Alexandru Ion: ”If you’re concerned with what others may think of you, you’re on a slippery slope”
I knew Alexandru Ion as a theater and TV series actor, but also as one of the founders and organizers of the “Ideo Ideis” National Youth Theater Festival in Alexandria. Recently, however, I noticed him in several independent films and it seemed like a good opportunity to invite him for an interview for the “Emerging Voices” column.
In “Mia Misses Her Revenge” (2020), the second feature by Bogdan Theodor Olteanu, a director with whom he worked a lot in independent theater, he has a supporting role – he plays an actor whose self-confidence is undermined by the protagonist, an actress played by Ioana Bugarin, in one of the best scenes in the film.
In “Toni & his friends” (2020), the second feature from the young director Ion Indolean, he plays Toni, a mysterious, rather absent character who is being sought by a film crew that wants to make a documentary about him.
And in the short film “Emilia Hosu has HIV” (dir. Ioana Păun, unreleased yet), he plays a man who receives a visit from a lawyer (Doina Teodoru), but the meeting turns into an erotic game where power relations shift repeatedly.
Born on September 3, 1987, in Alexandria, Alexandru Ion holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree in “Actor’s Art” and a master’s degree in “Theater, Marketing and Cultural Management” from the National University of Theater and Film (UNATC) “I. L. Caragiale” in Bucharest.
In 2006, at the age of 18, he co-founded the T.E.T.A Association and the Ideo Ideis Festival, where he currently acts as co-president.
His theater work is quite vast, including stage performances such as “Angels in America” at Metropolis Theater, “The Common Denominator” at the Comedy Theater, “Vanilla Skype” and “De ce n-o facem în drum” at ACT Theater, “The History Boys” at Excelsior Theater, “The Tót Family” at the Lumina Cultural Center, “Medea’s Boys”, “Hottest Day of the Year” and “Taxi Drivers” at Apollo 111 Theater, “Back in Winter” at unteatru, and he has collaborated with directors such as Victor Ioan Frunză, Neil LaBute, Vlad Massaci, Vlad Cristache, Cătălin Ștefănescu, Bogdan Theodor Olteanu, Andrei Măjeri, and Vlad Zamfirescu.
In 2013, he participated in the Talent Campus program at the Sarajevo Film Festival, and in 2015 he was one of the actors selected in the “10 for film” program at the Transilvania International Film Festival (TIFF).
What does it mean to play in independent films? How hard or easy is it to go with this decision?
Since I worked more in independent theater production, I strongly believe in being proactive. Otherwise, what are you going to do? Are you going to just sit and look at the phone and wait for it to ring? I think it’s better to be active and look for resources to develop new projects. So, yes, I do admire and am open to people who are also proactive. You have to make the best of what little there is. Often, scarce resources lead to incredibly creative solutions. Sometimes constraints make you find solutions you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. Obviously, this is not the ideal situation. Nobody wants to work and not even get a proper meal. But, if that’s what you have to deal with at a certain point, what are you going to do? Sit and complain in a corner?
I’m at a point where I’m very interested in working in film. The way you build a professional career depends very much on the choices you make. There is no book or YouTube tutorial that teaches you how to make choices. So the only thing to do is to trust your judgment and try to build something healthy.
You are known for Ideo Ideis, you work in theater as an actor and producer, but you also starred in several TV series. How difficult is it to be cast in movies and get your big break in cinema?
It’s hard because there are no real shortcuts you could take. There is no right way to call one of the New Wave directors and ask, “What is the new film you are working on? Is there any role for me, too?” I could never. I’ve never been good at such things. I’m not really the type who asks around for favors, I’ve never liked it, especially if it means to turn to someone who’s at a different level than me. When you are on the same set with someone, of course it’s easier to tell them that you would like to work together again, given that there is already a vibe between you. But when you are at different levels, it only works if the invitation comes from the top, not the other way around.
You said in an interview that you have a list of the castings you’ve been to and that you’re coming close to 300.
The list also includes the theater auditions and the castings for commercials. Movie auditions are not as many, because it’s not something that happens out in the open. You get to an audition if they call you or if someone recommends you. That’s why I say that there are no real shortcuts.
