Talent On Tap – Up Close and Personal With Andrea Stefancikova of Promiseland

Header photo by Brandon Elliott Portraits

 

Sometimes films can transform you and leave you in awe. They can leave you with a new appreciation for the art and action, the story and the story arcs and the cast. In the new film Promiseland, Andrea Stefancifova plays the lead Velvet. She’s a symbol of oppression and empowerment and an immigrant prostitute. There are huge character arcs in this story and it’s been a passion project of director and male lead Kirk Caouette. The film is having its world premiere at the Whistler Film Festival next month on Dec 5 and 6th. 

 

I sat down with Andrea after only having the opportunity to watch a trailer of the film. Andrea Stefancikova is best known for starring roles in Unmasked, Dark Harvest, Below Her Mouth, Kidnapped in Romania and Iron Shadows. She is fluent in English, Slovak, Italian, Czech and even speaks Russian on screen. She has lived in Czechoslovakia, Dubai, Milan, Barcelona, Montreal, Toronto and now Vancouver. Although I was there to hear about her latest film, Andrea also wanted to speak about systemic issues and myths in the film industry in an attempt to set the record straight, offer advice to new actors and to offer insight into mental health and addiction.

 

After speaking with Andrea, I was left feeling like I had made a new friend. She was o open and candid with me and made me feel like I’d just eaten a big slice of warm apple pie. I left content and with a new understanding of people you meet and the backstory we all have. While we were talking she received notification from the Whistler festival that she’s being recognized as 1 of 4 Stars to Watch due to her outstanding performance in Promiseland. It’s a huge honour for both Andrea and the film.

 

“Congratulations on the film, Promiseland. I’ve only had the opportunity to watch the trailer. I know that you want to discuss your role in the film but I also know that you want to discuss the dark side of the film industry and what you’ve observed, in the hopes that things will change. Can you enlighten me?”

“I think that my view is a slightly in depth one because it’s not just coming from an actors point of view, I’ve also worked on set as a crew member. In the past I worked in the camera/lighting department as a stand in. Whenever I had an audition they were wonderful enough to let me go. As an actress I had a different experience, which helps to shape my view of the industry. There are a lot of wonderful things about working in the film industry and that’s why I’m still here and at times it’s been very hard because of a past drug addiction and others things in my life I was dealing with. There were times when my family and friends told me I was in the wrong industry because of the long hours, the people and the competition but I wanted to stick around because I love it and feel I can make a difference, so I started speaking about it, not necessarily for myself but for the younger generation. I also teach acting at Shoreline and mentor youth as well as work with foster kids. I think when you can talk about your mistakes it can help others.”

 

“That’s amazing. What is it about the industry that needs fixing?”

“I think people are starting to finally open up about the dark side. Specifically it’s the pressure, the competition, there’s bullying and harassment. Although on shows there are anti-bullying and anti-harassment forms but yet it still happens and people see it but they tend to turn a blind eye in fear of speaking up and losing their job. I know that directors and producers do see it but they choose not to act. I think they could make a huge difference if they did. It’s also terrible when someone can be warned for speaking out and told that they can be replaced if they keep it up. I’ve been in a situation where I wanted to call a hotline for complaints on set but I was advised against it by people I thought would support me but I kept hitting a wall.”

 

“Do you think if you were the lead actor on a film, they would be willing to listen to your concerns?”

“I think they would definitely do something, maybe not right away but they would at least make the actor feel like their concerns were being dealt with. Change takes a long time and on set there’s a lot of hierarchy amongst people that have worked in the industry a long time that have made a name for themselves and are considered irreplaceable. Most often you’re told to deal with it.”

 

“Would you be referring to primarily the cast?”

