In the world of great artists, it is rarest to come across those who are distinguished by the kind of set of virtues that makes Predrag Ejdus (70) special – God-gifted, diligent, discerning, precise, reliable and with acting precision. And he doesn’t like it when they say that he’s a workaholic, because the job is his life, and when he isn’t acting life is less beautiful for him, lacking its full meaning.
Predrag Ejdus, who goes by the name of Peca, will this year will celebrate 50 years of enduring on the Serbian art scene. Of that period, half belongs to the scene of Yugoslavia – as he was among the most renowned actors in that country of 20 million inhabitants. This great jubilee will be marked with an exhibition at the Museum of Theatrical Arts of Serbia. In this half-century that he devoted to acting, he has performed over 150 roles in theatre plays and made more than 50 film and television appearances, as well as performing more than 200 roles in radio dramas. He has received the most significant artistic awards, the October Prize, two Sterija awards and one for lifetime achievement, Dobrica’s ring, the Golden Turkey for Life’s Work… He says that his work is primarily a craft, and that it occasionally becomes art. The basic acting chalk of this creator of top-notch characters from world and domestic literature was to deal with transformation. He considers absolute transformation impossible, but under the given circumstances he had the good fortunate to play different characters, in enduring settings.
Ejdus has had specific health problems in recent years, but that’s difficult to believe when you know that he currently has 14 plays on his repertoire, which he explains simply:
“I’m struggling, what else can I do? In the past few months I received two lifetime achievement awards, and people have the habit of asking me when I’m considering stopping a bit. I always respond to that in the same way by saying that I have two vices – smoking and acting. I can’t give up either, because they bring me great pleasure. So, even when I have a health problem, I beat it with that adrenaline team that flows when I go out on stage. Then there are no pains or fatigue, only concentration and a desire to emerge as a winner.”
He grew up in Belgrade’s Zvezdara neighbourhood, on Radojka Lakić Street, a small street with lots of linden and chestnut trees:
“In my boy’s imagination, back then it was a rainforest for us. In those years, on that street, one truck passed in fifteen days. Or, some kind of crazy motorcyclist practising for some speedway race. It had a car mechanic’s workshop, where we would gather, and everything resembled Fellini’s Amarcord, when that guy rides noisily on a motorcycle with spectacles. That weirdo of ours, the car mechanic, never did anything on those speedway races, but he was persistently working on some motorbike and we were constantly there. We got ball bearings for a wooden cart that we made and then raced down the steep streets of Zvezdara. In winter, of course, we sledged there. I had a carefree childhood, we all were somehow wrapped up in those houses of ours and yards with fruit trees; we adored stealing cherries, playing cowboys and indians. We would sometimes have boys’ fights, but that was all totally harmless. I had a truly happy and completely carefree childhood.”
In the last twenty years, on the political scene in Serbia, regardless of whether it comes to the parties in power or the parties belonging to the opposition, you have almost no serious thoughts in the programmes that these parties offer as they relate to culture
He went to Vojislav Ilić School, which still exists, and then in 1958, at the age of 11, he left Zvezdara. His parents moved with their children, two daughters and a son, to the Bermuda Triangle of Vračar, as he says, and he has remained there to this day. In early childhood, when he was five or six, he fell ill and spent a year separated from his school and community. He survived, but had to take it easy for a year after the illness. Today he reluctantly recalls those episodes:
“I had a heart condition and for six months I was treated with cortisone, a drug that was virtually in experimental use at that time. So form that cortisone I became terribly overweight and malformed. I had major troubles when I finally got out of the hospital, because I had to turn up in school so physically devastated. They told me that everything would return to normal in time, that I should play sports, and that’s how it was. But at one point that was, for me, as a little boy, a real trauma.”
At that time, Peca’s father worked abroad as a civil engineer and brought his son the widest variety of toys that didn’t exist here during those years. And so Peca, thanks to this advantage, succeeded, despite being so sick and vulnerable, to lure friends around himself, to buy their attention. Pistols and all equipment for playing Cowboys and Indians assuaged the kind of childish harshness that can leave a mark.
In his childhood and youth, Peca was a belligerent boy who occasionally did foolish things, for which his father sometimes punished him harshly. At the time, he didn’t approve of his father’s methods for educating him, but later he reconsidered:
“I later realised that everything he did and the way he directed me, the way he lived, was actually all very good. That’s because children can’t help but imitate their parents, and they are their main role models. I was long out of puberty before I realised that my father had actually been my greatest role model. I hadn’t previously wanted or been able to recognise that, because I was a little bit of a rebel without a cause.”
