Adrian Titieni: “A character doesn’t replace your identity, it complements it”

22 March, 2022

Adrian Titieni is nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role at this year’s Gopo Awards, for his role in “The Father Who Moves Mountains” (dir. Daniel Sandu), and can currently be seen on the big screen in a supporting role in “The Windseeker” (dir. Mihai Sofronea).

Two good reasons to invite him for a discussion within our monthly column of in-depth interviews with established filmmakers, from directors, actors and producers to directors of photography, editors and critics.

I asked Adrian Titieni, an actor with a vast filmography (consisting of about 100 roles in both feature films and short films, as well as TV series), about his early beginnings in the ’80s, about the ’90s, followed by his solid collaboration with many of the New Wave filmmakers, about his teaching career at UNATC, about his relationship with directors, both with the young and the experienced ones, about how he prepares for his big roles and about his fears.

Photo: Sabina Costinel

You first starred in a film when you were a student, in Dan Piţa’s Pas în doi / Paso Doble (1985). You’ve said before in interviews that you got the part after an audition and that it was a great opportunity for you. How hard was it for a young actor to enter the world of cinema at the time?

To be honest, it didn’t feel this way, at least for my generation. We didn’t struggle to build an acting career in film. If you finished acting school, you’d eventually get to play in movies. Of course, their quality or the nature of the roles were debatable. But basically, sooner or later, it was going to happen. It wasn’t a question of if. I don’t think it was such a dilemma as it is today.

I was still a first-year student when I got the great opportunity to work with Dan Piţa, who was a landmark in Romanian cinema at the time. An atypical director, unconventional. Working with him was incredibly exciting. It was very different from what I had learned in school. We would rehearse, improvise. He would change the situations, go with different ideas, which was very challenging and interesting. In fact, he was always an advocate of teamwork. He held us together almost against our will, but this “together” he devised led to some special relationships, which I think are perceptible in his oeuvre as well.

The 1980s were a difficult period for culture, including cinema, due to strict ideological control. Did you feel this pressure from your position as a young actor?

I guess I’d be exaggerating if I said I did. But the truth is that at some point, we started getting scripts with stamped pages, which meant that they could not be changed. It was quite tricky, because, as I was telling you, Mr. Piţa was in the habit of improvising, changing lines. But there were many directors who were very obedient and, if a page had this particular stamp, they didn’t want to make any changes to the lines. And there were more and more films addressing current ideological issues of the time. But film production was consistent. Of course, the screenwriters and directors of the time are better able to say exactly how things were. Probably they were struggling with tougher censorship compared to previous years. But I, personally, didn’t feel this pressure. Then again, I don’t know if I’m the right person to ask. Between ’83 and ’88, I was a student. Although I collaborated with several theaters and had already made 3-4 films in that period, I hadn’t yet entered this world. So I’m really not able to share great impressions.

Photo: Sabina Costinel

It was also the time of the great actors, as remembered by the general public. Instead, you were part of a new generation that had to assert itself in a difficult decade. And that’s why I was curious about how you perceived this period.

The golden generation earned its title. They were the indisputable values of the era. You could see them on the big screen, on the small screen, at the theater. They will always remain in the collective mind and in Romanian culture as the golden generation.

Then, of course, things changed under the circumstances of force majeure. The Revolution came and Romanian society hasn’t given that much importance to culture and education anymore. Values ​​have dissolved. The paradigm has shifted, which no doubt has led to side effects because fame is also part of the profession. Generally speaking, nobody was interested in actors and cultural values anymore. Before, whenever people walked into a cinema, they would recognize the actresses and actors in the posters hanging in the lobby. The party and state committee were quite jealous. They had a mission to erase these images because they were in competition with the personalities who needed to be glorified.

Today, people don’t necessarily recognize you by your name. They rather associate you with a conventional name appearing in a theater play, movie, or TV show. That generation is gone. Everything is cyclical in this world. Let’s hope that other generations will come that will leave a strong mark.

I cannot say that I was cursed with an unfortunate destiny because I was able to practice my profession much more freely than before, with a great deal of diversity that should be taken into account. Even though fame or celebrity no longer apply right now, I’ve had a very interesting professional life.

What did the Revolution mean to you? How did you experience this moment in history?

As a joke, I said the Revolution came specifically for me. The constraints were so severe that people felt really suffocated, in every way. There was a desire to leave the country, find a little freedom, a better life. But then the profession I have chosen has the human aspect and language at its core, where you function differently. You can’t leave the linguistic space easily, just as you can’t leave anything that has been built over time: human relationships, friendships, kinship. And the connection with places, which is difficult to define, you aren’t really aware of it. But I wanted to leave the country, and just when I was getting confident with my decision, the Revolution came.

