Svetlana Bojovic: the diva of Serbian theatre
In our country there is no person alive who doesn't know the name Svetlana Bojkovic. Her old roles are fondly remembered and happily watched again while new ones are eagerly anticipated. Even though she won countless awards, this diva of the Serbian theatre and television scene continues to shine on, dedicated to acting and greeting all new challenges with a smile.
Your official biography says you are from Zemun.
I'm actually from Vracar. But in what way am I from Zemun? Just by being born there. I actually saw Zemun for the first time when I turned 18.
What happened was my mother saw the famous gynecologist Dr. Kusovac who worked in Zemun. He was the one in charge of her pregnancy and she wanted to give birth at his clinic. That's why my documents state that I am from Zemun while I have no actual connection to it other than I was physically born there and of course I like it and consider it a beautiful place.
Later, while I worked at the National Theatre, I frequently visited Zemun because Madlenianum belonged to the National Theatre and we often performed there.
So, you grew up in the heart of Belgrade.
What's considered the heart today. My growing up took place there, at 59 Njegoseva street - I remember because I've lived for that long. But let's be clear - I haven't had enough.
I went to junior school Sveti Sava, then I attended the 14th Belgrade 'gimnazija' high school near Kalenic marketplace. On the other hand, I also attended the music high school Josip Slavenski which was located in Cvetni square - where today stands the Music academy. This was my big and little "Belgrade circle" where everything in my private and professional life took place.
When I was in school, we had real winters - with tons of snow.
I remember there were days when snowfall was so great that school would be out. People would regularly clean up snow in front of their houses and gather it into massive domes that were taller than us kids.
Just like all children, we also enjoyed snow. In Molerova street which was paved with Turkish cobblestone, we would go sledding every day. All the way from Krunska to Njegoseva street and back until it got dark. There was no need for any nets or security because there wasn't any traffic. The first cars started appearing after I turned 12 years old. In Spring, we'd go around the same route on rollerblades and bicycles.
So, you had a peaceful neighborhood?
We lived on the first floor in a three-story house constructed by the famous architect Belobrk. It still stands today. Across the way we had tiny houses with beautiful fenced gardens. We mostly had elderly people living there. I remember that at one point those lovely houses were torn down and the area was emptied with the intention of erecting buildings there. This happened much later, after the people who'd been living there had moved away or passed. In the meantime, boys would play soccer in that clearing and the first crushes happened there as well.
So that was where little Ceca found her first love?
Yes, yes. :) There was this boy called Lole and I had the biggest crush on him. He played goalkeeper and I'd watch him play from my window. He'd show his love for me by throwing snowballs at me in the winter, straight to the head.
It was an innocent time above anything else. We were all so happy. All of us were sort of poor, but there wasn't much to buy even if we had money so who would crave something they couldn't even get if they had money. It was like that in the entire country.
And people knew how to take delight in everything.
The biggest joy for a family was purchasing their first home appliances. For example, when we got a refrigerator I was astounded. It cools and when you open it - it lights up! And you can also make ice-cream, which was my and all of my friends' biggest dream. Then we got a vacuum, then a telephone. I still remember our first phone number - 45069. I was so happy that I called all my friends who also had phones and asked them to call me back so I could hear it ring.
Those were big joyful moments in our lives. Later came the television which we'd watch as a group at our neighbor's or friends' houses - especially during the San Remo festival, sports games, the first TV shows by Lola Djukic, the service station, the Good Citizen...we as kids would sit on the floor and our parents on the chairs. We'd watch and enjoy ourselves.
I don't know if any piece of jewelry or a fur coat today could delight me as much as I was happy when we got those appliances for our home the first time - even if my mother was the one who used them. Those were true revelations that lasted until my teenage years when the country finally opened up a little to the world and started importing goods.
At that time all those things were kind of new and never seen before in our country.
We were all looking forward to this bright future we thought was coming. This was a time when the entire Belgrade looked forward to new things, to every cinema opening such as Odeon, to the skating rink on Tasmajdan and the theatre Dadov that birthed many actors.