“The cast, the crew, directors and some AD’s. Some people are really wonderful and entitled to bad days, we’re all human. It’s the stress and the long hours caused by the need to get the film finished on time. There are some people that show up two hours before everyone and leave two hours after everyone and they’re suppose to be able to get sleep in between. I believe a lot of people turn to drugs and stimulants to help cope with staying awake and being alert. There are also a lot of dangers with the lights/cables and I can tell who’s using because of my past experience with it. There’s a lot of unhappiness that coincides with the excitement but if an actress or someone else were to take a break to get help for mental illness they usually have to change their lifestyle and have a regiment. They’re told to see the psychologist twice a week, have a better diet, get more sleep and minimize the stress. In our environment, although there’s more awareness around it, there’s still a lot of stress, pressure, a lot of yelling and rushing and it’s part of the excitement that we love but it’s also the things that bring people down.”

 

“I’ve spoken to many producers and directors that tell me they do try to keep the set positive but if the actor is the problem it’s very hard to replace them half way through shooting the film. Is it mostly actors you’re speaking about?”

“Directors, producers and people with seniority will get away with it. If someone has a key position, it will be the people around them that are replaced.”

poster by Torquille De Yonge

“How difficult is it to do your job effectively once you do come across somebody that’s a negative problem?” 

“It affects it a lot. When I was younger I found it very difficult because you begin to tiptoe around them. Unless you have a substantial role in the film these not much you can do. Once the stars show up on set, there is an etiquette that everyone follows and is on their best behavior. Being on set is the best, especially because you’re creating something special together with all the other departments. When you have someone that’s really hard to deal with it sucks all the fun out of it and for me, I get really quiet and withdrawn. There’s been times where I’ve tried to communicate my concerns with production but I’ve found that it just comes back at me, so I haven’t had the best experience with it. I do love people and don’t like making trouble but feel that if nothing is said then change won’t happen.”

 

“In just meeting and talking to you I think you’re very easy to talk to and can’t see anybody giving you a hard time.”

“I like to think I’m a good listener. You can learn a lot by listening and watching… and that’s what brings me back to the mental health. I can see when someone’s not well. When the director calls cut and their body language changes, there are signs. You can see it in their eyes when you ask them how they are. They’ll say yes but I think it’s okay to give a different answer. They’re people I’ve known a long time that I’ll talk to and tell them that I can see they’re not well. I try to get them to open up to me. I would rather have people tell me they’re not okay, so I can offer a shoulder or support to say, ‘I’m here if you want to talk.’ I think it goes a long ways.”

 

“Where do you think your empathy comes from?”

“I’ve had certain things happen throughout my life since a young age. One of the biggest was my immigration from one country to another when I was 16. There was bullying and harassment in high school, as well as seeing my parents getting discriminated against and how they had a tougher time than us. Also my own coping and becoming addicted to drugs that I’ve been battling with half my life. I’m much stronger now because I’ve managed to get through it. For me, it came down to loving and forgiveness where I had to forgive people that I resented. Lots of people feel invisible and just want to be seen and heard. That alone can go a long way and begin the healing process.”

 

Andrea continues, “Addiction is so difficult. You can ask how people are but you can’t make them accept help. My family really suffered with my addiction especially my brother. I would threaten him if he told my parents but in the end it came down to me. For me, the catalyst for getting clean was waking up and not remembering where I was and what happened. I had told myself if it happened again I might just kill myself. I had lost my home because I couldn’t pay the mortgage but yet it still didn’t stop me from my addictions. When you compound depression with addiction I think you’re trying to mask reality and because I’d been hiding from reality for a long time it was so difficult to stop doing something that made me feel so good and comfortable. It really wasn’t until I had an engagement party with my now husband. I wasn’t doing drugs but I had gotten drunk and started acting like somebody else and started calling people to track down my old drug dealer for drugs. My parents had flew in for the engagement party and I didn’t treat them very well, I completely made a fool out of myself. My husband told me about it the next day because I had blacked out. That was the last time I touched a drop. I started going back to the meetings and found a sponsor. Now that I’ve come through it, I believe the best way to stay sober and to feel fulfilled is to help others.”

