This great Yugoslav actor, who has enjoyed a glittering international film career, talks about how – as a Serb from Croatia – he left a country at war in the 1990s, which is why hatred is a foreign word to him, and he teaches his students in Rijeka about that today. He has been a guest in the home of famous Croatian writer Miroslav Krleža, and long ago he drove today’s Croatian Prime Minister to basketball training with his own sone when they were kids. He has shot films with global stars, but for him, the only remaining Hollywood great is Warren Beatty
According to many, Rade Šerbedžija is the world’s most famous native of Lika after Nikola Tesla. However, he refutes that claim at the very start of this interview: “I’m probably among the circle of the most famous people from Lika today, alongside basketball legend Nikola Plećaš, for example, and music star Josipa Lisac. But Nikola Tesla is in another category. He is beyond everything, even the markings of his birth. He is one of our planet’s most famous characters.
”Šerbedžija was a rare surname on the territory of the former Yugoslavia, belonging only to those from the village of Bunić near the small town of Korenica, once known as Titova [Tito’s] Korenica, where Rade was born in 1946. Bunić is a village in an impoverished region of Croatia known as Lika, where Serbs comprised the majority of the population. In his youth, Rade visited and spent time with the greatest living Croatian writer, Miroslav Krleža (1893-1981), who bequeathed his hat to him before his death, which the actor still wears occasionally. On one occasion, while they sipped cognac in Krleža’s home, the author of The Glembays explained to the young actor that the Šerbedžija people were so named because they actually made şerbet [sharbat] tea and that the ‘sherbedzi’ had been some kind of ceremonial masters in the Ottoman Turkish court… He was once also told that Šerbedžija is the most common surname in southern Georgia…
Rade was just five years old when – along with his mother, Stana, father, Danilo, and elder sister, Milica – he moved away from his native Bunić to the city of Vinkovci, in the Slavonia region of Croatia. There he completed secondary school, before leaving to study acting in Zagreb.
His father was an army officer and then a policeman. Wanting his son to be a doctor or an architect, he didn’t approve of Rade’s decision to study acting. He lived to the age of 104 and never once watched his son perform in a single film, television show or theatre play. When his son would ask him why he persistently avoided watching what he was doing, he would answer: “Oh, my Rade, you torment yourself a lot…”
Dane, as everyone called the actor’s father, was unhappy that his son was often being called out on the public scene for his statements and interviews. At one point long ago, as Rade noted in his book After the Rain, Dane begged his son:
“I beg you to take care of yourself. To stop challenging and criticising. For the government, you are an enemy of the state, no matter how popular you are as an actor. So, son, keep your wits about you. Leave politics to politicians.”
I raised my hand publicly when I had to support Račan’s attempt to establish the SDP in Croatia. I also publicly gave my vote to Ante Marković, who tried – along with his reformers – to stop the trumpets of war that had started to be played with the nationalist programmes on the territory of the former Yugoslavia
Today, several decades after that conversation, CorD asks Rade how right his father had been when he told him to steer clear of politics. As someone who seems more aware of the pitfalls of political exposure today, we ask him if he feels that he was mistaken in the past when he gave his voice publically in favour of and against this or that:
“I didn’t give my voice to anyone easily. Or rather, to be precise, during Tito’s Yugoslavia I was a proud citizen of that country, although, in essence, I was also some kind of dissident, following the unrest and aesthetics of the critical films of my friends Žika Pavlović and Dušan Makavejev… I grew up on the books of Miroslav Krleža and loved Danilo Kiš. Together with Ristić, I launched KPGT [Kazalište, Pozorište, Gledališče, Teatar – four words for ‘theatre’ in Yugoslav languages], which in the mid-1970s and ‘80s was a brave intergenerational dialogue with an outdated and obsolete party system.
“Yes. I raised my hand publicly when I had to support Račan’s attempt to establish the SDP in Croatia. I also publicly gave my vote to Ante Marković, who tried – along with his reformers – to stop the trumpets of war that had started to be played with the nationalist programmes on the territory of the former Yugoslavia. Later, when the war started to rage on all of our territories, I was one of the few peacemakers, whose voices were lost in the whirlwind of fearful nationalists and fascists… I’m totally disappointed today with the position of the left in the world, and especially here, in our Slavic lands…”
His two published books of confessional prose, Until the Last Breath and After the Rain, best testify to the fact that Rade does not feel hatred. And how badly they depicted him in some parts of the former country in the early 1990s, when war broke out in Yugoslavia, when it was dangerous to be a Serb in Croatia, and also difficult to be a Serb in Serbia if you didn’t think like the government of the time and do as the criminals ordered. How can one survive everything that he’s survived and not feel hate?
