Eugene Hutz: On laughing, linguistics and life

‘Everything is Illuminated’ actor loves the stage – any stage

Erin Adler

Eugene Hutz is no stranger to the performing arts, though “Everything is Illuminated” is his debut film. Born in the Ukraine as a descendent of gypsies (the Sirva Roma), Hutz is also the singer and songwriter for the gypsy punk rock band “Gogol Bordello.” The band wrote and performed the movie’s soundtrack.

Here he reflects on the road to playing Alex in the film, making a movie that was too funny and Eastern Europeans’ whimsical use of language.

As someone who was previously a musician rather than an actor, how did you get this role?
For me, music and performance have always been connected – they inform one another. It’s in the way I perform and in the reach of my music. I like to get out of my own skin as much as I can. I’ve never understood musicians who don’t perform that way.

Alex is this guy who has this creative, explosive, hyper and imaginative energy – he’s just a dynamo. I read the part and I said “I am that guy. Of course I can do it.”

At first, I wanted to play Alex as myself. I had to be convinced that parts of the character had to be sculpted. Because I am a professional performer, though, it wasn’t like new, baffling territory. I just figured if I’m going to do acting, I might as well do acting.

Obviously, there are lots of movies about the Holocaust. What does this movie add to the sub-genre?
I don’t think we were trying to get into the same category as “Holocaust movies,” because that already conditions you on how to receive the film. It’s really a re-envisioning on how to interpret your past. It’s about soul-searching. It’s not really so much about the political events. It’s how you deal with them.

The film is intended to be both funny and absurd in parts. What place does humor have in a film like this?
Humor is an engine of survival, and it was always present in the film. We actually had to cut some of the humor out, at the risk of it being too much of a slapstick comedy. There’s enough of it, though, even after the cuts.

One humorous aspect of the film relates to Alex’s unique views on American pop culture and use of the English language. How realistic did you see these portrayals?
It’s really not that fabricated, in terms of the language part. Ukranians and Eastern Europeans readily exploit language. They invent their own slang to create new verbal and linguistic adventures. It doesn’t really matter to them if they get it right or wrong; their vision is sacred. There’s a self-humor about it.

Eastern Europe is like an eternal war zone – someone can go from hero to zero in a day. The passion and humor we get from language is a reflection that language is free. My friends and I, growing up, would survive for weeks on jokes and words, because there’s really not a whole lot else to do in the Ukraine.