Nelly Uvarova

Nelly Uvarova: ‘We will always find each other, as we proudly carry the banner of being Armenian’

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By Artsvi Bakhchinyan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

YEREVAN — Years ago, a woman in Tbilisi read the coffee grounds of an Armenian woman named Gohar Khalatova, and informed her that on the face of Gohar’s daughter she saw a shining star.

Years later, Gohar told her daughter Nelly: “That was about you!”

Nelly has since grown up to become a renowned theater, film and voice actress in Russia

She was born on March 14, 1980 in Mazeikiai, Lithuania. Her father Vladimir Uvarov is an engineer-technologist; her mother, Gohar (Galina) Uvarova (Khalatova), is an economist and former sportswoman, who also taught gymnastics. Her older sister, Elena, is a designer.

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Nelly was 2 when the family moved to Tbilisi. When she turned 9, Georgia entered a period of political instability, and the Uvarov family lived for five years in inter-ethnic conflicts and civil war. In 1994, they moved to Moscow as refugees, without housing, money or work, but gradually all difficulties were overcome.

In 2001 Nelly graduated from VGIK. Since then, she has worked in the Russian Academic Youth Theatre (RAMT) as one of their leading actresses.

In 2004, Nelly received the prize for the best female performance at the Rainbow International Festival for her one-woman show, “Rules of Behavior in Modern Society.” Starting in 2005, Nelly gained international recognition and acclaim as the leading role of a charming ugly girl, Katya Pushkaryova, in the TV series, “Not Born Beautiful.”

Uvarova has appeared in more than 25 films and TV series, and has performed about 45 roles in productions of the Russian Academic Youth Theater and other theatres. She lives in Moscow with her husband, actor Alexander Grishin, daughter Iya and son Ignat.

Nelly and I met in Yerevan, where she came to participate a new film by Armenian-American director and actor Michael Goorjian. The role she is playing is Armenian named Sona, who is married to a Russian. One might assume that in some ways Nelly played her mother.

Nelly Uvarova, left, with Artsvi Bakhchinyan (photo Hayk Papikyan)

So, Nelly jan, barev!

Topics: Cinema

Barev dzez!

Did you know these words before, or did you learn them here?

No, of course I knew the words of welcome and gratitude in Armenian.

You are very popular in Russia. How is this expressed? Do people come to the theater “for Uvarova?”

We can say so, although it is hard for me to talk about it because I do not sit in the box office and have not any idea how it works. Yet, I can tell the theater I work in does not have a shortage of spectators; the seats are always full. I don’t know, whether it is to my credit, but I do know from my fans’ comments from the letters I receive. At this point, I realize that there are people who are very supportive of what I do.

Although you are not on social networking sites. how do your fans communicate with you?

I get letters in an old-fashioned way (laughs).

You became famous after the TV series, an art form some consider inferior to cinema and theater. What is your attitude to these three kinds of art that you are in?

I started my acting career in a dark time, the 1990s, when it was said that there was no cinema at all in Russia; that it is dead and could not be revived. Also as a student I received the prize for the best acting in the short film “Let’s Fly!” by Anna Melikyan. At the first interview we both had, we were asked why we had chosen this profession, as the actors are not in demand and there is no movie industry. I was very young, probably naive, but I was so affected by this question. It offended me so much that I answered without thinking at all: “If we went into this profession, it will not die.”

Maybe the answer was quite ambitious, but it was not because of ambition, but rather my inner conviction, out of love for the profession. Fortunately, the times have changed: there was a time when doing a TV series was not in favor, but now the border between TV and cinematic projects is blurring, and there are very high-quality TV projects. I am very pleased with this trend. At the moment when the series “Not Born Beautiful” was released, the actors who were in the TV series did not have a very good reputation, but I think 2005 just become a watershed, after which participation in the TV series ceased to be considered something shameful.

Nelly, it so happened that you made your cinema debut in Anna Melikyan’s film and performed one of your best roles in Karen Oganesyan’s film. Although these films (by the way, both are debuts) do not have Armenian themes, however there is a parallel between the nationalities of the directors and your roots.

That’s right (laughs). It is no secret that there are many Armenians in the Russian film industry, starting with the highest positions, producers and directors, therefore such meetings occur naturally. Anna Melikyan and I know each other from our professional “infancy”: in VGIK she studied directing, I  acting, and we maintain relations and a friendship to this day.

With Karen Oganesyan we met during the casting of his film “I am Staying,” one of my favorite works. We all knew this was Karen’s first work and we were very careful and attentive to him on the set: the project was actually done in an atmosphere of great love, and it seems to me that when that happens, when the main motivation is not financial, a team assembles not to make money, but in sake of a work that everybody is interested in doing, under these conditions a warm product comes out.

During the filming, Karen had a birthday, and the film crew wanted to congratulate him. Actress Elena Yakovleva and I decided to surprise Karen during the difficult scene of the hero’s resuscitation, when he is in a coma and Yakovleva and I are standing by his bed. We found an Armenian on the set and asked him to translate the text of our heroine into Armenian. We made a pact with the director of photography that when Karen will say “cut!,” the DOP will tell him he had a problem with the take and has to do one more. When this extra take started, Yakovleva and I started performing our dialogue in Armenian. Karen was sitting with his headphones on and he did not understand what was going on: everyone was laughing at his reaction. He did not even immediately realize that the actresses suddenly started speaking Armenian.

Indeed, funny. The name Nelly is not Armenian, but is very common among the Armenians. I assume that name came from your mother’s side?