“People who hate are unhappy people. They actually unconsciously hate their own weaknesses and frustrations. It’s really crazy, in this short life we’re given to use, to hate somebody or something that at first sight differs from you, when in fact we are all pretty damn similar and the same in what we seek and our attempts to make something of our lives… We’re all we are equal under this blue sky, and we are all, as the great Croatian poet Tin Ujević said, twinned in this universe… “I am there in some unknown and on a star allocated from afar, and here in one thread, in a flower extinguished, scattered in a world that floats…” The fact that we are all the same gives a man some humility and soothing, and thus there is no hatred within me…”
Rade lost any fear for his own life long ago, but in jest, he explains what he fears today:
“I lost the fear you’re talking about when I got kids. All of a sudden, you’re not the most important person in the world to yourself. Here I count both my Lenka and my grandchildren, whom I love endlessly – in that I mean I love them more than myself. What am I afraid of? I don’t know. Like all people, I’m afraid of death, but I don’t think about that anymore. A man is built so that as he ages he becomes increasingly indifferent towards death… I’m afraid of movies that are horrifying and scary. I can’t watch those pictures and close my eyes during terrible scenes in the dumbest horrors, and my grandchildren scream with pleasure and move my fingers from my eyes, enjoying my sincere fear.”
When war started to rage on all of our territories, I was one of the few peacemakers, whose voices were lost in the whirlwind of fearful nationalists and fascists…. I’m totally disappointed today with the position of the left in the world, and especially here, in our Slavic lands
Rade has been living in recent years in Rijeka with Lenka, his wife. They returned to Croatia in 2010, when Rade designed and launched a two-year programme in this city dedicated to professional training in acting, media and culture. Stage speech is taught by American teachers, so young actors have a chance to perfectly master the English language.
A year ago, he was invited to the Bansko Court for the first time to celebrate Croatian Statehood Day. We learn from his book that Croatia’s current Prime Minister and Rade’s son Danilo were friends as children, and Rade took them to basketball training. Asked today if the entire story of his acquaintance with Andrej Plenković ends there, without any desire to expand on this subject, he briefly answers yes.
And is Rade still ideologically committed to the Left today? And how does he view ideology generally today, compared to what it represented in the 1970s, for example:
“Leftist ideas are something that has always been close to me, even though I knew how to recognise a mere ideology that very often ended up with rigid Bolshevik absolutism, from some real liberal idea of human socialism, among which our Yugoslav self-managing socialism was included, with some of its phenomena… Today the leftist movement is in a losing position everywhere in the world, because the great powers controlling social movements in the world have succeeded in imposing their rules of the game on the entire world. That fomented imperialist capitalism enslaved the whole world and by warming up various wars in all parts of the world they hold the reins in their hands with abundant support of the Vatican and other ecclesiastical centres of power.
The world is on its knees. People are mostly disenfranchised and barely existing. The level of consciousness among the world’s proletariat is low and miserable. And no light can be seen in the distance at the end of this terrible tunnel into which our entire civilisation has fallen. The only question is when that darkness will be penetrated by the spark of possible revolution, and who will be the one to set it alight?”
From the first marriage with Ivanka Cerovac, Rade has a director son, Danilo, and an actress daughter, Lucija. They gave him four grandchildren. He has been married to his second wife, Lenka Udovički, for more than 25 years. Lenka is the daughter of Yugoslav revolutionary, Spanish civil warfighter and diplomat Lazar Udovički, who was the ambassador of SFR Yugoslavia in Caracas when he met the daughter of his Bolivian colleague, Nina, whose full name is Carolina Maria de Copacabana Sánchez de Lozada, a descendant of the upper strata of Bolivian society. She graduated in biochemistry at Radcliffe College. She married Lazar and together they had four daughters. One of them, the thirdborn Lenka, became a theatre director who worked at the Moving Theatre Company in London and staged Shakespeare’s The Tempest at his famous Globe Theatre, with Vanessa Redgrave starring in the lead role. Together with Annette Bening, she staged Medea at the prestigious ‘UCLA Live’ festival and lectured at both UCLA and the California Institute of Arts. She achieved great success as a director and artistic director of Ulysses Theatre, which she founded together with husband Rade in the year 2000. She is a lecturer in acting studies at the University of Rijeka.
That fomented imperialist capitalism enslaved the whole world and by warming up various wars in all parts of the world they hold the reins in their hands with abundant support of the Vatican and other ecclesiastical centres of power
Rade was loved and adored like few other actors on the territory of the former Yugoslavia. In the summer of 1990, in a country that was still called Yugoslavia, war erupted, and he was in Subotica preparing for the play Oedipus Rex, and during breaks watching the Football World Cup on the television. And so, he almost missed the young and beautiful director to whom he’d been introduced by Ljubiša Ristić. Lenka was 23 and he’d turned 44 and was a divorcee with two children. They were married the following year and started their life together during times of unrest, during the years when Rade, as a Serb from Croatia, was not desirable in Zagreb, and his children remained there – where he would not see them for the next two years. He found shelter for a short while in Bosnia, then in Belgrade, and when some unknown drunkard shot at him in Belgrade’s Nana café, he took it as a sign that he was no longer welcome there either anymore. And so they set off for Slovenia: “I was ready to work as a taxi driver or do anything else, and I was ready to forget that I’d once been the most popular actor in Yugoslavia,” said Rade, speaking about those times many years later.