I remember when I started dating my first husband Zutic I was 18 years old. He'd stop a cab in the street and I would be so surprised. I thought that you only got a taxi from your home to the railways station and that is only if you have a lot of things with you. If not, then you just took the tramway. That's how I discovered the taxi service which I still relentlessly use today because I don't drive.
Dadov was also your home but you didn't get there without any trouble. You grew up in a patriarchal family. Your father was military and you didn't have any support for your acting tendencies. How did you manage?
My parents didn't agree with my choice but they couldn't say anything against it either. I made sure to fulfill all their rules and standards and I was one of the first six 'Vukovac' students in Belgrade.
Later children and their parents began to actively try and suffer in order to get that status and have the best grades. For us, it just kind of happened.
All in all, I was a very good kid. Until I started acting. I mean, I was still good but for them it was a tragedy. What's more, the fact that I was such a good student made my parent's grief even worse that I was going into acting which they didn't consider a serious profession. That's despite the fact they were theatre-going people themselves. It was outside of their line of thinking. It wasn't any kind of severe ban or anything, but my parents did suffer because of my choice.
Still, you had the strength to fight for what you wanted. What was that journey like?
I wanted to be an actress since I was very young. At first it was written off as a child's fantasy by my parents, but it was one that never went away.
For example, going to the theatre was strictly regulated for me. I could only watch puppet plays up to a certain age. After that, my father started taking me to the Bosko Buha theatre. When I turned 14 I started seeing plays in the Yugoslavian drama and National theatre.
I remember I was 14 years old when we saw Mira Stupica in the National theatre, in Madame San Zen. It was an afternoon play, so popular that there were hawkers re-selling the tickets. Interestingly, after some years I also played that same role in that same theatre.
My first contact with serious drama literature came from listening radio dramas on Thursday evenings. On Sundays there were the children's radio games and that was the only day I could relax in bed in the morning because there was no school. Mom would bring me breakfast in bed and I'd listen to the radio.
That's how one week when I was 13 years old and a radio drama called "Big Mon" had just finished, they announced that next week there would be an audition for a children's drama radio group.
I was sold immediately and went with my friends, without telling my parents.
And of course, you were accepted.
I was. And then I had to explain to my parents where I went twice a week. My parents said this would cut into my studies and piano exercises but I told them not to worry and that I'll be able to manage it all.
I went there for two months and we were just about to perform for some TV drama, when I got sick. I went down with the flu and asked my mother to go and tell them why I couldn't attend. Instead, she unlisted me from the group. I cried so much.
I had a need for acting. Nothing else fulfilled me as much. Already as a little girl, I had a tendency to mimic others. I'd perform around the house or when we had guests. On the radio I'd listen to Nela Erzisnik who would comentate on games. She had an incredibly characteristic voice. I imitated her perfectly and people couldn't believe it.
I had always craved company and excitement and I grew up with an older crowd. In our apartment we lived with the lady who owned it and whom I called 'auntie'. When she would have guests, I'd always try to make them stay longer with my performances. Already as a little kid I yearned for events and lively environments. This stayed the case to this day.
At the age of 16 you joined Dadovo and from then on things begin to accelerate.
What's interesting is that I started off as a director for a recital in which Predrag Ejdus, Goran Sultanovic and Zorica Sumadinac all had roles and all of them went on to become professional actors. We even won the award.
The atmosphere in Dadovo was amazing. At that time there weren't any cafes or places to hang out like we have today, so Dadov was 'In'. We would go into it with immense respect. We had respect for authority, but in return the professors and actors had an authority worth the respect.
I was entertained and fulfilled by acting. The first time I went travelling was with the people from Dadovo. We went to Monaco. It was 1965 when under the patronage of Grace Kelly, the worldwide festival of amateur theatre was taking place. This festival took place every five years. We played in the Monte Carlo opera where the ground floor had that famous gambling hall. It was incredible to us at the time, complete madness. I was seventeen years old.
The round table was headed by Jean Villard, the great French actor. We took pictures with him and got his autograph. It was a total dream come true.
Then, we went to the festival of amateur theatre that took place in the summer in Erlangen, then in Hvar.
