Mihai Călin: “There are no absolute truths, no matter if we talk about important matters or small stuff”

12 November, 2020

I met Mihai Calin ten years ago, when I was a 17-year-old girl with big dreams, who believed that everything is possible. I was organizing a charity event for SOS Satele Copiilor, and Mihai agreed to present it, together with Melania Medeleanu. We haven’t met since, but I was glad to see him every time I had the opportunity, in his own element – on stage. An actor extremely passionate about his profession, body and soul in everything he does, and a man aware of those around him, who is open to learning at any age. I wanted to take his interview for a long time and now I found the opportunity – Mihai is the protagonist of 5 Minutes Too Late, Dan Chisu’s latest film – and his first supported by the Romanian Film Center. Mihai plays the role of Nicu Holban, a constable respected and appreciated at work, conservative and strict in his relationship with his family, who ends up in the middle of a scandal he wished would have never happened: he is sent on a mission to a cinema hall in the Capital, where the screening of an LGBTQ film is interrupted by the “opposition”, and a boy is injured and ends up in the hospital due to law enforcement – led by constable Nicu Holban – not taking action in due time.

I arrived at our meeting spot ten minutes earlier and I waited for Mihai in the hall of Teatrul Dramaturgilor (ie- theater in Bucharest) – the place where we had the interview and the photo shooting, and for that we are very grateful to the people from the Theater. Mihai arrived a bit later and because the time was short, we started the interview right away. An interview that turned into a discussion about principles, truths and the actor’s creative process. About emotion and the public. The Romanian society today versus the one 80 years ago. A consistent discussion that I enjoyed greatly, followed by a charming photo shooting, that looked like something right out of noir films.

Mihai, what are the main principles that guide you through life?

To be honest, I don’t think I have principles which I live by; it’s rather like a “soup” with lots of ingredients – it’s all about the way I was raised, the education I received in school and the people who have influenced me in life so far. Something I’ve started to be more aware of and which could be called a principle is kindness – I’m trying to be kind to the people around me, I think it’s important. And honest, as much as I can.

How about truths? Are there any absolute truths or do we each make our own?

I don’t believe in absolute truths. Maybe the absolute truth, which believers are conscious of – and I’m not talking about the religious people who practice a certain religion –, is the existence of God. And I think God guides their whole life. Other than that, there are no absolute truths, no matter if we talk about important matters or small stuff.

You play the role of a constable in Dan Chisu’s latest film – 5 Minutes Too Late, Nicu Holban – the main character. Was this role written with you in mind?

No, I don’t think so, I never talked with Dan about it. I know he saw me in a play at the National Theatre, called No Man’s Land, and right after he called me and told me about the main character in his film. I don’t know if he ever had casting calls with anyone else, but we did have auditions to find the right actress for the role of the journalist – Liliana Calomfir, the female leading character.

Talking of truths, I believe there are many people who think they own absolute truths, which they use in life like it were some immutable principles – just like our constable, Nicu Holban.

Indeed. Nicu is a conservative man, who believes in the power of men to protect their families and bring food on the table – 

And who always dictates a type of behavior. There’s a saying – “that who brings food on the table, dictates the rules of the house”.

A prejudice often present in Romanian families. Do you believe that the existing prejudices in Romanian society will disappear over time, with the new generations to come? Or will they continue to exist?

I think the world is changing, but not necessarily and entirely to a good outcome or in a fast manner. I was talking with my family last night about certain behaviors within my family, for example – things that happened over 80-90 years ago, between my grandparents and my mother –, which aren’t that present in today’s society. So yes, I believe that things do change, the role of a female is completely different nowadays, but of course, there are still big parts of our society who remain very conservative.

Have you discovered any parts of yourself in the character in 5 Minutes Too Late?

Yes. I admit that even I have some sort of pride and ego that I struggle with – sometimes I know I’m too proud and I don’t want to see the “truth”. Sometimes a “truth” I don’t like comes up, which annihilates me. But I’d like to believe I can be conscious about these moments and take a few steps back.

Mihai Călin. Photo: Sabina Costinel / Styling: Ruxandra Marin. Location: Teatrul Dramaturgilor

I think it’s normal to bring parts of you, or discover them, into a character. 

What type of director is Mr. Chisu?

First of all, he is a self-taught man and a huge cinema lover. I think this is the first film for which he got financial support from the Romanian Film Center. We’ve known each other for a long time but we were never that close; however, I am lucky he is one of those film directors who go watch actors play on stage, and that’s how he rediscovered me.

We worked in a very relaxing environment, he trusts his actors, gives them freedom – I think he even said it in one of his interviews. Especially when it comes to lines. When adapting the script, he’s not dead keen on every word, works with the actors on details, which made me feel comfortable. He’s very open to improvisation and collaboration. We had only 4 weeks of working, and some rehearsals beforehand – there were some moments of uncertainty and vulnerability, but we always stood by each other. It was a very good collaboration.

Are there differences in the way you train for stage and film?