 

“I think it’s amazing that you want to help others. I realize that you can’t force people into accepting help but when they’re ready it’s nice to know that your support is there.”

“After I got sober I still had to deal with the depression and it came on really strong. Because I wasn’t drinking or using drugs I felt paralyzed. I couldn’t talk to people, I couldn’t audition, I would sit and cry all day.  I had gone to a psychiatrist and he diagnosed me with depression. He told me he wanted me on medication for at least a year. I had asked if I could try a healer and he told me no. As an ex drug addict I didn’t want to numb myself so I knew of a healer, a woman I’ve known for a long time. She does acupuncture but also heals people. She told me to do certain things, such as getting a dog, speaking and writing, acupuncture and continue with my counselor. It took 3-4 mths but it finally lifted and now I’m more prepared.  I’m not advocating for people not to take medication because it may be necessary but there should another way.”

 

“I couldn’t agree more. Switching gears, can you tell me how you became a fashion model before transitioning into acting?”

“I come from a family of artists. My mom was a dancer as well as a painter, my dad owned a publishing house, my grandfather was an engineer and a writer and my great grandfather was national fine artist and a theatre director. When I was younger I took ballet and when I first performed in front of an audience I really felt the connection. In general I’m a shy person but when I’m performing it’s an escape. When I was living in North Vancouver a friend of mine was attending acting classes, so when they were taking a break I approached the teacher to ask how I could get into acting. They told me my accent was too thick and that no one would hire an immigrant and to find another career. I ended up getting discovered by a modeling company and moved to Milan for a couple years. I had met a Canadian model in Barcelona and moved to Toronto with him. I started taking speech classes, accent reduction classes, acting classes and started seeing agents. I moved to Montreal and was still using drugs. I’d go into an audition and without having proper etiquette I wouldn’t have my lines memorized and was just having fun with it. I wasn’t taking it seriously enough. Despite all that, I ended up booking my first gigs in Montreal. I worked with Donald Sutherland, Paul Sorvino and had met them at different stages of my life. I continued modeling in between auditions. I was however still showing up to auditions on drugs, not professional and having breakdowns in the middle of them. My agent told me to go to rehab and clean myself up before coming back. He believed in me. I moved to Vancouver in 2001 and attended rehab and started getting back into shape/taking acting classes. Once I finally completely cleaned up I had matured and started showing up to auditions as myself. Things had really shifted ad I think that’s what started getting me the roles.  I believe it’s what got me the role of Velvet in Promiseland. I feel that I have a lot to say through not just dialogue but through my eyes, my body language because of the past experience in my life.”      

 

Andrea adds that working hard, having discipline and it will come back to you. She says that her dad tells her that she’s the only one in the family that has stuck to one thing all her life and has dealt with her demons.

 

I want to say that having gone through addictions in ones life and having success with it helps to build character and makes you stronger. Many people do not go through personal struggle on that scale and I believe Andrea now has an added advantage. 

“I wanted to ask you how you became involved in Promiseland.”

“I was walking down Commercial with an ex boyfriend when I ran into Kirk Caouette, who’s the director and also plays Victor. We started discussing his film and that he still has many actresses to audition for the role. My ex boyfriend suggested Kirk bring me in for an audition but instead Kirk told me he’d send me the screenplay that night and wanted me to write a biography on the character Velvet. I read it as soon as he sent it and spent hours writing the bio despite there not being any background on the character. I sent it to him and he was so surprised at my depiction of Velvet that he brought me in for the audition and screen test. I think I gave him something else to think about the character. I gave him some depth, some layering of my life, stories I know. I had the screen test with him because most of my scenes are with him.  We went through approx. 4 scenes and I was nervous but I had nothing to lose so I showed up as myself instead of trying to sound American or otherwise. It went really well.”

 

“How many people did you have to audition in front of?”