But I strongly believe in doing my job thoroughly and treating it with respect, and remaining consistent about my goals. Beyond that, I think the way you approach things and how far you’re willing to go are also important. Speaking of what I said before.
You can sometimes see actors acting out of despair. I’m not saying it might not work, but I, for one, don’t feel comfortable with this way of doing things. The idea of calling whomever, of forcing a relationship that doesn’t come naturally. I’m not saying it’s good or bad, it’s just how I relate to things.
How do you feel when you’re not getting the part you’ve auditioned for? How do you manage to get over it when it happens several times?
If you don’t get used to it fast, it will be very difficult for you. Without a doubt, being turned down is part of the job and I think it’s something that happens to the best of us. There are interviews with big names out there who say that they wanted a certain role but did not get it. Surely, there are different interests on the line, but in the end, the outcome is the same; they couldn’t get the part they wanted. It’s in the fiber of our professional existence to get used to being turned down.
I’ve never had breakdowns because I didn’t get a casting. Obviously, there is some disappointment in that moment. There are also times when you can feel if it went well and you may have a chance or, on the contrary, when you have no chance to get the part. There are times when you feel that it will happen, but in the end, it does not. In this case, it might affect you more. But it’s such a dynamic job that you might not even get to experience that downfall, because you’ll most likely get a phone call or another casting or another opportunity right away. The reality is that I didn’t even go to a lot of movie auditions.
Would you say you’re not well-connected?
No, I am, I know almost everyone in the industry. I think it’s about being the right person at the right time in the right place. I don’t have a persecution complex. I don’t feel like I’m doomed to fail. I admit that sometimes I watch Romanian films and think about what role I could have played in that film. But there aren’t that many roles I would have been right for, in terms of age and physique.
Speaking as someone who has been rather privileged, working in television, which gave you a certain financial security and the possibility to be selective.
Of course, being financially stable contributes a lot to the way you choose your projects. Yet there are people who don’t do very well, financially speaking, and still manage to be selective.
I think your choices are about who you are as a person. If you’re concerned with what others may think of you, I think you’re going down a slippery slope. There is something that I remember from my time working in television. I had my first project when I was in my third year of college. A sitcom on Prima TV, Nobody is perfect. I had an episodic role in the first season and they called me to offer me a part in season three. They didn’t ask me to come for an audition, they just offered me the part. I was at a time when I thought that art is something of majestic heights, that it is important to do only things that will remain in the anthologies of theater and film. So I refused the part. They insisted, but I told them I had other projects, when in fact I had nothing else on the line.
In the end, they had a casting and they hired Florin Kevorkian to conduct it, who was my fencing teacher in college. Mr. Kevorkian called me and asked me openly why I didn’t want to go and if at least I was clear about my reasons. That’s when I realized that I had simply made that decision thinking about what my friends would say about me. I hadn’t analyzed for a second: “But am I interested in this thing? Do I have anything to learn from this? Will it be of any help? Am I interested in the money I’m going to earn? Is it an experience that will take me further?” The moment I asked myself these questions, I realized that the real answer was no. I thought it was sad to make such a decision based on what my friends would say about me. Then I re-evaluated the situation and came to the conclusion that it was not OK. I cannot set a precedent in this direction. They had already started the auditions, so I went to the casting like everyone else. I got the part eventually and did the sitcom, and I have no regrets to this day.
Okay, everyone knows what a sitcom is and we can’t hide behind it – it’s a product that falls into a certain category of cinematic expression. I’m not delusional. But I have no regrets that I did that sitcom or any other television project after that, because I knew very well why I chose to do them. At that time, as a third-year student, as a young man coming from a small town and a family with limited financial means, it was huge to make that money. It put me in another state of mind. Then, I learned what it means to shoot with three cameras, how you work with the camera, and the pace at which you have to learn the lines. It helped me a lot.
It’s normal to gain brand awareness when doing television. The road to success, as we all know, has many paths. I don’t have the universal key to solve this dilemma and I don’t think anyone does. That is why it makes me sad when people are so adamant in their judgments, and I try not to do the same.
Have you faced such judgments?
