The Making of Doctor Zhivago
Interpreting a classic for today
Behind the Scenes | Interviews
Hans Matheson plays Yury Zhivago
Scottish actor Hans Matheson has played a character caught up in revolutionary times previously -- he starred as Marius, the charismatic young Parisian revolutionary, in Bille August's film adaptation of Les Misérables. Matheson played Mordred, King Arthur's illegitimate son, in the star-studded The Mists Of Avalon, was Silver Johnny in the original stage production and movie Mojo, and guitarist Luke Shand in the Golden Globe-nominated Still Crazy. Other credits include Stella Does Tricks, Canone Inverso and The Future Lives A Long Time.
Keira Knightley plays Lara Guishar
Rapidly rising superstar, 18 year-old Keira Knightley has appeared in Bend It Like Beckham, The Pirates of the Caribbean and the Richard Curtis film, Love Actually with Liam Neeson and Hugh Grant. One of her earliest roles was as Sabé, the Queen's (Natalie Portman) double in Star Wars Episode 1 -- Phantom Menace. Upcoming films include King Arthur (in which Knightley plays Guinevere to Clive Owen's Arthur), and Tulip Fever with Jude Law and Jim Broadbent.
Sam Neill plays Victor Komarovsky
International movie star Sam Neill was acclaimed for his role in the Oscar-winning The Piano and is perhaps best known to current film audiences through his lead role in Jurassic Park and its sequels. Born in Northern Ireland, Neill grew up and began his career in New Zealand and, in addition to acting, has worked as a writer, director and editor. He was awarded the OBE for service to acting in 1993 and was named Best Actor on British Television for the mini-series Reilly: Ace Of Spies, for which he was also nominated for a Golden Globe. The Australian Film Institute awarded him Best Performance In A Leading Role for A Cry In The Dark. Other credits include The Dish, The Omen, The Horse Whisperer, Dead Calm, The Hunt For Red October and Plenty.
How did you prepare for the part when you discovered you had won the role of Yury Zhivago?
I went to visit Pasternak's niece in Oxford and she gave me some of the poetry his sister had translated. I just couldn't believe it. His poetry inspired me beyond belief. Read Doctor Zhivago, then read his poetry. While filming, I think Boris Pasternak was with us somehow -- Giacomo (Campiotti, director) and I both thought that! One sunny day on set, we were doing the scene where Yury and Lara meet for the first time after the war. Yury had gone back to Moscow, and goes in to a library and sees her. They then meet in the courtyard... In the book, it describes this gust of wind that blows through the middle of them, and it actually happened to Keira and I. Giacomo and I just looked at each other and thought 'He is with us!' -- and maybe he was!
I think the essence of Yury, the most essential part of him, is that he is in love with life. Whatever tragedies happen to him inspire him to a new understanding of life and love. My job is to understand his emotional journey and I do -- because of my own experiences in life.There are times in my life when I have felt lost. Looking back you see why you had to experience that. Some people would become cynical, and that is the great thing about Yury -- he never becomes cynical, but keeps his heart open, which is wonderful. I feel his honesty always comes through and wins in the end. It was a great opportunity to play a wonderful character with such a huge range of emotions. I hope people will be inspired to read the book because it is incredible and stands the test of time.
You had great sympathy for Yury Zhivago... he is presented with a very difficult set of circumstances...
There is always a moral dilemma for him because he has a wife and a child and he leaves them for Lara. I think we all have things to learn in this life and his is meeting Lara. It's destiny -- they are soulmates. Maybe they met in a previous life. He grew up with Tonya, so she is his best friend, as well as his lover and wife. In the end he goes back to her because the love he shares with Lara becomes an impossible love, it's like they are living a dream. They have no food and no work, but they want to be together even though it's impossible and that's what's tragic. Life has things in store for people. That's just the way it is.
Do you believe in fate and soulmates?
We have all had a great love in our lives and maybe lost them as well. At the time you lose them, you see it as something of a misfortune, but that is destiny in itself. Behind every beautiful thing, there is some kind of pain.
Are there any moments during production that particularly stand out for you?
When we were filming in Slovakia, they changed the schedule one day and we had to do the scene of Lara leaving -- which I wasn't expecting. Usually, when you know you have to do a scene like that, you prepare yourself, maybe too much sometimes. For the first time, Giacomo played Yury and Lara's theme to me during this scene and I felt something magical happen. Something beyond words in a way. It felt incredible. I remember a moment when I was saying goodbye to somebody in my life and seeing them for the last time. For me, it felt like I had released something from my body. I know this sounds a bit strange. In some way playing these parts is therapeutic. They help to deal with issues in your life.
How did Prague become a home away from home for you?
In the last five years, I have spent a year of my life in Prague, which I have enjoyed very much. It's changed a lot since I first went. I believe there was a golden age there. The architecture is wonderful, amazing. You can just imagine all these fantastic artists there thinking, 'let's create a wonderful place" -- the castles, the bridges, the stone masonry, the carpentry. You just don't see that now. I don't think people have the time or the money to make buildings as they did then.
Are you concerned about comparisons to the 1965 Lean film?
I don't think of it as a competition. How many people have played Hamlet, or Romeo? You don't feel that the same comparisons are made when people play Hamlet time and time again. While I was reading the script, I was watching a video on great violinists, because I am really into old fiddle players of the 20's and 30's. One violinist said that it's an insult to the composer to say a piece of music can only be played one way. And that stayed with me. I thought how true that is. Some people say that there are only five great stories ever told, but it's how they are told that keeps them fresh every time, and it's how the audience see it and feel it. The David Lean film was the first time anyone had really experienced epic wide-screen cinema with a great score, so it was magical for them and always will be.