Yes, there are. First of all because things deploy in a longer time frame in theatre. You have a few months for rehearsals, and during this time your character takes shape; and even after the premiere night, the work continues, while in film, everything happens quite fast and a few rehearsals are not enough. There are thoughts and matters you cannot internalize as an actor, so what remains is a superficial understanding of the character.

Mihai Călin, photographed at Teatrul Dramaturgilor. Foto: Sabina Costinel / Styling: Ruxandra Marin

You need time for absorption, to rehearse, to talk about things, time to “chew” on the script’s problematics. There are a lot of really talented actors who can be wholesome, but sometimes that doesn’t help in any way.

So the whole process of getting to know the character and the script are vital for you.

There are cases when you have to play a character who’s very much like you, so then of course it comes more naturally, it’s easier to play them. Otherwise, if I don’t have time for the whole process, I feel like an outsider, like I have reached the limit of a thought and I cannot push it any further. It’s like I don’t entirely understand what I have to play, so the public won’t understand either.

Have you had the time to understand and assume the role of Nicu Holban?

More or less.

Acting on stage seems to hold the dearest place in your heart. Could it be the working process?

Yes, it is. And also meeting the public, the emotion I get from them brings me a lot of joy. A very talented and popular acting professor – Mr. Ion Cojar, used to tell his students “it’s the process that matters, not the success”. 

I have found this concept in many books, in different spiritual sayings, and I believe it applies to every domain. If you follow success, there are big chances you will end up frustrated. If the process doesn’t fulfill you, no matter the result, then it’s nothing special about it. In theatre, if you manage to keep an open mind, you have a lot to learn – from everyone, no matter your age or theirs.

You mentioned meeting the public, as part of your theater experience. It also exists in cinema, even though the experience is a bit different. What do you remember from your first meeting with a film audience?

It was in 1998, when Radu Mihaileanu released his feature film Train de Vie, in Paris. Before its premiere, I went with him and some other crew colleagues at a few previews, where I experienced a Q&A for the first time – in Romania we didn’t have them back then, premieres were organized for the ego and glory of the team. So we were in Paris, in a big hall, with an audience of approx. 600 people, and all of them stayed for the Q&A, which was astonishing. It’s right to say the subject was atypical, a Holocaust comedy. These meetings with the public are quite interesting, especially for an actor.

Mihai Călin, photographed at Teatrul Dramaturgilor. Photo: Sabina Costinel / Styling: Ruxandra Marin

5 Minutes Too Late missed its premiere in cinemas due to Covid-19. However, there were some public screenings, in various film festivals, the first one at Warsaw Film Festival in 2019.

Indeed, and there were some surprising moments. I remember that after one of the screenings some people in the audience told us that it was like they were watching a Polish film; they are living some hard times because of their illiberal democracy. I actually didn’t imagine it’s so serious, even though anyone interested in external politics is familiar with the situation. For them, tackling themes such as homosexuality and tolerance are tabu subjects, not often debated in public, on TV or in movies. They were looking at us with admiration, and I must say I felt proud.

All the characters in 5 Minutes Too Late are trying to adapt to the reality they live in – an adaptability which seems so relevant nowadays. How do you adapt to the reality we are all facing since March 2020?

I don’t know, but it surely goes on for much longer than I anticipated in the beginning. In the first two months, it all felt like a well deserved holiday, because I was tired and stressed out. Now it becomes harder every day, even though I don’t have any real reason to complain – I have a monthly salary, which brings me some comfort. However, I know so many people affected by this pandemic, who lost this stability and it’s extremely difficult to live like this.

Thank God, I have a lot going on, I’m shooting for a TV series, but I constantly have a feeling of inability. People function more and more in the online world, where I feel there’s a shed of hatred – online discussions have a totally different impact than face to face ones, I believe a psychologist could explain it much better than I do. I will give you an example: if you’re a car driver and you drive around Bucharest, you have probably noticed how everyone reacts in traffic, gets mad and starts lashing out. Because you feel protected, your car acts like a bubble, and the other drivers don’t really exist, they are just some other beings in separate bubbles. But if we didn’t have this bubble to protect us while being on the sidewalk, this back and forth of aggressiveness and hatred wouldn’t happen. I believe it’s the same with the online medium, everyone stays at home and understands what they want, it depends on the mood they are in when reading a text, which might or might not be addressed to them.

What have you taken from this whole experience, Mihai?

Perhaps I am more conscious about the moments of intolerance I have towards others; even when I encounter injustice, which usually makes me angry. I have learned to pull the handbrake on, because maybe, just maybe I don’t see the whole picture and this is a good enough reason to have a bit more understanding for the others.

Mihai Călin. Foto: Sabina Costinel / Styling: Ruxandra Marin

5 minutes too late can be seen on Elvire Popesco’s online platform on Thursday, the 19th of November. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with the crew which will be moderated by myself. Tickets and information here.

Many thanks to Teatrul Dramaturgilor for letting us use their space.

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Laura Musat Laura Musat
Film producer and founder of ADFR, she dreamed since she was little of having a magazine one day. Alongside her job as editor-in-chief, she writes the Thursday interviews with Flavia. She loves animals, jazz music and films festivals.