Not so many events that I had to deal with publicly, but rather debating on professional ethics over drinks: “Why would you want to do such a thing?” And I was determined about my stance – after all, I’m doing my job. Indeed, there are things I would not do. There are productions that I would not go for, not even at that age. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to be judgmental about it and that I won’t interact with someone who does work on those projects. After all, we all have all sorts of factors that influence our decisions.
You decided to continue with the TV series, one of them being quite popular, Atletico Textila, running on PRO TV.
There are rumors going around that the great directors will never take actors who work in television or advertising. Of all the people I’ve talked to about this, I haven’t heard anyone say, “You worked on a TV series? You’ll never appear in any of my movies again”. And even if there are directors who take this stance, it’s their choice. I don’t see anything wrong with either way of seeing things. As far as I know, doing television was never a reason not to be offered a part or called for an audition, in my case. Then, if we look at the movies that have run in cinemas in recent years, we can also see actors who have starred or are starring in TV series. You don’t sell your soul to the Devil if you do a show or a commercial.
But isn’t there a risk that you will be placed in a certain category by the public?
Yes, you might come as having a commercial face or as being known for soap operas. But, again, we all know that there are people who were the exponents of the golden age of soap operas, when the Acasă TV channel was hugely popular, and at the same time, they made films of indisputable cinematic value, which got selected at big festivals. I don’t think it’s one or the other, I don’t think things work this way. But I can understand if an author is reluctant to work with someone who is beyond popular.
Like many people, I get asked if I prefer theater or film. And every time I say that acting comes with a certain dynamic. I think actors often go through this situation – when you do a lot of theater, you end up wishing to work in film, and if you start making a lot of movies, there will surely come a time when you want to do theater.
You said that at this moment you feel a desire and a need to work in cinema.
On the one hand, it has to do with the fact that I did more theater and television than cinema. On the other hand, it probably has something to do with how it all began. I really liked movies when I was a kid. I especially watched Hollywood movies on TV. Until joining the high school theater group in ninth grade, although I really liked movies and obsessively watched them, I was not aware that acting is like a real job you could do. I thought those movie actors were people living somewhere far away who had been blessed to do that.
In the meantime, I learned that it’s a profession that you can study and then practice. It’s clear that the trigger that led me to acting was watching movies. And the moment I realized that I could do that too was amazing. When I came to Bucharest as an 18-year-old and got into UNATC, I obviously had some big dreams, like the children who wish to become astronauts. Three years of college and then off to Hollywood (laughs). My taste in cinema as a teenager did not include films from Cannes and Berlin. Obviously, I started with the mainstream, so Hollywood was Mount Everest. Things have changed in the meantime.
When did you decide you wanted to be an actor?
As I said, I joined the high school theater group in ninth grade. I started going to festivals with the group, and by the end of the ninth grade – the beginning of the tenth grade, it became pretty clear that this was what I wanted to do.
What did you like about acting at the time?
Until then, I imagined that I would apply to international relations or economics. I had no idea what you studied there, but it sounded good. But I have never had an aptitude for math or science, I was in the Philology class in high school. We all know that the Romanian educational system does not really assist you in finding your way, what you are good at, and what you would like to do.
I still consider myself extremely lucky to have discovered acting in the end, in a town where this was unlikely to happen, without any theater or cinema. I feel there was an opportunity. The initial trigger, my love for the movies, blended in perfectly with adolescent existence: the need for attention and the need for validation. When I saw myself on the big stage of the Classical Theater in Arad, at a festival, in the spotlight, with applause all around, I felt extraordinary.
I’ve always been more of an extrovert. I liked that kind of attention. I think that it’s something you cannot avoid. Even as an adult, I find it difficult not to like it. I don’t really see how you could say you don’t like that attention. OK, if it gets to the level where people recognize you on the street and start harassing you, then I can understand that it can become a burden. But otherwise, there is no way you wouldn’t enjoy the feeling of being in a movie theater and your face is on that big screen and everyone is watching you. Obviously, how you deal with it, how much you let it affect your ego, and how you control it, and how many of your decisions, actions, and interactions in everyday life are governed by it, it all depends on each person’s personality. I feel that moderation is an extremely important key in everything we do.
How was the UNATC experience? There are actresses, for example, who do not have very pleasant memories, because they didn’t see it as an extremely friendly environment.
