Rade Šerbedžija may not be a household name, but his face is highly recognizable having starred in dozens of films and television programs both in the U.S. and abroad. Born in Bunic (Korenica) in 1946, Šerbedžija graduated from the Academy of Dramatic Arts in Zagreb and has gone on to become one of the greatest Croatian stage and screen actors. “Hollywood,” a Croatian-based film magazine, voted Šerbedžija #4 Best Croatian Male Movie Stars of All Time. Also a singer, he founded the Ulysses Theatre in Brijuni, where he directs and acts.
With a long list of foreign and American films, some of his domestic film credits include “Mission: Impossible II,” “Eyes Wide Shut,” “Shooter,” Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1,” “5 Days of War,” and “X-Men: First Class,” while his television appearances include the highly successful series “24,” and “CSI Miami.”
Born and raised in Sarajevo to Bosnian Serb parents, Goran Kostić chose a path different from his family’s tradition of military service and moved to London where he lived during the Bosnian War. He has appeared in films such as “Taken,” and the highly acclaimed television series “Band of Brothers,” as well as “Grease Monkeys,” “Foyle’s War,” and “MI-5.”
Šerbedžija and Kostić recently sat down with a select group of journalists to discuss “In The Land of Blood And Honey,” written, produced, and directed by Angelina Jolie, in her directorial debut.
The following interview has been edited for print and continuity purposes but please note some of the idiomatic phrases have not been changed so as to capture the full flavor of both actors’ charming accents.
What did you find special about this script?
Kostić: What was special was that Angelina Jolie wrote it and that the director was going to be a female, not a male. After I read it two or three times, I realized how deep the script was and how important it was. I also realized how strong she is and that she has principles and was happy that she was trying to act on those principles.
Had you ever played a character like Danijel?
Kostić: Never a character of this complexity - how he starts and how he ends – his relationship with his father – his relationship with his forbidden love, and his relationship towards his men.
What was your actual war experience like?
Šerbedžija: I was in Bosnia when the war started and immediately tried to join people who were trying to stop the war. We had a lot of meetings and I did a lot of anti-war songs and interviews, but it was impossible to stop the machinery of this train that was going to smash over all these people. I had come to promote my CD with an anti-war song that was very famous in Bosnia. I remember that every night they played my song on television news. I saw people come to the main square in Sarajevo and shooting started from the top of a hotel and that was the beginning of the war. So I did have an actual experience with the war, but then I had to leave my country because it was dangerous for me to stay. If you’re not taking sides, then you become an enemy for everybody – especially for some violent nationalists who were completely blinded. I went to London and started my new career.
Kostić: My war experience was different. I left Yugoslavia a year before the conflict started so even though I was born and bred there, I didn’t have an actual war experience. My father was a Serbian officer – a General. He was a very strong father figure so I was able to tap into that in developing my character.
Did Angelina incorporate your experiences into the script and do you have an example of that?
Šerbedžija: I had a lot of things to tell Angelina and she changed little bits of my character from her first vision of how she saw him. She wrote some nice new dialogue, which I liked, after we talked. For example, there is a great scene with a Zana (Marjanovic who plays the female lead of Ajla) where she’s painting my portrait and I suggested that my character talk to her about what happened to his family. They are very good points because you can understand how this man was actually unhappy all his life.
He’s carrying this trauma from his childhood. Maybe he would be a very nice neighbor without any aggression or violence, but when war started, all of these wounds opened and he started to make his revenge and to hate. It’s important to understand this guy, who is doing terrible things but, on the other hand, you can see what happened to him and how much he suffered and can understand easier his behavior.
Were there any scenes that were was less challenging emotionally and physically?
Kostić: There was no easy moment and there were no easy scenes. The film is one big long unit and approaching it any other way, for me, would not have worked. So for not one single moment did I drop my focus or my preparation or my sense of what I was trying to do. Those more intimate scenes are difficult just by the nature of filmmaking. Once your clothing comes off, you lose your confidence - you lose everything.
At the same time, there are very strong emotional scenes between my father and myself where he is confronting the reality of his surroundings and Danijel has to accept the rapes and murders being committed in his name – and yet he was not really that kind of person, and finally the conflict he has with his lover Ajla.
