She carries within herself the spirit of Herzegovina, from where she hails and without which she cannot live. She belongs to the theatre, but is also indispensable to film and television. She spent a brief period in the world of major movies, where Oliver Stone wanted her to stay, but she didn’t feel good in that world – she found herself unable to be what others wanted her to be. She gained a sense of security in her family, thanks to her eternally understanding mother, and found happiness with her husband, Nenad Šarenac, and her sons Luka and Matija. She’s always believed that nothing bad will happen to her, that by tomorrow everything will already be better. And that faith has remained with her to this day
When I say Nataša Ninković, I’m first and foremost referring to an extremely gifted acting talent, an open mind, a curious, devoted, energetic, honest, fair, perfectionist, with the courage to set high goals for herself. And alongside all of that, she’s also very beautiful and knows how to love, to rejoice with all her heart.
A great devotee of the goddess Thaleia [goddess of comedy and idyllic poetry], I think she’s even a favourite of hers… It was with these words that great actress Svetlana Bojković paid tribute to her colleague Nataša Ninković when she became the youngest actress to receive the distinguished Žanka Stokić award, the most important award for theatre actresses in Serbia. Apart from this, we should also add that Nataša isn’t only a true favourite of Thaleia, but is also beloved by the public, who have seen her for years as a certain sign of ultimate enjoyment in the playful acting that she pours forth from the theatre stage and from film and television screens. She has to date amassed around 50 film and television performances and 40 theatre roles. Audiences are currently enjoying watching her performances in six plays on several stages of Belgrade theatres. She is the recipient of around a dozen annual awards of the theatre companies for which she’s acted. There isn’t a festival of film and theatre at which she hasn’t proven a winner. In just one year, 2019, she was proclaimed best actress at five film festivals in Serbia and Montenegro for her portrayal of Vida in Ana Maria Rossi’s film Ajvar.
She gave her premiere performance in the role of Jocasta in the play Oedipus at the Yugoslav Drama Theatre this September, in the decidedly contemporary and very successful interpretation of Slovenian director Vito Taufer. She has now started rehearsals for director Jagoš Marković’s version of Macbeth at the National Theatre in Belgrade, her home theatre, where she holds the title of Champion of Drama. And she will, of course, be playing Lady Macbeth.
I wrote essays in secondary school on the topic of freedom, explaining that freedom isn’t just life in peace and without war, but rather that freedom is for me to feel free to be who I am and what I want to be in my own city
When it comes to Nataša, everything starts in Trebinje, where she returns often. Herzegovina is the land to which she belongs. That is her rock, her part of the Mediterranean, here clean air and blue sky, her figs and grapes, her roots and those of her great-grandfathers. And the eternal question: what is beyond the hill? Herzegovina is the springboard to which she always returns, the place to which she belongs:
“In recent years, I like to sit in my car and drive to Trebinje. Once I pass Bileća and can see Trebinje, I play Arsen’s [Dedić] song Tamo da putujem [There to Travel]:
There, there to travel, there, there to grieve…
Yes, I grieve there, but I also find great joy there.”
Her parents, mum Milena and dad Branko, are there, while her brother, who is three years her senior, has been living in London for a long time.
“I’ve felt a strong, and I would say healthy, sense of belonging to the family since birth. I’m close to my mother, who has had understanding for me all my life. A classic Herzegovinian mother, originally from Montenegro, she left me to my own devices to be an individual; she didn’t hold me back in pursuing my desires and endeavours. That’s not easy in a small community; there’s a price to pay when you leap out of the rules in which you live, as I leapt. I had problems with my father because of that, but my mother supported me obstinately and nurtured that which was different about me. I was always an excellent school pupil, but I revolted constantly, fell foul of enforcers of justice, while my mother always supported me. I thought that was normal and only later realised how great and important that support was. I also try to apply that in raising my sons.”
She lived in the era of socialism, where state holidays were celebrated in the home. But it was at her paternal grandmother’s house that they celebrated the family saint’s day, Christmas, Easter… The extended family gathered there, and Nataša’s recollections of those days are among her fondest memories of her childhood and youth. She describes herself as a kind of tribal woman. She understands everything that comes from those parts, but couldn’t live there.
