Fans of the Emmy-winning TV show "Lost" have been captivated by the mysterious, ship-wrecked scientist Danielle Rousseau and eagerly watch each week to see if more information is revealed about her story. The actress who plays her, Mira Furlan, has an equally intriguing background. A Croatian Jew who was a star of TV, film and theater in her native Yugoslavia, Furlan fled to the United States 15 years ago when the increasing violence among ethnic groups endangered so many. Furlan, a classically trained actress, found a new niche in Hollywood by joining the cast of the science-fiction TV series "Babylon 5"as Ambassador Delenn. She has also appeared in dramatic productions in Los Angeles and released an album called "Songs From Movies That Have Never Been Made." Furlan recently spoke with Hillel Campus Report about her Jewish roots, her diverse career and the choices she's made in portraying Rousseau.
What was it like growing up as Jew in the former Yugoslavia? Did you experience anti-Semitism?
I grew up without much awareness of particular ethnic or national background. I happened to be a mixture of ethnicities, anyway. But I always loved hearing and was fascinated by the stories of my flamboyant Jewish grandfather, Fritz Weil, who was, according to those stories, a "born actor," "the heart of every party," a man who spoke six languages fluently, a traveler, a musician, a bohemian, a political activist who traveled all over Europe bringing food and supplies to the poorest communities. My mother used to tell me that I inherited a lot of traits from him, one of them being my interest and talent for languages. But there was always a certain reluctance and fear to talk about Jewishness. No wonder. My mother survived the war and the Nazi years in Croatia thanks to my non-Jewish adoptive grandmother, who was a respected professor and translator from French. And my father, who had a Slovenian father and a Croatian mother, believed in the idea of the Yugoslav "brotherhood and unity" (famous slogan of the socialist Yugoslavia), where ethnic and national affiliations were considered reactionary and even dangerous. That attitude was a reaction to the bloody and merciless devastation that happened between different nationalities within the country of Yugoslavia during the second World War. Tito's policy in dealing with nationalist hatreds was to erase them from public consciousness, to shove all problems of that kind under the rug. The war that happened in the '90s showed that nothing was really neither forgotten or solved. It all came back with a vengeance, creating a tragedy of vast proportions.
What was the political situation like when you left the country?
The story of my leaving – I should say of our leaving, because I left with my husband, the director Goran Gajic – was very dramatic and would require much more space. To sum it up, it was a situation where any pacifism was perceived as treason (not unlike what's happening in this country) and where, all at once, your nationality became the only thing that mattered. I could not accept that. I felt as if I was losing my identity to the war. The propaganda machine was in full gear, spreading hatred all around. It was a sick place where I felt I was losing my sanity and my soul. That's why I left. That's why we left. The irony is that life brought us to Hollywood, a place that makes you lose your sanity and your soul anyway.
Did you attend a formal training program, such as a drama school?
I graduated from the Academy for Dramatic Arts in Zagreb and hold an equivalent to the BA in theatre.
What were some of the roles you played as part of the Croatian National Theatre? Did you have any favorites?
I played a lot of classical roles on stage. I was Ophelia in "Hamlet," Annabella in "'Tis Pity She's a Whore," Judith in Shaw's "Devil's Disciple," Natalya Petrovna in Turgenev's "A Month in the Country." That last one was also my last role on the stage of the Croatian National Theatre and holds a special place in my heart.
Were you already comfortable acting in English-language projects prior to your arrival in America, or was it a new experience for you?
As a matter of fact, my first acting experience happened to be in the English language. I went to a high school that was specialized in languages, particularly English. We had an English professor who just came from graduating Oxford University and taught American literature through the poetry of Bob Dylan, among others. We all adored him. He rehearsed a play with us on weekends, for a full year, an English play by John Arden called "Live Like Pigs." We all played old sailors, beggars and prostitutes. It was highly exciting, of course, for us, teenagers brought up in a socialist country. I remember that I played a chain-smoking, hard-drinking, cynical and dangerous prostitute named Daffodil. I was 17 then and knew very little about life. But when those lights came up on stage and I felt the silence of the audience and my own power, I was hooked for life.
Was it a big jump for you to go from performing in classical theater to science-fiction projects like "Babylon 5"? Did you find any similarities between the genres?
As a matter of fact, the science-fiction genre, and especially ["Babylon 5" creator] Joe Straczynski's writing, required some of the same acting skills required by the classical theatre. Big moral issues, big themes of life and death, big speeches... I found out that I was well trained for that.
Shows like "Star Trek" and "Babylon 5" are known for attracting many devoted fans. Were you surprised at their intense feelings toward the show? Did you ever have any unusual or funny encounters with fans?
I was stunned at the scope of that parallel world called science-fiction fandom. Those fans are certainly the most devoted and loyal fans of all. I'll never forget my first science-fiction convention where a fan told me, "Welcome to the family." It meant a lot to me then and it still means a great deal.
What appealed to you about the role of Danielle Rousseau on "Lost"?
It's a complex and layered role. My 7-year-old son says, "My mommy is both a bad guy and a good guy." That's true. Danielle can be anything. The writers have created an openness to the character and they can develop it in a million different directions. I can only hope that they would. Recently, an actor acquaintance praised my work as Rousseau. He said that women usually play "tough" as tough and that I do the opposite. I really try to play the soft, vulnerable, sensitive, despaired side of Rousseau, instead of playing the rough, tough, survivalist, obvious side of the character. And that's what makes it interesting for me as an actor. And, hopefully, for the audience as well.
Have your own experiences helped you develop her character and her survivalist's instincts?
Your own experiences are always a part of everything you do. They sneak in, even when you don't want them to. Your tears are always the same, in your work and in your life. It's always you. A modified you. But, in essence, you. The richer your life experience, the richer the role you play. That's why it's so sad to experience this mad trend for youth in Hollywood. The lines on your face are what make you who you are. Behind them is a life you've lived. A life that makes your acting richer and deeper and fuller. Sometimes I think that I am just now entering a phase where I know what I'm doing as an actor. I played many, many roles before I was ready for them. Now when I am truly ready because of my experience as a human being and as an actor, now, of course, the roles are scarce. It is, in my opinion, a tragedy of being a female actor. There is always Botox, of course. There is always that wonderful opportunity to turn your true face into a pretty immobile mask. To kill the life within your face just because it's a proof of your age. Because aging in this culture is perceived as crime. You almost want to apologize for it.
What is it like to play a character who is outside the group of survivors? Do you relate differently to the other actors who play those characters?
I do feel like an outsider when I'm shooting the show. The cast is a well-connected group, a team. And I am on the outside. Sometimes it's not a very pleasant feeling, but I'm sure, in terms of Method acting, it's good for me as an actor and it's actually helping me to be truthful in creating the role.
Do you know the answers behind the show's mysteries, or do the actors only learn about them as they get the scripts?
I don't know anything.
What other projects do you have in the works?
There are always projects, ranging from the ideas to the finished scripts (I also write), but life has taught me to never discuss the projects that are in the works. They can happen tomorrow or never. And that's just the reality of this business.