Thursday, March 12, 2015

Elya Baskin – Russian Actor, American Citizen, Movie Cosmonaut


Elya Baskin first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey in Russia, sitting in a cramped screening room in a private club for actors. The classic SF film was not in public release. As he watched, enthralled, the thought of someday leaving the Soviet Union and being part of the startling wonders unfolding on the screen would have seemed utterly absurd.

Today, his is a U.S. citizen. Today, he is Maxim Brailovsky, a Russian scientist aboard the Leonov in the sequel to 2001, 2010. Today, he has a lucrative Hollywood career in-the-making. Today, he is called a traitor in his homeland.

"I don't expect 2010 to be shown even in private screenings in Russia," Baskin says. "It has nothing to do with the content. Some of us were very well known ever there and have been declared traitors. Everybody who leaves Russia is a traitor. And once we are abroad, they write all these stories of how we suffer here. After all those lies, would they show all of us working in a big American film? Of course not."

Nearly a decade after coming to the United States, Baskin finally hit his career stride with a major role opposite Robin (Mork and Mindy) Williams in Moscow on the Hudson. Its box-office success paid his airfare on the Leonov. The Paul Mazursky film also earned Savely Kramarov, once the "Jerry Lewis" of Russia and a KGB agent in Moscow, a job in 2010.

For Baskin, meeting Keir Dullea – who portrays David Bowman in both 2001 and 2010 (STARLOG #88) – was an unsettling experience which rekindled memories of sitting in that dark room years ago in a different world.

"It was like meeting someone supernatural," he recalls. "Back in Russia, I would never have dreamed of meeting Keir Dullea. At that time, I didn't know I would ever come here and who would have thought it possible I would in a 2001? It would be like thinking I would meet a little green guy from Close Encounters, stepping out of a spaceship a few years from now."

Baskin didn't expect to be appearing in any type of dramatic motion picture.

"Getting the role in 2010 was a total surprise to me because I consider myself a comic actor," he explains. "In Russia, I was with the Moscow Comedic Theatre Company. I would never have dreamed that I would play a Russian cosmonaut unless it was a crazy comedy."

Maxim Brailovsky (Elya Baskin) pierces the eerie
darkness of the empty American starship, Discovery

"Now, all of a sudden, I get this film where it's a very dramatic and sensitive and wonderful part I play. I think that growing a beard helped me," he adds. "It might sound totally ridiculous, but it's changed my feeling about myself as a personality. All of a sudden, I thought I should try something different."

And 2010 certainly qualifies.

It's a sequel to a classic film and, as such, faces enormous expectations and critical drubbing. It is also MGM/UA's prize release during this Christmas/wintertime screening season, a big-budget adventure entrusted to veteran director/writer Peter Hyams and a powerhouse cast headed by proven talents Roy Scheider and John Lithgow.

2010, now in release, is a good movie. Baskin knows that, but he doubts it will ultimately measure up to the original in scope and impact. "That's because it's a completely different picture," he says. "People are very used to seeing special effects now and it's very difficult to surprise someone after Star Wars."

"The bigger difference, though, is that this film has a very clear humanistic message while Stanley Kubrick's 2001 was abstract and philosophical. So, will 2010 have an impact? I wish it would."

Screen Scenes

The cross-cultural conflicts between Russia and America depicted in the film and the tensions arising from them are familiar concerns for Baskin.

"It's a serious subject they deal with in 2010," he says. "It deals with Americans and Russians like cliche enemies and then, all of a sudden, they discover they are not enemies at all but just one bunch of people who have to survive together. I think that's a very important message and I hope it comes across and that people will be affected."

Impact or not, Baskin is certain that 2010 will be regarded as a major work, mostly because everyone else thinks so.

"Everyone, starting with Peter Hyams, was so confident that they were doing something very important, even the costume and prop people," he says. "That's very impressive. I worked on other films and they were routine work. 2010 wasn't. You could feel it, walking through the set, that this film was something with extra meaning for everyone. It gave me confidence and made me feel privileged."

Although Baskin, as Max Brailovsky, has an integral role in 2010, he had little contact with anyone except John Lithgow (STARLOG #75).

