Interview: Director Harry Mavromichalis Discusses “Olympia” and Olympia Dukakis

It is no big deal being an actor but it takes a whole different level of acting to be a good one. Not just someone who can be recognized, say, from a certain age category but widely recognized around the world.

Vivien Leigh said once, “I’m not a film star, I am an actress. Being a film star is such a false life, lived for fake values and for publicity.” The same life most of us get fascinated by and want to be a part of but we do not realize how heart-wrenching it can be when you are exposed to the whole world, while the one we have inside, is getting burned down at the same time.

“Olympia” directed by Harry Mavromichalis, follows the movie icon Olympia Dukakis, in which she shares her most intimate, and sometimes heartbreaking reality of her life that has the potential to make you stumped.

This is why I am extremely proud of presenting an interview with the filmmaker Harry Mavromichalis, who spent seven years of his life filming the most impressive documentary of a person who will go down in history as one of the greatest.

MOVIEMOVESME: What was the reason behind having Olympia Dukakis as your documentary subject?

Harry Mavromichalis: Olympia was supposed to teach at New York University where I was studying for my masters in film directing. I desperately wanted to take her class but the day we were supposed to register for classes, my computer broke down and so I missed my opportunity. So I came up with the idea of inviting Olympia to Cyprus, to do the exact same class she did at NYU but with local actors and directors. The head of my department sent Olympia a message about my request and she accepted. A few months later I was sitting in class with Olympia  in Cyprus, excited about everything she had to say.

Olympia is a unique individual. She is an award-winning actress having worked with some of the best directors and actors in the industry, yet she is as humble as can be. She is extremely intelligent and is constantly asking herself questions about life, work, etc. She is constantly moving forward and is a master in creating work for herself. She is a fighter for justice. This is a huge word for her and she is actively participating in a lot of causes that she feels close to her heart. Whether is domestic violence, the LGBTQ community, diabetes or Alzheimer’s, she gives her heart and soul to these causes.  She treats everyone with respect, and if you ever had the chance to speak to her face to face, she has the ability to make you feel like you are the center of her universe at that specific moment. She is always fully present and a champion for young inspiring actors, writers and directors. I think the biggest draw for me to Olympia was her ability to remain vulnerable, both in work and in her personal life.

MOVIEMOVESME: Was it difficult to persuade her to be part of it?

Harry Mavromichalis: It was extremely difficult to convince her. Once I made up my mind that I wanted to pursue this, I called her and made appointment to see her.  When I got to her place I told her of my “great” idea, being sure that she would agree instantly. Her response was a categorical no! When I asked for an explanation, she told me that she didn’t think anyone would really care for a documentary about her.  For three months I kept calling her, trying to find reasons why she should do this. “This will be your legacy film”, “your family will have this forever”, “you will be in the spotlight once again” and the reasons kept coming but the rejection was constant.  At some point I understood that this was not going to happen, so I asked for another meeting.  This time, I allowed myself to be vulnerable. I looked her straight in the eyes and said: “Knowing you this past year has been incredible.  Making this documentary would ensure that I will spend more time with you. That’s all I want. I want to be able to spend more time with you”.  She looked at me and without missing a beat she said: “Ok. I’ll do it for this reason. When do you want to begin?” She has this ability to make you look deep in your soul and question things about yourself without you even knowing that you are doing it.  

MOVIEMOVESME: How did you manage to get enough funding to make the  documentary?

Harry Mavromichalis: We shot Olympia for 3 years.  I paid everything through my American Express.  Our production was small. There were only 2 of us. I did sound and Ryan Johnson was the cinematographer. It wasn’t until we started editing where I had to look for money. I was a newbie director and I didn’t realize how much time and money editing would need.  We did anything and everything we could. We had fundraisers in Montclair and San Francisco. We had a successful kickstarter campaign. We were applying for grants and we were constantly reaching out to potential donors.  It took us 4 years to raise all the money and finish the film. 

MOVIEMOVESME: How long did it take you to film it?

Harry Mavromichalis: Three years shooting. Four years fundraising and editing. Seven years total.

MOVIEMOVESME: What the funniest thing occurred during filming?

Harry Mavromichalis: There was a lot of laughter during the shoot.  Olympia has a wicked sense of humor and her comedic timing is flawless.  It’s hard to choose the funniest thing, but I will share with you the most surreal thing that happened.  Olympia had agreed to do a play in Cyprus with the National Theatre of Cyprus.  The play was “Social Security” which she performed on Broadway directed by Mike Nichols.  In Cyprus they translated the play in Greek so for 6 months Olympia had a Greek-speaking tutor who was teaching her pronunciation and helping her memorize her lines.  Olympia didn’t speak much Greek and she didn’t know how to read the language so this was a lot of work for her. She was excited because this was a challenge for her and she loved challenging herself.

We got to Cyprus in January and she was to co-star with one of the most famous TV and theatre actresses in Greece (Mimi Denisi).  Olympia and Mimi were old friends so this was something they both looked forward to.  Rehearsals started and things were going very well.  One evening, the director of the Cyprus National Theatre and his wife, drove to the hotel to pick up Olympia and Mimi to take them out for dinner.  As Mimi opened the door to get into the car, the driver pressed the gas pedal by accident, thinking that it was the brake.  Right away the car lurched backwards striking Mimi and throwing her several feet away.  Mimi had broken her thigh and after a couple of days in the hospital, the show was cancelled.  Olympia would never get to do the play in Greek but all the tutoring helped her brush up with the Greek language which we were fortunate to capture when she visited Greece with her family.

MOVIEMOVESME: How much do you think her story or life experience changed you?

Harry Mavromichalis: I’ve said this many times: Making this documentary and spending all this time with Olympia was like getting my PhD on Life.  I have spent almost 9 years with her and the film.  Her relationship to her husband has inspired me on how I want to be with my life partner. Her ability to be vulnerable and humble has shown me how I want to be in life.  Her fierce activism and her passion to bring justice to anything that’s unjust has moved me to my core.

MOVIEMOVESME: If a random person would tell you being an actor is easy. What would be your answer?

Harry Mavromichalis: There is absolutely nothing easy about being an actor. You try and memorize a script and then come talk to me after.  And it’s not just about memorization. A good actor will study the character and create depth in the character.  It is the actor who takes words on a page and makes them mean something through a three-dimensional character. I love actors and have the outmost respect for the profession. 

MOVIEMOVESME: Why do you feel it was an important documentary to make? 

Harry Mavromichalis: The film is so timely for so many reasons.  To see a woman, a daughter of immigrants and learn about her struggles in life will inspire many people who are on the same boat.  She was told from a very young age that being a woman was “less than” the men around her.  She was told she was too ethnic to be able to do the parts that she inspired to do in theatre.  We know Olympia as the Academy Award-winning actress but what we don’t know and what you will know after seeing this film, is the path that got her there.  All the struggles, the suicide attempts, her drug addiction and her perseverance to keep moving forward no matter what obstacles were placed in front of her.  I know that as an artist, I struggled a lot. I know that most people are struggling as we speak.  This is an inspirational film of a woman taking control of her destiny and moving forward with strength, vulnerability, compassion and curiosity and along the way she is constantly finding out who she is. 

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