Interview With Simon Abkarian By Bianca Bagatourian
This exclusive interview was granted to the Armenian Dramatic Arts Alliance (ADAA) in November 2005. Simon Abkarian is the very gifted Armenian-Lebanese-French actor whose work has mainly been seen in French movies and on the Paris stage. The interview was conducted on a Sunday afternoon over the telephone from Boston to Paris. It began with Simon first on a train and then arriving home and from the sound of things preparing dinner before we settled into a more quiet period. The conversation diverted from more esoteric theories about time to more practical ones about one of his latest movies “YES,” where Simon plays a Lebanese doctor in exile, making his living as a cook. For authenticity, please imagine the entire interview in a thick French accent!
Simon – Allo.
Bianca –Hi Simon, this is Bianca. Hello.
Bianca – Can we talk now?
Simon – Yes. Yes. So, tell me. What’s happening?
Bianca – I wanted to do a short interview as people in the US don’t know too much about you...Where you are from...What you do and so on. Is it OK if I tape this?
Simon – Of course. Go ahead.
Bianca – We will be posting this interview on or website. Is that OK?
Simon –Do what you want with it. As long as we have a good talk.
Bianca –Before we start, is it Simon or Simone?
Simon –My name is Simone. In America, they call me Simon, but you can call me anything you like.
Bianca –OK, Simon. Let’s start with some background. Have you lived in Paris for a long time?
Simon –I was born in Paris. I went to Lebanon when I was nine. I stayed there until I was fifteen. Then the war started and we had to leave. So we left.
Bianca – Where is your family now?
Simon –My family lives in Paris. I have cousins in America and in Lebanon.
Bianca - What first attracted you to acting?
Simon- It began actually in 1983 with an Armenian play I saw directed by Gerald Papasian. He was running a theatre company, the Artavadzt for the AGBU. So I joined the company, we became friends, and then we came to Los Angeles in 1984 where he directed “Dangerous Corner” by J.B. Priestley
Bianca – That’s wonderful. So, having the AGBU theater was very helpful to you.
Simon- Well, yes. But it is mostly linked to the person. In this case, it was Gerald. He is so charismatic and so dedicated to his art. It happened like that. Then the Theatre du Soleil came to Los Angeles in 1984 and I knew some of the people in different there and I joined the workshop and I had a proposal to come back and to do auditions and join the company of Theatre du Soleil.
Bianca - You did a lot of work on the stage before you did movies, is that right?
Simon- That is where I come from. It is my motherland.
Bianca -I read you won a Moliere. Was that for your performance in the “Beast on the Moon”?
Simon- That was years after. A Moliere is only because of many years of work.
Bianca – What is your favorite role that you have played in the theatre?
Simon- The Greek Tragedy- Oresteia (Aeschylus). This is where I went into dimensions I never imagined existed. Meanwhile, I felt at home because it is very close to Armenian. As an Armenian actor, I felt like I knew what it was all about.
Bianca - I saw the movie “YES” and found it very interesting because it was written in verse and I’m wondering if it was difficult playing a role that in iambic pentameter?
Simon- I never thought about the rhyming. What was important was what it contained...What was being said. When you have such a thing...how you say that...it’s like a partition. It puts you in front of your art...your tool...because it’s written the way it is. So, it was not an obstacle...on the contrary, it was so well written. The form didn’t kill what it was all about. You know what I mean? The form was the expression to make it happen...to make it clear.
Bianca -How was it working with Sally Potter?
Simon- When I worked with Atom Egoyan...And I guess the next time we work together and I think it will happen again one day...I don’t know when and how but I think both of us desire that...but working with Atom in that film, I didn’t have much room...and I was not carrying Atom’s film...I was not responsible, but with Sally it was the case. Working with both Sally and Atom were one of the most important encounters I’ve ever had in he cinema. The encounter with Sally was one of the most important moments for me in my life...In my acting life.
Bianca -Did you know Sally Potter before this movie?
Simon- I met her when she was Shooting “The Man Who Cried” and I went to audition for a part in her film, the part of a gypsy and we had the opportunity to talk and we talked about each other and obviously she did not forget so she called me back for another short film that became the long one called “Yes”.
Bianca –Tell me how working with Atom in Ararat was an important moment for you?
Simon- It was a very important moment because first of all, Atom is an artist. He will never let the subject overrule...be stronger than him. Atom is someone who has distance. He has the distance because he has the poetry. You understand what I’m saying? He knows how to transpose life in very simple ways and as we know, in art, simplicity is the most difficult thing. Simplicity doesn’t take away the complexity of the relation and whether we want it or not...our relation to humanity...our relation to the work because of the Genocide...is very complex. The Genocide is a past important moment in our lives but our life is not only the Genocide. You have to keep the distance. That is what Atom did, within his writing first of all...Because we tend to forget the writing sometimes, we always look for result, but it is not only about results...the whole process is in the writing.
Bianca –I wanted to talk about Beast on the Moon again for a moment. Firstly, how was that play received in France and secondly, can you tell us a little about some other stage experiences.
