the Art Theatre, but also your return to Greece.
S.T.: I wouldn’t say I have returned, I believe that we constantly return. Our life is a continual recurrence. You come back to see the same things again from a new perspective. We are living a, seemingly, linear life, which has a beginning, a middle and an end, but in reality life goes in circles, and we experience similar things. We set boundaries in our relationships with others, our parents, our friends, until we get our problems solved. I lived through difficult times, during the rebuilding of Piraeus, and our financial situation did not allow us to live in an apartment. We were always staying in small houses with ‘’courtyards of miracles’’, shared courtyards, outside toilet. I have experienced Greece the way my son, for instance, will never experience. I grew up constantly moving house – once we had moved 4 times in a month – and changing schools, and so every time I said ‘’hello’’, in my mind I was also saying ‘’goodbye’’. This situation made me very sociable, but it hurt me too, because I really needed to have a sense of continuity. Also, it made me see that people may be different but we are all one. We are all looking for love. Some may pursue it through violence and others with beauty. Some search for love by stealing, others are gentler.
K.S.: Your life story is remarkably interesting…
S.T.: Through all these experiences I became acquainted with that world, a world that looks like it fell out of a Jean Genet novel. I know its secrets, I know these people. So, I somehow became this guy who wanted to protect the weak and vulnerable, always carrying my father’s words. This is why I started doing things like going to the gym. In fact this is kind of how it all began with Karolos Koun. I used to go to this gym and lift weights, one day the trainer asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. So, I started striking dramatic poses and said I would become an actor. A guy who was there heard me, he came up to me and took me to the Amateur Theatre Company in Aigaleo, where some of today’s most important stage directors started out, like Yiannis Skourletis, Froso Litra, Yiannis Mavritsakis. Back then I was just this kid who didn’t even know who Shakespeare was. This Company molded me. One day I watched Koun’s interview with Dimitris Maronitis and decided to go to the Art Theatre. Nobody believed I was going to make it. I even started making all these crazy scenarios in case he would not accept me. I was going to tell him that maybe I could run errands for him, water the plants or bring coffees. If that wasn’t good enough, I would tell him I’ll just sit in a corner and watch the rehearsals, and if that didn’t change his mind either, well, in that case, I would threaten him! (Laughs) I mean, come on, he wouldn’t take in his class a madman?! I didn’t know if I had any talent, but I definitely had the passion, and I sure had a lot of issues which, through acting and ‘’returning’’, would get solved. Because each role is a return to an unsolved issue from the past. If you have lived it, you have no reason to do it. But there are unresolved issues regarding the future. Time is nonlinear, the past coexists with the future, so there are things in your past that remain unresolved and leave you with something to dream about for the future. There is a complexity and simplicity in life, at the same time, and if you look at it from the outside, it is clear that it is full of ambiguities and contradictions. So we live with these ambiguities our whole life. Personally, I am very familiar with these issues since my childhood, and my life has followed its course accordingly. Like, for example, I always wanted to go to America, since 1987 when I met Elia Kazan, the year I was shooting ‘’The Striker with Number 9’’ with Pantelis Voulgaris. He had chosen me to be in his film, which was never made. He told me to go to the Actor’s Studio. But I wanted to prepare myself psychologically first, make some money, and then go. It never happened. Throughout my life I was very attached to my family and my actions were driven by my emotions. For instance, I did my first TV series ‘’The Guards of Achaia’’ for my grandmother, betraying, in a way, my career, as another Alcibiades. That’s why I named my son Alcibiades. I’m like him. I betrayed myself many times, and my career with all these distinguished directors. That’s when I messed up my image, despite the fact that those TV series today are highly regarded. Those ‘’crimes’’, however, I always committed out of love, because I never really had an obsession with fame.
K.S.: So how did you end up in America?