It happened that my mother had a sister, Nelly, who, as a child, died during the earthquake in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, where they lived. It was important for my mother to name her daughter after her late sister, although she had not seen her. It was also important that the combination with the father’s name will sound beautiful — Nelly Vladimirovna.

Please tell us about your Armenian side. What “Armenian memories” do you have from your childhood?

I grew up in Georgia, where my mother’s parents, Grigor and Aghunik Khalatovs lived. My grandfather was from Georgia, my grandmother – from Ashgabat. When we moved to Tbilisi, my Russian father was very well received in my mother’s family (although he was kind of from another world), which I cannot say for the opposite side – for my mother it was more difficult in Russia, as my father’s family it was more difficult to accept an Armenian woman than vice versa. My grandmother told me that one winter someone knocked on the door; she opened and saw on the doorstep a young man with beautiful blue eyes, with skis (in Georgia snow falls only three times a year): thus my father came to ask my mother to marry him. Somehow it all worked out. I had a very happy childhood, despite the difficulties of that time — a life without electricity, water, jobs. But my parents tried their best to keep us out of trouble. We were very friendly in the courtyard and in the school; in my class in Tbilisi school there were 16 nationalities, to me this international community was the norm.

My grandparents talked to each other in Armenian, to us in Russian, and when there was something to hide from us, to discuss our secrets and their own, they switched to Armenian. I liked it very much, and I thought of this trick of learning Armenian and not telling anyone about it.

I remember our dinners, and then when we moved to Russia, I missed it terribly. But wherever you are, you stay exactly the way you were raised. And so far, during our family meeting, especially on New Year’s Eve, there is always lavash and tolma on the table: the kitchen is preserved, which I cannot say about the songs and dances.

Speaking another childhood episode – I was eight years old when the earthquake struck Armenia, which was felt in Tbilisi. I was home alone, and when it happened, I ran outside. We did not have any damage, but then we found out what happened in Armenia, we were very worried about how to help. I remember there was a meeting in the family, everyone gathered at the big table in the grandmother’s apartment and agreed that each family member would take the children who were left without parents after the earthquake. I was really looking forward to having someone in our family to whom we would give family warmth, but in the end, it did not work out, because the Armenian government at the time decided that all the orphaned children would stay in Armenia.

You have probably been told more than once that you have Armenian eyes, that even when you smile, your eyes are sad.

Yes, at the institute, a teacher told me: “Here, all the sorrow of the Armenian people is in Nelly’s eyes!”

What else is Armenian in Nelly Uvarova’s human and artistic nature?

Perhaps, the temperament. When sometimes I argue with my husband, he jokes and says: “Look, you are an Oriental woman, why are you behaving like this? You must be obedient, listen quietly to me, look at the floor and agree with everything!” And I ask: “Show me where have you seen such Armenian women?” When I was in Yerevan six months ago on a guest trip, we had volunteers with us. I was accompanied and helped by young girl named Gohar, my mother’s namesake. I was astonished to learn that she was still in high school being so active being able to do anything, speaking several languages, treating everyone with respect, but on an equal footing. I had a master class at the Institute of Theater and Film, and I was surprised again to see that 80 percent of the audience was girls — future directors, producers — and they all were active, asking questions. I told Gohar that when I talked to her, I thought she was an exception, but I was struck again by this activity among the female population. Even I am hostage to the myth that Armenian women should not be like this. Gohar replied that this is the norm for Armenian girls, and I said: “I will now call my husband, you tell him what kind of the young girls of Armenia are – with character and will!”

During the filming of this movie, you say a few phrases in Armenian. I expected you to say it with a Russian accent, but I was pleasantly surprised that your Armenian speech sounded like Tbilisi Armenians.

This is not surprising, because there were many Armenians around me in Georgia, and now there are many of them in Moscow as well. I have got a musical ear; I think I have got an Armenian speech somewhere in the cerebral cortex of my brain. At first I was afraid that I would have to speak Armenian, only a couple of words maybe, but a few phrases seemed complicated to me. The beautiful actress Tatev Hovakimyan from Yerevan taught me through the Internet: she was very demanding. And now I am not scared at all, I have listened a lot of people talk to each other, and Armenian has stopped being something foreign to me.

The current project, for which you are invited to Armenia, is being carried out against the backdrop of the misfortune that has befallen all humanity. The project is still ongoing, but what are your impressions?

I keep thinking that if the shooting had started literally two or three days later, I would not be here, but I happen to be here. My family is in Moscow, it is not easy to be apart from the family when there is a general panic. But on the set, most people are conscientious and cautious, and I do not see anyone getting discouraged.

Especially with the women.

Right (laughs). Actually, I was pleasantly surprised that somehow everything was fine. There is a lot of talk, as it seems at first, but everything is done, everyone is united in a common cause: I like when people are focused on a cause. There is this feeling inside the group that as long as we are on the set, we are all dealing with our fears and our problems, and we are all united by a common idea, which is a personal encouragement to me. At this point, I do not think my being here is random, and I do not blame myself for not being home at such a difficult moment. And it is also nice that the project has an international team: the director, producer and cameramen are from the United States, there is an actor from Spain: some are of Armenian origin and there are such connections through common roots. It seems to me that not all nations, but wherever in the world you work, you always know that there is an Armenian in the film crew, and that we will always find each other, as we proudly carry the banner of being Armenian. You meet people, you do not ask about their ethnicity, that is not the main thing, but you always know the fact that there is an Armenian around you, even if he does not look Armenian. This desire for self-identification and unification is very characteristic for us.

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