Simon- I didn’t want to do it, first of all. For me, it has a certain importance in my mind. I didn’t know how, who, where and why. Then when I met Irina (Brook) we got to work and it took me awhile to feel comfortable. Why? I can’t give an explanation because it’s a mystery. Sometime you just don’t want to do something...You have a feeling...But because it is theater...It is a tool to talk about the nightmare.
Bianca -So it’s a positive tool. Do you think we should have more and more plays about the subject of Genocide?
Simon- I think the sooner they can recognize the Genocide, the sooner we can move on to other things. It is not the center of the Armenian history. Of course, it is an important part of the picture. Now it is time for the Turks to declare it not only for us, but for themselves...So we can talk about other things. They have to do their job. We cannot do their job. They have to do their own and we have to do our own. We were in front of the blade, they were behind the handle.
Bianca – So many of us are stuck in this place-
Simon- Yes, but how can you blame us? It’s a big trauma and the fact of being stuck is matching the absurdity of the denial. Do you understand what I am saying? As long as there is denial, there will be obsession. If they take away the denial, we will be obsessed, but with something else, maybe shish kebab, I don’t know. We will obsess about something.
So, that’s why I think that Atom’s work in this film, within this subject, is the first pawn of a big edifice that is important to build in order to contain our lost icons...Our losses. If we don’t have the recognition of our past, we cannot build the present, neither the future. So, that’s why it is important to go and support Armenians when they do things like this. By going to see them we make a statement...We help the process...And then open the debate after having seen it.
When an artist does a piece...Of course, we all want to be praised and loved...but an artist is beyond being praised and loved. Atom is doing something beyond that. He is doing something for the eternity of the Armenian nation and the human family and we have to understand that and support that. If we criticize that, it is because his film brought the question to our minds. Without the film, we wouldn’t have opened the debate. Do you understand? And this is the work of the artist and Atom understands it because he is a true one and voila! This is not a film about the Genocide. This is a film about questioning ourselves. It is about the Turks questioning themselves. It is about the other nations questioning themselves towards this problem which is part of the problem of the human race. When people say, “What is your problem? What is the problem of the Armenians?” I say to them it is your problem. Everything is linked. Especially now with globalization, everything is so close.
Me, I don’t want to spend all my life being focused on 1915. I don’t want to live my life like that. But there is one magic act that they have to do and that is to say “Yes.”
Bianca – The missing act.
Simon- To say, our grandfathers did it. It’s not the Germans. It’s not the Kurds. It is not this, it is not that. It is the Young Turk government which were there in 1909, organized in a bureaucratic way, coming from the state...the Genocide. That’s all. That’s all they have to do.
Bianca – I think every Armenian artist is faced with this. Do you move forward or do you stay there? We need to heal the wounds.
Simon- Maybe it’s not even good to heal it but at least if they say, “The wound you have...We did it.” Then we manage with the wound.
Bianca – We seem as a culture...as a people to be a traumatized one. Our music is sad, our poems are sad. We are sad in a general way and maybe it is from this enormous trauma.
Simon- Yes, it is but also but it is not only about being wounded. This is a vast subject. There is another way of relating to God, there is another way of relating to death, there is another way of relating to birth, there is another way of relating to the earth. That doesn’t make us better or worse than others. But we have a different way of seeing things and we have to accept the differences. When you go to Armenia, you feel it. When you go to Greece, you feel it. When you go to Turkey, you feel it, etc. etc. Allow me to say that I feel somehow closer to a Turk that I feel to a Danish, and God knows I love the Danish. It is a closer vibration. We understand each other.
Bianca –OK. Let’s move forward. Here’s a different subject. Whilst establishing our new organization, ADAA, I noticed that in France there is a rather large and active Armenian film community and theatre, too. Why is that?
Simon- It is easier to get funding for films over here. Now it is getting a bit difficult but back in the eighties, it was a good moment for Armenian artists to express themselves. One of them was Serge Avedikian, and Jacques Kebadian and Jackie Nercessian...all these people...I don’t know...I cannot tell you more about this phenomena.
Bianca – What kind of roles do you look for?
Simon- I don’t look for roles, I look for adventures with people who want to defend a project with a story about humans. Also, I want to touch everything, I want to try everything, I want to taste, I want to understand, to see things that I don’t know...Spaces I want to explore because it’s unknown to me. I want to improve in my craft.
Bianca – Would you like to direct?
Simon- A film? Of course.
Bianca -So, the big question now is, are you interested in coming to Hollywood?
Simon- If I have a proposal I will do it. If it’s not intelligent, if it’s not a character caricature, if it is an intelligent proposal, then I will do it. Listen, the aim is not Hollywood.
Bianca – I wish Hollywood would make more films similar to Independent films.
Simon- It is all a business. For instance, you know all this about talk about organic food. It is not true. It is all a business.
Bianca - I eat organic-
Simon- I eat organic food too. But that is not the problem. When they know that there is money to make, they will do more independent films, too. They will adapt themselves, that’s what I’m saying.This is the law of the market. Listen, the secret of a happy life for me is the slow-ness and when we talk about evil...the word evil...the ultimate evil ever is “hurry.” Dashing…hurrying-
Bianca -Then I must be very evil-
Simon – Why? Well no, it’s because you obey the law of the place you live. Me, I don’t eat fast food, for example, because eating is a sacred act. Fast food in itself is a heresy. So, that’s what I am talking about. You cannot do something good, fast. You cannot fit something big in something small. You cannot fit a big foot in a small shoe...You suffer.
