EUGENE HUTZ - Dancing to his own tune
Is there anything Eugene Hutz cannot do? The Ukrainian emigre survived Chernobyl and, inspired by his love of music, founded the riotously wonderful, New York-based gypsy punk band, Gogol Bordello. Although he had never acted before, Hutz recently made his movie debut in Everything is Illuminated, and effortlessly stole the show from Elijah Wood. Below, the mastochioed wildman talks about landing his first movie role, government cover-ups, discovering his Roma roots, and the plight of Eastern Europe's gypsies.
So you’re a musician and now you're cast in your first movie.
“That’s a true story.”
Yeah, the sort of all-American story.
“Oh no, now I have to represent Ukraine and America. Now I have to represent the Ukrainian Dream and the American Dream. Oh my God! I don’t think I want to do that.”
How did you get involved in Everything is Illuminated then?
“Um, well, exactly as you said. Being a musician is actually what led me to this movie. Liev [Schreiber, writer/director] had Gogol Bordello, my band, on his radar for the soundtrack, us being basically the only musical force that could have done the cross-over of Eastern European authentic gypsy music and rock ‘n’ roll versus electronica and all the new mediums, because we’re friendly with all those things, living in New York.
“So I had a meeting with him to talk about music and it was like a streak of lightning went through the room, where I told him that I’m actually reading the book [by Jonathan Safran Foer]. I said, ‘How fantastic is that? You’re asking me to do the soundtrack for the book I’m reading?’ Which I was because my friend gave it to me saying how much similarity he thought there was between the way the book is written and the way I write my lyrics, which is kind of, like, fuck the syntax, treat the language as your own creation; say what you need to say, it doesn’t matter how long the sentence is and whether it’s rightly or wrongly constructed. And it’s true. I never properly studied English and I never properly studied music, and I never studied acting. I just went ahead and did all those things.
“So, getting back to the story, he said, ‘I can’t believe you’re reading this book. What do you think of the character of Alex?’ That’s when, I think, lightning kind of struck and he was like, ‘I’ve been looking for somebody to play Alex for so fucking long here [America] and in the Ukraine. Do you think you could do that guy?’ I said, ‘Consider it to be done.’ He and Peter Saraf, who was one of the producers, looked at each other and said, ‘You have to come in for a reading tomorrow.’ Which I did, and five days later my candidatura was approved.”
Why did you think you could do it?
“Well because of a couple of reasons. First of all I thought the character of Alex is very fun and has the Eastern European energy that I can identify with. He was a very comical, and tragical, character. A character who is deeply based in bravado and then gets his whole fancy storefront blown into pieces. The contrast of that was already interesting for me.
“Second, I always knew I am going to do some acting, it was just a matter of time. And I felt that was the time it was coming. Because since I have moved to New York, people have always pushed me towards acting and tried to lead me on, saying, ‘I’m going to introduce you to Jim Jarmusch’ or some other director. Which I did but I didn’t really pursue it because music is my first passion and I went with that more than anything. I had to be honest to myself and truthful to myself; I didn’t want to do acting just because acting is the highest cult of celebrity there is. I wanted the right role. I wanted an artistic film. I wanted it to be something that is meaningful. And here was this role.
“That is why I had that confidence. I am sure Liev got me not only because I said, ‘I am that guy, consider it to be done.’ I think he felt my enthusiasm. I think he felt I could do it, and I knew I could do it too. I don’t think my reading was fantastic; I think it was OK. But we knew we were going to do it once we get there.”
Alex seems very unaware of his own country’s history. Are there elements which have been suppressed?
In the Ukraine. He is shocked, for instance, to hear that there was anti-Semitism before World War 2, which I’d have thought was a pretty well known and well-established fact.
“Well for sure. There are people that are still not able to deal with it, really. They are in denial. Ukraine is a very confused country -- East and West Ukraine constantly versus each other – and never finds peace -- anti-Semitic question and gypsy question being the forefront of disharmony, you know?
“That was one of my connections with the film, actually. My deepest connection, really, with the story lays not in the fact that I’m a party animal, night owl, bar-hopping maniac, and I could identify with Alex’s party sense. It’s not because of that. It’s because [taps his foot three times, suggesting this is emotional territory for him] the film is based on the Jewish theme of investigating your heritage and looking into how much your past pre-determines your future, really, as a being, and I’ve dealt with that issue. It’s very much along my wavelength, because I come from a mixed family, which is gypsy and Russian and Ukrainian. If you look into history, you will find that the Final Solution plan was originally conceived for eradicating gypsies and later on applied to Jews. Those two went hand in hand.
