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Interview

Serbian-Born Actor Jelena Stupljanin Finds Theater Home in New York

Serbian-Born Actor Jelena Stupljanin Finds Theater Home in New York
Jelena Stupljanin (pronounced Elena Stup-Yanin) is in a good humor. The award-winning Serbian-born actor, who has lived in New York City for the last six years and is a happy member of the Rising Phoenix Repertory since 2010, has a leading role in the award-winning film "Cirkus Columbia." Directed by Bosnian Oscar winner Danis Tanovic ("No Man's Land," 2001) and slated for release Feb. 17 and March 9 in N.Y. and L.A. respectively, the movie earned Stupljanin the best actress award from the Alexandria Film Festival. At the time of the interview, she was about to leave for the Berlin Film Festival to pick up the award, which she wasn't able to receive earlier "because of the Arab Spring revolution that was preventing us from being in Egypt," she recalls in excellent English, but with a marked accent.

Set in 1991, following the fall of the Communist regime in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the film tells the story of Divko (Miki Manojlovi?) who returns to his former home after a 20-year exile in Germany. He has grown successful and brings with him lots of cash, a flashy car, and a much younger mistress (Stupljanin). It is a brutal homecoming as they encounter his estranged wife and son. Confrontations erupt as new conflicts emerge and festering old wounds surface. These private torments mirror the unraveling society at large as the Bosnian War grows imminent. The film is in Bosnian with English subtitles.

Stupljanin explains that Serbian, her native language, is basically the same as Bosnian, though there are differences in dialect, accent, and idiosyncratic expressions. Somewhat more challenging than language was getting an emotional handle on the pre-war world of the film. "I was eleven when the war started," she says. "Yugoslavia does not have nostalgia for me. The '90s were horrible. Crazy things were happening that I never want to be part of. Hanging out with these actors of that generation made me feel nostalgic for that earlier period."

The young actor has come a long way since she graduated from the Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Belgrade. Interestingly, in that region of the world, you cannot be employed as an actor unless you attend the State Theater School and gaining admission is fiercely competitive she says. Graduating from the school is equally rigorous; the drop-out and push-out rate is very high. After graduating, the goal for most students is to be accepted into one of the established theaters, which may take a number of years.

 "You don't have to be brilliant, but once you are accepted, the chances are you will be employed for the rest of your life," Stupljanin notes. "Actors are taken seriously and theaters are publically supported. Ten actors were in my graduating class. Four were accepted into major theater companies, three free-lanced with several theaters, and the remaining three left the profession." Capitalism has made its presence felt. Today, some theaters are co-funded by government and private sources and a handful of smaller, more experimental theaters are privately controlled as is the film industry.

Stupljanin became a permanent member of one of the leading Serbian companies, Atelje 212, here she participated in a wide range of productions—from Shakespeare to Beckett to Neil Labute to works by several modern Eastern European authors. Plays are often selected or dramatized to heighten politically resonant themes. "Politics plays a much larger component in theater there than it does here," she comments. "Our experience with the war and our shaky economy are all entangled with our daily lives."

Despite a successful career in Belgrade's TV, film, and theater scene, Stupljanin wanted to study at the Strasberg Theater and Film Institute in New York. With the financial support of Serbian Princess Elizabeth Karageorgevic, who was familiar with her work, Stupljanin got a shot at it and she's been having a grand time ever since.

Unlike some European actors who find alien the grand ambitions and career strategizing typical of American performers, Stupljanin believes those differences emerge from individual temperaments as opposed to regional psychologies. Admittedly, she has found actors very much on her wave length with the Rising Phoenix Repertory, an organization she likens to the kind of theater companies she was part of in Belgrade. "It's my theater family in New York. It's an amazing group of collaborating artists that you know will create something that works."

For Stupljanin having a theater to call home is an artistic pinnacle for now and in the future.

Outtakes

Appeared with Boomerang Theatre Company, Ensemble Studio Theatre (EST), and The Barrow Group among others

Won Best Actress at the United Solo Festival in 2010 for "Woman Bomb"

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