In my case, it was like a never-ending party. I remember the first years vividly, when I saw myself in Bucharest in a college that did not have tables and chairs to sit and write on, in a space where I wanted to be. I would spend my nights at school. I was crazy about doing things and I couldn’t believe that the job I was going to make a living from and the thing that I loved most were so close to each other. They were both right there on the same plate.
Unfortunately, we live in a society where girls experience such environments in a much different way than boys, in the sense that it’s much tougher for them. It’s a situation that everyone should be aware of.
I could clearly see the shortcomings of UNATC, which either have to do with the professors’ area of expertise, their experience, or even the resources that are invested in projects. But I think that, given the context, you have two options. You can either drown yourself in this resentment, which can be totally legitimate and you are right to feel it, but it’s not like it’s going to do you any good, or you can become proactive and make use of the resources you have at hand, no matter if they are many or few. There is little to gain when you set yourself in a complaining mode. That doesn’t mean I don’t embrace change and that change is not something that should happen. Of course, there are things that need to change, but if you rather go with hate, that won’t set things right. That’s the reality, and you have to deal with it, after all.
I’m not suggesting this is how you solve things. I say that it worked for me, but also because I was extremely excited to be there. Maybe that made me miss some serious issues. But looking back, I can’t say I experienced bad stuff. I know about some issues from the experiences of others, like injustices, stances, reactions, words, which in other countries would have legal consequences. I think it’s better if these things are discussed by those who have lived them.
How do you see the relationship with the camera?
One thing that is quite well-known is that in theater you are more expressive in your performance, because there is always someone in the back row who has to see you. Whereas in film, you don’t perform with your face that much, because if you’re shooting a close-up and you have that wide-eyed look on your face, it will look like in commedia dell’arte.
As for me, I’m rather technical in my approach, in the sense that I am what is called a “Cartesian actor”. A man who is constantly aware of the place and what is happening around. I don’t get lost in feelings or emotions. I’m always aware that if a muscle in my face contracts, that’s going to convey something. At the same time, I don’t build my performance by contracting my facial muscles or by squinting my eyes. It all starts with a thought process.
But isn’t there room for something on the spur of the moment?
I’m rather rational and in control of my act, but there may be times when I get to a point where I literally get goosebumps all over, if the scene pushes me in such a direction. That can happen, yes.
For me, it all starts from a thought, which then leads to feelings, although it’s not easy for me to use such words since it’s not really my kind of thing. That doesn’t mean I avoid them, but that’s not what I want to show. I don’t start from emotions, borderline schizoid feelings.
I’ve noticed there are some similarities between the characters you play in Toni & his friends, Mia Misses Her Revenge and Emilia Hosu has HIV. You play this mysterious, somewhat dark character who hides things that he gradually lets come to the surface. In the beginning, he seems to be in control, but by the end, the situation is reversed.
It’s a coincidence that there is a common ground for these characters. In theater, the things I’ve done so far are much more varied. Indeed, in these three films, the characters I play are not profoundly different from each other, something that was rather dictated by the scripts than by what I had in mind in terms of performance. Of course, I always seek to make different characters, but in the end, it all depends on what the director wants from the character. That is the goal you serve, ultimately. You can’t isolate yourself and turn into an enclave when working on a film. You have to be a cog in a bigger machine.
Seems like you’re good with this type of character who has a darker side.
I’m glad you think that. In fact, the way we perceive the people around us, this also includes the characters in the movies, says more about us than the people in question. Something that one person may see as dark, another may see as normal. Indeed, the characters you are referring to may be perceived as dark. I think this side exists in me insofar as the viewer is bent to see these things. Otherwise, I don’t think I’m as dark as these characters. I’m not that consumed with worry. I do have my concerns, but they are of a different nature.
Have you ever felt the frustration of not being in a theater group and the need to be part of one?
Frustration, no. But the need, I still do. I’m interested in this experience, it’s something I’d like to do. On the one hand, it’s that desire to be completely immersed in the system and the feeling that the system has validated you. Maybe it also has to do with the things I heard from my family when I was young. You were an actor only if you were employed in a theater.
But I’m not miserable about it. At the same time, I admit that I didn’t draw that big of a line between independent and state, because I worked and still do in both subsidized theater and independent theater. Only I am not employed in state theaters, I work as a collaborator. It’s not a topic to which I’ve given that much thought, not in the past, not now. It is what it is.
