Mira Furlan:
Stranger in a Strange Land

by Michelle Erica Green

Some actors don't like science fiction because the situations are so contrived. Discussing alien situations and galactic anomalies that don't exist seems very artificial, and remote from their real lives. Mira Furlan doesn't have that problem. The Yugoslavian-born actress finds the events of Babylon 5 and the life of her character, Ambassador Delenn, almost too close to reality for comfort.

"There were friends in New York who asked me, after one of the episodes that they saw on television, 'When are they going to write something that is not about the former Yugoslavia?'" relates the actress with a sad laugh. "This was when the situation in Bosnia was developing, and the question of intervening versus not intervening was big here. That's what we were doing on Babylon, you know? Centauri-Narn, should we intervene or not intervene, the cycle of hatred, all those issues. It's such an eternal cycle."

The actress lives now in Los Angeles, having fled Zagreb, Croatia in 1991 with her Serbian-born husband. Yet she is not completely at home. When asked whether she considers herself an American, she demurs, "In those terms, I'm left without that definition. I'd like to say I'm a citizen of the world, but I really feel that I don't belong to any place."

Thus, Furlan - a warm, spirited interview subject with a striking sense of humor - has no difficulty relating to the displaced individuals on Babylon 5, nor with playing an alien ambassador in a universe which is constantly in conflict. In fact, she sees Delenn as someone who might be able to provide new perspective on the struggles which shaped Furlan's own life. "I would love to talk to her about the situation in the former Yugoslavia and see what she has to offer as advice - the wisdom that this character has, I think, would be very valuable in that situation," says the woman who helped to create her.

While Furlan has told producer J. Michael Straczynski about her experiences, she is quick to point out that the theme of a displaced person within her own country is not only her story, nor Delenn's. "There were some sentences that just referred to [my] situation completely, so that was a bit creepy. [But] it's what's been happening through history over and over again. That has happened to millions of people. Joe always refers to that."

Since Straczynski has written out the events which will unfold over the course of Babylon 5's remaining episodes, Furlan could ask him about the events which will be unfolding. But she's not interested in spoiling it for herself--she says she wants to be surprised, and thinks the creator likes the mystery.

Besides, she adds, "it's the nature of doing a TV series - you never know what's going to happen. It's not like working on a play or a film where you try to learn it before you even start shooting. You really have to make yourself open and be flexible, and not be too rigid in your thinking about your own character.

Though Babylon 5 has seen some big transitions over the past year, the actress sounds happy with the way the new season is going. Of departing actress Claudia Christian, she says, "I miss her a lot, and I think it's a really bad thing that it happened the way it happened." Of Delenn's romantic involvement with John Sheridan, she exclaims, "It's beautiful, it's romantic, it's wonderful, it's emotional...it's perfect!" While Furlan would not be averse to some tension developing between the two because it would be interesting to play from an acting standpoint, she recognizes that fans identify with the relationship, and appreciates the fact that the characters "are a team in their actions," a rarity among television science fiction relationships.

The star is reluctant to name her favorite episode, complaining that that is a question she gets asked a lot at conventions. "I wouldn't really pick episodes as my favorites, but there are scenes that I've loved over the years - [like] the scene with Andreas [G'Kar], where I had to tell him that I knew what had happened to the Narns, and I didn't want to tell him. That was one of these moments with another actor where things kind of organically happened, unplanned." She was also pleased with the Hugo Award-winning "Severed Dreams," where she played "this action heroine - so different from anything I've been doing in my life!"

The first Babylon 5 TV movie, shot earlier this year, required that Furlan play Delenn in flashbacks as she was even before the early episodes of the television series - many years younger, much less human in appearance and attitude. Furlan had to readjust to the prosthetic makeup, but playing the younger Delenn came easily. "I remembered it, internally - it sort of stays with you." The actress reports that it was exciting for her to restore the youthful Minbari woman, "at the beginning of her whole career and life, discovering things."

The experience of playing a character who develops over so many years is new to Furlan, although she did television work in Yugoslavia. A two-time winner of Yugoslavia's equivalent of an Academy Award and a castmember of the Oscar-nominated When Father Was Away On Business, this highly-trained performer says that it can be "tough to keep it fresh, and to stay in Delenn's skin," though in other ways it's comfortable to have a recurring role - "you enter it like you're entering your old bathrobe." It's a different experience from film and theater, where Furlan got "used to going in and out of projects, and just forgetting about projects that I've already done."

Though the slow pace of Yugoslav film and television frustrated Furlan when she was working there, the lack of rehearsal time and rush to complete episodes frustrates her here. "These are all bad aspects of doing television in this country - time is everything, time is money," she complains. "America just wipes out all your past, you know? It bombards you with its rules and its way of life. You become, whether you want to or not, a part of the system. [And] America has another grip on you, and that's the grip of the money. You're controlled by your bank."