S.T.: I always dreamt of going to America, and I wanted to ‘’return’’ to that dream. One day my son came to me and told me he wanted to go, I could not part from him, so we went together. So, there I was in this country, with no money, though I always said that I would only go if I had money. The feeling that we had to find money to live there was intense. But I did two plays, and the Greek community in Astoria helped us a lot. I didn’t go with an easy play though, but with Nikos Kazantzakis’ Ascesis. Our objective was not to make a box-office success. I wanted to do this play with my son, to share with him the Ascesis. In fact it was snowing back then, and my son and I were clearing the snow from the entrance. This made him realize that in America he is not ‘’Tzortzoglou’s son’’ anymore, people won’t stop us on the street and recognize us. And that if we don’t act fast in a country, which although embraces everyone, at the same time if you’re broke you’re through, we won’t be able to survive. One day at a gathering in the ambassador’s house, I met Kazan’s wife who had brought by chance (!) the decoupage of the film I was going to do. I was very fortunate because I had already gone to Los Angeles and took classes with Ivana Chubbuck, the acting coach for Brad Pitt. Eventually I joined the Actor’s Studio. I was blessed in my life because I had the chance to meet great people, and I’m not just referring to the brilliant directors whom I often mention, but also people I’ve met in my everyday life. Looking back, you realize that every person you’ve met played a part in making things the way they are. And now a circle has been completed, so that I can ‘’say’’ to Koun that even if I ‘’lost my way’’, I am still standing, and now I’m back on track. Because through this course I killed the purest part of myself, my old identity. Television turned me into a popular celebrity, I made money, and then I lost it on theatrical productions. I went through an Odyssey. At the same time I ‘’talked’’ with that old man in the station, I took his words into consideration and decided that the path towards the sun cannot be followed by killing others, but regardless of being stripped of everything, being able to move on and keep going.
K.S.: Celebrity is a big issue in your life…
S.T.: I think I became famous too early. Through a quirk of fate, in my first year at the Art Theater, Aliki Vouyiouklaki offered me the male lead in ‘’40 Carats’’ by Pierre Barillet. I turned it down. Then Jenny Karezi offered me to do ‘’Orestes’’ by Euripides and I turned it down also, because Yorgos Lazanis wanted me at an Art Theater production. However, the Art Theater’s Board Committee allowed me to do ‘’The Striker with Number 9’’. So, initially I was going to be in ‘’The Sound of the Gun’’ until Christmas, but its run was extended to January 1988. We started filming the football scenes with Pantelis Voulgaris on the 13th of January, so that if I got injured, it would not affect my work at the Theatre. We shot the scenes in the AEK stadium at the halftime of AEK – ETHNIKOS. The score was 0-0, and the fireworks for the match were not yet set off. So I score, and because I was standing near the AEK fans, the fireworks went off and as I climbed over the railing, I hit my knee which led to soft tissue contusion. The doctor recommended me to take a week off. At the theater Lazanis had to replace me for the remaining months with Kleon Grigoriadis. Of course I was upset because I was left with no job, but then Theo Angelopoulos offered me a part in ‘’Landscape in the Mist’’, which I would not have accepted, if I were still in ‘’The Sound of the Gun’’. That’s how, by a simple accident, I suddenly found myself with Almodovar and Angelopoulos in the 45th Venice International Film Festival, while my drama school classmates were finishing their first year. You see, there’s no logical explanation on how things are done, that’s why you have to follow your heart. The mind is only good for practical matters, in order to survive. But the heart… everything is love. When you’re living in a higher vibration, you connect with things which to others may seem supernatural, or strange.
K.S.: These days you’re also in the middle of rehearsals for Venus in Fur in Thessaloniki. Both plays are about extreme passions.
S.T.: Yes, indeed and there I also play multiple roles. There is Novachek, the writer/director of a new play based on Masoch’s classic novel, there is Kushemski, the 19th century idle rich aesthete, and then I become Dunayev in fur, showing Vanda how to play the lead character. It’s the year I play 10 different roles!
K.S.: How do you manage?