“Even now, finally the Ukraine came to terms with establishing monuments to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and now it’s the same with Roma, the gypsies. And I know that, for example, that monument to gypsy victims of the Holocaust, when it opened last year, it was very much attended by Jewish community.”
Have you met the actress Fairuza Balk?
She’s American and she’s part Roma. She’s tattooed herself with the mark the Roma were made to wear in the concentration camps in a bid to raise awareness about the issue.
“Really? No, I’ve never even heard about her. I’d better look her up. It’s important to link and connect the dots like this because the struggle still goes on. I just got back from gypsy camps in the Ukraine where I was tracking down my extended family. I mean the conditions of that are just like . . . even the gypsy ghetto would be right in downtown of the small city, and the things that go on there are unbelievable. For example, if somebody would be having a heart attack, the ambulance simply wouldn’t come. To call it poverty, the conditions they’re living in, is to say nothing. It would be just like a bunch of burned mattresses laying in the middle of a field and people literally live like that, including through the winter. They’re like living in holes in the ground.”
Could you identify with what’s been going on in New Orleans [the interview took place as people were struggling in the aftermath of Hurrican Karina], because the Federal Government were very slow to respond there?
“That very much reminds me of how they acted in the Ukraine when Chernobyl blew up. Passivity! Of course they throw force to deal with, like, the immediate, most obvious aspects of disaster. But then the government never mobilises itself to a full degree to do all it can for some reason. And those reasons are oftentimes racist, you know? Most of the time they’re racist. Same thing in New Orleans, basically.
“Yeah, of course all the Russian people split from New Orleans because they had Russian relatives all over the place, in other communities, to where they could go. But people who were up in Louisiana and basically had two bucks to their name, they had nowhere else to go. Same thing in the Ukraine. When Chernobyl blew up, I found out about it with my family not because our TV told us or our newspapers told us; I found out from the BBC. I listened to the BBC for musical broadcasting, I wasn’t even trying to listen for anything like that. It just happened that that night instead of musical programming, on both Voice of America and the BBC, talking heads were talking about a nuclear disaster that happened in the Ukraine, and anyone who has any concern for their health had better get out of there. But for a week afterwards it never appeared in any papers or anything. People were still going to work and to school. So there is your care system for you.”
What do you think of a new report that says the number of victims of Chernobyl is astonishingly low? Do you believe it? They claim the number of victims was over-estimated.
“I don’t think it can be over-estimated. How can it be? I think the damage of Chernobyl goes much beyond Ukraine. Traces of it are found in Scotland and Ireland, you know what I mean? It’s like what the fuck are they talking about? It’s the most shameless cover up.”
If you lived there at that time, when did you move to America?
“I left Ukraine – it gets confused in my biography a lot of times in the press, evacuation and immigration, because I was evacuated from Kiev, I was 13 or 14, and that is why when that happened I ended up going to the Ukrainian countryside, and I was stationed with my extended family, who are gypsies, Roma, and that is when I found out who we are.
“Because in Kiev my family was hiding it, they didn’t want anybody to know, because we would never get out of our lower social status and things like that. So there I found it out and I came back to Kiev already with a different mind. And then when I was 18, I left again, which was 1989 or 1990, and we finally got refugee status and approval to go to the United States, which didn’t happen so quickly because we went through Poland, Hungary, Austria and Italy. We were in Italy for a year before we went to the United States.”
When you discovered your Roma identity what were your feelings given that it had been suppressed by your close family?
“Well, I was coming from a more naïve, let’s say romantic, perspective, because I always loved gypsy music. I was, like, going nuts for it as a matter of fact. I was also into punk and rock ‘n’ roll, and any music that was extreme and wild. So I thought I was an outsider and when I found out I’m an insider, I got twice as excited, and kind of went to the theory. I also, when I started speaking up about it, invoked some pride in my family about it and kind of was able to battle their internalised shame of their ethnicity to some extent. But, you know, that ethnic identity is a very complicated thing. Even within the gypsy community, the real gypsyness is constantly an issue, forever. Nobody gives each other ultimate approval of that.”
The same thing is sometimes true within the Jewish community.
“Yeah but what counts, to me, is that that is what makes me who I am at the end, which is what the movie is about. It’s like when I was younger, I thought I was breaking away from all my baggage and brushing away all my Ukrainian past and fuck it, I’m rocking in the free world. Now I’m turning 30 and I’m constantly asked, ‘How come you’re so comfortable in any society you enter and you’re so comfortable on the road? You spend six months on the road and you come back like you just came back from a gig.’ It’s like no, I looked around and there’s something bigger than me about it, which that is my Roma ancestry. It’s a more advanced way of living. It’s not a way that’s built on possessing a house.”