The socialist system from which she emerged limited artistic freedom in other ways. "We were free to a certain degree, because nobody cared," she says of Yugoslavia, where, in her youth, the communists "were weak already" and apathetic about the arts. "The government didn't care, so we were left alone, in that no-money situation." Though a play she performed in was banned for political reasons, the overall climate was apolitical, apathetic - which Furlan thinks actually made space for the nationalists and fascists who followed the communists.

"It was actually an unhealthy attitude, I see that now: apolitical, complete disinterest," she observes. "A lot of effort from these new regimes was put into reviving hatreds. War propaganda of the most disgusting kind, we were all watching that, and thinking, 'What do they want? A war? That's too crazy!' [But] it was not too crazy."

Having seen firsthand how apathy and propaganda can influence people's actions, how does she feel about the level of violence on American television? "I can't watch it anymore," she snaps. "Overall, I think American television anesthetizes people. They become numb, and then you mix it with the real footage from real wars and real violence - not fictional, but real violence that's going on all around the world - and people just don't get the difference anymore. It all becomes this kind of mixture of fiction and reality."

Furlan sees this difficulty distinguishing the two as "an American problem," reflected by the passion of science fiction audiences for the shows. She is thrilled by the fan following, stating that "it's beautiful to see so much love and respect and understanding," and asserting that "in the case of Babylon, we can thank the fans for our existence, and for a fifth season, even though Warner Brothers couldn't really care!" Yet she also worries about the "unbelievable fanaticism" of some of the viewers.

Unlike many American actors, Furlan is not particularly intimidated by the Internet sites which she reads occasionally, nor by the sheer number of fans. She was the victim of a stalker in her native country, and actually finds American fans far more respectful and kind than those from her homeland. But the intensity of passion of the viewers for the show makes her worry about the influence of television over its viewers. "You ask yourself, do they take it for reality? Are they aware of it being just a TV show?" she wonders.

Similarly, she wonders whether Americans reading stories about the events in Croatia realize how those stories are distorted to make them marketable. She is distressed at the way writers have capitalized on the lives of people from her country. "There are so many people who have only read about it, but feel that it's justified to publish a book about Sarajevo - I just read a little children's story that an American wrote, a diary of a little girl in Sarajevo, based on what she read in the papers. And I'm just appalled at how people don't question whether they know enough about it." She speaks with amusement about the "big movie with Harrison Ford about Bosnia," in which the Bosnian woman will reputedly be played by Kristin Scott Thomas, and the Woody Harrelson-Marisa Tomei film Welcome To Sarajevo.

In Yugoslavia, "money never represented such a defining measure." She is disturbed at how quickly Americans put labels on people as well as products. "Somebody was introducing me to somebody, and said, 'Mira is a science fiction actress.' And I was thinking, 'Oh, God, how did I become that so fast?'" After a wide variety of roles in Europe, she is a bit afraid of becoming typecast by the American entertainment industry.

Still, she says, roles for women in Yugoslavia were marked by even more misogyny and "vulgar macho attitude" than the ones available here. Furlan believes that the "rape on a large scale" happening to her country reflects fundamental attitudes on the part of the men in power. "In so many Yugoslav films, I was either raped or beaten up or humiliated in all kinds of ways, and you just start thinking that is how it should be," she observes. "I don't think this machismo and misogyny, the whole male aspect, is just Yugoslavia - but in Yugoslavia it was more bloody, evil and ugly than here. I have to say, American feminism has changed a lot of things. I've always felt that, and I like that about America."

Furlan is therefore hopeful about branching out into more strong female roles. She misses theater, which she describes as "dead" in America - "it's so marginal, it doesn't matter, it doesn't matter in people's careers." She and her husband, film director Goran Gajic, mounted a production of Antigone last year "to express things about this war that were on our minds," but she says she has little desire to do theater other than for emotional reasons such as that - "it's not worth it, because it's the hardest work that an actor can do."

Because of the appropriation of the stories of her people, including her own story - a letter Furlan sent to the Croatian newspapers when she fled the country was published, altered and unattributed, in a short story called "An Actress Who Lost Her Homeland" - Furlan also wants to write about her experiences. Given her passion, knowledge, and apparent skill, she would seem to be an ideal person to provide some perspective for U.S. readers about the situation in Eastern Europe.

It's striking how optimistic Furlan sounds about the future, given that she's lived through more personal and political oppression than many Americans can conceive of outside of fiction. One senses a great deal of pain, but not a lot of bitterness, towards the people who betrayed her in her native country, and a great openness to her new life. Like Delenn, Furlan comes across as an ambassador - concerned that people are doomed to repeat the same mistakes, hoping her testimony and skills can make a difference.

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