"Time to Act" tribute - Masterclass Themis Bazaka

The great Greek actress Themis Bazaka led a masterclass within the context of the big tribute to acting “Time to Act”, organized by the 63rd Thessaloniki International Film Festival, on Wednesday, November 9th, at the Pavlos Zannas theatre. The talk was prefaced by the artistic director of the Festival, Orestis Andreadakis: “I would first like to thank you, Ms. Bazaka, for your benevolent participation in this year’s Festival. Initially, I would like to narrate an anecdotal story from the earlier years of Greek cinema. A young actor approaches Dimitris Horn, who was really nervous in the light of his premiere, and tells him that he is not at all nervous. And Horn replied: “Don’t worry my child, in order to be nervous, you have to be talented”. This has been on my mind since yesterday, because Themis was nervous, and full of agony. And this happens because she is also very talented. And she is not a fan of the word “masterclass”. What she will do today is share her experiences with us. We will watch some scenes from iconic films she participated in. Each one was chosen based on the short story it hides, about the way one approaches or chooses a part”.

Themis Bazaka then took the floor: “Do not expect me to tell you something magical or spectacular that will solve all your problems. Every time I am about to appear in a film, I face the void. I don’t know how to act; I don’t know how to get close to the part. Through the years, it was revealed that there is a small flow in approaching this, which I follow. Of highest importance is a well-written script. I may read it up to a hundred times. This repetition begins to unveil a lot. When discussing with your director, an image is gradually formed. With all the contradictions you notice, with all that you agree with, a backbone begins to take shape and based on it, you do your work. I learn all the dialogue. Of my co-actors as well, because usually, this is where the little secrets of the role are hidden. What brings a character to life is not what they say, but what they think about. All these thoughts, even when you’re not speaking, make it through the camera and from the camera to the viewer. Even when your mind is blank and you’re thinking of nothing. What we call “I’m speechless”. It is not a blank. Something has preceded this point”.

To a question by Mr. Andreadakis about the difference between a play and a film, Ms. Bazaka responded the following: “In theatre we have rehearsals. In cinema we don’t have many, because you have to prepare on your own. Also, you don’t know what the scene will be like. It is described on a script, but you go to the set and they have decided on something different. This is why you have to know your words so well, so that you can improvise. A good director has to encourage you. To make you see what kind of film they want to make. To give you an image of what it will be like. I believe actors have to grow and educate themselves on various levels in regards to art. I am interested, for instance, in what the photography will look like. I don’t think about the camera. It is an alert eye for which I work. Through the years, you master this technique of both being and not being aware of the camera. I’m not saying this to toot my own horn, but I recall from my first shoot for Rebetiko, that everyone was telling me that I know how to play with the camera. Back then, we used to work with film and there was that sweet purr of the camera. And it had a red light that used to make me really nervous, but then I decided that I had to befriend it. To forget about it. I had to look for it and it had to look for me. I wanted, in any case, to become a film actress. Something really hard to achieve is self-concentration. In a play, you may be distracted for a bit when repetitions begin and your body takes you where you need to go. In cinema you have only one chance. You need to be there. You need to be concentrated at all times. Even when you stop. You need to be concentrated on what you left behind”.

Afterwards, two scenes from the film Rebetiko (1983) by Kostas Ferris were screened. According to Ms. Bazaka: “Cinema is unique in that the scenes are not filmed in the order that the movie plays out. Every night, after the shoot, I took notes of the scenes I had performed during the day. What was created within me. My gaze in the film is… myopic and due to this, also intense. This was my first film after I left Thessaloniki, after graduating for the National Theatre of Northern Greece. However, I did not want to do theatre. I met Kostas Ferris by chance, but he didn’t have a part for me. One morning, the phone rings and someone from production tells me that the director wants to see me. Katerina Gogou had left and I would play the supporting female role. I had to start shooting in two days. By the time I got home, I had shingles all over me. On my back and other parts of my body, I was covered with wounds. I went to the hospital and was told it’s from stress. Because the wound marks were big on my arms, they had me wear a lot of bracelets. I had no time for rehearsal. In the murder scene, I had no idea how to fall down. I got bruised all over because I didn’t know how to fall”.

