In Alexei Uchitel’s new film, His Wife’s Diary, 33-year-old Galina Tyunina plays Vera Nikolaevna, the long-suffering wife of the Nobel laureate poet Ivan Bunin (Bunin forced his wife to allow his lover, the poet Galina Plotnikova, to live with them). And yet Tyunina does not see her character as some kind of a martyr worthy of canonization.
“I didn’t have this idea that Vera is self-abnegating, that she sacrificed herself, etc.,” Tyunina said. “I had the feeling that this was an absolutely normal, strong and beautiful woman who consciously and freely chose this path ... I don’t know why people react like that [to the role]. I think we miss a lot of this in our life. We can rarely afford to be as strong as we would like.” Vera Nikolaevna, Tyunina said, decided to love Bunin “despite all of the pain which went along with it, because freedom and beauty don’t exist without some painful sensations … If you want to love, then resign yourself to the fact that periodically you will live through some hard things.”
While His Wife’s Diary is winning wide acclaim in Russia (it won the 2000 Grand Prix at the Kinotavr Russian film festival and was put forward by Russia as a candidate for an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film), Tyunina has known her share of hard times brought on by tough choices.
“I can tell you one thing,” Tyunina confessed. “You will not get rich either in theater or cinema in our country these days … One can live on it, though it’s not a lot. But then one must just realize what they want out of life. There is never enough money …”
Tyunina is equally realistic about the chances of His Wife’s Diary being nominated for or winning an Oscar. While she would love the opportunity to “meet with this magic world of Hollywood,” she knows it would not necessarily result in more or higher paying work. “We have our own cinema history,” she said. ”… I would not rush to try to mix the Russian and the American cinema schools. They have a more spectacular cinema, they are great at that, it is their specialty ... while our films are a bit too long — at times boring — to their taste … we need to sit, to think and talk before we do something … this is our special thing, our spirit ... I hate when our actors bend over backwards to make it to Hollywood, or to US cinema, and are ready to renounce whatever they were taught in this country … Art will not pardon this. If you are ready to betray your nature, then you become a puppet …”
Such an uncompromising stance began early. At 14, Tyunina decided to fully dedicate herself to the theater and so, with her father’s help and support, left Moscow for Saratov (which, unlike the capital, had a theater school for students of secondary school age). There she rented an apartment and began living her own life. After studying for four years in the Saratov Theater School, she worked for over two years in the Saratov Drama Theater. But then she felt a need for more education. At 20, she entered the GITIS high school in Moscow, where she was taught by one of Russia’s leading theater directors, Pyotr Fomenko. His whole “year” of students was so talented that, in 1993, these actors created a theater now known as The Workshop of Pyotr Fomenko. There Tyunina acted in a wide variety of plays, including Ostrovsky’s Wolves and Sheeps and a play inspired by Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls.
Tyunina’s debut film, Mania Zhizeli (“Giselle’s Mania”, 1995) saw her cast in the lead role as the turn-of-the-century ballerina Olga Spesivtseva. While the film (written by Dunya Smirnova and directed by Alexei Uchitel, the same creative team behind His Wife’s Diary) received mixed reviews, Tyunina’s performance was widely lauded. She was nominated for the prestigious Nika award. And, in 1997, Komsomolskaya Pravda named her the best actress of the year.
“I have never met such a combination in one person,” Uchitel said. “Talent, modesty and openness, and she never has fits; she always works for the sake of our common task. And the result is always amazing … even on the first take … She is just an actress with God-given talent. As a result, I believe her film character, that’s it. I have never had the feeling that I have in front of me an actress playing Bunin’s wife. She is so ‘within’ the wife, she just lives her life. I am just convinced that — for me and for many viewers — it is just Vera Nikolaevna, and we forget we have Galina Tyunina in front of us.”
Tyunina is already working on a future project with Uchitel and Smirnova. The film is tentatively titled Russkaya skazka (“Russian Fairy Tale”), and Tyunina will take on entirely different role, that of the 18th century female landowner “Saltychikha,” who was notorious for her cruelty towards her serfs.
Tyunia relishes the idea of another, totally different role: “Is she authoritarian, power-thirsty? Yes. But then it can never be one-dimensional. For there is always a weakness, even in an authoritarian woman. And many other things as well.”
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