Some big names participated in these events. With us, for example, it was Hugo Klein, the famous director, who led the round tables. The state who was behind the organization approached it very seriously.
You got into the Academy first try and very quickly became a professional.
Yes. From a care-free period of my life I suddenly entered something new. During our first year we weren't allowed to work anywhere. The professors make you think during that time. However, I wanted to rely more on my intuition. That's why that first year at the Academy was the hardest for me. But already in the second year our professor, the late Minja Dedic, took me, Pera Boskovic, Branko Kockica and Ljiljana Lasic into his division of "Djida". Those were our first professional roles. In the theatre he didn't grill us the way he did in the lessons. He didn't have time to do that. The production process of the play is usually on a fast-track, it's not a workshop.
Later, while I was still a student, I got into the Yugoslavian Drama Theatre and worked a lot. Bojan Stupica brought us in. We were famously known as Bojan's babies.
The Yugoslavian Drama Theatre had the most powerful ensemble. There were Ljiljana Krstic, Rahela Ferrari, Milivoje Zivanovic, Branko Plesa, Ljuba Tadic, Viktor Starcic, Karlo Bulic...we all matured alongside those big names. When I first entered the Yugoslavian Drama Theatre, it was like stepping among the gods of Olympus.
You've also worked on television…
I worked for television from the very beginning, but I never let my theatre work suffer for it. We didn't get engaged for commercials. There were no TV shows either. We did have TV dramas. Every Monday, the drama direction which was very strong would make a new TV drama, representing not only our own but many writers from around the world. Some works were already written as dramas but many were adapted.
There was some serious casting behind the scenes, costumes were made, decorations were designed, music composed - everyone was working together. The set designer, costume designer, composer. Back then we only had the small studio in the fairgrounds, there wasn't a Kosutnjak yet.
We also nurtured radio drama - they would roll on Thursday evenings.
Since the very start you've worked with big names. How important was that for you?
It meant a lot to me, but I can't quite put into words in which way. Those senior actors were wonderful towards us and regarded us as their own children. We were all around 20 years old. Bojan casted us in roles immediately. We didn't just run errands. What you know you know, regardless of your experience. His motto was "You can't swim? Here's a pool so you can learn". That was how he saw things.
I remember my first year at the theatre I had up to seven premieres and I was still a student. My voice had begun to crack from the strain. Bojan sent me to the famous Dr Cvejic to get inhalations, take Pronison...he even asked me to sing.
However, this was all due to my own insecurities and fears. I thought I'd go hoarse for life - my voice problems went on for a while.
At the same time, we'd have group rehearsals during the day and we'd watch the plays in the evening. The acting life entered us through every pore of our being. We lived acting and our senior colleagues helped us. We were all very dedicated.
During that period, which one of your senior colleagues impressed you the most and had the biggest influence on you?
I admired Rahela Ferari and Ljiljana Krstic. Ljiljana would, if you were sitting with her back stage, seem like a totally average lady. Like a schoolteacher. But when you see her up on stage, the roles she's played, you wouldn't be able to believe that a single person can be so expansive.
Rahela was special because of her sense of humor and her overall air of amazement. She was a very natural character.
I remember a funny moment. Stojan Decermic Cole was a wonderful person, good actor, a real gentleman with a great sense of humor. He came to the actor's salon one day. We were all obliged to come there around noon, whether we had rehearsal or not. Directors and the senior actors would be in one part and us kids in the other. Cole would pass through the salon and say "Good morning - as Goethe would say". I always found that so charming. You can still apply it today in so many ways.
For example, two years ago in Atelier 212 we started working on a piece. It was titled "It's so good to see you again", after the song with the same name. However, at the time they had started with the whole copyrighting practice with songs so the band Magazin asked us to compensate them for using the name. I said to them wait, what about that whole "Good morning, as Goethe would say?" thing? Surely they don't own the phrase itself - someone must've said 'It's so good to see you again' before they named their song after it? However we had to change the title and now it's called "My you".
At the very height of your career you became a mother. How did this affect you?