Bianca: As a writer, I’m very fascinated by this whole element of time. How it slows down and then goes faster...At different times, it moves at different speeds.
Simon: Yes, yes. But because we are obsessed by the result, we like to go fast. Because the demand of the market is to produce a lot and very fast.
Bianca: Especially in America.
Simon: Not just America. All around the world.
Bianca: But isn’t America the extreme?
Simon: I don’t know. I am not pointing at America in particular, I am talking about the life we are living in-
Bianca: The time we are living in.
Simon: Yes, it’s like that. This is also the misunderstanding between the east and the west. They look lazy... unproductive...and they are sometimes inefficient. But they’re not. That is the way they live. And from our point of view, they are lazy. Me, I am an adept of slow.But slow is not being loose. It has nothing to do with being loose. It has nothing to do with that. You can be firm and slow.
Simon: Yes. But we tend to be racist towards this word...and when you say, “You are slow,” it means you are loose, no? The mind is strong and the act is firm...and light...and deep. But, I don’t run. If you want to be a surgeon, it takes you seven years to get there and then seven more years to practice it, you know, to be an absolute man or woman who could say, “There I am. I am a surgeon.” There are people here...they do things like...they say I want to be actor within a year because I look this way or I look that way or because I did a hit. Screw that. You did a hit, that does not make you anything. And this is the big joke in this industry...We have people that are stars, bankable, but very bad actors. And we are called the same thing...Actors and actors. I don’t feel close to these people, me, personally.
Bianca: Is that why actors who train on the stage, maybe because of the slowness and the experience, seem to excel?
Simon: In the stage you have a philosophy. No matter if you come from the stage or film, or from what, I don’t know, but as long as you have a philosophy, you can go somewhere. You can be someone...be someone not in a social way...but be someone in a human way. As long as you have a philosophy, you have a point of view, you have a vision.
Bianca: I guess the stage is a like a tool, because of the practice and the repetition. It gives you the time to develop philosophies.
Simon: Yes, of course. There is no cutting room, there is no editing. There is nothing. No. If you’re there, you’re there. It’s one long shot. How’d you say that in the cinema in America?
Bianca: A long tracking shot with no cuts-
Simon: Yes, it’s one long tracking shot.
Bianca: Simon, you sound very spiritual...Like you’ve been doing a lot of soul searching and meditation and thinking about life.
Simon: Listen, if you want to know yourself...Because as an actor you have to go into the human psyche and forbidden spaces and dark spaces and light spaces. It’s a quest to know yourself. If I don’t know myself, I cannot go play. It’s a long process, my work, my life and you notice, I never use the word career. You know, it’s life. So, I try to understand (big sigh) who the heck I am. To be truthful to be useful, to allow myself to be wrong and change track and continue on another one.
Bianca: So through your work you get to really know yourself better?
Simon: I try. I try.
Bianca: As a writer it’s always easy to learn about yourself through your writing but as an actor-
Simon: You can know about yourself by making shoes! Or cooking-
Bianca: As long as you are true to it.
Simon: If...Listen...if...When you make a shoe...Because I was a shoe-maker before-
Bianca: Were you really? Wow.
Simon: Yes. If you don’t see the feet inside the shoe, you do bad shoes. You have to imagine the foot inside the shoe. Like a chair. Top designers who make a chair, they have to see the body inside the chair. You have to see this volume...The chair is not important. What’s important is the volume inside the chair and for me acting is the same. Writing is the same. Everything is the same.
Bianca: Do you read a lot?
Simon: I do, yeah.
Bianca: What kind of things do you read? Who is your favorite author?
Simon: I read many things...mostly Oriental things. I like Tolstoy. I like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the French philosopher. I like the French. I like Rumi...I like Khayam...I like Sayat Nova. I like Shakespeare, Aeschylus, Plato. I like all these people who always try to make the human situation better. You know, who try to build something between manhood and ignorance. These people...Chekov...all these people I like.
Bianca – You said “Oriental.” What do you mean by Oriental?
Simon: Something that gives you access to knowledge without making you feel like you’re a fool. This is what it is to me. When I talk about Oriental writing it means that it is not hermetic, although sometimes hermeticism is important. I like Byron, I like American writers, I like French writers...I don’t have all the things in me now but anyway-
Bianca –Great. Anything else you would like to mention? Any new movies we should know about?
Simon – Some movies are coming out in France but I am not sure they will be out in America.
Bianca –Is it possible to obtain your movies on DVD in the US?
Simon –I am building a new web site so you can see things there soon.
Bianca –Fantastic. We can do a link from ADAA’s site so people will know about it.
Simon – Voila! There will be some film clips there. I will let you know.
Bianca –Will you be coming to American anytime soon?
Simon – Yes, sometime in the next year, I will let you know.
Bianca –Thank you, Simon. It was great getting to know you.
Simon – Thank you.