Photo courtesy of Daniel Chomistek / Instagram @danielchomistek

From Carnival Row to Jojo Rabbit, casting agent Maya Volavá brings star power to Prague

The American casting agent reflects on current challenges to the Czech film industry as well as a career spanning twenty-five years

Maya Volavá is perhaps best known in Prague for starting Myrnyx Tyrnyx, a now internationally respected casting agency that broke through racial and cultural barriers in the Czech entertainment industry.

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But two years before launching the agency in 1998, she started a vintage clothing boutique of the same name, working with local designers to create quirky, original clothing. The models she chose for her fashion shows were notable for their unconventional style, and Maya set up the talent agency arm of her business to represent these trendsetting talents.

Directors who wanted to feature unique-looking models came to Maya, and she delivered. A quarter of a century later, Myrnyx Tyrnyx continues to provide talent and has helped find the right people for some of the biggest international projects filmed in Prague, such as Spiderman: Far From Home and Oscar-winning film Jojo Rabbit.  

The path that led to Prague

Originally from Los Angeles, Maya started out as an art broker in San Francisco. She wanted to move to Europe and was shopping around for the perfect place to live when she crossed the border from Germany into the Czech Republic for the first time. She describes looking out the train window: “The empty fields went on for miles – and I experienced a full-body reaction that left me crying. Immediately I knew: I have arrived.”

It was 1992 and her plan was to open an art gallery. She was quick to note that investing in art wasn’t really what Czechs were into. They were more excited about the ways they could express themselves physically. They wanted to celebrate their individuality, with their hair, tattoos, or unique clothing. This is what gave rise to Myrnyx Tyrnyx, the vintage clothing shop. 

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It wasn’t easy being an entrepreneur back then, but Maya’s enthusiasm and outgoing nature won her many friends who were happy to help. She heard the words “není možný” (it’s not possible) often, but Maya has a feisty streak and won’t take no for an answer. Rather than get discouraged, she asks “How can I turn this No into a Yes?” That kind of attitude was great for building a career. But it also benefitted the greater community. Maya’s optimism and defiance actually changed the Czech Republic. Because as she fought to overcome the obstacles that got in her way, she also catalyzed change within the fashion industry, the entertainment industry, and even the legal system.

Challenges & joys

Her legal battle over the rights to her brand is just one example of a personal fight breaking new ground. The name Myrnyx Tyrnyx is about as unique as it gets. She took a German expression “Mir nichts, dir nichts” (which means “just like that”) and changed the spelling, creating a one-of-a-kind name. But that didn’t stop another shop owner from stealing the name. She copied not just the name, but the entire concept, from the lettering of the store sign to the kind of clothes for sale. What infuriated Maya most was that these inferior garments reflected badly on her image.

Czech courts weren’t set up to deal with copyright infringement at the time, but Maya brought an overwhelming amount of documentation. Many articles had been written about her and the shop and she presented these as evidence to prove that the Myrnyx Tyrnyx brand was inextricably linked to her persona. In the end, she won a settlement, but more importantly, the courts now had a precedent. 

Having faced many such struggles, was she always sure she made the right choice to move here? “Absolutely. There has been a constant flow of reasons to stay.” The most recent reason is the current government’s handling of the viral pandemic “They acted quickly and were decisive. I’m grateful for that.”  

Life now

With all production stopped, how does Maya spend her time? Like many parents today, she is homeschooling. “At first it was a lot of work making sure my daughter was in each virtual class and doing the work. But we hit our stride. She and I have found a way to work together. The experience of these 2 months has given her a chance to do things at her own pace, with me present. Izzie sets her own goals. She found a system that works very well for her, and it’s allowed her time to grapple with difficult subjects and excel.” 

Parents of international school students have gained new insight into their chosen schools. “During all of this, I discovered that her teachers are really wonderful educators. It was great to have an opportunity to overhear the patient and compassionate way they teach. They were so supportive of the kids.”

When not schooling, she has been spending her time gardening. “Normally, because of my workload, it’s been just a fantasy that one day I’m going to find that extra time. Gardening is something I’ve been wanting to do for years. Not working and not earning any money, is negative, but there have been enormous positives for me in terms of slowing down and getting a fresh perspective, which I really needed.

How she sees the future

The film industry was seriously affected by the epidemic and will not return to normal for a long time. Maya had three projects in the works, and all were either put on hold or cancelled. Now that production is slowly starting up again, she has to adapt her casting process. “There will be a new system. Casting will have to happen in stages. We will use self-taping whenever possible, although many actors are unfamiliar with this. We will work with them on Zoom to direct them, if necessary. We will do our best to arrange individual castings and callbacks so that actors don’t run into each other too much. There will be distancing and shields or masks. I don’t want to risk anyone’s health”.

What’s the new normal for filmmaking?

“On the set of Czech productions, everyone on the crew will probably wear a mask, whether they are inside or outside if they are going to be closer than 2 meters apart. Actors won’t wear masks if they are shooting, of course. And for now, it’s going to be up to individual productions to determine whether actors should have a COVID test,” she tells us.

“I think that bigger production companies like Nova and Czech Television are interested in getting actors tested prior to shooting, but everything is changing daily, so we will see. If someone on set ends up getting COVID, it would affect the filming and the rest of the crew, as anyone who was in contact would have to go into quarantine. So it is in everyone’s best interest to keep safe practices on set.”

“For foreign projects, coming especially from the States or the UK, the system will be significantly different. I expect that the unions and production companies will come up with a concrete list of rules, which will have to be followed. The rules will be sensitive to keeping everyone healthy but will definitely have an effect on how projects are written and shot in the future. For example, there will be fewer extras used whenever possible, to keep the risk down,” Maya continues.

“I think we will have this new system in place within the next couple of months and hopefully start shooting early fall. Some commercials from abroad have already begun to shoot but their directors are online and directing virtually. Humans are ingenious creatures and we always find ways to make things work!” 

Maya’s arc

Looking at Maya’s evolution, a common thread emerges. Fine art, edgy clothing, and entertainment talent: all of these are visual mediums that express a unique point of view. Her fashion brand was about creating unique looks. Her talent agency made its mark by representing the kind of looks that challenged cookie-cutter fashion industry standards. Wherever she goes she blazes her own trail and defies convention, using her intuition and courage to influence the world around her. We can draw inspiration from her reliance on intuition and courage, now that we all have to try to come up with new systems in a landscape of unknowns.

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