“I wrote essays in secondary school on the topic of freedom, explaining that freedom isn’t just life in peace and without war, but rather that freedom is for me to feel free to be who I am and what I want to be in my own city. Like many young people, I felt anxious in that small community. However, I had freakish optimism and serenity. My professor Vlada Jevtović said to me: ‘When you put your feet on the ground, that will be terribly painful’.”
She played in the churchyard as a child, and one afternoon heard a piano and some songs that she liked, emanating from the cultural centre. She discovered that some man in the cultural centre was running a drama group and wanted to go, to enrol in that drama group. Here mum permitted her to do so.
“The first play I performed in as a member of that drama group was Little Red Riding Hood. Mum and dad came to watch me, and the extended family, and I had terrible stage fright. And discomfort. When I was 13 or 14, director Vlada Lazić came to Trebinje from Belgrade and I acted in the Franz Xaver Kroetz play Stallerhof [Farmyard]. With that play, I won every possible award at the festival of amateur theatre in Trebinje. Danilo Lazović handed me the award for Yugoslavia’s best amateur actor. And he was the only actor I knew. But it never crossed my mind to enrol in acting studies. I didn’t even know that there was a college where acting is taught.”
After completing high school, she prepared to enrol in dentistry studies, but the case proved decisive in her choosing acting. She made it onto the shortlist of applicants and informed her parents that she wouldn’t be taking the entrance exam for dentistry. Dad protested, but mum calmed him down, saying “please let her go. They certainly won’t accept her. It’s important for her to try, for that bubble to burst and then we can put an end to that”.
I saw big names from the world of film who are constantly panicking, constantly building an image of themselves that’s intended for others. I also wanted a desirable image that was thrown together and had to be refined every day. And where I am in that? That’s a question nobody seeks to answer
And even when professor Vlada Jevtović accepted her into his class without any hesitation, that didn’t really provide any guarantees of the future.
“I came to Trebinje as a student, boarded a bus and spent 12 hours travelling back to Belgrade. There were a few of us being sent off by our parents at the station. They asked one another what their children were studying. One electrical engineering, another law, a third economics… They remained silent when they heard that I was studying acting. And then a voice could be heard: ‘What can you do, children will be children!’ And voila, that was the attitude of the community towards someone choosing to study acting in the early ‘90s.”
Following that amateur victory, her parents encountered their actress daughter when she graduated with the play The Taming of the Shrew at the National Theatre, where she has remained to this day. It is interesting that Nataša used to say during her first years of study ‘One more year, then I’m going to New York’.
“My studies went easily, and along the had a lot of nights out, made friends, and had a desire to go to New York, to experience life there. And it was only when I stepped on the boards in The Taming of the Shrew that I feel that I really liked it, that that could hold me. Though I played my first two or three roles on pure intuition. And what saved me was that I didn’t read reviews, so that didn’t make me feel overly obligated.”
After her third year of studies, she really started packing to go to New York. Her mother started crying at first, because at that point she hadn’t seen her son for five years and now her daughter also had to leave. They ended the conversation, and five minutes later her mum called back and said ‘Please, I’m sorry, I don’t want to deny you something with my concern or selfishness, if something is waiting for you there! That was the instant at which Nataša decided.
“I hung up the phone and told myself ‘I’m not going’, then started crying in awe of her greatness. She’d said to me, ‘sorry, son,’ what else would a Montenegrin lady say other than ‘son’? And she wouldn’t impose herself on me; she wanted to be with me even though I was abandoning her. That was enough for me to forget about New York.”
However, a few years later came the American film Savior, an extraordinary drama directed by Predrag Gaga Antonijević, in which she played one of the main roles, and her partner was Dennis Quaid. And the producer was none other than Oliver Stone. A real possibility then arose for her to go to America and continue her career there. And she went:
“That role caught me. I’d just started working in the theatre, and that film took on a life of its own. The premieres started being screened and I became part of a big machine that was headed by the great Oliver Stone as producer. I didn’t feel good in all that. My parents had taught me not to brag about myself, to let others talk about me, praise me, that there is no self-promotion, but rather that my deeds should speak for me. And I had to forget about everything that I’d been taught, and that I’d adhered to, because they sought the complete opposite from me. I wasn’t allowed not to know something, I had to know everything. The agents who took me over said that they would use the fact that I’m from Bosnia-Herzegovina, and I said that they couldn’t do that because I hadn’t experienced any unpleasantness because of that. They cited examples to me like Rade Šerbedžija, Goran Višnjić etc., claiming that I’m the same as them, and I increasingly felt as though I was no longer the same Nataša who’d arrived from Belgrade. I was already in a relationship with my current husband at that time. I called and asked him to come, telling him that if I stayed for another month I’d never come back. My mindset started to change as I sat through some meaningless lunches on a daily basis. I remember at one point asking Gaga Antonijević if anyone was happy there.”