I hope people can open their hearts to our production before they have their daggers ready. I am not Omar Sharif and Keira is not Julie Christie. I am Hans Matheson playing Zhivago and Keira Knightly is playing Lara. I would say this is more daring emotionally. Films have moved on since Lean's version. There is something more real about this production. People will take from this what they want. At the end of the day, for me, for Giacomo and for everybody involved, we tried our best. That's all you can do.
You cover an enormous range, both emotionally and literally, as you age throughout the story, from a 16 year-old schoolgirl to a mother of 27...
Lara is a girl in the transition to womanhood so there are lots of different emotions. She is very strong but also incredibly pure, a fantastic character to play as she has so many things going on; so many people she loves, so many people she hates. It has been a big challenge.
What attracted you to this role?
Everything. Zhivago is an incredible piece of work. I have read the book a number of times and it's an absolute masterpiece and it is just fantastic to be a part of something like this. For me, Lara is a character that I can obviously identify with because of what she is going through when we first meet her.
Lara's relationship with her mother, Amalia, is far from easy but it is put under even greater strain when Komarovsky's attentions shift ...
Komarovsky has tremendous power, money and influence, which is very attractive. Lara is intrigued by him and absolutely loves the fact that he is obsessed with her. It's really interesting to see how she goes from apparent hatred of him in the beginning to an actual fascination and, on her part, obsession as well. It's not a simple relationship. It's one that's quite terrifying in a way because of all the manipulation that goes on within it. Lara does say Komarovsky "made me hate myself" which is exactly what he has done. He has taken her purity and virginity, which at that time was a huge thing to give away. In the book she says she's now a lady of the night. So she certainly does go through a period of loathing.
But in Yury, Lara has found her perfect love. It's idealistic love, the love that everybody is looking for. She has found the man of her dreams quite literally. It is completely different than with both Pasha and Komarovsky. With Yury it can't last because he has got a wife and a child, and she has a husband and a child, but they make the most of it while they can.
You refuse to watch any footage of yourself while filming because you get very self-conscious, but you did watch a number of Hans' and Sam's scenes...
Hans is a complete inspiration for me. I have seen quite a lot of his other work. I don't think I have ever met anybody quite as focused and that's been really great to work with. He is absolutely passionate about the project and the book and I do believe he really is Yury Zhivago. He has a truly poetic soul. Working with Sam has to be a bit of a dream because of all the films he has been in. I was a little scared when I first met him, remembering Damien from The Omen, but I have now got over that! He's a great bloke.
Any thoughts about comparisons that might be made with the David Lean film?
If you read the novel, it has so many different parts to it, I think it would almost be a tragedy if we didn't have another interpretation of this amazing book. The Lean film was made 37 years ago, so it's time we had a new one to introduce to my generation. It's an amazing story, and one that I think everybody can learn from. I think it's important to do it again.
You've said you were thrilled to be offered the role of Komarovsky...
It's not very often you get asked to play people that are just so bad. You can't pass that up too often. Komarovsky is a delicious villain. He is a man of his time, a man of many times because he operates very successfully under whatever system that will be. He is one of those people who always survives, does well and does people wrong. Some people are prisoners of circumstance. He is clearly a prisoner of his rather malign personality. He's a terrible man, but you've got to love him. I love all my characters, but I have a love/hate relationship with Komarovsky. I despise him, but am rooting for him. I'm on his side.
Do you think audiences will empathize with Komarovsky?
I certainly hope they won't because he is decidedly villainous. I imagine, because people tend to confuse you with the characters you play, that they will probably absolutely hate me as a result.
Your passion for the Pasternak novel goes back a long way...
This is clearly one of the great books of the 20th century. It's an extraordinary story with a huge sweep set against some of the greatest events of recent times and as far as I know, it doesn't have any other parallels with anything that has been written in the last 20 years. I first read this book about 30 years ago and thought it was the most marvelous thing. Everybody loved the David Lean film and I am no exception, but there is a lot more of the story that has never been told and it's one of those books that lend itself terribly well to television. There are a lot of vivid characters and great stories. I am surprised no one has thought to do it before. I am pleased to be part of it.
Do you feel comparisons to the great Lean film will arise?
It's a David Lean film and of course it's a monument in the cinema. But, we are not doing David Lean; we are revisiting the novel. It's more than 30 years on and these are entirely different actors with an entirely different director, a totally different writer with a completely different way of looking at a great piece of literature. It's ambitious, but bugger it, here we are!
Does Komarovsky fall in love with Lara or is he just obsessed with her?
Komarovsky clearly has a very unhealthy relationship with Lara. It's obsessive-compulsive. He becomes utterly obsessed by this girl and it's not good for him and it's much worse for her. Mix in to that a big dollop of some kind of love and it's trouble. Big trouble.
In this adaptation of Zhivago, Komarovsky finds himself in a number of sex scenes with Lara...
Sex? I know nothing about sex... there's no sex in this! (Laughs). Keira is completely delicious and everybody is in love with her. In fact, everybody who watches this is going to be in love with her. That's not just because she is a very beautiful girl, but she's also a very smart actor who has an intellectual grasp on the character, with an instinctive feel for it.
We had to get fairly up close and personal quite a lot and that could have been potentially awkward if she wasn't a mature, sensible and humorous person. It's really been a pleasure to work with her.
It's the first time I have done something where the two leads are old enough to be my grandchildren. I am not fazed by that. I am very fond of both of them.
In retrospect, do any scenes stand out for you?
I won't include any of my scenes because that's a whole different issue, but I did see a clip of a scene between Keira and Hans. They have been in the war for a couple of years working together in the hospital and are finally returning to their respective homes. At last, Lara gets around to asking if he is married and if he is happy. I thought the way they played it was so delicate and touching... just fantastic. And I was nowhere near that scene!
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