I think it contributed to my maturity. At the age of 25 I gave birth to my daughter and this enriched me, rounded me, fulfilled me and brought me satisfaction that I didn't have before. was able to go back to work soon after. I had help with the baby - two grandmas and grandpas, so I didn't have to worry and run around in a thousand directions. Everything stayed within our two families - Misa Zutic's and my own. I had full support.
I don't remember that period as something that required any kind of extra effort from me. It all went kind of smoothly and comfortably.
Your daughter Katarina also set off on the acting path. Did you influence her in that decision what so ever?
We offered her various options and waited to see what took. I did my best to raise Katarina differently than my parents raised me. For example, I was excluded from any sports because of my other obligations and the two schools I was attending.
I didn't want to trap my daughter like that. She was offered to play the piano. She studied it for four years and then she decided to stop. Unlike myself, she is still able to play a few things.
She trained in swimming, tennis and diving...
Honestly, I never thought about her career choices too hard. When she was around seventeen, she suddenly said she wanted to enlist in the Academy. I was very skeptical because up until then she had always claimed she wasn't interested in it. We didn't want to hold her back to guide her and we were relaxed in that sense.
After she expressed the desire to work in acting, I helped her get acquainted with drama literature, try out various things and see what's best for her.
I remember when she was about to show me what she had prepared. I was so nervous of what I'd see. Of course it was a beginner's performance, but when I gave her some criticisms and suggestions, I could see she was thinking about it and making changes. I saw that she could think about it and understand it in the right way.
For her entrance exam, I helped her prepare a comedy. She worked on her second piece with Zutic's second wife Ognjanka who is also an actress and she prepared the song on her own. When she was done, she lined up myself and Muci, my husband at the time, so we could hear what she prepared. And Muci just kept scratching his chin, he was so nervous. Still, she did good. When she got accepted, she came to me all confident and said 'Colleague'.
You got married three times and every marriage seemed to have marked a part of your life.
I always had the need to be with someone, that's just the way I've always been. There was almost never a time I was alone. I moved out of my parents' home at the age of 21 and went straight to another house where we lived with Misa Zutic's parents. We lived that way for 14 years and then got a different apartment, but that's when the divorce came. Right after the divorce I entered my second marriage with Ljubimir Draskic Muci.
Sadly, his untimely death came not long after and my life changed all of a sudden - I was alone.
Over the next few years I found respite in work. I worked a lot, spent a lot of time with friends, of whom I have many, but at the end of the day...for a while, I avoided going home until I got sleepy. Then I'd go home, sleep and in the morning it's a new day. Still, time does its thing so slowly I came to terms with being alone at home, watching television or reading a book.
And just when that happened, there came a new friendship and after that a new marriage to Slavko.
I can say I've been fortunate. My husbands have all been incredible people and I feel lucky for that.
Slavko Kruljevic is a diplomat, but he does have an artist's vibe. If he were any other way, we wouldn't have had such a good communication, which means a lot.
Your breakthrough into massive popularity came with the TV show "Bolji zivot" which is what a lot of your fans still remember you for. Did that influence your perception of profession and work?
It didn't change much because I was already set on my path. I had worked on TV before that. I was in the first Belgrade TV series "Cedomir Ilic" and after that in the famous "Where do the wild boars go". They were watched by the entire nation, but "Bolji zivot" was truly the big boom.
Back then I was around 37 years old and enjoyed working. We had a lovely crew and during the five years we worked together on that show, we never had a fight with one another. There had never been anything unpleasant or uncomfortable.
"Bolji zivot" is still replayed to this day and people often recognize me as Emilija Popadic. Not long ago I went to Rijeka and was a part of a judging committee during a theatre festival. People stopped me in the streets - young people at that - and would say 'We grew up watching you'. It's amazing to me that it persists until today.
What is interesting is that during all that time you also played in the theatre.
I never left theatre for a minute. My schedule was such that after the rehearsals we went to film until the evening when we would have a play. I acted in various large plays during that time and my theatre work never suffered because of television. That's how it went throughout my life.
For example, when I got called in for the movie "Neretva", it happened in 1971-1972. They had these grand illusions that Elizabeth Taylor would star in it which of course she never even entertained as a thought. The newspaper wrote that I would play the role of doctor Vera which eventually went to Milena Dravic.
