'A Good Day to Die Hard's' Yuliya Snigir on Russian Stereotypes and 'Making It' in Hollywood (Q&A)

Yulia Snigir Portrait - P 2013
Courtesy of THR Russia

Yulia Snigir Portrait - P 2013

"I am not upset to play a bad Russian," says the actress of her character in the fifth "Die Hard" movie.

Russian actress Yuliya Snigir makes her U.S. debut in a big way in A Good Day to Die Hard, playing Irina, the daughter of a Russian political prisoner who goes up against John McClane (Bruce Willis) after he travels to Russia to help his estranged son. After starring in the action blockbuster, Sniger moved to Los Angeles, signed with CAA, and will be seen in indie film Delirium. She also has a role in upcoming action-thriller Freezer, starring Dylan McDermott. The Hollywood Reporter: Russian Edition spoke to the actress about how she got the part in the big Hollywood flick, what type of training she did and if she plans to pursue a Hollywood career.

The Hollywood Reporter: You played in A Good Day to Die Hard alongside Bruce Willis – just about any actress would want to be in your place. Did you work towards it for a long time, or was it just a happy coincidence?

Yuliya Snigir: I wouldn’t say that had been my dream. Of course, I could watch Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds and think how I wanted to play, for instance, Diane Kruger’s character. But striving to get to Hollywood or sending photos to casting agencies – that wasn’t the case. My dream was to play in good films, no matter in what country. I always waited for a decent script, and nothing has changed. I’m just sure that nothing in life is random, and I believe in the fate, which guides you. Probably my starring in A Good Day to Die Hard is good proof of that. Actually, when I received an invitation for an audition by phone in December 2011, I didn’t feel much excitement; I was totally immersed in theater work. I played in King Lear in St. Petersburg and I didn’t plan to change anything. And I totally didn’t plan to leave. So I thought, “That’s just an audition.” Probably that calm attitude eventually helped me.

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THR: Did you consult anyone before going to the audition?

Snigir: No. They sent me the text in advance, I learned it and went to Moscow to see the casting director, who flew there from Europe. I should say that the way auditions work there differs substantially from what we are used to. I didn’t prepare at all, I was wearing a simple blouse and skirt, I put my hair in a bun and applied just a little makeup. But they expect thorough preparations; they pay a lot of attention to how you look. When I go to auditions in Los Angeles now, I first go to a beauty parlor to set my hair, I prepare my clothes very thoroughly and I always wear high heels. Of course, eventually that’s not what matters, but if everything is fine, it will help. I don’t know what worked in my case. Maybe I was very close to the character.

THR: How long did it take them to cast you?

Snigir: Some three weeks later, they invited me to a screen-test in Budapest. Then I got nervous. I arrived without much confidence in myself. You know, reflection is generally typical of Russian actors; foreigners don’t quite understand it. The screen-test was in a studio, it involved make-up and costume. The screen-test was filmed by Jonathan Sela, who went on to become the DP on the film. Director John Moore was also there and the entire crew… That was scary. And there was no certainty after that trip, either. Even when I was invited for another screen-test in March, I wasn’t totally positive that I was cast. I remember, at some point, the director took me aside and said: “Yuliya, everything is great! You did it!” And a couple weeks later, I moved to Budapest, where part of the shoot took place, for a few months.

THR: How did your family react to the fact that you were cast in a Hollywood movie?

Snigir: They are no longer surprised by anything. First, I quit chess at age 15 after many years, then I left my small town in Tula region for Moscow, then I went to a teacher-training college but became an actress after graduating from it ... Then I said that I was sick of cinema and wanted to do theater. Basically, they are used to it. “Die Hard? they asked. Well, that’s fine.”

THR: Did it matter a lot to you, what your character is like?

Snigir: Of course! In American films, Russians are often portrayed like cartoon villains without clear motivations. So I fought for my Irina a lot to make her smart, not cliched. And I am not upset to play a bad Russian. For instance, in Skyfall, Javier Bardem’s character is so negative that he is many times more charming than a positive one.

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THR: Are you not put off by the fact that Russian actors often play villains in Western movies?

Snigir: Not only Russians do it. But it would be strange to expect something else from the Americans. And it has nothing to do with the aftermath of the Cold War or a political statement. They are just patriots who fight evil all over the world. That’s their national trait.

THR: As the main opponent of John McClane, you had to be on the same level: to fly a helicopter, to shoot, to ride motorbikes. Was the preparation for the shoot long?

Snigir: In fact, I’m a terrible coward, but in the movie, I shot and flew and raced – doing what I never did before. And that’s really good luck when you have a chance of learning something. The preparations were during the shoot itself, whenever there was time. I took pleasure from the shooting lessons with various kinds of weapons. I mastered it so quickly and easily that the coach decided that I had had previous experience. But with the helicopter, it wasn’t that easy – I am afraid of heights, although I couldn’t admit it. Not because it’s Hollywood, but because I felt responsibility before the entire crew: they were so good to me, they were so helpful, and I didn’t feel the right to even say that I would be unable to do something for them.

THR: Was at least some of your previous experience of any use?

Snigir: Experience always helps, as I feel progress from project to project. I work on my mistakes, on self-improvement. On that shoot, the only problem was the language barrier. You can’t feel at ease enough speaking a foreign language, you can’t play with it. It takes time. I only recently felt some internal breakthrough at an audition – the barrier had disappeared.

THR: But you speak excellent English and even taught it for a while!

Snigir: It isn’t really excellent. But, thank God, I have sort of a pan-European accent rather than Russian, which doesn’t sound very pleasantly to Americans. For them, we speak with a rather rude pitch, and that might be our actors’ problem there. Now I’ve begun working with language coaches in Los Angeles to get rid of the accent completely.

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THR: Do you plan on continuing your career in America?

Snigir: If I have a feeling that something isn’t working out harmoniously in Los Angeles, I’ll leave. But so far everything has been fine. I’m renting an apartment in West Hollywood, and I haven’t had a free second since I came to America. I ran to meetings, auditions, and, in addition to that, I had to organize my life there by myself – I arrived there with only one suitcase. The whole thing with my moving there was interesting. I came to Los Angeles only after filming A Good Day to Die Hard, when I was cast in the independent movie Delirium. Director Lee Roy Kunz was looking everywhere for a Russian actress. He saw my photos, and only then he learned where I starred before! Eventually, I spent several months in the U.S. and we made the film quickly.

THR: In your opinion, is it difficult to make it in Hollywood?

Snigir: It’s very individual. I don’t have a feeling that it’s because I am so cool or something. My belief is that no one is better or worse. Everyone just has their own way. What is important is to work hard, and the more you work, the more you get. I didn’t believe in it for a long time. I felt that I was doing the wrong thing and that whatever I was doing didn’t work out. And suddenly, there was a breakthrough. Even before I was cast in Die Hard I got a lot of offers. And I realized that several years of self-improvement, all those shoots had begun to eventually pay off. It just took time.

THR: And today your career is the main priority?

Snigir: I don’t yet have a definitive answer to this question. But when you have to choose between people you’re close to and work, that’s terrible. And especially when you live between two countries. For me, the most difficult time of day is late evening, when everything is done, you’re home and want to share things with someone, but there is no one. At moments like that, you feel loneliness most acutely. But I quickly found things to do. I began doing yoga, pilates, I plan to take up boxing. And I wrote a script that I want to direct – I have the ambition to direct. And my agents look forward to see it. That’s what is amazing about Los Angeles – your most crazy ideas could come true there.