In 1992 Lenka gave birth to a daughter, Nina. With her nine-day-old baby, Lenka headed to Skopje by train, and from there took a plane to Ljubljana, with war than preventing travel between Belgrade and Ljubljana. Initially homeless and staying in a hotel, Rade learned the Slovenian language and performed in the theatre, while Lenka looked after the baby and bathed her in the sink. They spent the summer on the border with Austria in a weekend cottage offered to them by some acquaintances, then Lenka’s parents came to help them and they spent a year living in a rented apartment.
Rade received a call from London and together they headed for the British capital. He worked on Milcho Manchevski’s film Before the Rain, which opened the way for him to achieve international acclaim, while Lenka worked at the Bolivian Embassy as a cultural attaché and provided the only secure income they had. Rade founded the Moving Theatre Company with his dear friend and great British artist Vanessa Redgrave, then calls began to arrive. In 1994, Rade and Lenka received their second daughter, Vanja. Two years later, in 1996, a third daughter, Milica, came into the world, and Rade became an international star at the same time, with the hit film The Saint.
He has had many interesting encounters with the famous actors and directors he’s worked with over the past twenty years, and he offers wonderful descriptions of these people in his books, snippets of life in Los Angeles, and previously in London, only to summarise it all at one point in an interesting conclusion:
“Warren Beatty is the biggest star I ever met in Hollywood. I’ve met Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino and Jane Fonda. My best friends are Vanessa Redgrave, Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes. I shot movies with Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Clint Eastwood, Charlize Theron, Glenn Close, Nicole Kidman, Michael Caine, John Turturro, Val Kilmer and many others who can be called stars, but none of them can be compared with Warren Beatty. He is probably the last major star of American film in the mould of Marlon Brando, Merlin Monroe, Ava Gardner, and Warren’s own sister, Shirley MacLaine. That was a time of Hollywood celebrity, in which film stars were almost deities. They did not earn the same millions of dollars that the greatest Hollywood movie names earn today, but in some way, they were more important and almost state-protected as icons of American society.
Many big actors after the 1960s often admit that they are embarrassed to perform on stage. When asked if he felt that, Sherbedzija said:
“I was ashamed when I reached forty. But perhaps that was the reason I became a better film actor. Had I not sincerely suspected the meaning of everything I do in art and even in the art itself, I would probably never be the real Alexander in Milcho Manchevski’s film Before the Rain.”
It’s really crazy, in this short life we’re given to use, to hate somebody or something that at first sight differs from you, when in fact we are all pretty damn similar
When Lenka and Rade decided to return to Croatia, to live in Rijeka, and to establish their successful summer theatre festival in Brioni, could it be concluded that they’ve made their final move? Well, there’s a question over whether the word ‘final’ can even be used in Rade’s life, given that he moved as a nomad because he was forced to do so:
“No! I do not agree with the word FINAL! I think that while I live, I will try to be curious and travel from idea to idea, from city to city. And I’m asking myself and everything around me. Now Lenka and I are in love with our young students from Rijeka and we do everything we can to help them grow up as artists and as people ..
We teach them the mildness and understanding of diversity in the world.”
There is no middle ground in the former country where Rade has no friends and it is touching how he talks about them. Tears are sick with his telephone conversation with musician Johnny Štulić when he begs him to come to Brioni and hold a concert, just like the memory of actor Batu Stojković, with whom he most liked to sing duets. His memories of Dragan Nikolić are kind of constant because he left his boast to his widow Milena Dravić and since his death, she has used it to transport guests to Brioni. Who among the people with whom he was sociable, drunk, sang … most of all:
“All of my good, dear and courageous friends … I carry each of them in my heart and I am proud of them. Hey, man, how unforgettable it was. “
At the end of last year, Rade promoted his new book, After the Rain, and then held his traditional solo concert in the Serbian capital. He received remarkable praise for his printed autobiographical story, and it is logical for him to end this conversation by answering the question: Will you continue, through your friend Igor Mandić, to write about yourself, your friends and your life?
“I don’t know what I’m going to do and what I’m going to write about. Maybe a song again. Although I would, for once again, be bewildered by my friend Igor Mandić, who preferred to play football with Duško Kovačević and Kusturica, with the subsequent acceptance of Kusturica’s comment that a different order be made between the three of us. I agree to be in third place, but I don’t believe that Duško left him his first place.”