Fast Confession – actress Martina Preissová: When I played a junkie, people contacted me asking for help
Even though Martina Preissová is a theatre actress who has been performing on the stage of the National Theatre for over twenty years, the general public began to recognize her only thanks to her role of a drug-addicted nurse in the TV Nova series Anatomy of Life (Anatomie života), Táňa Šnajdrová. In an interview with LP-Life.com, the actress talked not only about her "newly acquired" fame, but also about her life‘s mission as an actress who is also a mother and now a writer...
The series Anatomy of Life has ended, and you say it is good that there will be no sequel. Why is that? It was a success.
I'm proud that the show was a success. I was really pleased that it had such a good response. On the other hand, I never wanted to die in a green nurse's scrubs. Actually, the end of the series, as I believe it, will open the way for new projects. For example, for me specifically, somehow, at the cusp of turning forty-five, it has finally made me "famous", as many might call it. But for me, it was just a peek into the TV industry, and now I'm looking forward to the possibility that another offer might come from that. If I had stuck with this shooting, I'm afraid I would have closed off other paths.
I don't feel like you're not known. You've been in TV series on Prima before.
I have, but always in a marginal role. This was the first major role where I started to have ordinary people, viewers, stop me in the street and talk to me. That hadn't happened before, they were more likely to mistake me for a butcher shop clerk or vaguely feel that I was somebody they knew, but they didn't know who. There were a lot of funny stories when I had to answer the questions "Don't we know each other? Where do you work?" And I had to say, disgracefully, that I was an actress (laughs). So it was actually that role that made me well-known.
That's really interesting, since you've been acting for a long time...
Yes, twenty years at the National Theater, and yet it means nothing to the audience.
There is a certain type of audience that goes to the theatres, and the general public is not very familiar with theatre actors, compared to soap actors. But still, a lot of actors won't ever give the theatre up. So what are the advantages of being a theatre actor?
I don't think there are many advantages to theatre, certainly not financial or any other kind of benefits. Actors stick with the theatre for the core of the craft; you rarely get to see any substance or subject matter on television that is, as I say, food for the soul. We went to acting school out of a need to make art, and this artistic need can only be exercised on the platform of theatre.
New actors are born every year, and you yourself teach acting. Does the new generation of young actors feel the same way, or do they realize that money is needed today and there is not much of it in theatre?
It's impossible to generalize. I teach at the DAMU, where only people who are already decided at the age of 18 that they want to study and do theatre in the purest form that there is go to study. They go there with the idea of devoting themselves to the art and doing it. But of course, even among them, as their studies and young lives progress, those who start living off the TV will crystallize. But you can't generalize, there are a lot of people who start studying in private acting schools, for example, because they want to get into cinema and television, because that's the attraction for them, that's what they want to do for a living. But the inner fire that burns in young people, for example at the DAMU where I teach, is first of all that they want to do theatre as such.
I'm quite surprised that people like that still exist.
They do. Otherwise, all the painting and sculpting schools would have disappeared. All the art schools would disappear, because without people feeling the need to study and pursue these fields, those schools would be empty.
That's true. Many other manual crafts are disappearing this way; people don't want to work with their hands nowadays. They all want to sit in an office.
We live in an age of shortcuts. The path from work to money is getting faster, and they know it can all be an easier and faster process.
That's why it's good that people are still interested in studying theatre acting. Surely the pandemic hasn't done it much good.
Of course it hasn't. These young people have been through a lot of crises during this period, wondering whether it’s even a viable platform, whether something won’t happen to it. However, I think that ultimately something will happen for sure, that the development of the theatre will go through changes. Prague is probably the only European capital with so many theatres, even across the whole country, we have the most theatres per capita in Europe. We are a crazy theatre nation. There are also a lot of actors' societies and associations performing their platform all over the place, without a home stage. There are so many theatre productions every year that I think the COVID is going to taper the supply a bit now.
You played a drug addict in the series. Have you ever taken any drugs yourself?
Never, not once in my life.
How can one play it so well then?
Because the actor has to somehow capture what happens to the body and the soul when one is in that state. Symptoms that are a little different for everyone, but always carry the same characteristics. The actor has to adapt it to some state of mind and body that they know intimately. I was thinking that it's probably something so extreme, I mean the withdrawal symptoms, for example, such an extreme physical and mental state that it's probably going to have the same manifestations as, say, losing someone close to you. The emotions overlap terribly, they're borderline, sometimes when you laugh it looks like you're crying. There's a fine line there, the expression of emotions can be completely confusing. That's probably the basis of why actors need their craft, why they go to acting schools, and why someone doesn't just become an actor just from deciding they want to be an actor.
Audiences sometimes don't realize the difference between a role and an actor when it comes to a show. Have you ever had someone call you "the one that's doing drugs" upon meeting you on the street?
It was more like messages coming in asking for help. Somehow I've become synonymous with the one always standing up for everyone, solving every problem, and being the empathetic soul who's willing to put herself out for them. Which is what the character is, and that's what I am as well. I've had to be very careful about the limits of when I'm okay with it and when I have to speak up and excuse myself. I'd get messages where people would confess their problems, their addictions or their partners' addictions and so on. And then I created a manual on how to deal with it. I said to myself, I'm going to give them one piece of advice and that’s it, because otherwise I could become a county office for addicts and codependents and that wouldn't work. I have always responded with the advice to turn to a professional in this case, that I was not able to help them with this. But confusing actors with characters is an old hat, it can't be avoided.