Which led to a Brownian movement. Everyone was trying to find two or three jobs so that they could support themselves because everything had fallen apart. Many projects were in danger of being canceled because, just like today, people were overworked. That dolce far niente that was specific to theater and film and in which people had very clear goals about their projects and what they wanted to bring to the public’s attention was gone. Now it’s a constant rush. Sometimes we become mercenaries, meaning that you go on a project, you want to finish it as quickly as possible, you meet deadlines, but it’s not the same degree of involvement, dedication, communication, connection.

And now there are far fewer mentors. I am referring to theater, in particular, but also to film. Before, you had theater directors like Liviu Ciulei, Lucian Pintilie, David Esrig, Radu Penciulescu, or film directors like Dan Piţa, Mircea Daneliuc, Alexandru Tatos. People who had a voice, who were trying to think out of the box, to break the pattern, to say things differently so as to point out that we are on the wrong path, that we should live our lives in a normal way, independent of the leaders’ ideology and judgment.

Photo: Sabina Costinel

What were the ’90s like for an actor who had just stepped into this world and was at the age when he had to earn a reputation, to make a career? How hard was it?

You’re not asking the right person because I didn’t endure this hardship. I was fortunate enough to work both in theater and film, and also have a career as a university professor. I always had something to do. From a young age, I learned two important lessons. I armed myself with patience and I refused to waste time and energy looking around me, at what my other colleagues were doing, who was cast, who got the part. Things came naturally, following a cycle that I had no intuition of. Even today, if I look back, I don’t know what it was like.

But I was happy when the projects started to turn up. Life may offer you some pleasant surprises and it has often given me things I didn’t expect, in a good way. There were moments of anxiety and depression, when I felt useless, but then I would get a phone call. Sometimes even two on the same day. There were also times when I was hesitant and it was hard to choose.

At the same time, from the outset, you have to consider that the formula to success has a wide spectrum, starting with talent, work, inspiration and ending with patience, dedication. You have no control over things, as an actor. You have to arm yourself with patience. Wait for someone to contact you at some point.

There is also the idea that making a lot of connections might help you. Giving a call on Easter or Christmas, sending birthday wishes, inviting the right people out for a drink, I know colleagues who have succeeded this way. I don’t know what to say. I’m not against it, but it’s just not my thing.

In the 1990s, you were an actor at the National Theater and also collaborated with many other theaters in Bucharest. At the same time, you started teaching at UNATC. What drew you to the academic activity?

I wanted to be a teacher for a long time. I never thought I would be a vocational teacher, teaching “the art of acting”. I’ll tell you why. When there are communication issues between a kid and an adult, be it a parent or a teacher, you feel the need to change something. I went through a high school where communication with teachers was poor. I was thinking: This man is driving a car, has a family and children, why isn’t he able to understand a 15-17-year-old teenager, with a simple problem, especially for that time? He also went through this period, he should have an open mind and understand that the things you are trying to tell him are real, true. I never had that. So I said to myself that if I ever have the opportunity, I want to be a teacher, to be able to understand, to meet the needs of young people. Somewhere in my subconscious, I had this wish. So it happened that I was an actor and Florin Zamfirescu and Gelu Colceag invited me to take a teaching position, an invitation I accepted on the spot, completely aware that I still had a lot to figure out for myself. It happened in my final year of school. Of course, the relationship between the teacher’s assistant and students is good. I knew what I lacked as a student and what I could offer. My colleagues asked me: What can you teach them? My answer was simple: I don’t teach them anything, I extend my own learning. I go there and feed myself with energy, with an open, clear mind. It was wonderful. It kept me alive, it gave me balance.

Even now, at almost 60, I’m still learning from my students, because there are generations that come with different views, with ideas you wouldn’t have thought of, much more interesting, with strong shortcuts. I’m not afraid to admit that sometimes I feel frustrated. We usually accuse, on the basis of prejudice, a paradigm, a habit, or a lack of reading. Of course, it’s very interesting to immerse yourself in reading, in the world of illusion. But these are different times. Cultural and intellectual knowledge, as well as experience, can be gained in other ways too, not just by spending nights with a novel in your arms. Some still have this passion, and there is a certain appetite for immersion in reading. But others don’t. I look at 19-20 year olds, the way they put two and two together, the way their minds are structured, and I feel like they are adults buried in children, meaning that they see things as clearly as possible. I still learn from them. I’ve been very lucky with this teaching career. I don’t know if I’ve always been successful in my efforts, but I’ve always tried to put myself in their shoes, and I think I’ve offered support to many of them. I can’t hide the fact that I saw myself in them. I’ve always been attached to the idea of ​​teaching and pedagogy, and to my students.

