The highly anticipated film Havel, a biopic about the dissident playwright turned post-Velvet Revolution president, is heading to cinemas on July 23.
At the heart of the film is Havel’s strong relationship with his wife Olga Havlová, played by veteran Czech actress Anna Geislerová. Václav Havel is played by Viktor Dvořák. The cast also includes Martin Hofmann as Pavel Landovský, a close friend of Havel’s at the time the film is set. Barbora Seidlová, Stanislav Majer and Jiří Bartoška also have roles.
Havel’s entire life is too large a subject to cover properly in one film. The current biopic focuses on the years 1968–89, and attempts to capture part of the journey of the future president from the frivolous but successful playwright of the 1960s to becoming a human rights activist of the 1970s and then the leader of the Velvet Revolution and a global icon.
The screenplay, by director Slávek Horák and writer Rudolf Suchánek, took three years to create and mixes real events with some dramatic license. The director said the film is not intended to be a textbook. This is Horák’s second film as a director. His 2015 film Home Care (Domácí péče) was the Czech entry for the Best Foreign Film category, but was not nominated.
Geislerová has been acting in film since 1990, and she had her big breakthrough with the 1994 film The Ride (Jízda). She has won numerous awards including four Czech Lions and a Czech Film Critics’ Awards during her career.
She spoke about her role in Havel.
Q: What was your experience during filming?
A: I really enjoyed preparing for it. I usually shoot with people who take care of the preparation. And even here we were very careful. We prepared for a long time, read the script, and went through an acting workshop together with Slávek and Viktor. That came in handy. It’s different on the set; you don’t have time to deal with things that much. Preparation, where we all analyze everything, discuss who plays whom, what he knows about him, who he talks about, and from whom who draws resources, is my favorite part of filming.
Q: What was the most difficult part of filming for you and what was the most memorable?
A: I really enjoyed looking at Viktor Dvořák because he really looks like Havel. Sometimes I narrowed my eyes and said to myself, “That’s unbelievable; I’m filming with Havel!” So he really enjoyed [working with] me. Cigarettes were difficult for me. That was very challenging, just like for Viktor.
Q: Supposedly you were preparing for the role for two years.
A: That’s a little distorted. About a year or two before I knew anything about this film, I thought that if I adored Havel as I did, I should know more about him. So I read books about Havel, his stuff, and in the end, it was really was preparation in advance; I had a more comprehensive view of him. I wasn’t preparing for Olga, I was dealing with Havel. When Slávek sent me the script and I was offered the role of Olga, I was moved. It is interesting that what I took away from the books myself and what I was most interested in was also in the script.
Q: In retrospect, how hard was it to recognize her in the script?
A: With Olga, it is interesting and in a way admirable how modest she was. She didn’t go anywhere. It’s very difficult to find any conversations with her. … She was such a lady-lumberjack. But that’s just my idea of it composed of different fragments. I also read two books about her, by Pavel Kosatík and by Anna Freimanová, and from all the possible information I was looking for, I made a picture. Meeting Anna Freimanová was crucial.
Q: What do you think Olga Havlová was like?
A: It’s complicated with Olga, she’s mysterious, you don’t know much about her. It has such a nice contrast. She is an ordinary girl from Žižkov, she trained at Baťa [shoe factory], she was sharp, vigorous, practical and yet she functioned like a queen, like a noble aristocrat, a beautiful and dignified woman.
She wasn’t an introvert, she was just closed off. She didn’t let people in too much. Or at least the ones she didn’t want. On the other hand, she organized many events in Hrádeček [the village where Havel had a cottage], various happenings, and parties. When Havel was in prison, she took over a samizdat publisher with [brother-in-law] Ivan [Havel], and she wrote a play herself. It must have been so much fun. … She was a very strong person overall.
Q: Are there ways you and Olga are similar to or wish you could be like? And what do you value most about her?
