'White Crow' Star Oleg Ivenko Talks Taking Ballet Legend Rudolf Nureyev From Stage to Screen

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

From a special connection with director Ralph Fiennes, dancing for the camera and sharing Nureyev's legacy, the star discusses his first experience with acting.

Training as a professional dancer in Ukraine, actor Oleg Ivenko says he admired the ballet icons of the late 20th century. Now the leading man of Ralph Fiennes’ The White Crow, the first-time actor fills the dancing shoes of classical ballet great Rudolf Nureyev.

Set in Paris at the height of the Cold War, The White Crow documents the days leading up to Nureyev’s dramatic defection from the Soviet Union for the West. The Sony Pictures Classics drama, set to hit North American theaters April 26, also features the talent of Fiennes both on- and offscreen, Louis Hofmann and Adèle Exarchopoulos. Ivenko spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about his first acting credit, working with Fiennes and the long-lasting legacy of Nureyev.

Before shooting for the film, which had its premiere at the 2018 London Film Festival, Ivenko had taken on a number of leading roles in classic ballets ranging from La Bayadere, Don Quixote to The Nutcracker. But his portrayal of Nureyev in The White Crow was his first onscreen role.

“When I found out that I got the role, I couldn’t believe it,” he told THR through a translator.

The accomplished danseur-turned-actor said he got involved with Fiennes’ film after a casting agent had reached out to him. A few video submissions and an official meeting with the director later, Ivenko landed the leading role. The world of acting introduced a way of performing that differed significantly from his previous experiences, Ivenko said.

“When you’re performing on stage during a ballet, you only have one chance to perform well. In film, you can do many takes, but you still need to make sure you’re doing everything right,” he said.

To properly embody the ballet legend, Ivenko told THR that he examined videos and “lots of photos” of Nureyev from his time dancing throughout Europe. The research informed how the dancer performed for the camera and how he truly depicted Nureyev’s technical skill. But in addition to the star’s physicality, Ivenko also had to tackle other characteristics, including Nureyev's Russian accent and his standoffish personality. 

“I’m not like him (in person), but I basically had to become an asshole to play this role,” he said. “That’s very important. If I’m not able to turn into Nureyev and become like him, the film wouldn’t be made.”

Accurately playing the Soviet defector, however, wasn’t a lone effort, Ivenko said. Fiennes, who plays renowned Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet instructor Alexander Pushkin, guided the acting novice in his first acting venture. While on set, Ivenko said he and the Schindler’s List star created a special relationship. 

“[Fiennes] was learning Russian while I was learning English and because of that we clicked. He taught me how to uncover completely different emotions and how to play them and how not to overact and how not to underact,” he said. 

The star power on set pushed him to play the ballet legend as accurately as possible and “not let them down,” he said. But Ivenko’s responsibility to perform Nureyev truly, he said, extends itself beyond just working with notable actors and making for a moving narrative. Given Nureyev’s legacy in the dance world, Ivenko felt the need to do right by the legend he looked up to. “I didn’t want to let him down,” the actor said. 

Ivenko said he wanted to nail down how Nureyev prioritized performing spirit and freedom over technical cleanliness. This emphasis on the emotional aspects of dance, he said, is what set Nureyev apart from other ballet giants. By taking on Nureyev and his fight for freedom, Ivenko said he hopes The White Crow viewers can take something away from the drama.

“This film shows the people that one has to fight to dance, to never give up on what you want,” he said. "One has to listen to one’s own voice and not other people’s voices.”