• Golden Globe Awards

Captain Volkonogov Escaped (Russia): In Conversation with Yuri Borisov

One of the most in-demand young Russian actors at the moment opened up to me over Zoom about his challenges of working on his latest role as the titular Captain Volkonogov in the 2021 Russian drama film directed by Natalya Merkulova and Aleksey Chupov. This stylish, retro utopian thriller tells the redemption story of a Stalin-era enforcement agent and was selected to compete for the Golden Lion at this year’s 78th Venice International Film Festival.
Despite the pandemic, you’ve recently appeared in eight movies. How do you choose projects?
I don’t know, I simply choose what is the most interesting for me at the moment.
What is the decisive factor for you: the script or filmmaker, and why?
People of course. A script is constantly changing, and this one got developed through the process of collaboration, which isn’t possible without an original idea. But for me, the most important thing is interaction, ping-ponging ideas off of each other.
How did Captain Volkonogov Escaped come to you? Did you get a chance to discuss the script with Natalya and Aleksey?
They had a first draft of the script already when they saw me in The Bull in 2019 and invited me to join the project. We started to shoot a year after cooperative development.
How close to your heart was the theme of this film? What did you know as a young man about the Stalin era before starting to work on this movie?
I knew a lot, but I also learned a lot too, I guess. Even though this movie is not a historical movie in the strict sense. It is rather a kind of artistic reflection of that epoch. I don’t even know how to describe it, but I think it is a very interesting construction of that time and the people in it, the circumstances. Everything that has led to the result of this era. Is it right to blame just one person? Of course, it’s possible, but I think it is more important to continue the process of reflection.     
Your Captain Volkonogov is a fictional character. What was the starting point for you during the process of creating him?
We talked about him with Natalya and Alexey. Where he came from, how he became an enforcer. Obviously, his past probably wasn’t easy. Because it is very unlikely that somebody with a wholesome personality would end up in his shoes. He should have very dark places in his inner world, and we tried to search for them. Search after his soul. At the same time as he is also searching for and trying to understand if he has one. It was a tricky matter. Is it possible in general to feel empathy towards an executor? To tell you the truth, I am still processing my own experience of watching this movie. I saw it only once at the premiere in Venice.
How was it for you to watch the movie in Venice with an international audience?
I was not thinking about the audience, I tried to be one on one with myself. I just remember that I felt hammered down at the end. Probably, other people felt the same. And when the applause started, I realized that some people came back to life somehow, but I didn’t. Even now, I don’t know how I feel about it. I have to watch it again, I guess.
I saw it twice, but I’m also still processing it. For example, I am not sure what is motivating your character: fear, adrenaline or empathy?
Well, of course in the beginning it is fear because in order to come to empathize with somebody you first need to see that this somebody is suffering. It is impossible to do without recognizing your own sufferings. It goes hand-in-hand with the presence of a soul. But since inside of my character the soul has died and burnt out, survival instincts are the only thing that is left. First, he is doing everything to survive but then something very important happens and those instincts eventually get replaced by an awareness that there is something bigger than death. This is one of the most important questions: how does one’s humanity emerge? What is the trigger for it?
In your opinion what was the trigger for your character? What did you feel as a human being when your character finally discovered his soul in one of the final scenes at the dark attic, which is also very symbolic?
Frankly, I don’t really know. I wasn’t there in that moment. Captain Volkonogov came running there, not me. I rarely feel present at very emotional moments that are happening with my characters. There are certain mechanisms that are getting launched by collaborative efforts between me and the directors that lead me to those moments, but those memories are blocked off from me.
Speaking of running, it was a pretty challenging role in terms of physicality. Even your character’s name someway refers to the Russian proverb “A wolf is fed by his legs,” as his name translates to “wolf legs” in English. Did you enjoy those running scenes?
Enjoy?! I was scared to death the whole time. I had to run for the sake of my character without caring for anybody else. You can’t fool it. But at the same time, I had to be careful for my own sake. And the problem was that I could not wear any protection because it would slow my character down. I just prayed all the time to be saved by God because a couple of times I almost ripped out all fingers of my hand because I got caught on something and almost even smashed my knee. I constantly asked for less takes because, after a couple of takes, your body just refuses to cooperate.

How about the splits in one of the beginning scenes? Was it real?
Of course, it was. I did five years of training (laughing) just for that shot.
Now I can’t tell if you’re joking or not!
And that’s good. Everybody should guess for themselves.
The costumes were quite extraordinary. Did they help you transform into your character? How did you feel when you put them on?
There were two different kinds. One was red. It reminds people of different things, like sweatpants. But I can’t deny that I felt some destructive power in it. But the second one, the pilot’s overalls were completely different. When I put them on, I somehow submerged into oblivion. I felt myself be completely erased like I didn’t have a physical body. I was not thinking about what I looked like, I was busy with my internal search for the character. And Natalya and Alexey helped me most in this search. They were constantly tuning me in the specific key.

What key?
I can’t even describe it, really. I mean, there was no intention to put a specific color on my character. Because it is not necessary. If we condemn somebody it doesn’t mean we automatically become better people. Because there is no guarantee that after judging others, we will do the right thing. The real challenge is to make the right choice when the time comes for you to choose. And do it quietly and judge yourself above all. This is more important, I think.