Mention Jonathan Safran Foer’s debut novel, “Everything Is Illuminated,” to readers, and the first character that springs to mind (likely with a smile) is Alex, the heavily accented master of the malapropism who serves as the protagonist’s guide through the wilds of Ukraine. Alex personifies the wacky heart and soul of the new Eastern Europe, and his comic relief is crucial to maintaining the story’s balance of drama and comedy. And so, when actor and first-time director Liev Schreiber came to the casting process for his cinematic adaptation of Foer’s book, the role of Alex was crucial.
Enter Eugene Hutz, who spends his days as the slightly deranged lead singer of the gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello. Producers called Hutz to contribute music for the movie’s soundtrack, feeling that Gogol Bordello’s sound was a perfect fit for a film looking to blend genuine local color with a sense of Ukrainian cool. But after Hutz huddled with the film’s representatives, who loved his accent and his Eastern European B-boy stance, he was offered the role of Alex.
The film reps weren’t the first to see an actor in Hutz. Though he possesses a lackadaisical speaking voice, in song Hutz sounds like a different man — summoning Iggy Pop as cast in an Emir Kusturica film. Throughout the past few years, friends and acquaintances had often offered to help him make his inroads onto the big screen, dangling introductions to art-house heroes such as Jim Jarmusch. But Hutz had demurred, feeling that it was not quite the right time.
“For me, music is the most important thing in life,” Hutz said in an interview with the Forward. “I communicate usually through music.”
Hutz admits to thinking of acting as the logical next step in his career. Nonetheless, music had remained his first and best love. And the timing couldn’t have been better: Hutz was allegedly reading “Everything Is Illuminated” when the producers called him, and even he saw himself as the ideal Alex.
He accepted the role and joined the shoot, which took place in the countryside outside Prague, substituting for Hutz’s native Ukraine. Although Hutz’s band draws heavily on Slavic influences for its self-described “Gypsy punk” sound, he felt little sense of homecoming in his return to Europe, too concentrated on doing justice to his character and enslaved to the grueling exigencies of the shooting schedule, which left little time for reflection. Even for Hutz, a grizzled tour veteran, the pace was challenging.
“There were an insane amount of lines to memorize,” he said, noting that Alex has the bulk of the film’s lines.
But it wasn’t all work and no play. “We shot in Prague during the summer, and it can be quite a party town,” he said. “I didn’t usually go off to bed after we finished our work.” Plus, his fellow partiers were pretty boldface names: Schreiber and co-star Elijah Wood. “I couldn’t really ask for better company than Elijah and Liev Schreiber in making my first film.” Hutz noted, adding that his connection with Wood went beyond the film. “We had a lot of communication through music since the first second we met… it became us two music fans, and we basically hit it off on that premise.”
In playing Alex, Hutz felt that the mostly cerebral humor of the character’s mangled English, which was undoubtedly the strongest aspect of the novel, required drastic underplaying, since part of Alex’s natural comedy is that he never realizes just how funny he is. “The character of Alex is so far away in a personal sense that I had to feed the character into my head,” Hutz said. “There were two main aspects to the character: the personal background and the cultural background. The cultural background was easier to draw on because I am familiar with that type of kid from the Ukraine.”
While Hutz has no further film projects scheduled for now, he plans to come back to acting in the future. In the meantime, though, his day job is keeping him plenty busy. After their stint on the Warped Tour — a summer traveling show in which punk and hardcore bands offer a taste of the old country to herds of teenage skateboarders and extreme-sports enthusiasts — Gogol Bordello will release its fourth album, titled “Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike,” following up on 2004’s acclaimed “J.U.F.”
According to Hutz, the album is a “full-on marriage of gypsy and punk music with rebel reggae and dub,” with its roots in his band mates, who are “so adventurous that once in a while you need to make a more anchor-dropping effort that claims the roots.” After that, more touring, and then who knows? Hutz sounds like a man content to let the chips fall where they may, but only after giving every last ounce of his energy to making sure they fall the way he wants.
Saul Austerlitz is a freelance writer living in New York