S.T.: It relaxes me a lot, actually. For instance, when I was doing ‘’The Idiot’’ by Dostoevsky, directed by Roula Pateraki, I was also starring in the rom-com TV series ‘’Idiaitera gia Klamata’’ with Sophia Aliberti. Now, we’re talking about two completely opposite projects, but you see, these type of things relax me. I have two selves that coexist simultaneously. I am a ‘’healthy schizoid’’, as Minos Volanakis used to say about me. In fact, I’ve also scheduled for this year, beginning from the 2nd of January, my masterclasses in the Volanaki Library. It is yet another comeback. So, yes, that’s really what he said about me that I am a schizoid personality but in a healthy form. And so it is. You know, it’s been 15 years since Maria and I have divorced, but we’ll always be the parents of Alcibiades, we’re still doing things together, and we love each other as we always did. At the same time, I have the reputation of being a cheater. Back then, for the tabloids, I was the definition of the cheating man, and I have never been unfaithful. I guess it’s something in my personality that gives the wrong impression. I was ‘’very’’ married, but very much free, also, at the same time. I have done so many amazing things with outstanding directors, but then I did covers in popular magazines that turned me into a sex symbol. On the one hand I made good money, and on the other hand I didn’t have anything to eat when I went to America, but you would never catch me whining about life’s hardships. So, that is characteristic of me, to be able to work with Angelopoulos, Skourletis, Brouskou, and with the same ease do popular TV series, that don’t pay off artistically wise, but, nonetheless, require your experienced input to something… simpler. I would not use the word ‘’cheaper’’, because nothing is cheap, except the way we handle things. I don’t have difficulty adjusting to different situations. Maybe my childhood experiences have contributed to that, I easily adapt. I may talk about a certain scene with Brouskou for five days long, and prepare another play in just five hours. I am really malleable. Ingmar Bergman said of me that I am like a Stradivarius violin. I’m not always great, though, but I return to ask questions, to connect with my innermost feelings.
K.S.: Are there any roles you would like to play?
S.T.: Certainly there are roles that Ι’m right for, aesthetically, but every time I play a part, it ‘’speaks’’ to me, for some reason. In the end, I always do things because they ‘’speak’’ to me. And this year, with Roberto Zucco, I didn’t remember the text quiet well, and I told Brouskou I had to read it thoroughly, because if I don’t feel it in my heart I can’t do it just because it’s a good work. On the other hand, it might happen you get involved in a project you’re not crazy about, but you’re really into the team. So again, it’s a matter of connecting with something. When I met Brouskou, I fell in love with her through our conversation. Whatever she would suggest me I would accept, because I had made up my mind that I wanted to work with her after our first meeting. Therefore, there is something ‘’unconcluded’’ with Angela Brouskou, she is someone I can talk with. Even if she asked me to recite the phone book, or not speak at all, I would still do it (Laughs). And the Art Theatre of Karolos Koun. Yes, I would return, but what’s important is how I would return. Now, I am in the dressing room next to the one I occupied 30 years ago, and I’m sharing it with Kleon Grigoriadis who’s now in another play, and who had replaced me back then in ‘’The Sound of the Gun’’. Isn’t that something…?
K.S.: Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus is another of your projects.
S.T.: It’s a play I already did in Thermopylae, but in the new production we’ll have another director on board and another translation. It was a good effort. Now, together with Theodoros Espiritu, our new director, we will revisit the project from a new perspective.
K.S.: In any case, these projects have definitely something in common. Light and darkness, love and death, are themes that we find in everything you do this year, like there is an invisible thread that connects them.
S.T.: Exactly. And Prometheus is a revolutionary of his time. Ηe is a Titan who brings the light, but knows he will be punished for it. He is one of the bad guys of his time. Different roles, however with strong similarities. But these ambiguities are part of who I am. Fortunately, this doesn’t bother people, because I am cooperative, and during rehearsals I’m very open. Maybe because I never exactly saw acting as work. If, at some point, I see it as work, maybe I’ll give it up. To me it’s a ‘’game’’.
K.S.: Were you ever required to do something in order to shake off your ‘’jeune premier’’- ‘’sex symbol’’ image?
