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Meeting Greek acting heart throb Alexis Georgoulis
Alexis Georgoulis is late for our meeting, so I get to chatting with a young woman in the offices of Xmas Group, the company that’s bringing him over for a stage production of Strindberg’s Miss Julie (actually the Patrick Marber adaptation; just a few performances left, in Limassol on August 2 and 3). The young woman leads me to a conference room where the interview’s due to take place, switches on the air-conditioning and asks if I’d like a glass of water. Then she giggles, and a faraway look seems to drift into her eyes. “So Alexis is coming,” she muses, then pats her hair in the universal gesture of flustered women everywhere: “Better go fix myself up a bit!”
She’s joking – or is she? In the week leading up to our interview, women of all ages and descriptions have reacted in precisely the same way when they heard who I was meeting: a sharp intake of breath and a girlish ‘oooh!’ Maybe they didn’t literally pat their hair like the girl at Xmas Group, but I’m pretty sure they did so metaphorically. Alexis Georgoulis is a sex symbol, though of course it would take a whole book to explain why exactly.
Maybe it’s the eyes, which are brown and manage the rare knack of being both playful and penetrating. Maybe it’s the way he carries himself. He bounces in, banters casually with the chatty young woman and meets me at the door of the conference room: “Alexis Georgoulis, how do you do?” he says in a mainland-Greek sing-song, simultaneously smiling, cocking his head and giving a modest, almost fey little wave. The wave reinforces his position as a TV and movie star – it implies: ‘Alexis Georgoulis, as if you didn’t know!’ – but it’s also charming, as if to say ‘Isn’t it silly that we have to introduce ourselves like this?’. He’s a man who’s aware of his image, and determined to wear it lightly.
That image (I now realise) got in the way for me. I’m not sure what exactly I expected – all I’ve really seen him in is the mediocre Nia Vardalos comedy My Life in Ruins, where he played a hunky Greek called ‘Poupi Kakas’ – but certainly not someone so loquacious and articulate, especially about what it means to be an actor. With hindsight, I did a terrible job. I should’ve asked more personal questions, even gossipy questions – what famous people is he friends with? Where does he like to go on holiday? Most importantly, does he have a girlfriend? – but I thought I’d show my journalistic bona-fides with a few serious questions about acting (not expecting him to say very much), and we never looked back. Alexis loves to talk about his craft. Indeed, he loves to talk, tending to answer a question as soon as he’s got the gist – before it’s even finished – and supplying long, inventive answers.
His speciality is the quirky analogy. The relationship of an actor and his audience is like that of a priest and his congregation, he explains: in both cases something abstract and intangible (whether God or a writer’s conception) is given flesh and blood by a devoted go-between. An actor must be like a boat on a river, he says later, drifting where the river takes him. TV is like a road sign, he claims, the kind of road sign that sets an absurdly low speed-limit. ‘Why should I slow down to 40mph to negotiate this bend in the road?’ you may wonder (he acts out someone wondering this), but in fact the speed-limit must be such that the bend can be negotiated safely by the world’s worst driver, at night, in a snowstorm. (He could just as easily have said that TV panders to the lowest common denominator, but this way is more entertaining.) Then there’s the analogy that explains the recession in Greece in terms of someone throwing their phone against the wall, but I don’t think I got that one.
No surprise that Alexis is imaginative and articulate, of course. In the first place he’s a writer as well as an actor, and has scripted an entire TV series (Kinoumeni Ammos) in collaboration with Sonia Milioni. In the second place, though he made his name on TV – initially with the hit comedy Eisai to Tairi Mou in 2001 – Miss Julie is by no means his first foray into serious theatre, previous roles having included Jimmy Porter (the archetypal Angry Young Man) in Look Back in Anger. His own take on the heartthrob image is philosophical: “When I started out, the media – whether because of a gap in the market, I don’t know – made out that I look like a sex symbol. So OK, lead with that. Sex symbol, sex symbol, vote for the greatest sex symbol of all time, stuff like that. It appears that’s what people want to read – but in fact it’s what the media like to feed them. When you actually look at people – well, there’s that, but there’s also another side where they don’t see me as a sex symbol, or a handsome guy or jeune premier or whatever. There are people who realise there’s more to it, that I do something more behind that surface layer.”
But don’t his fans mostly care about the surface layer?
“I don’t think the 15-year-old fans see the same thing as the 55-year-old fans,” he demurs, then smiles wryly: “In theory, the fans see what they want to see. In reality, they see what the media want them to see.”
Either way, he himself seems irrelevant to the equation.
“I’m somewhere in the middle,” he admits. “And that’s why I say that as long as there’s no ego, everything works fine. Once you start to have an ego, that’s when you start to lose touch with reality.”