Photo: Sabina Costinel

What are the key attributes that any acting teacher should have, in your opinion? Also, do you think anyone could be an actor?

Anyone could do either of the two. At the same time, we mustn’t forget that they are both vocations.

Anyone can learn the steps to be an actor. It’s a profession that can become art. All specific skills can be developed through constant and conscious practice: memory, attention, how you relate with others, exploring the convention. But if you don’t really like acting, you start making it all about yourself. You use theater and film to justify your choices: “I have sacrificed my whole life for the great audience”. Boring. There is no such thing. You get satisfaction from what you do.

What does vocation mean, the lesser known part of it? It means you might have to rehearse for 12 hours or stay on set in the cold or rain for 12 hours. That you might have to work in conditions other than natural light, that there’s a dim bulb and you’re trying to decipher a text. There’s dust everywhere. You need to work with a team you didn’t choose, sometimes endure their jokes or teasing. There’s no weekend. You’re sick, but if you don’t need an ambulance, you have to show up, whether it’s a stage performance or a shooting day. Yet you don’t feel all this.

Then, pedagogy can be learned and practiced by anyone. But when it’s a vocation, you care about it. In my opinion, the teacher-student relationship is a process of mutual growth. The teacher should not rely on outdated science. They shouldn’t resort to the old saying: Do you know who I am? It’s irrelevant. It’s unproductive. You should appreciate the student, know that that emerging personality could become someone important tomorrow. Or not. But it doesn’t matter. In the end, it still comes down to simple basics: you have to care about them, you have to love them. It’s a rare attribute.

I believe that a true teacher, no matter the field or the profession, is the one who also has real expertise, meaning that they practiced what they are trying to teach. Of course, there may be teachers who don’t have this type of practice, but they are good enough up to a certain point. But as long as you haven’t experimented or practiced, and you try to pass on the profession to another, often there is excessive rigor, conflict, a disjunction between teacher and student.

You don’t think that 30 students per year are too many? Especially since it can be a real struggle to find employment after graduation.

Until 1990, there was a balanced ratio between the number of students pursuing higher education in a field and the employment market. It only allowed a certain number of positions, whether we talk about engineers, doctors, firefighters, or actors, and there were never more openings than it could have offered. It was something that the socialist society managed. The democratic society says that you’re free to choose, including to pursue higher education in a field that might seem to be an extension of your inner strengths. In other words, this sector has been deregulated. One can notice that this profession now has an inflationary character. Meaning that there are 250 students who graduate and only ten of them find employment in theaters, or only ten get the chance to build a career in film acting. But the added value of training in this field mustn’t be eliminated. We only ask ourselves whether the student can find a job afterwards. I think that training in this field gives you a greater openness and a better understanding of life. It creates certain abilities that help you connect with your inner self, with the other, with the world. It opens your horizon.

As I said before, the formula to success has a wide spectrum. Those who are determined create their own projects, search for scripts, sponsors, screening rooms. In other words, actors are no longer in a state of constant expectation, they have become proactive. It’s precisely this frustration of not finding an opening in this oversaturated market that has led to this dynamic. And if you proceed as such, there is no way you won’t be noticed and seen. Thoroughness, reliability, honesty are almost transversal qualities that come with talent, validate and qualify you. Indeed, many go in other directions professionally, especially during this pandemic. But that means it wasn’t for them.

The school is not responsible for your workplace. The school can only be accused if it admits people lacking the necessary qualities in the field. With the multitude of possibilities to pursue higher education and become a professional that exist today, you can no longer throw the blame on someone or something else. If you don’t go to Bucharest, you go to Mureş, Constanţa, Craiova, or Cluj. Or you go to Hyperion or any other university. If this is what you really want, you can become a certified actor.

Photo: Sabina Costinel

You play in many student short films. From the outside, it looks like you want to support them through your presence in their projects.

If I have time and I can help, I do it because I, in turn, was helped once.

But how can you avoid not being perceived as an authority, which can be intimidating, in such cases?