“There was the director, a few producers and really a bunch of people but I was so in it, with my character and the character of Victor that everyone else disappeared.  I was notified 2-3 days afterward and was told that 9 or 10 women auditioned after me but that I got the part. He told me that I had brought a level of humanity that was unmatched and the chemistry between us in the audition helped him make his decision.  We had a few weeks before shooting so we started collaborating together. I also took the character for walks, we had rehearsals and some meetings about the story and backstory of the character.”

 

“How long did it take to shoot the film?”

“The film was postponed for a while because Kirk Caouette’s best friend passed away just before shooting. It was postponed again after the dog in the film had died. It took about a year to shoot because of delays and reshoots. Kirk also insisted on re-cutting the film over and over again. He finally ended up with a film that matched his vision and you’re going to see it in Whistler. It’s very meaningful to Kirk on so many levels. This is the first time in Whistler that an action/martial arts drama Canadian made film has been screened in Whistler in 19 years. It’s also very artful and poetic. There are a lot of blues and feathers flying. We had almost a hundred stunt people that worked on the film. Kirk was the first director to give me the chance to be part of a big film and a big festival like Whistler. I’m so glad it’s in Whistler because it is very intimate but a very important festival.”

 

Andrea adds, “The cast is very strong and Kirk really did a great job making the action and the drama work so well together. Velvet’s story is very dark and very emotional, she drives the emotional arc but then there’s this really strong and intense action story in the film and they intertwine.”

 

“Did you have to do any special preparation for this film?”

“I did, I was trained in the use of firearms and how to run with a gun, how to fall with a gun and shoot. I also had to develop my character.”

 

“What’s your favourite meal?”

“It’s gonna sound funny but good Italian pizza.”

 

“What draws you to a story/script?”

“It really depends. But when I read a script or treatment for the first time, I visualize it like a movie, and depending on what I picture/imagine, I feel more or less intrigued. What draws me are the characters, their motives and intentions, their flaws, strengths and weaknesses, their trajectories and possible transformation throughout the story. Do I like them? Can I relate to them? What kind of impact are they making on me? Then it’s the story itself. What is it about? What is the writer trying to say? Of course when the story is dialogue driven, then the writing and the dialogue is something that I would be drawn to or not. And then it could be who wrote it, or who presented to me.”

 

“If you had three wishes for your career, what would they be?” 

“I would like to be known or remembered as someone with talent, depth, intelligence, passion, heart and soul; someone who loves people. I would like my work to have an impact on people and have them talk about it after. I would like to have a voice strong enough with a global reach to make a difference/ contribute to a change in certain issues of our society and industry. I would like to be a role model to youth, help people and spread love and light.”  

 

“If hugs in public were considered illegal, who would you break the law for?”

“I lived in the Middle East for a few years, and same goes for when I travel to countries where public display of affection is considered indecent, same as showing too much skin, etc, although I don’t always agree, I do respect different cultures, and traditions, so I wouldn’t purposely provoke the authorities and hug people just to be ignorant and prove that I am a foreigner with different values. It’s offensive to them and that’s okay. However, if a certain situation called for a hug, and I thought it could help a person or save a person, then I would without a doubt break the law. Otherwise, I would keep my affection and hugs behind closed doors.” 

 

“Are there any women in history that you would want to portray in a movie?”

“Good one! I will give you three where I come from or close to because I could probably come up with an entire list if I kept going. I have always wanted to portray Elizabeth Báthory. The myth about her has been a part of my upbringing. She is basically a Countess Dracula. My father is related to Catherine the 1st of Russia, the second wife of Peter the Great and Empress of Russia. That has crossed my mind a few times. I would also love to portray the tennis player Martina Navratilova. I would love to play one of the writers like Bozena Nemcova, Timrava or others.”

 

You’re cast in a film where you have super powers. If the choice was yours to make, what would your super power be?” 

Superpowers, hmmm… mine would be flying, clairvoyance/telepathy and shape-shifting.”

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