Interview: Vladimir Zelenskiy on Playing Ukraine’s President in “Servant of the People”

Our interview with Volodymyr Zelensky (using his former name romanization "Vladimir Zelenskiy"), before he became President of Ukraine.

By , 22 Aug 17 07:49 GMT
Vladimir Zelenskiy (Source: Kvartal 95)

Update on July 22, 2019: This interview’s subject was elected as (the real) President of Ukraine and assumed office on May 20, 2019. He now romanizes his name as “Volodymyr Zelensky.” In this article, we retain his original romanization at the time of our interview, “Vladimir Zelenskiy.” 

Vladimir Zelenskiy may not be the President of Ukraine, but he plays one on TV—and is perhaps the most popular actor in Ukraine today.

Zelenskiy headlines the hit television series Servant of the People, in which his character Vasily Petrovich Goloborodko transforms overnight from a regular history teacher to the “People’s President” after a video of him ranting about corruption goes viral and inspires the nation’s electorate. In the show, Goloborodko and his cabinet of fellow commoners use humorous methods to battle against Ukraine’s corrupt establishment, painting a vision of the country that many Ukrainians wish to see in real life.

After garnering millions of views within Ukraine, season one of Servant of the People is now available for global viewers on Netflix; a movie sequel will screen at the Montreal World Film Festival later this month and a second season is currently filming.

Cinema Escapist caught up with Zelenskiy at this exciting juncture for an exclusive interview. In a wide-ranging conversation, we learned about his initial rise to prominence through the Russian show KVN, his thoughts on the distinctions between Western and post-Soviet humor, and hopes for Servant of the People as it reaches international audiences. Take a read!

•   •   •

From what I’ve read, you have a very interesting life story. You spent part of your childhood in Mongolia, had aspirations of being a diplomat before deciding to instead study law at one of Ukraine’s top universities… and now you’re one of Ukraine’s most popular actors. How’d that happen?

Everything was rather spontaneous.

[Narrating in the second person…] You never know where you’ll be tomorrow. You go to school, then your parents move to work in Mongolia and you obviously have to go with them. You turn eighteen and want to study international relations to be a diploma — but you’re told it’s expensive, it’s hard to do, and you need to move to the capital (for the USSR, Moscow).

Instead, you go to law school and start taking part in a local theater club, and then you start doing games with the university KVN (a popular Russophone comedy franchise) team. That later progresses to a higher level: the official KVN comedy show on TV (for Americans: think of a Russian Saturday Night Live).

Throughout this process, you have to gradually say goodbye to some of your dreams. Sometimes you think you totally control the situation, but in reality it’s like you’re guided in some way, as if destiny is building your career in a way that you didn’t intend.

How did you and others at Kvartal 95 (the production studio Zelenskiy helms) first come up with the idea of Servant of the People?

We first came up with the idea sometime in the early 2000s. Back then, the political situation in Ukraine wasn’t so challenging. Despite the fact that people weren’t very interested in politics at the time, we still somehow fantasized about and came up with the idea of a commoner becoming the head of state.

The initial idea was a bit different [from today’s Servant of the People] though. We first thought it would be some kind of reality TV show, where ordinary people would come on as candidates and other people would vote for them. Maybe someday we’ll return to that original idea, but we decided to do a traditional series format because that became more popular.

The “People’s President” bikes to work. (Courtesy of Kvartal 95)

Why do you think Servant of the People has become so popular amongst Ukrainians?

Well, first, it touches upon a universal desire: all normal people want to live a better life. As the expression goes, a fish rots from the head down. Therefore, everyone wants decent people at top. When you have that, everyday life can be more normal, and then you don’t have to think about survival on a daily basis. When that happens, you can think of other issues, more global ones—like the environment and so on.

Additionally—our corruption problems stem from the Soviet era, and the people in power today are mostly from that generation. Ukrainians who want positive changes can see a bit of themselves in our show’s characters, [who represent a change from the old order]. If a teacher can become President in our TV series, maybe a great surgeon can someday become a Minister of Health, or a cool IT specialist turns into the head of the information security department. Admittedly real life might not be so simple, but Servant of the People isn’t exactly simple either.

That brings me to another point: our show’s genre is very multifaceted and quite new for Ukrainian TV. It’s not just a comedy, it’s a political comedy with hints of satire and drama. Ultimately, it’s very up-to-date and reflects the current sentiments of people. I think that makes it popular.

How has the success of Servant of the People affected your personal life? Do you get a lot more people wanting to take selfies with the “People’s President” these days?

Yes, people often want to take selfies with me —but not necessarily me as a person. Oftentimes they’re looking to take that selfie with [President Goloborodko], the character they see on screen.

Also, Kvartal 95 and I have started receiving more messages from ordinary people that confirm there’s a desire for [someone like President Goloborodko] to lead Ukraine through its current realities.

Has playing the President of Ukraine on TV, and creating this show, affected your view about politics at all?

While working on this project, we obviously had to research deeper into political topics, which is quite normal for screenwriters, producers, and actors who don’t have prior expertise in an area. The deeper we got, the more politically educated we became — but I don’t know whether that’s for better or for worse.

I will say that some things started looking more like a nightmare, and that compelled me to be more curious about “why” they had to be that way.