Through simple statements. First of all, I don’t cross the line. I recently played alongside my son (i.e. Marc Titieni) in Otto the Barbarian and I didn’t make any comments or give him any suggestions. I thought, “If he asks me for advice, I’ll give it to him.” If it’s relevant. If not, I won’t. I do the same with the second-year directing student. I’m an actor on set. They know better what needs to be done. I only check with them if we can change a line or some other detail, if necessary. So there is no room for authority in these cases. It’s a collaboration based on communication in which people maintain their role, position, job description. I never stepped outside my job description and I always urge my students to remain actors on the set, not to turn into something else. Besides, your background is irrelevant. You should never go with the idea of “don’t you know who I am?”.

The 2000s meant not only the emergence of a New Wave of directors, but also the rise of a new wave of film actors, and you were one of the most important. You have been part of this renewal movement. How do you see that period now?

A question I got asked a lot at film festivals was: What film school do you have in Romania, because almost all productions that get selected in festivals are good and coherent? My answer was: We don’t have a film school that has the potential to leave a mark on every exceptional filmmaker. That’s the reality. We have a number of rebellious young people who with one eye have looked back into the past and chosen to do something different, and with the other eye, they have looked at our own current reality. It was the natural reaction of some people who lived in a former socialist country and were moving towards a generic democracy. Starting from human relationships, the relationship between the State and the individual, politics. And these intelligent and revolted people created a new wave of Romanian cinema that asserted itself through certain figures, in terms of aesthetics and style. Indeed, some of these internationally acclaimed directors have shown unique, unmistakable styles.

And something else happened. Even though the cinema of the past knocked on the door of universalism, there was still the feeling of living in an enclave. But after the ’90s, filmmakers overcame the barriers of alienation and had from the beginning the belief that they were addressing the world. It’s a different mentality.

Photo: Sabina Costinel

What was it like to perform as an actor in the new style, a realistic, direct one, which often features long takes?

I did my best to meet the director’s needs. Sometimes it’s easy to understand, beyond words, what a director is trying to convey. I don’t know if I succeeded every time. Many times I came into conflict with them because their way of communicating and relating to the actors was quite unnatural, not to say inappropriate, even though I understood that it had to do with the pressure caused by the production process, regarding money and time. But I don’t think that the idea of ​​humiliating the actor or snapping at them in front of the other fellow actors or the team helps you achieve faster results. Still, it happened. And I understand the reasons why a director becomes very uncompromising in their relationship with the actor, but the road is sometimes more important than the desired result. And if there is conflict and non-communication, even frustration, you are left with a bitter taste, no matter what the outcome. After all, what can a film do and how can it validate you as a director or as an actor? We set out on a journey together, and if this “together” exists under harmony, cooperation, collaboration, good relationship, then it’s okay. Otherwise, I don’t believe in the environment where we create unnecessary conflict, animosity, humiliation, frustration, harm, just to get an extraordinary result.

Are you referring to someone in particular?

No, I’m talking about a misperception among directors in general. Indeed, they have the vision and responsibility of the whole, but at the same time, they must understand the role and job of each department, each member of their team, who are at their side on the road towards the goal that they undoubtedly set themselves. It’s about respect. There are directors who respect you, consult with you, see you as a partner, and directors who “exploit” and “use” you.

But it seems that you have a good collaboration with many directors, given that you’ve starred in many films, where you’ve played various roles. Does it matter to you if it’s a lead or a supporting role?

The best proof (i.e. that it doesn’t matter) is that I played all sorts of roles, from one-day shootings to 30-day shootings or however long it took. I’ve always tried to mind my own business, not to overstep. I’m not that pretentious. At the same time, I react when people take kindness or common sense for granted. There have been many situations when I’ve received this feedback. Normal behavior has been confused with something else. So I reacted. In some cases, people agreed with me. In other cases, the collaboration came to an end. I tried to stick to my own. I don’t know if I always lived up to expectations, but there have been productive collaborations, I gained pleasant experiences and long-lasting relationships.

Photo: Sabina Costinel

Do you still go to castings?

Of course. I haven’t even considered not going to castings. People say that directors know me, but it’s not about that. A director who has a project wants to see you audition even if you’re their colleague, friend, or has seen you in countless movies. Why? Because they want to see how you relate to the character, how you interact with another actor. It’s a new situation. They have a mental image that they want to see translated into reality. And even if they know me as an actor, we still have to meet, see if things work out, if I’m a good match. I never refused to go to an audition, I even went through long castings, given that I was somewhat known, and still didn’t get the part. But I don’t get upset or frustrated because I understand how it goes. I put myself in the director’s shoes. Oh, if it’s just an appearance, they don’t even find it necessary to call you for an audition. In other words, I don’t have a problem with going to castings, or with playing small roles. But at the same time, I can’t say that I don’t turn down offers. I do sometimes.

How often does it happen?