When he himself became a father, first to daughter Vanja, today a successful actress in her own right, and then Filip, now a recognised scientist and university professor, he knew that everything was different from the time when his parents had raised him and his sisters, but something had remained the same:
“I knew that one’s own example is the best example for children. I was always careful not to lie to them and to be honest with them – not only in raising and educating, but also in way of life and family relations. The most important thing for me was to be truthful, not to live one life in the home and a completely different one in public. That doesn’t mean I was right about some problems, but I spoke with them constantly, I tried to counterbalance them on some things, and sometimes even come into conflict, but never fierce or radical, and I think that Milica [wife of almost four decades, who had her own career as an architect-scenographer] and I managed to find that necessary middle way in our approach to raising our children. And today I can say that they turned out to be normal, intelligent and good people, that we protected them from all the horrors that threatened them, especially in puberty, and especially from drugs. For my wife and I, that was the greatest horror and greatest evil, and we had to observe them constantly – not so much to control them as to keep our eyes open. It is up to parents to first notice changes in their child. I don’t understand and don’t accept the story that they are the last to notice, because, well, something happened that they didn’t see. It’s impossible in a coherent family not to notice signs of change in your child.”
I often quote a Chinese proverb that goes: choose a job you love in your youth, and you will never have to work a day in your life. That only seems paradoxical at first, but I experience my job, no matter how tense and exhausting it is, as healthy adrenaline that I cannot go without
There are moments when a man, regardless of whether he’s doing the job he loves the most in the world, feels as though he’s had enough of everything. However, Peca is among those rare people who have been fortunate enough never to have experienced that. He thinks that he inherited his need to work constantly from his father, which his own children then inherited from him. However, he sees no reason to emphasise that in particular, because such behaviour is considered quite normal:
“I often quote a Chinese proverb that goes: choose a job you love in your youth, and you will never have to work a day in your life. That only seems paradoxical at first, but I experience my job, no matter how tense and exhausting it is, as healthy adrenaline that I cannot go without. In moments when I don’t have enough energy and health, my job brings me back to life. My adrenaline drops when I do nothing, which is very rare and leads me into a state of despair. On the other hand, I can wonder how I am an idiot, what kind of life do I have if I get so depressed when I don’t work. Is it possible that there’s nothing else in my life that could fill me apart from acting? Roughly speaking, that can be true, but, nevertheless, I have fulfilled my life to a considerable degree primarily in terms of family commitments and socialising.”
Last summer he played Ignatius Glembay in Miroslav Krleža’s play The Glembays at the Dubrovnik Summer Games, under the direction of Zlatko Sviben. It is less known that in Dubrovnik, during the 1992 presidential campaign in Croatia, he performed in one of the most popular plays of all time in Yugoslavia, the Chauvinist Farce, together with friend and colleague Josif Tatić:
“We performed the Chauvinist Farce at Lapad in the sports hall, and on Stradun there was a rally to support Savka Dabčević Kučar as a candidate for the president of Croatia, at which Mika Tripalo also spoke. According to the stories of the people who were then at the rally and the show, we had an incomparably larger audience than them. Of course, it should be recalled that Franjo Tuđman was then the absolute leader of Croatia.”
We live in a time of delayed truth. When it comes to political life in this region, we have frequent occurrences of the revision of truth regarding some already established and accepted norms and facts, which, in my opinion, is very worrying
Asked whether he viewed the invitation to perform in the play at the Dubrovnik Summer Games as a kind of signal about some better days ahead in relations between the two countries when it comes to culture, he says for CorD:
“I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to draw some major conclusions from that fact. In recent times I’ve actually had quite a lot of guest performances with Belgrade and Serbian plays in Croatia. And I see for myself that culture is the easiest way to renew relations between peoples and states. That’s a general place that doesn’t have to mean much. But, judging by the reactions of the Croatian audience and the Croatian media, one can see how open that market is today for good cultural content coming from Belgrade. For example, we played Ivanova, a play of the National Theatre from Belgrade, at the International Theatre Festival of Small Stages in Rijeka. In the 24-year history of this festival, the audience gave the highest rating to our play Ivanov, and awards were won by Hana Selimović and I. The next day we performed this play at the Zagreb Youth Theatre and around 700 people applauded for 20 minutes at the end of the show. A stage manager who works at the Zagreb Youth Theatre said that during the 30 years that he’s worked at that theatre he doesn’t recall such applause. And to make everything even more interesting, a day before our tour, the Croatian National Theatre staged the premiere of Ivanov under the direction of one of Europe’s leading directors, Lithuanian Eimuntas Nekrošius. The audience and critics had the opportunity to see two Ivanovs in two days and to compare them. We got the praise, as the Croatian play was on the verge of being a debacle, according to the local critics.”