Do you think it was more difficult for an outsider to write the story about the war or was it good to have an unbiased point of view?
Kostić: It is very difficult, I suppose, to be unbiased and not to offend anybody so whatever you write, someone is going to be unhappy. For me it was important to get the female point of view. I can’t judge if someone else would have done it better or differently. She is the one who decided to do it and she did a great job.
Šerbedžija: Sometimes when you are outside the problem you can see more clearly than those people who are involved, and can be more objective.
How did you get into acting?
Kostić: As I mentioned earlier, I left Yugoslavia before the country fell apart, which it did a year after I left. I realized there was no way for me to go back and decided to stay in London and to start my second life. My father was not there to influence my decisions, plus I found my psyche in limbo and looked into drama as something to kind of save my soul from madness. My studies took about five years and that’s when I learned basics and language. I remember when I auditioned to get into the school, they said, ‘We like what we see but we do not understand what we hear.’ (laughter) That’s why I had to do those few extra years of training. So that’s how I discovered drama which I think should be taught in schools as a compulsory subject.
Šerbedžija: I studied literature and then I finished the Academy for Dramatic Arts at the University of Zagreb. I was a professor at the Academy of Arts in Novi Sad, Serbia for four years and then began to study acting in Croatia.
Kostić: I can say this because Rade, as you probably know, is a legend in cinema and theatre and has a great body of work. As a kid, I remember Rade doing his epic work and was truly inspired. So to find myself playing his son was truly and gift and a dream come true.
Šerbedžija: Thank you son.
Kostić: You’re welcome, dad. (laughter)
Did you spend a lot of time developing your on-screen relationship?
Šerbedžija: When I first met Goran, I saw this very young, very talented guy in front of me with great energy and a warm heart. We were able to build our relationship immediately, like that (snaps fingers) without rehearsing.
Kostić: I remember being introduced to Rade by Angelina. I sat next him and after a few minutes of improvisation, she was smiling as the two of us connected physically and energy wise. It was a lovely moment and when we came out of the room, Rade had a little speck of something on his shoulder and I brushed it off. It came quite naturally for me to clean it off. (laughter)
People all over the world know a little bit about Angelina Jolie and think they know her. What was your experience with her?
Šerbedžija: You are absolutely right. People all around the world thinks they know everything about Angelina Jolie because every day you can read about her. But actually, they know nothing. I feel like I just started to discover her and if you’re asking me what I discovered, I’ll say you have to make a film with her or become her friend. She gave us her heart and she offered to us to be our friend and became friends with all our cast – so warm, so nice a person. You know, when journalists ask me how she is as a director, I forgot actually. I know how she is touching me with her hand, how she said in the most gentle way, ‘Let’s try to do that like this.” She gave wings to us and pushed us to fly and it’s a characteristic only of great talent and she absolutely is a great talent.
Kostić: In my mind she possesses one of those rare characteristics that everyone wants to have, but only a few people have. The most complex thing of it all is the simplicity – she is just so simple and is one of us.
Would you compare her style of directing to any other director?
Šerbedžija: She reminds me very much of Clint Eastwood and when I told her that, she was so happy. She said, ‘Really?” She loves Clint Eastwood.
Do you think their backgrounds as actors impacts on them as directors?
Kostić: It has to because they have both been in front of the camera for such a long time and they understand the challenges of developing a character and allowing time and space for us to bridge the problems.
This was a very emotional, graphic film. How did you feel at the end of the shoot?
Kostić: When the film was finished, I felt emotionally drained and physically broken. It took me two or three months to come back to myself and to decompress. My wife had to put back the pieces. During the shoot, which lasted about 45 days, I was strong and was there. It was only after it was finished that I got so ill.
Would you like your next film to be a comedy.
Kostić: (laughing) I hope so. That would be very nice.
Where are living at the moment?
Kostić: I’m somewhere between London and France.
Šerbedžija: I moved last year from Los Angeles back to Croatia to be closer to the Adriatic Sea.
Do you think the problems illuminated in the film are pretty universal to a large extent?
Šerbedžija: You know there’s a joke about the difference between French nationalists and English nationalists. The French hate you and can find the words to describe how much he hates you. The English hate you more, but would never say the words to you. (laughter) But in Balkan, before he says how much he hates you, he kills you. (much laughter)