Interview with Samai Yeslyamova, an award-winning actress at the 2019 Asian Film Awards
Kazakhstani actress Samal Yeslyamova has two films and as many awards under her belt. The critically-acclaimed Ayka, for which she was awarded at the 2019 Asian Film Awards, brought her to Hong Kong in March. Sands Style spoke with the award-winning actress ahead of the awards ceremony.
There’s a pivotal moment in Robert Benton’s 1979 classic, Kramer vs Kramer, that sees the bitter custody battle between eponymous characters Joanna and Ted Kramer finally draw to a close. “I came here to take my son home. And I realised he already is home”, says Joanna, played by Meryl Streep. For actress Samal Yeslyamova, Streep’s words, and her performance throughout the film, are touching, tender and – above all – human. “I still do not understand how she does it”, Yeslyamova exclaims. “I don’t see skill or technique. I see only life”.
The raw human emotion in her performance is a style for which Yeslyamova herself has become known. The actress has just two films under her belt, but with them, a steadfast reputation has quickly followed suit. Many actors dedicate their lives to the craft without the recognition that Yeslyamova has achieved in what is clearly just the beginning of her career.
Yeslyamova hails from a small city in her central Asian homeland, where as a child, she had ambitions of becoming a journalist. When the school established a new acting department at her local college, she enrolled out of intrigue and at the recommendation of her father. But once her studies began, she explains, “I felt the pleasure of acting. You research, you learn about different people and places and characters’ lives. It was very interesting”.
Her acting debut garnered critical acclaim, and she was awarded Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival last year for her sophomore film, Ayka. We caught up with Yeslyamova in Hong Kong following her nomination for Best Actress at the Asian Film Awards – a title she humbly accepted later that evening.
“For me it is especially important to be here, to be nominated”, she explains, referring to her Asian heritage. The awards have brought attention and limelight, and with them, the prospect of new roles for Yeslyamova. “As an actress, the most important thing for me is to be able to work”. Speaking before the results of the Asian Film Awards were announced, she says optimistically, “If I receive the prize, I will be very happy”.
But despite the poignancy and sentimentality of the award for her, she notes Ayka’s universal appeal. The reactions of viewers the world over, she says, have been markedly similar. “In almost every country they have said the same thing. They feel immediate empathy and they feel the same emotions. They immediately believe and also perceive things in the woman, and they understand her”.
The tells the tale of Akya, a woman from Kyrgyzstan whose life in Moscow is far removed from a migrant’s dream. Yeslyamova plays the titular character – an overworked, exhausted new mother who finds herself unable to cope with financial demands and the looming repayment of debt to dishonourable men.
Emulating the acting styles of her role models – among whom she counts Marion Cotillard, Meryl Streep, Danny DeVito and Dustin Hoffman – Yeslyamova strove to break down the barrier between performance and person, delivering a living, breathing interpretation rather than a crafted character performance.
“It was a challenging role to prepare for, especially as I do not have children. It was a completely new experience, with so much to learn about motherhood, about children, about babies and the relationships”. She visited several maternity hospitals and connected with new mothers to channel the maternal mindset needed for the role.
The film chronicles the first five days following childbirth. “I wanted to learn how these women felt. Every woman has a particular situation – not all women feel the same,” Yeslyamova says. She explains that the character is not based on any individual’s story, but draws heavily on the physical and mental aspects she learned during her time with women “who were experiencing this in real life”.
For Ayka, Yeslyamova reconnected with director Sergey Dvortsevoy (the pair worked on the flim Tulpan together in 2008). “For an actress”, she explains, “it’s very important to believe in the director and to have that trust. We have that from our first film together. It was easy [filming Ayka] because we already understood each other very well. I felt protected and able to concentrate on the film and the character”.
Such concentration led her to prepare not only mentally, but physically, for the role. “I would run around and appear exhausted” before the cameras rolled, the heavy breathing and apparent enervation contributing to her efforts to bring Ayka to life.
The role was not without its challenges, most important of which (to both Yeslyamova and director Dvortsevoy) was “to make women all over the world believe in the situation; to believe in the character”. The plausibility, she continues, came with achieving it organically. “Sometimes people even think it’s a documentary. That is a great compliment, when people understand that it is a performance, but at the same time they do not understand how it is possible to be so close to real life and the real character. You do not feel this borderline between actor and human”.
Now with her second award and critics from the Hollywood Reporter and the British Film Institute singing her praises, Yeslyamova’s ambitions for further projects are no longer goals, but realities. In the pipeline are a Russian film based in Moscow, and the upcoming sequel to Chinese Canadian co-production, Wolf Totem.
But as she prepares to take on new challenges, is she ready to leave Ayka behind? An approach to acting as immersive as Yeslyamova’s can leave a lasting impression, long after the production has ceased. “It’s like when you read a book,” she explains. “It can be very interesting and very close to you, but you know you are reading. Acting is the same. You are inside but at the same time, you know that you are watching from the outside”.
The development of her skills as an actress is a continuing process. “I am still learning”, she says. “Learning my nature, how deep I can be, and how close to a character I can get”. Famed acting teacher Sanford Meisner is known to have said, “Acting is behaving truthfully under imaginary circumstances”. Truer words could not be said of Yeslyamova’s approach, who clearly has more up her sleeve.