What came next was The Stone Years (1985) by Pantelis Voulgaris, the story of two people in love in the post-Civil-War era. “This was my first collaboration with Pantelis Voulgaris. A wonderful collaboration that went on for three more films. What I learned is that actors don’t cry. They have to move the viewer. He told me he didn’t want to see one tear. I chose to show you the last scene, in which the characters leave the prison and make it back home. It was so cold during shooting, at an old house in Plaka, and I just had to look at the camera. What I carried with me as I looked at the camera, was the whole film. I didn’t want to know the true story of the woman so that I wouldn’t fall into the trap of imitation, so I only read some of her letters. It is nice to be free. The following scene is from Apousies (1987) by Giorgos Katakouzinos. I play a tough woman who is not very expressive, and at the end bursts into a scream and bleeds from below. A very difficult scene, for which I drew inspiration from Munch’s famous painting. Also, as you know, special effects in Greece during the 1980s were terrible. And the blood would come out of a… breaking egg. Which would not break until I started screaming in desperation. Finally, with other experiments and tricks, the egg broke. I don’t know what to tell you about how you deal with all of this, except that it’s part of the job.”

As Ms. Bazaka explained afterwards: “Pantelis Voulgaris is a director who creates ambience. He doesn’t say much to the cast. In a monologue I had to perform for Quiet Days in August (1991), I could not understand the character. And he told me that he couldn’t either. Of course, Pantelis understood, but he wouldn’t say anything about it. And I also understood, but I wouldn’t perform it. We were playing a game in this instant.” Then, Themis Bazaka spoke about the film Real Life by Panos Koutras and about a humorous moment involving the word… fish. “I expressed a humor required by the scene. I play a rich and erratic woman who walks around a pool, from which a fish jumps out. But I didn’t know what fish Panos had prepared for the scene and I blurted out the word in a strange way, which made everyone laugh”.

The screening of a scene from the film Fugitive Pieces by Jeremy Podeswa followed. “We shot this scene about seven times. I play a woman who rescues a child during the German Occupation. It was the first time I collaborated with a foreign director and I was really nervous. I have to shoot a scene where I am killed at the square of the village. So, I went to a friend of mine, a kinesiologist, to teach me how to fall without hurting myself. Canadians were prepared and handed me knee pads etc. –these things don’t exist in Greece– and I performed the scene seven times in a row, until the crew gave an applause. After a while, the sound engineer approached me and said: “If you were a Canadian or an American actress, you would need a stunt, a helicopter… you fell down and said nothing”. To which I responded: “Greek actress…”

The talk went on about the role of a film monologue, with references to the films Wild Duck by Giannis Sakaridis and A Blast by Syllas Tzoumerkas. “In the first film I play a cancer patient and we agreed with the director on a monologue. Only I forgot to take the paper on which the words were written. But I was so aware of what I was performing that I began making up my own words. For the next film, we had a lot of rehearsals, as I play a paralyzed mother who has done many things and gets beaten up by her daughter. We had a lot of takes and I couldn’t understand what I was doing wrong. With the tenth take, I got it. The director took us to such a point of exhaustion, that everything followed naturally. The difficulties of a long monologue are related to the fact that you have no idea of the conditions you will face. I had my daughter as an assistant, who helped me with learning my lines for the film The Surface of Things by Maria Kallimani. Had I not been well-prepared, I don’t know how I would have made it. Also, they tell you at the last minute that you will perform a scene because the schedule changed or the weather got bad. Know everything by heart, this is the only advice I have for you.”

The questions by the audience followed. About the extent of freedom that an actor needs, Ms. Bazaka responded: “It has to do with quality. The director could tell you something that will open up new horizons. Freedom comes from knowledge. You don’t restrict yourself when you know the script by heart”. As for her evolution as an actress and whether or not her previous films played into it, she said: “I am an actress who doesn’t believe she is a good actress. I don’t watch my films. I get creeped out by myself. I don’t want to see what I look like. We all have an idea of ourselves that does not reflect reality. It is of course very nice to come across a good photographer who will not make you look worse, at least”. To a question about the necessity of kinesiological practice for an actor, she said: “I do not give this kind of advice. The body knows. Whatever is born needs to be born in an organic manner. When it gets emotional, the body will know how to express itself”.

Finally, about the difference between film and TV, she stressed: “I have been in 25 TV series even if… it doesn’t show. They’re day and night. In TV, you work on autopilot, you’re not given the time. Recently, I played in Milky Way a series created on cinematic terms, which will be released in January. Overall, you don’t know what you’re performing, there is a high speed on set, and TV can be rather torturing most of the time. But we are professionals and have to work. I try to make TV with film directors”. As for the mental weight of her characters and whether she carries it within her, Ms. Bazaka explained: “At the start of my career I used to get affected. After I had just given birth, I used to take my daughter with me on set so that I could breastfeed. And I thought that I can’t carry this with me at home or pass it on to my daughter. Now I don’t invest personally in the character. I am not the one crying and suffering”.