They came to meet with me and I told them I can't, I'm scheduled to play Jelisaveta the princess of Montenegro in JDP. They couldn't believe someone said no to them.
That's why I didn't go back to movies up until Goran Paskaljevic. Those are closed circles but I don't like their technology of work on set. I work, but I don't like there to be a lot of waiting. It's not like in the theatre where we are all active all the time. The movies have some beautiful results of course, but theatre will always be my first love.
Out of the many roles you've had, which ones are your favorite?
It was a long time ago, but I loved Nusic's "Pucina" very much. It was a cult play in 1978. Also the role of Madame San Zen that I played at the National Theatre and Elisabeth of England in Schiller's Martha Stuart. And of course, Nusic's "Madame Minister". There are many others, naturally, but these have a special place in my heart.
You played the extremely demanding role of Zanka Stokic - the woman whom all knew very well. That alone made it a very difficult task.
It's always a problem and a great responsibility. I did my best to get out of playing that role, but Sava Mrmak explained that we weren't aiming for similarity, but just wanted to tell that story.
They let me listen to an audio recording of Zanka from the radio - "Seljanka u varosi". It was edited, but it was still a 'raw' recording of her voice. I listened and listened to that recording and completely nailed down her manner of speech and her energy.
Then Sava, in order for me to act out just that ending scene of Madame Minister, would bring in the entire Leskovac ensemble who always had that play on their repertoire. I acted out that scene and bowed to the audience with them.
What's interesting was that as I acted out that scene, I retained that furiosa in my Madame Minister which I continue to play in Banja Luka.
What would you highlight as your greatest acting challenge?
It is very difficult to act in a foreign language. It's a whole other story. For example, when we did "Konak" by Milos Crnjanski where I played queen Natalia, Aleksandar Obrenovic's mother - there were certain dialogue pieces in French. There is a whole scene where Natalija has a fight with Draga Masin and in her anger says a bunch of things to her in French. Now, I think in Serbian and I make my intonations in Serbian regardless of the fact that I am speaking French. Then they recorded a native French speaker and how they would say those words and to me it just sounds like mewling that doesn't bring across the emotions we are supposed to state, but apparently that's how French people speak.
So you think in your own language and you have a certain intonation which you carry over to the foreign language where it should be spoken in a whole different way. That's what makes it difficult.
Was there a role you've always wanted but never got?
The late Velimir Lukic who was the manager and writer at the National Theatre for a long time wanted to do his own dramatization of Ana Karenina. At the time I was at an age when I believe I would've nailed it very well. It's a womanly problem that I would've definitely, in my opinion, presented in the right way. But it never came to be. We were about to make it happen, but Luki and I then left the National Theatre and it never came to pass.
When can we see you on television again?
Sinisa Pavic wrote a very lovely new series that we are filming right now. It is called "The heroes of our time" and I got a very lovely role playing Marija. This is another story about a family. This time I have a daughter and I am fighting for her place in the world. It is a wonderful, humorous show. It's not finished yet but I believe our viewers will like it very much.
In theatre you are "madame Minister" but in real life you are Madame Ambassador. You've lived in Finland. What is it like to live in Helsinki?
It's a very clean and lovely city - and a very clean and lovely country for that matter. Everything is organized in such a way to make the citizens as comfortable as possible and it's continuously improved. The Finnish are extremely disciplined as a people which shows in their traffic culture which, in my opinion, shows the true nature of any society. It's impossible to run late due to traffic over there. You come to your play 20 minutes early because they know how long they need to leave their coats, change their shoes and take their seats and therefore the play always starts on time.
What was foreign to me was that after 9PM there is nobody out in the streets. It was that and the climate why I could never live there for long and I would return to our chaos here that I always missed. We don't have a sea, but as a people we're still Mediterranean compared to people from the north.
So you love Belgrade's bustle and chaos?
I love Belgrade and its spirit, even if it changed. I'd love to see a bit more diversity and imagination. Back when we lived much more modestly, we still valued aesthetics much more than we do today which is sad to see.
What is Ceca Bojkovic planning for the following period?
I don't make plans. We'll see how things shake out and what I'll like.