A: I don’t want to compare myself to her. I cannot. I admire her too much and, unlike her, I am, unfortunately, a relatively strong egoist. … Sometimes I deliberately push people further. Sometimes they think I’m arrogant, but I don’t care. A person can look at life and look for a situation or people who give life a chance. We only live once, and [it should be] on the edge. So people I don’t like know it very quickly. And I leave situations I don’t want to experience. I don’t want to deal with the opinions of people who do not even seek agreement’ there is no time for that.
Q: You mentioned that while studying Havel, you came up with the same things as in the script. What did you agree with the screenwriters on?
A: Positive heroes often make a mistake in life or in a story that will only lead them on the right path. Based on such failures, a person changes, and this motivates them to positive behavior. Conversely, some “negatives” are somewhere in the beginning for fragile beings who have been wounded by something and have not managed [to deal with] this blow of fate. This does not excuse them, but it is very interesting to watch such stories.
I didn’t know about Havel’s “failure” for a long time, how he felt, which was in connection with his first arrest and first imprisonment. It’s not a big failure, but he blamed himself. Everyone, no matter how great a genius and who is stronger, has human weaknesses. Everyone lives with their shadow, and these shadows and weaknesses are as important as the positive things that shape us. Being able to accept your shadow is essential for life.
And I also like this film that it is not a one-sided adoring statement about Václav Havel.
Q: You met Olga Havlová in person once. What was it like?
A: I met Olga a few times, and once during a premiere, I was introduced to her together with [actress] Táňa Vilhelmová. From what I think of her now, we probably weren’t interesting partners in the conversation. We were young girls then, actresses, and I don’t think we were interesting to her.
Q: And what was meeting Václav Havel like?
A: I met Václav Havel several times, during his birthday celebrations, at various exhibitions, at [the theater] Na Zábradlí, etc. What was beautiful about him was how he was accessible to people; he liked to have fun. I remember his last birthday in [modern art venue] DOX, which was still charming. And we also saw each other at an audition for his  film [Leaving (Odcházení)], where he didn’t choose me.
My favorite experience with him was during the Karlovy Vary Film Festival when he wrote us an amnesty on a receipt from the bar. At that time, Pavel Liška and I had some trouble with the police for breaking the night’s peace, and he pardoned us on the receipt. The so-called Karlovy Vary Amnesty. It was fun, of course.
Q: When you filmed on November 17, you filmed directly at the Melantrich building [on Wenceslas Square] and it was 30 years since the revolution. How did you feel about that? Was it touching?
A: We were there at night. We didn’t see the people below us in the movie. It was a filming trick. We waved to a green screen they stretched out there. The technical side of filming can be boring; it’s often intangible.
What was touching, I don’t know if the scene made it into the film, was when Olga asked, “Why don’t you want Havel to be president?” And she replies, “Because I love him.” She was aware of what awaited her. She knew that Václav had to be president, but at the same time she didn’t want it. She knew her whole life would change. She didn’t want all those receptions, but she knew it had to be, even if it bothered her.
She really didn’t want to be seen, which is weird. Almost all of us want to be seen. I also have my extroverted position, I need to somehow communicate with the outside world. She was different and I don’t know many people like that.
Q: How was acting with Viktor Dvořák, who portrayed Václav Havel?
A: Beautiful. Viktor is a sweet, calm, and kind man. There was an element of nursing and motherhood in Havel’s relationship [with Olga]. And also with us. Not because of his age, but Viktor is mainly a theater actor, and his film experience is not as great as mine. Work in theater and film is different, so we often discussed different procedures together, discussed, and thus got a little closer to their relationship. Plus, he’s got disarming laughter, so you feel like laughing to hear that laughter.
Q: Do you think it’s too early to make a film about Havel, or is it the right time?
A: I think the best time comes when someone feels the need to make such a film. And this will definitely not be the last film about Havel. Fifteen such films can easily be made.
Q: If you could describe your character Olga in three words, what would it be?
A: Strong, honest, and unavailable. But that’s not all, three words are not enough for me. To this, I would add a tolerant and 100% free. She could not bear any restrictions for herself and did not limit others.
I think she always kept those qualities; she was always free and beautiful even during those “protected” presidential times.