S.T.: I’ve done it in numerous ways. With Bijoux de Kant, for example, I played roles opposite of myself. In theater you can do that, but in television it’s more difficult, because no one will cast you in roles very different from yourself. In theater I’ve been involved with avant-garde projects, which most people are not aware of. When I was young it was more difficult, because, inevitably, you are your age. But now I’m not career-oriented any more. Now I’m just having fun. It wasn’t a career move to be in Roberto Zucco with so many different roles, but it was something that I wanted to do. And perhaps now directors will show up and offer me roles based on what they saw me doing, without them thinking that I am Tzortzoglou the TV star, who once had another type of career. I am given the chance to ‘’pass my exams’’ again, and those who’ll come to see my performance will understand that I have many faces. Now I’m following a different path and it’s something I need to do. It doesn’t mean I regret my past, though, I even embrace my mistakes. When God gives you the key to the rainbow, it is a shame not to experience all the colors. Even if the color is white, he who lives in the light should not avoid experiencing the darkness too. I regret nothing, life has taught me valuable lessons. People might think I betrayed my past, I’ve been harshly judged for the TV shows I did, even if, in reality, I did much less TV than most actors. I had a very inconsistent career, but with great consistency, nonetheless!
K.S.: As part of your enormous creativity you have also produced a collection of jewelry. How did that happen?
S.T.: I was in America with Alcibiades, and I missed my mother and Greece so much. Also, I really like rings, if you look at older pictures of me, you’ll see me wearing a ring. So I started designing rings. One day I was performing at the Delphi Theater the Orphic hymns in ancient Greek, and this strange connection began to grow with the audience, many of whom didn’t necessarily understand the text. So I combined these hymns with 12 + 1 love stories of the gods. Basically they’re prayers. I designed these jewels to make these prayers with my inner self. I don’t know if the line will continue, but I love the silver ones. I’m glad I did it, it was something important to me, as well as this book I’m presenting nowadays: ‘’The Law of Success’’, which is an inspiring testimony to personal growth and transformation by a great man of the past century, Napoleon Hill. Today his work is a point of reference for people who believe in the science of positive thinking. He studied the philosophy of Plato and Pythagoras, he met with individuals who were influential in their field of expertise, and after multiple failures in his life he created 15 + 1 laws that open the door to success in all areas of life. The + 1 law is the Golden Rule, that unites everything. Reading the book, I identified with him instantly, because I certainly had my own share of failures. I discovered this book in America, accidentally, while I was going through a dark tunnel- a really rough time- without much theater, staying home, not doing anything…
K.S.: That was a hard landing considering your past in Greece…
S.T.: You can’t even imagine… another reality altogether.
K.S.: Did it change you?
S.T.: I think it did. Because when you’re running at breakneck speed, you miss out on things along the way, but ‘’slowing down’’ is difficult for me. I’m intense, I do things with passion. If you tell me to slow down, to meditate, or do nothing, I just can’t do it. I used to get up, study English, wait for Alcibiades to have lunch, read and go to the gym together. In order to take courage I was watching motivational videos on YouTube, that’s how I came across this book. Then I began to envision myself talking about it in Greece, in the current economic situation, now that we need more than ever to step up and become better in all areas. It’s like having a house and only cleaning one room. In the end it’s going to get filthy too. And then, by a stroke of luck, in one of my trips to Thessaloniki, I went for a walk in the book festival, and met the publisher. So we talked, we analyzed the book, and then we decided to form a team that would travel from town to town and present it. I really love doing it. Talking about these lessons allow me to discover them all over again and fully absorb them.
K.S.: What are your hopes for the future?
S.T.: I hope for my son, my mother and all the people I love to be well. I hope for life, I care about good health. I hope to continue playing roles, have money to survive. But health is the most important thing. And for the world, I hope that Trump does not push the button. It has happened before in history, with Hitler, and in Rome with mad emperors like Commodus and Caligula, shortly before the fall of the empire… And now that. It’s just that Hollywood had never imagined the Joker as the President of the United States. The problem is we don’t have a Batman. We’ll have to find him. You never know. I can’t imagine what will happen. We’ll just have to wait and see…
K.S.: Thank you very much!
S.T.: Thank you!