Each time it has been for different reasons. Sometimes there are schedule conflicts. But in general, I’ve tried to support honest initiatives. When I feel it’s rather about a statement of ego, I prefer to step back and not get involved. I guess it’s been happening more often lately because I no longer have the same energy, the same strength, the same ease as before.

Are you afraid that you might fall into mannerism, especially since some directors, perhaps out of convenience, cast you in roles in which they’ve seen you before?

Looking back at the work I’ve done so far, I don’t consider that I’ve fallen into mannerism or that I’ve followed a certain pattern while moving from one role to another. I think I’ve shown the capability for transformation, change, diversity. I’m not afraid of that. And even if the director casts me based on something they have seen before, I try not to do the same thing, or, if necessary, I keep some parts that are similar but try a different approach when it comes to particularities and subtleties, nuances, with regard to the given project. In other words, I don’t feel like I’m repeating myself.

How do you prepare for a lead role, like for example your most recent roles in Graduation and The Father Who Moves Mountains? What is your working method?

My method is simple, it has worked out fine for me. I do recommend it. I try to translate the convention into a psychological reality. What does convention mean? Convention means the script, the director’s vision. Including the interactions and experiences you have on set. If I manage to explore the convention and translate it into a certainty of psychological reality, then I’ve achieved my goal. Why? After all, all characters are within ourselves. No one can put a label on a psychological profile except if you look at it superficially. We are diverse, unique, unrepeatable, and circumstances bring to light, at some point, our true nature. We are nothing but the sum of our actions. On a project, if there are three or four goals to achieve or the screenwriter or the director puts you in a relationship with a few or dozens of people, that creates a psychological profile throughout your journey, from an imbalance to balance. Every script is like an original score that saves you from the torment that you might repeat yourself or that you can’t find your character. The important thing is for the character to be believable in their actions and for you to get closer to their ontological dimension, which is literary fiction. A character doesn’t replace your identity, it complements it. I can’t set aside my own identity as an actor. I disconnected and now the character is alive. There is no such thing, it’s not even debatable. Every character comes with their own input and carves into your existing identity. If you manage to transform the convention with each line, with each situation, you’ve won the bet. It doesn’t always work out. Not everyone works in the same key. I’m not talking about the actor, I’m talking about the director.

Photo: Sabina Costinel

How much of this construction is an individual effort and how much is the collaboration with the director?

If you come across a director with whom you speak the same language, the process is much easier and the result is much more visible. There are a few directors – I dare not give names, because it would be unfair – with whom I work in the same key. We approach things the same way. Sometimes they even ask for more than what you set as a bar, and that’s a very good thing. There are other directors who don’t work this way, and in this case, things are more formal, conventional, devoid of truth and life beyond words. When you are able to translate the convention into an assumed reality, life beyond words appears, which is very important, even in a film product. The viewer walks into the cinema, knows that they’re going to a convention, that there is a movie on the screen, but enters the story, and if everything goes okay, they identify with the issues addressed by the director and screenwriter. That’s the point. If you only follow the convention, the viewer can leave the cinema in awe, thinking the story was fantastic, the actors were great, but there is no immersion. But, when you explore the convention and take things to another level and create a specific reality, the viewer identifies themselves with it and leaves the cinema in a numb state, with the need to digest the information and even with the wish to change. Even if you don’t remember everything – you don’t know who played the protagonist, who she was, who he was – that subject, so well conveyed, affected you emotionally, because it sends you to your life experience and the other quality of our psyche, the imagination. It alleviates a bit of your suffering, frustration, anxiety, or depression. You tell yourself: I’m not the only one going through that, others too have gone through it, and maybe it was much worse for them.

After so many years of experience, do you still have fears when you enter a project or when you’re on set?

I do, and I feel nervous. I think it’s only natural because every new encounter should make you nervous to some degree, otherwise it’s pointless. Every new encounter means facing the unknown, the need to integrate it, and that involves a bit of fear and concern. For the artist, the road from intention to accomplishment is the hardest. You have the music in your head, but can you put it on paper? You see the sculpture in your mind, but can you break and shape the block of stone so that what you imagined comes out the same? You start preparing for the role, the intentions and discussions are good, but can you reach the result you want, which should also intertwine with what the director wants? The only way you can lose interest is if you get into a routine of making average films. Otherwise, if there is interest, then it comes with a certain degree of fear. Or maybe not fear, but a good vibration where you feel both nervous and excited.

Journalist and film critic. Curator for some film festivals in Romania. At "Films in Frame" publishes interviews with both young and established filmmakers.