The “People’s President” speaking to the Ukrainian parliament in Servant of the People. (Courtesy of Kvartal 95)

Has there been any reaction from Ukraine’s oligarchs (which Servant of the People lampoons), or President Petro Poroshenko himself, about the show?

I haven’t heard any direct reactions from them, I just know that people generally like the show.

Although the series is a reflection of today’s life, it’s also a parallel reality. [Poroshenko] is not a former teacher, and the show’s oligarchs are rather generalized characters. Therefore, I don’t think that [President Poroshenko and the oligarchs] would be able to project the show’s events onto themselves.

Ultimately, Servant of the People’s story is very unusual. We didn’t intend for it to be moralizing, but I recognize that people might still draw their own inferences.

How has Ukraine’s media environment changed—or not changed—since the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution? Do you think that you could’ve made Servant of the People before 2014?

Yes, I think we could have. In my opinion, Ukraine’s media environment started changing around the time of the first Maidan, the 2004 Orange Revolution. Political humor appeared in our main comedy show Vecherniy Kvartal (“Evening Kvartal”) around then.

What role do you think satire plays in Ukraine’s current political and social landscape?

Well satire in general has a long history: you can see it start with Aesop, you can see it with Shakespeare. Of course, satire differs depending on the historical period, current events, and socio-economic context. I’d cite Bulgakov [who was born in Kiev] as a great satirist who described the realities of his society.

I see satire as a form that you can fill with different content — you can satirize politics, you can satirize love. However, the excellence of language — how sharp, up-to-date, and daring it is, ultimately distinguishes good satire from mediocre satire.

Back to Ukraine — I think satire has been a forte of ours [Kvartal 95] since the early 2000s. We use it in many of our programs, and it’s been very popular amongst Ukrainians. And maybe that’s due to the fact that contemporary Ukraine has to deal with many challenging and complex political, economic, and social realities.

The “People’s President” walks up the red carpet. (Courtesy of Kvartal 95)

What differences — or similarities — do you see between post-Soviet humor and American/Western humor?

There are many differences related to mentality and cultural backgrounds.

I think that we (in the post-Soviet world) know more about Western humor than the West knows about our humor. Because the Western world was closed to us for a long time, when it opened and all this new TV programming surged into our market, we greedily consumed it and got used to many new things.

However, differences still exist. For instance, gag humor — where you slip on a banana or throw cakes, for instance — isn’t really popular in post-Soviet territories. Perhaps that’s because such humor is borne from places where people aren’t preoccupied with survival. In post-Soviet countries, satire has historically been more popular.

There’s also the issue of language: a lot of comedy is built on linguistic forms. Cultural or national backgrounds are important too. Here in Ukraine, we especially like laughing at jokes about relations between in-laws and neighbors.

Still, this gets at a universality to humor. We are all humans, so there must be some common things we all laugh at: family relations, love, children, loneliness. And I feel that even though Servant of the People is based on Ukrainian politics, it still incorporates many of these common things.

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: Russia. You and Kvartal 95 first became famous through the Russian game show KVN, and many of your other performances have been quite popular in Russia. At the same time, the “People’s President” is known for humorously getting others’ attention by shouting “Putin is dead”, which probably doesn’t make Putin too happy! Are you concerned about losing Russian fans, or do you feel that this is a necessary sacrifice to help Ukraine as a country orient itself towards the West?

In an ideal world, I wouldn’t want to mix art with politics, even if there’s a thematic relation. However, in reality, it’s impossible to separate humor itself from politics. Humor must reflect everything that happens in a country, current events and politics included.

Therefore, if today we have complex relations with Russia and a pro-Ukrainian orientation, we must cover all parts of this reality, [Russia included]. This is simply an accurate reflection of our society’s attitudes, and it’s a general world practice. For example, in the US, Trump is President: how can you not talk about it? American shows joke about Trump, and they joke about Russia—though sadly not too much about Ukraine, maybe this indicates we’re not so popular!

Now, with regards to our position: I don’t put the business first. I believe that first and foremost we are citizens of Ukraine, and we should take care of our country. I think smart people in any post-Soviet country can understand this desire.

Furthermore, the problem of losing fans is mutual—[Ukrainians can stop watching Russian-made shows too]. [It’s important to note that humor is not a personal insult]—I think that people who perceive our humor as a blow in their direction must have an Iron Curtain in their brains higher than the one from the Soviet Union!

Zelenskiy on set as history teacher Vasily Petrovich Goloborodko.

Now that it’s on Netflix, what do you hope that international audiences can take away from Servant of the People?

I’m very glad we’re on Netflix. I’m very happy international audiences will see our show for obvious reasons: the market is bigger, the technologies more developed, and so on. This somewhat relates to the previous question about fans and finances, but in this case we weren’t really fighting for large amounts of money and high commissions.

Having our show on the world’s leading internet television network is a sign that our country can make high-quality products for international markets, and that our company can be competitive within this industry.

[By watching Servant of the People], people from around the world will become acquainted with our country, and all of its positive potential. Maybe they’ll think we have a country just like the one in the show and want to visit us — if so, they are very welcome!

•   •   •

Episodes One and Two of Servant of the People (English Subtitles)

You can watch the full first season of Servant of the People on Netflix, or YouTube if you’re OK with machine translations. A feature film based on the show was released domestically in December 2016 and will be screening at this year’s Montreal World Film Festival (August 24 – September 4, 2017) within the Focus on World Cinema section.

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