"Working with John was fantastic," Baskin says. "Our characters become very close friends in the film and I don't know how much that helped us to become close friends in real life, but we did. It became a very touching and very nice experience to work with him."

Together, they had to endure the rigors of shooting several space-walk sequences as their characters leave the Russian spacecraft Leonov to board the abandoned American vehicle, Discovery, and bring it back to life.

"We had so many technical difficulties together because of the costumes," he says. "We spent hours and hours in them and they got heavier and more uncomfortable. So, John invented a wonderful way to relax. We couldn't sit in these costumes, so we were laid down by the wardrobe people on the floor like wood. That was the only way we could rest because of the harnesses and stuff. We had fun. I was pleased, and very happy that I met John Lithgow in this movie."

He met and worked with the rest of the cast as well, but only briefly.

"I've always admired Roy Scheider as a craftsman. Just watching him work was like looking at a master," Baskin observes. "He is a fantastic professional, he knows exactly what he wants. He is very equipped. I learned from him. I didn't have too many scenes with him and privately we spent very little time together. When you work around somebody that good, it gives you a lot of confidence and inspiration."

He had no scenes with Bob Balaban (STARLOG #89), but he watched him work.

"I saw him do a difficult scene with HAL, and I was standing there open-mouthed," Baskin says. "He sucked me in right away. He's a very good performer. He's also one of the nicest, softest men in the industry. Very gentle, very much a family man. He's someone you always want to be around because he gives you a warm feeling."

Director Peter Hyams (STARLOG #85) is another type of individual.

"Peter is a closed book, you know? I was surprised how a man who handles such a difficult, complicated process with so many things that can go wrong, things that would make me explode so many times and scream and drive everyone crazy, can remain so cool and professional," Baskin says. "He was getting what he wanted much faster than he would have by blowing up. So, I think he is a fantastic organizer."
"I get a very clear picture of what he wanted from me. He was flexible if I wanted to try something different, it wasn't 'no, no, no, don't do that.' And that's a very big plus for a director - that he look for cooperation from an actor."

Moscow Memories

Making movies, as a process, isn't much different in the Soviet Union than it is in the United States. But there is a matter of attitude.

"In Russia, movie making is a business where you know you can't get fired, so you don't care that much about doing a good job. The whole process of filming is much slower in Russia. People really don't care," Baskin says. "OK, we can do it later, let's smoke a cigarette, they say. Here, too, you wait a lot and sit around, but it's different. Being an actor, you're mostly waiting. Eighty percent of the time, you spend hanging around to do your bit, but in Russia, that waiting time triples."

Big-budget films aren't uncommon in the Soviet Union. But, according to Baskin, attention to detail is.

"In Russia, money is not limited. If a film requires a high budget, the government gives it. So, seeing a big set or whatever is not such a big surprise. To see such a masterfully crafted set as on 2010, that was a surprise," the actor says. "I was shocked when I saw the work [set designer] Albert Brenner and [visual scenarist] Syd Mead had done. During the whole filming, I wandered around touching things. I was fascinated. Working with such fine craftsmen and good actors helps you do your best."

Which is what Baskin wasn't doing in Russia.

"I didn't feel I belonged there," he says. "So, I had to decide where to go. Israel or U.S.? Israel looked like it would be an easier place of an actor, but Hollywood presented the biggest challenge. Besides, it was Hollywood, you know? I left Russia the first chance I could get."

Max returns to the Russian spacecraft, Leonov.
Note the hand-held EVA thruster attached to his belt.

That was in 1976, during an era of detente between the two superpowers. "Any totalitarian country, if they are smart, will use Jews as chips for trade," Baskin comments. "At that time, a time of detente, the U.S. said, 'You let Jews out and you'll get some grain.' So, they had no choice, the let some Jews out. I was one of them. I'm single, my parents were already here – as was most of my close family."

"I was 26 when I left. I was known, but not a star. The major problem I had was language. All I knew were a few English phrases to get me through a supermarket. Acquiring English depends on what and why you need it. I needed it to survive, to work professionally. And, for me, it was my only tool. At first, I tried to lose my accent, it didn't work, so I tried to make it less obvious so I could get more parts in America."

