RENOWNED CYPRIOT FILM DIRECTOR MICHALIS CACOYIANNIS (1922-2011) SPEAKS TO MARIOS STILIANAKIS
As published in Volume 9, N0 2, June 2012
Spring of 2009 – Athens, Greece
Michalis Cacoyannis was born on the 11th of June, 1922, in the coastal town of Limassol on the island of Cyprus. He studied law in London yet ended up following his passion for the arts and enrolled at the Old Vic theater school where he studied dramatic arts and directing. During his time in London, he worked for BBC’s Greek radio program and also acted in the theater.
After moving to Athens, Cacoyannis made his debut as a director in 1954 with the film “Windfall in Athens.” “Stella,” “A Girl in Black,” his trilogy “Electra,” “The Trojan Women,” and “Iphigenia” along with “Zorba the Greek” are but a few of his critically acclaimed films that became international box office hits. In 1955, he introduced Melina Mercouri in his film “Stella” and, throughout his career, he worked with such actors as Vanessa Redgrave, Irene Papas, Katharine Hepburn and Candice Bergen. Among other accolades, Cacoyannis was nominated for three Academy Awards, a Golden Globe, and two BAFTA awards (all for “Zorba the Greek”) and earned nine nominations and two wins at the Cannes Film Festival (for a number of his films).
Outside the world of film, Cacoyannis staged and directed a number of theatre and opera productions both in Europe and the USA. He was the driving force behind the illumination of the Acropolis and the Parthenon in Athens, and in 2004, he established the “Cacoyannis Foundation” – a center for the arts housed at a custom built theater and exhibition center in Athens, Greece.
I met Michalis Cacoyannis at his two-story neo-classical home near the Acropolis in the spring of 2009.
Q: We are here with the Hollywood legend, Michalis Cacoyannis…
A: Come on now…
Q: Why not address people properly? … You are one of the most well known Greeks in the world…
A: Onassis was the most well known Greek in the world!
Q: Yes but he’s no longer with us… Neither Onassis nor Callas… They might have been the most famous Greeks in the world at some point but they are no longer with us…
Q: Anyway, here, then, with Michalis Cacoyannis, the film and theater director, screenwriter, lyricist… what else?
A: Actually, I am now writing my autobiography.
Q: That’s right! I wanted to ask you: have you always written the material for all the films you directed?
A: Yes. I always did the writing myself. The film is more representative of your true taste that way.
Q: Please, if you could speak of perhaps three life lessons that you’ve come to learn in your life that you might care to share with the younger generations and perhaps tell us a little bit about the way in which you’ve come to realize these life lessons.
A: Be true to yourself.
Q: Has this been something you realized early on?
A: No. Actually, it’s something that I realized through the course of my life but not very early on. I always tried, from the very beginning, to remain true to my basic beliefs in whatever I did. I never sold myself for money – even though I was offered money often and sometimes a lot of it. But I came to further realize the depth of this commitment to one’s true values as my life progressed.
Q: How difficult do you think it is; to remain true to yourself?
A: It’s quite difficult, actually. And in my case, in a number of occasions, when offered contracts from a number of studios where the conditions were unacceptable to me, I said “no.” Way back, after the “Girl in Black,” Fox Studios had offered me a contract whereby I could submit my own scripts for production, three of them to be exact, but if they had turned them down, I would have had to direct one of their scripts. I said “no.”
Q: Quite admirable! And how did the realization of staying true to your beliefs and values come about for you? Was it because of a specific occurrence?
A: I feel it’s a matter of character. I always felt that one should not be hung up on money because if one is, one would always carry a price. Fortunately, in my case, I always acted as my own producer, which, of course, allowed me to retain much of the creative control over my work. As you know, my first films were Greek which then became international hits. And that was a good way to start for me.
Q: Like “The Girl in Black,” and…
Q: “Stella!” Which I think is a masterpiece! What else has been an important lesson to you?
A: To help young people.
Q: And along those lines, I believe you’ve also just completed a cultural or art center that bears your name here in Athens…
A: It’s an art center and a foundation which includes a big theater, two cinemas, naturally, restaurants and other spaces intended for social gatherings. It’s called the “Michalis Cacoyannis Institute/Foundation.”