The agents who took me over said that they would use the fact that I’m from Bosnia-Herzegovina, and I said that they couldn’t do that because I hadn’t experienced any unpleasantness because of that. They cited examples to me like Rade Šerbedžija, Goran Višnjić etc., claiming that I’m the same as them, and I increasingly felt as though I was no longer the same Nataša who’d arrived from Belgrade
Oliver Stone wanted Nataša to stay, comparing her to Jeanne Moreau. He loved the actress Emily Watson and told Nataša that she had something of Emily about her, just in a different way. He showed the seriousness with which he counted on her, especially when he gave her the agent who was then holding Julia Roberts, Michelle Pfeiffer et al. He checked from New York to see if she’d arrived on time at with the agent in Los Angeles.
“I was sitting at the agent’s place in a room, with a map of the world in front of him, Oliver Stone on the video link, and the agent explained to him that the problem is that I’m called Nataša Ninković, as that wouldn’t pass at the box office. And he showed box offices around the world where Penelope Cruz or Juliette Binoche pass, but not Nataša Ninković. He told Oliver Stone that I was a major negative for him, though Oliver was persistent in insisting on me. That made me realise that it was simple mathematics in which I could never be the best even if all the stars aligned for me. So what’s the point?!”
Speaking of the circles she moved in during her time in Los Angeles, Nataša says that it was a world of the highest ‘peaks’, then it was empty, empty, then down with the majority.
“I went back to America later and was ‘down there’. In that world of the ‘highest peaks’, when you go to dinner with Spielberg or some other star, you feel like you’re in a dream. But I saw people in that dream, big names from the world of film, who are constantly panicking, constantly building an image of themselves that’s intended for others. I also wanted a desirable image that was thrown together and had to be refined every day. And where I am in that? That’s a question nobody seeks to answer.”
Nataša returned to Belgrade and a powerful agency took over and prepared a series for her. The bombing began in 1999 and early one morning a shell flew over the apartment where she was with her husband Neša [successful businessman Nenad Šarenac] and hit the ground further away from them.
“Such rage built up in me from the very fact that we were being bombed, and that morning we both leapt out of bed, I fell to the floor and thought my life was at an end. I crawled under the bed and said – ‘we’re finished!’ The shock passed. We stayed silent for ten minutes, sat down at the table, made coffee, asked each other who was going to go upstairs to see what was broken, because we’d heard breaking glass. Neša went upstairs and went around the apartment to see what was happening, I lit a cigarette, and when he came back, I said: ‘I could have died just now, and without having children!’ We’d been married for more than three years by then, and I hadn’t even thought about having children. I was told that’s something you feel when you want it, but I hadn’t felt anything. At that moment, I said that I wanted to give birth.
I’m 50 years old. I don’t know what awaits me in the next life, but I’m a fully realised and satisfied woman who has experienced more in this life than I could have in my wildest dreams. I’m satiated, drunk, with full eyes and a full soul
“When the bombing came to an end, the announcement was made at 11am, and my phone rang at 12pm. They called from America and said that everything was ready for filming and that they were waiting for me. I answered them ‘I’m not coming’. They told me that they understood me because I was in shock, and that they would call me tomorrow. The next day they called again, I declined. Another invitation followed, of a private kind, and I again said no. From that moment on, I had only one thought – to become a mother. A little time passed until I got twins: Luka and Matia. They are today 21 years old. Luka is studying psychology at Amsterdam University, Matija is studying finance and economics at Bocconi University in Milan.
“As their departure to study approached, I realised how much my mother had desired to be with me and my brother Petar. Back then she’d irritated me by welcoming and sending me off with tears, but now I got to Trebinje every time I’m free, to make it up to her for my absence. Now she tells me: ‘If I’d given birth to you three or four times, it wouldn’t be enough for how much you care for me!’ And all the time I’m thinking that she doesn’t know what she gave me. So much self-confidence and security that determined me for my entire life.