When Ejdus was a young actor at the National Theatre, guest appearances were part of the mandatory repertoire of that theatre, as well as the Zagreb National Theatre. But what happened when CorD’s interlocutor was director of the National Theatre?
“I tried to re-establish this cooperation in 2008, but the then manager of the Croatian National Theatre told me that she would like very much to do that, but the time has not yet come. We’re fortunate that this time is nevertheless coming. It is also in this context that I view my guest appearance at the Dubrovnik Summer Games. Of course, it was most important for me to be good there. And for the play to be good. Dubrovnik isn’t what it was anymore, but it still has serious theatre audiences that wanted to see the play that we performed in the first half of August 2017.”
When we talk about the place and role of culture in Serbia today, Ejdus doesn’t hide his dissatisfaction:
“In the last twenty years, on the political scene in Serbia, regardless of whether it comes to the parties in power or the parties belonging to the opposition, you have almost no serious thoughts in the programmes that these parties offer as they relate to culture. I remember that Vučić alone, in one of his lengthy presentations lasting a few hours, devoted some ten minutes to culture, mentioning some names, in a context that was clear. So, no one thinks about culture, no one talks about it, and then when the Ministry of Culture likes someone, that party likes to produce personnel that nobody has previously heard of. That’s why I ask who those people are who then write strategies like I see that the current Minister has developed a strategy for the development of culture for the next ten years.
Let’s face the truth head-on: in the past 20 years, you have no name from the world of culture, no relevant personality, no serious political figure, no one who you have remembered as leaving behind a serious mark as minister of culture. Do you know any minister who has vocally sought a higher budget for culture in the government, have you heard of a minister who resigned because he failed to achieve a better status of culture in Serbia within the government? You don’t know any, of course, because everything has been reduced to a normal sinusoid.
Today’s Minister seeks praise for managing to fight for the budget for culture to be increased by 0.1 per cent annually over the next ten years, which will only be sufficient to finance the functioning of cultural institutions.
Okay, institutions are important, but they have survived in large numbers and don’t exist in this form in the developed part of Europe. There is no artist who will be employed, like ours in the National Theatre, and will remain there until their retirement; for that to be guaranteed for them.
On the other hand, culture isn’t located only in institutions. Culture is much more and much broader, it is part of life as a whole, it mustn’t have anything to do with current ideology and politics, with the current authority of a single party. Culture must have continuity, if there is some standard, it has to grow, or at least sustain itself. Regardless of whether the centre, the left or the right is in power. And every time we have new governments and new ministers, and new applicants, and everyone thinks that everything starts with them.
Culture isn’t located only in institutions. Culture is much more and much broader, it is part of life as a whole, it mustn’t have anything to do with current ideology and politics, with the current authority of a single party
At the time of socialism, cultural institutions were headed by members of the Party, but the best members. Now we have negative selection evident, so I feel like saying that I mourn the mediocre, because they at least knew something. They at least acted in accordance with the only maxim that should apply in this area: culture must be for the common good of all! Culture should be led by the best, smartest and most accomplished people, who are absolutely untouchable and who nobody – from the President of the Republic to the Prime Minister – can call out and control.
But we are witnessing a serious decline in know-how, level of motivation and everything that you claim is lacking in culture today?
That’s right, but that does not mean there are no good, high-quality people. And good, high-quality artwork.
Unfortunately, even in our guild, there is no serious view of the work we are dealing with, there is no awareness that top art is a privilege worldwide. We are witnessing the appearance of various free-shooters who think this is the right time for them, from the so-called shadows, to influence where they think they are needed or that they need. It’s difficult to say whether that’s a contest with somebody, or what kind of game that is. People in power, as a rule, like this kind of association and know how to reward it.”
This actor with a wide range of skills that directors always took away from him, believes that theatre and literature work on the individual, but that art no longer has any impact on the masses. Nor can film do that anymore:
“Today there are different ways of influencing the masses. Those are primarily marketing, advertising, social networking… We live in a time of delayed truth. When it comes to political life in this region, we have frequent occurrences of the revision of truth regarding some already established and accepted norms and facts, which, in my opinion, is very worrying. The most interesting thing is that this is largely accepted by a large part of the public, which I find especially disturbing. Just as I am disturbed by the manipulation of the scientific and political public that is evident in all parts of the former Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, it seems to me that this trend is also recognisable in Europe in a certain way.”