Q: So how did this inspiration to help young people come about? Was it something that grew apparent to you after you became successful?
A: No, I was always like that. When I cast characters, especially in works that need very good but young actors, like in the last play I staged entitled “Coriolanos,” but even before that, with “Hamlet,” I always chose young, newly discovered people.
Q: Why is that important to you? It always has been, I think.
A: Yes. It comes from my desire to be true to the author in terms of age – in other words, I’m not going to cast a fifty-year-old actor for the part of Hamlet; it would just be untrue to the play. Of course, I am always very demanding when it comes to the staging of such works… demanding of everybody, including myself as well as these young actors.
Q: Is it because you have faith in young people?
A: Well, if I discover someone and put them in a play, for example, there is a girl called Evdokia Roumelioti, who I cast to play Ophelia in “Hamlet” and it was her first major part – she had just graduated from drama school. She did brilliantly and she’s built herself a career now and she’s still my protégée, she still seeks my input and advice and it’s not only her… it’s because I love and believe in talent.
Q: Have you found this to be risky… putting so much trust and letting so much ride on a young actor?
A: I don’t feel you’re taking that much of a risk, really… you’ve chosen them because you’ve seen something “natural” in them, some call it “talent,” and all you’re doing is asking them to showcase that. You are not asking them to copy you or imitate you but merely to use their own “talent.” But when you see that kind of talent or ability in a young person, don’t discard it because of their youth or lack of experience… Believe in them, mentor them and they will shine.
Q: Very true indeed. How about a third lesson…
A: I used to like moving around a lot. I love the islands. Now, I cannot travel much. I’ve had operations on both legs and I’m scared that I might have an accident. I mean, I have a pool in the back of my home here and, in that, I am very fortunate because I can use it to swim and exercise in the summer but, other than that, I am confined in my home.
Q: And what is the lesson here exactly?
A: Learn how to give things up. There will always come a time when one has to give something up… make a sacrifice… In such cases, I feel there’s no need to dwell on what is lost or to make a big fuss… it is not a tragic loss, really. When life denies you something, don’t take it too dramatically and make do with what you have. One retains much more peace of mind and happiness that way.
Q: Dear Mr. Cacoyannis, I know this has perhaps been a bit taxing on you and I want you to know how grateful I am that you agreed to talk with me…
A: It was my pleasure.
Q: Thank you so much. You have the love and admiration of so many.
Including an epilogue in the series of interviews that I submit to “In Focus” is quite unconventional – yet, every rule is bound to afford an exception; and what grander personality to apply that exception to other than Michalis Cacoyannis?
The inside of his house was grandiose. He, however, was unassuming. His housekeeper opened the door and led me to one of the front rooms: a sort of library/parlor. I found him seated in a chair that appeared to be like an old, good friend to him. He had had surgery on both of his hips and was limited in his mobility.
At first, he was courteous; then accommodating; and by the end of our meeting, he was, I might dare say, trusting. Throughout, however, he remained centered; not self imposing; not established; not didactic; not superior; not animated or insipid… just centered. At eighty-seven and with a brilliant career behind him, with a life full of “exposure” (he was good friends with so many personalities of the past century, including Onassis, Callas and Jackie “O”) and in possession of more richness rather than riches, Michalis Cacoyannis sat in his chair surrounded by an aura of resolution; perhaps with himself, with his work, with what he had coming to him and with what he was bound to leave behind. He knew he had covered an extraordinary learning-curve in his life and he was happy for that – it was from that knowledge that the centeredness and resolution stemmed.
His shared lessons now seem prophetic and amazingly applicable to the current Greek predicament: remain true to your values – put trust in and encourage young people – learn to live with what you have instead of languish for what is lost.
As an ending note, I’d like to say that Michalis Cacoyannis is one of a few people who I can certainly say gave me the impression that when the time came, he knew he would leave a happy man – and that, perhaps, at least to me, might have been his most venerated accomplishment.
Michalis Cacoyannis passed away in Athens on July 25, 2011.