He joined his family in Phoenix, Arizona and set out to acclimate himself to his new country and freedom.

"The best part was working as a busboy," he says. "Really! It was very prestigious to be an actor in Russia and then to come here, all of a sudden, and be like every other immigrant working and cleaning tables. Believe me, I had so much satisfaction doing that. I'm serious. It was getting in touch with the real life, how it is to have people scream at you. It's kind of a masochistic pleasure. But, I liked it."

"Look, I knew in a couple of years, I wouldn't be a busboy, but being treated like one was interesting. It's very hard to explain. I was tired like I never was in my life, getting home and falling right to sleep. I did that for four months; probably, if I had done it much longer, I would have not enjoyed it. But this was a new country and I was meeting people. I really liked it. I swear, everyday I looked forward to it. I loved getting tips."

His family became something of a local curiosity and they were befriended by the townspeople.

"There were only a few families in Phoenix from Russia so we were like, ah, attractions. People would drive by and point, there, there are the Russians," he remembers. "During the mornings, I was working as a busboy, and in the evenings I was eating dinner with all the elite of Phoenix, doctors, lawyers and such. That was why it wasn't so bad being a busboy."

And he made connections.

"I met some very, very nice people," Baskin notes. "Paul Maslansky, a producer, introduced me to Mike Fenton, a casting director who was doing Gene Wilder's World's Greatest Lover. I got a small part, a small scene that got me a nice mention in Variety [the show business trade journal]. Then, I did small parts in films that didn't do good."

Heywood Floyd (Roy Scheider) pointedly instructs Walter Curnow (John Lithgow)
to be careful, as Curnow and Max (right) prepare to cross to the Discovery.

Acting wasn't going to keep him alive, however. He could see that.

"I wasn't making a living - only in the last two years, have I been able to make a living as an actor," he says. "So, I worked for the garment industry, then one year was quite good for me as an actor, but then there was the strike. I got very nervous and started a Russian newspaper and it was successful. I am still involved in it."

Hollywood Horrors

Elya Baskin's biggest disappointment was seeing Hollywood for the first time. The reality of Tinseltown was a bit different from the Russian actor's expectations.

"It really wasn't the way I pictured it, you know, as the most glamorous place of land on Earth," he comments. "To give you an idea what I thought of it, I pictured Hollywood as looking like Newport Beach. And then I go to the heart of Hollywood and it's dirty, with lots of prostitutes and strange people walking around. I rented my first apartment near Hollywood Boulevard and I heard sirens all the time and someone was shot right in front of my eyes."

"So, to me, that was Los Angeles at first. On the other hand, you learn that Hollywood isn't Hollywood Boulevard and that there are so many Rolls Royces and Mercedes that they are like Toyotas here. The more I live here, the more I like it. I miss Europe sometimes. This is home now, though. For some reason, I miss the city life here. It's a city and yet it's not a city here."

He's keeping a careful eye on the movie industry. And like others, he isn't thrilled with the trends he sees developing.

"I'm disturbed by this trend towards doing films just for teenagers. Some of it is important for the box office, but it doesn't give anything for the kids but entertainment," he says. "I was learning when I went to the cinema. I am the man I am today because of the many films I saw. Now, the only concern is box office. When I look at the films-in-production chart in Variety, I get scared because there are few adult films."

"Many movies could be like 2010 and do something both for kids and adults, but it's much easier to do Flashdance II or Friday the 13th, Part 13," he laments.

Since the success of Moscow on the Hudson, things have picked up steadily for this Russian actor in America. He can afford to be a little selective.

"I am trying to stay away from the cliche parts, though I will take a few if I feel I can change them and turn them into something with a personality and character," Elya Baskin says. "I speak with the producer and director and see if they don't want the typical thing. It's very important to me to get parts like 2010 where I can say something as an artist. Otherwise, I will be an illustration, like a character in a comic book."

(Originally published in Starlog Magazine.  Copyright © 1984 Starlog Magazine)

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