“It was only four years ago that I wondered to myself what my career would have looked like if I’d returned to America and stayed there. I’m not sorry, though I still could have tried. However, always on my mind was that knowledge that it’s easy to take the first step, but you can wait your whole life to take the second one.”
Here Nataša is in a position to go from role to role. She’s selective, with whom she works is important to her, what the role really offers her. When asked which theatre critique has particular meaning for her, she cites critic and writer Branka Krilović who said of her character Ruth in the Harold Pinter play The Homecoming that if the theatre exists because of one actor, then that night Zvezdara Theatre existed because of Nataša Ninković. However, she feared Ivan Medenica the most.
“His critiques caused us to be afraid, we all feigned ignoring him, but we all read his critiques. He helped me the most, because he pulled my strings so hard on several occasions that his words hit me directly in the flesh. It was thanks to that that I became conscious of that role, so that I could subsequently perform it much better. I always looked to what he was going to write, because it was unerring when it came to me.”
The more she worked, the more she demanded of herself, becoming a terrible perfectionist, literally concentrating only on her mistakes. And there’s a famous story about how Nataša gives up on acting before every premiere, because she’s convinced that she’s untalented, that she’s the worst. That was the case for a long time, until she played Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre in early 2011, for which she received the Raša Plaović Award.
During the time of the bombing in 1999, a shell fell near our house and when I’d calmed down, I said to Neša ‘I could have died just now, and without having children!’ From that moment on, I had only one thought – to become a mother. A little time passed until I got twins: Luka and Matia. They are today 21 years old. Luka is studying psychology at Amsterdam University, Matija is studying finance and economics at Bocconi University in Milan
“When I started preparing for Hedda Gabler, I said to myself: ‘Okay, if you do this in the right way, you’ll never again tell yourself what you say before every premiere. You won’t do that anymore.’ Hedda succeeded. I played her well, and I should have been relaxed. However, to my misfortunate, and fortunate, after that I watched Hedda Gabler performed in Berlin, at Schaubühne Theatre, under the direction of Thomas Ostermeier. And it was only then that it finally became clear to me what that piece was; what Hedda was in that man’s world where only strength is measured through her.
And now, in September, four days ahead of the premiere of Oedipus at the Yugoslav Drama Theatre, at the dress rehearsal, my cathartic moment occurred in the scene of Jocasta’s comprehension and her shooting. I walked out of the rehearsal, sat on the stairs between the stage and the club, and continued crying as I had on stage. Actually, that wasn’t crying, that was something coming out of me. It was terribly painful, but liberating. And I felt – that’s it.”
War broke out in Bosnia when she was in her second year of studies. That meant she couldn’t go home to Trebinje, that she couldn’t talk to her parents over the phone whenever she wanted, but only when conditions permitted.
“I could, for example, call Podgorica, then Podgorica connected me with Trebinje. I once got my mum on the phone after a long time. We spoke for a bit, and she exclaimed ‘oh, Naco’, and the line broke. You can imagine how I felt until I found out that something had been targeted in Trebinje, but that my parents were fine. I was comforted by the people around me until then. If something had happened, I wouldn’t have heard that ‘oh’! I also remember Christmases during those years, because I was alone. All my people would go to their homes, and I would remain alone. I would go to the Cathedral on Christmas Eve, that Christmas would pass, and I was always held by some faith that nothing bad would happen to me, that tomorrow would be better. That faith has stayed with me to this day.”
It was in Trebinje this summer, on 22nd July, that Nataša celebrated her 50th birthday. Coming to see her were 150 relatives, colleagues and friends. An orchestra played, led by her favourite trumpeter Dejan Petrović, and also coming to congratulate her was her dear friend Bishop Grigorije, who she’s known since before he became a bishop. She was sorry that Father Sava, abbot of Tvrdoš Monastery, wasn’t there, who she describes as an exceptional man with whom she likes to exchange opinions:
“Those people mean a lot to me. They have a similar relationship towards faith and religion. I am a person of faith, but not so attached to institutions and all kinds of fatalism are alien to me. I fear excessive believers who don’t take responsibility, while God has given them responsibility. I talk to them about my doubts and struggles. I would like to hear the opinion of Father Sava, who is always for freedom of speech and human freedom. For man not to be shackled.
“I’m 50 years old. I don’t know what awaits me in the next life, but I’m a fully realised and satisfied woman who has experienced more in this life than I could have in my wildest dreams. I’m satiated, drunk, with full eyes and a full soul.”