The question of ego is a delicate one. I've always thought that an actor needs a well-developed ego – if only to have enough self-confidence to go on stage every night and believe that people will like him – but Alexis shakes his head firmly: “It’s exactly the opposite! The greatest actors have the smallest ego. Because when you have a big ego, you don’t allow things to happen to you”. He himself has always tried to curb his ego, he adds, “because I know that it’s always growing, so the more you fight it the more balance you’ll find”. It sounds like typical actor-babble – but he tells a remarkable story that suggests he may indeed worry about these matters, and suggests something stubborn and steely behind the pleasant demeanour.
When Alexis was around nine years old, in the fourth form at primary school – this was in Larissa, where he was born in October 1974 to a schoolteacher and a kiosk-owner, the third of four children – there was a fight in class one day. Just a typical childish fight – but everyone blamed Alexis, even though he wasn’t to blame. As punishment, the teacher ruled that no-one should speak to him for the entire day. Bristling with injustice, the boy turned to the other kids and made a promise: if you don’t speak to me today, he vowed, I’ll never speak to any one of you again – “and I didn’t. Right up to the sixth form, I never spoke to any of those kids again”.
Seriously? He didn’t speak for two years?
“Two and a half years. Because I had such a big ego, I couldn’t take it back. I was waiting for them to apologise.”
Well… didn’t a teacher intervene in all that time?
The teachers didn’t know, he explains. He talked normally in class – he just wouldn’t talk to anyone at break-time. Basically, “I stopped having friends at school for two and a half years”. His family didn’t know either. He didn’t tell anyone till many years later – just held it in and refused to back down, ruled by stubborn pride.
(At this point Fivos Liasidis, the producer of Miss Julie, pokes his head in the door of the conference room. Almost time to leave, he warns; they have to be somewhere at three o’clock. “Wait a bit,” calls Alexis charmingly. “Give us some more time. It’s going really well!” I feel flattered – I’ve bonded with a movie star! – then I recall he’s been doing 95 per cent of the talking.)
Mention of his childhood brings us to his father, and the awful time in 2008 when Georgoulis Sr was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Alexis was in the US, having just begun a four-month Scriptwriting course at NYU when he found out his dad had only three months to live. His whole body erupted in rashes, he recalls; it does that in times of stress (there’s a small red rash on his arm now, though he says it could just be the heat). Needless to say, he left New York prematurely – though America has loomed ever larger in his thoughts, especially after making My Life in Ruins. That role gave him a foothold in the States, though he wasn’t even planning to try out for it; the producer (a woman) saw his photo in a Greek magazine, then the director played his audition tape while other producers (all of them women, including Nia Vardalos and Tom Hanks’ wife Rita Wilson) were having lunch – and knew he was right for the role when they all stopped having lunch to look at him. It’s that heartthrob image again.
For the past year he’s alternated between Greece and LA, trying to get projects off the ground. “It’s an exploration,” he says wryly. “I’ve adapted to the LA lifestyle, which is, you get home at 10pm – and that’s already late – go to bed at 11.30-12, wake up at 5.30-6. And of course, being Greek, I take a little siesta in the afternoon too!” The other kind of culture shock is harder to get used to, “starting from zero” after being such a celebrity in Greece. You can see it on YouTube, in a joint interview he did with Vardalos for a US website; clearly, the interviewer cares about Vardalos (an Oscar nominee, a personal friend of Tom Hanks), hardly at all for this fuzzy foreigner. “So you discovered this guy in Greece?” he asks. “Yes, she found me in a kiosk,” jokes Alexis – but it must’ve hurt his ego, that poor battered ego, though his stubborn prideful side would never admit it.
He shrugs when I mention it, sitting in the air-conditioned conference room, and quotes Cavafy: “As you set out for Ithaki / Hope that the voyage is a long one”. He’s right, of course: for an actor, it’s all experience – a door he can open, as he puts it, something to invoke in his mind when a role calls for it. Acting is about transmutation, says Alexis Georgoulis: feelings come as physical sensations – a rash, a dizziness, a heart beating fast, an endorphin rush – but the actor transmutes them into words, using the “doors” of experience to perform the alchemy. “The actor’s job,” he asserts, “whether on stage or in front of the camera, is to be totally open to any experience. To be vulnerable, to be like a little child. To have no idea how to protect himself.”
Life is different, of course – and Alexis can talk about that too; he’ll talk all day if you let him – you have to protect yourself or you’d go nuts, but acting is special. Acting is a calling, a vocation; that priest analogy is significant. He doesn’t prepare before he goes on stage, he insists: no Method acting, no technical exercises. “I just open myself up,” says Alexis, “and plunge, shall we say, naked into the deep waters, and wait for things to be created in the moment”. That’s right girls, he said ‘naked’.