Interview – Nadia Tass explains how she got Brian Cox to narrate the life story of Oleg Vidov in her new documentary

A story of freedom and sacrifice, this timely and powerful personal portrait reveals the incredible life story of “the Robert Redford of the USSR”, based on Oleg Vidov’s soon-to-be posthumously published autobiography.

Born in communist Russia to a schoolteacher, by the age of 25, Oleg Vidov had become one of the Soviet Union’s most celebrated actors of his time. However, no amount of fame could save him from the political system that tried to control his life. He married into General Secretary Brezhnev’s inner circle only to wind up blacklisted, threatened with death and forced to defect to the West. Reinventing himself in Hollywood, his efforts to counter anti-Russian stereotypes were attacked by the same forces that ruined his career decades earlier.

With Oleg: The Oleg Vidov Story releasing on SBS On Demand on June 24, Nick L’Barrow spoke with the documentary’s director, Australian filmmaker Nadia Tass, about her friendship with Oleg Vidov, the power of cinema, and how Brian Cox to narrate Oleg’s life story.

Nick: Nadia, it’s an absolute pleasure to meet you! I appreciate you taking the time to chat today. I’m excited to discuss this documentary with you!

Nadia Tass: Thank you! I love that you’re interested!

Nick: I watched the film yesterday, and as someone who knew nothing about Oleg’s story, I found it incredibly fascinating. So, I’m interested to know how Oleg’s story first came to you?

Nadia Tass: Well, Oleg was my friend for many, many years. We met for coffees and lunches. Just two Slavic souls that, kind of, came together. He kept telling me that I had a Russian soul!

I got to know him via Joan [Borsten], his wife, who is an extraordinary woman. A journalist, an intellectual, and incredible human with compassion. Absolutely amazing! Anyway, I’ll stop talking about Joan because I could go on forever!

She introduced us a long time ago, and we became really good friends. That’s how it came to be.

Nick: At what point during your friendship with Oleg did you realise his story was worth telling through this documentary?

Nadia Tass: Look, I knew his story was incredible, and it would be great for the cinema. But it wasn’t until after his death that Joan said, “You are the right person”.

Nick: How long was the entire process? Because you get so many great interviews from people who were involved in Oleg’s life, I can only imagine how big this project was to undertake!

Nadia Tass: It was a long, long time! Joan had done some interviews many years ago with people just talking about Oleg. And then I came in at the end of 2018. Through 2019, we were doing interviews in many different parts of the world, and I was concurrently directing stage in New York.

So, I had the platform there to be able to communicate with many different people and actors that I would be interviewing. Then in 2021 was when we finished it! We were against all odds with COVID and everything. It wasn’t until 2021 when we finally go it out there.

Nick: Oleg’s resilience and defiance is such a large aspect of this story. Was there any moment in particular in his life that stood out as an example of that?

Nadia Tass: Oleg’s story is this phenomenal story of a human being who was so adored by the Russian public. He was at the top of the tree in the USSR as an actor, and rightly so, because I knew his work. I knew what an amazing actor he was, and human being.

So, I thought this was a person whose pursuit of freedom dictated how he behaved at every turn, even when he was in the position to take the reins of, let’s say, Minister of Culture under Brezhnev’s rule. He rejected that, because that wasn’t part of his personal dictum.

This personal freedom was evident in him at a very young age. When Stalin died, Oleg was in school, and they had this huge assembly at the school and when everybody was asked to cry because Stalin died, Oleg saw such falseness, such ridiculousness. It was complete satire in front of him, and he started to laugh! Because this child saw the truth behind this façade.

Nick: Do you feel that spirit of resilience and defiance in your own filmmaking? Is that a part of Oleg’s personality that you want to convey in your own work?

Nadia Tass: Absolutely! From the very beginning, when I made Malcolm – which was my first film – when I finished it, the distributors here in Australia were saying it won’t work. When David [Parker] and I decided to show it to distributors, they were saying that comedy and drama don’t work together. That it wasn’t going to work. Go back to edit room and make it either a comedy or a drama.

But having grown up with theatre in my blood, I just thought, “How stupid is this comment?” That’s not right! So, we took it to the American film market and made sure that some of the greatest distributors were there at the screening, and then we had a bidding war on our hands at the end of that first screening. So, I guess that’s a mark of defiance! And it continued, and still does.

Nick: There are two very distinct voices in the documentary. There is Brian Cox, who narrates the film, and has connections to acting in Moscow. And Costa Ronin, who voices Oleg’s autobiography readings. How did they both become a part of this project?

Nadia Tass: Well, I’d watched Costa’s work in The Americans, and all I could hear was Oleg’s voice. So, we approached Costa, and he said yes. I was really thrilled. I had numerous conversations with him about where we needed the voice to be with the tone of the film, and he was so receptive and is so wonderful in his own right. He’s such a wonderful actor and really understood Oleg and Oleg’s life. It was a really good fit as far as I was concerned.

And, well, Mr. Brian Cox! My god! He’s been a Russian-phile for many, many years. He lived for two years; I think. His daughter lives there. He has a very strong connection [to Russia].

We approached him, and he saw that Oleg and Joan had brough the rights to this animation series from Russia. And what Oleg wanted to do was “clean it up”. Revoice and renew. And this was Oleg’s focus because in Hollywood, all the jobs that were being offered to him were bad guys, and Oleg would have to say, “We’re not all KGB!”

He wanted to show that Russia had culture, music, theatre, literature. A truth about humanity. He and Joan worked for many years with Mikhail Baryshnikov to actually get these Russian stories across. And once Brian understood that this is what Oleg did, he said yes!

Nick: That’s fantastic! While this documentary does highlight some of the distressing aspects of time during the Soviet Era, one of the uplifting elements was hearing about Oleg’s admiration for cinema. So, I’m curious to find out what some formative cinematic memories are for yourself?

Nadia Tass: Oh my God! As a migrant in Australia, at 16 years old I joined a film society in Fitzroy, Melbourne, and I think I was the youngest person there. But I kept going to these movies, like Charlie Chaplin films, and then some of Fellini’s work! I love Fellini’s work because it’s really both heartwarming and really funny. It’s such a comment on moments of life, certain portions of society that really need to be identified and scrutinised.

I love all those classic. I keep watching them and I’m informed by them. I’m also such a huge fan of Elia Kazan, because Elia Kazan was able to capture a period in American society that I think makes clear what the world was driven by. But at the same time, he brought his Greek culture with him, and he was able to inform the world with the truth he would bring.

It’s the pursuit of freedom that makes me tick. And what Oleg encounters in his world was incredible. The important people [in the USSR] could actually hide behind these “fences” and have incredible lives. But the rest of the world was lining up for a loaf of bread.

Oleg got to that elite group all on his own, with his talent and became such an adored figure. But he chose not to be a part of that power, and to take care of people. He was driven by this incredible sense of humanity and freedom. I want people to see there was something wrong then, and that there still is something wrong now. Normal people are living in Russia right now, eight families sharing one bathroom, one kitchen. How much space does Putin have? I want people to see there’s something wrong, and I hope I presented some detail of that in there.

Thank you to Nadia Tass for her time, and to NixCo PR for organising the interview. Oleg: The Oleg Vidov Story is available on SBS On Demand on June 24, and on SBS linear TV the same day at 3:10pm.

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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