But how do you see the tension that seems to exist between the independent and the state sector and which got worse with the pandemic?
I don’t think I’ve said that before, but what bothers me the most when I see this kind of controversy and arguments is that it feels like there are a lot of hidden agendas by people who actually try to benefit from it. It feels like there is some kind of grudge and a desire to condemn the other side that doesn’t serve anyone, in a field that lacks solidarity anyway, or the numbers. And since there are hardly any of us and we are divided as it is, things can get only worse from this point on. I choose not to participate in this kind of debate on Facebook.
Do you feel that on both sides?
Yes, most of the time. And it’s something that makes me keep my distance. I don’t know if it’s the best way to go about it. I know that it may sound naive and idealistic, but every time I feel like saying, “Come on, people, let’s calm down. Let’s not put the blame on the one in front”. We are talking about educated people, people who go to school, who have book collections at home, people who are supposed to have empathy and understanding of human complexity.
When I see attitudes full of venom or cynicism and sarcasm, I wonder where they come from. How much anger is there in you that you need to go off in the public space and smear the walls with shit. Forgive me, but that’s what we actually do. Only the walls are virtual. Then, when you sit face to face with that person, a lot of the heat often goes away. I feel that the shelter given by screens and keyboards sometimes brings out the worst in people because they’re not aware of the consequences. I believe that this gap created between the independent sector and the state sector is also perpetuated by representatives of the sectors in question. Sometimes it is done knowingly, but I think there are also situations when it happens unknowingly and due to a fragmented evaluation, an incomplete understanding of the whole. The urge I try to spread around me is to find a balance, reasoning, and a dialogue that focuses on this cart we all pull at, not on the cart you pull alone. But I’m not naive – I know that’s idealistic, too.
What does acting offer you?
It’s very nuanced. On the one hand, it’s the fact that you get to be part of something, and that’s something we all need. A system, a community, a group of people. But that comes later.
But, in my case, it starts with enjoying the attention, and then the validation, which confirms you are pretty good at what you do. How good, that’s a whole other discussion. And it’s normal for that to encourage you to carry on. There can be some inertia here, too.
But, on a pragmatic level, I like it because it offers me a dynamic life, there’s no time to get bored. There is always another project. Not to mention that I juggle between these different mediums – theater, film, television. I like that it gives me room to manifest this extroverted personality. And, as cliché as it may sound, I like that it gives me this minimum access to “living” more lives.
But the pandemic came with some very interesting inner quests. How much do I really want to do this job? Looks like I could do something else, too. Do I still want to drag myself through projects that I don’t necessarily like or with people I don’t resonate with at all?
Did you find an answer?
The answer I found was that – and that gave me some relief – I don’t feel like I wouldn’t be myself if I weren’t an actor. I am very passionate about my job. I’m very eager to do it. But I don’t think I would lose all meaning if, say, a cataclysmic event appears overnight and ends my acting career. It’s not that I’m not burning for this job. I burn for it, but in the face of an actual event that is not under my control, such as the pandemic or a war, I would not feel like I would lose my compass if I weren’t to do that anymore.
I like to think that this discovery will help me in the long run. When you’re very worked up about something, you only get farther away from your goals. I’m not trying to promote inaction, far from it. But the moment you manage to ease up a bit, things come easier.
Looks like you’ve found a balance in your career. You do television, and that gives you financial comfort and, moreover, it allows you to work without pressure in the independent area.
I’m looking for that balance. When you carry the pressure of subsistence, it’s more complicated to make professional choices that will carry you further. Obviously, that doesn’t mean that if you don’t have the pressure of subsistence, you will always make the best decisions. I’ve probably made unfortunate decisions over time, too.
But what I strongly believe is that even when you make an unfortunate decision, it’s very important how you relate to it post-factum and how you work around it. The possibility to gather around people who share a similar creative vibe and with whom you can develop projects is something that gives you important room for professional growth, in the sense that you will always discover new things. This is a job where there is always something to learn, the learning process never stops. You discover things outside your comfort zone or in a space where you resonate with other people. I think it’s great to create these spaces. If you can do it, that is fantastic.