I'm wondering how you felt at the beginning of the pandemic, when nobody knew anything, and how do you feel about it now? How did you experience the whole COVID situation?
The first theatre closing came very unexpectedly and very quickly for me. But I enjoyed it the most of all the closings, because I suddenly had a noticeable sense of the difference between not having to do anything and always having to do something. Suddenly I was spending my evenings at home, there were no morning rehearsals, we were all at home. Somehow I welcomed it, it was a breather. Before the summer, I was getting a little nervous about what would happen in September, but I thought - okay, we'll take a break over the summer. By the time I walked into the theatre in September, I could already see my colleagues starting to drop out, the quarantines had begun. A day never passed without someone calling to say they couldn't come because they had met someone COVID-positive. The charts on how to respond were all jumbled. We even had a specifically assigned coordinator in the theatre that anyone who had a COVID-related problem could call.
It got turbulent in September and October, I can't quantify it exactly, but we had to have about two or three stand-ins every week. We had to be constantly prepared for someone not coming, all that with the shows being sold out. I happened to get a call at noon that I was playing Jocasta in "King Oedipus" the same evening. I said it was an awful lot of lines, to which they told me to memorize half of it and read the rest from the text. Even the audience was accepting of it, in times of crisis, they are more forgiving of the fact that it's not quite perfect. But then it became unbearable to keep the theatre afloat, because out of a company of thirty, about fifteen actors were quarantined. That's an unbearable situation, when you're playing on three stages at the same time.
So then there was the second lockdown, and by then it was already set for me in the sense that I knew I had a job outside the theatre. Actually, during the period from October to March, I had the most work I've ever had in my life. I was surprised that I didn't even have a moment to sit down.
All that while you had to take care of your family, cook, study with your two sons...
That was pretty demanding. My husband and I went through a few peak moments, where we either wanted to eliminate them or started to despise them for being completely untalented. Then we started believing they can manage it, then felt like giving up, saying we couldn't do it anymore.
Did you both teach them?
We took turns, whoever could be there, was there. We had a network of different Whatsapp groups where we constantly consulted school exercises, even our theatre colleagues were involved in solving problems, especially mathematical complexities. But of course, online learning is not for everyone. Our younger one handled it brilliantly, he had already learned how to surf in the online environment, but the older one, who is more of an introvert and has a bit of a problem concentrating, found learning through a screen unacceptable. He refused it, he preferred live contact. In some of the lessons, we had to actually sit with him so that he was able to interact with the teacher. So even though he's twelve now and he’s older, we had a lot more work with him.
Have you noticed already, what direction your children are leaning in?
They're not all that formed yet, and I'm so grateful for that. I don't think there's any point in moulding kids a certain way at this age. They have such a fluctuation in their hobbies and interests that I leave a free hand. If they want to play the guitar for six months, I let them play, and if they want to ride a freestyle scooter in another six months, I let them do that. The more they pick up in their childhood, the wider base they’ll have to choose from. They both clearly have a talent for music, there’s no chance for them to be completely untouched by it being born into this family. But I can’t say they're extra talented at anything in particular, no.
You wrote a book during the pandemic. How did you get into writing?
I didn't write the book during the pandemic, it just gave me the time to finish the book, to follow through as I dreamed it, so that it would actually be in stores. If there's one thing I enjoy, it's telling stories. So I thought it would be quite a nice thing to tell them to myself, on paper. It's an activity I can do by myself. It's a rare moment for me to be alone with myself in my all-too-social life. It's like a holiday for me, shutting myself away and telling stories.
The book is called How I Wasn't on the Lions. What did you mean by the title?
I wanted the title to be ironic like that. Originally I wanted the book to be called How I Wasn't on the Lions and My Other Accomplishments, but then we felt it was too angry (laughs). So we called it How I Wasn't on the Lions and Other Adventures. It's a book comprised of short essays and stories that have befallen me, that happened to me. It's about what it's like to be an actress while having kids, a family, other interests like teaching at a school, a garden to tend to and all the family members snowballing on you that you want to attend to. It's basically this bittersweet, entertaining window into one woman's soul.
Can you share a short humorous story?
These stories can't be retold. The humour is in the way the fiction plays out on the page, the way it's written. They can't be retold in person, it‘s the way the sentences are composed and the way it reads that makes them funny.
I read somewhere that your best friend is your husband. What did he say about the book?
He was the first one to read it. We have this thing at home where we consult each other on things and we're usually the first ones to know about each other's problem or joy. Since I mention him in it, I wanted him to be the first reader. Aside from wondering, where I took the time to write it and how he didn’t really notice when I wrote it, his second sentence was that he was touched. That rarely happens to him while reading, and I think my husband is an avid reader. He is constantly recording audiobooks, so he reads a lot more in his lifetime than I do. He said that the style of writing hit him hard and amused him immensely. That he had no idea I was capable of such a style. So he complimented me, which is not that usual between us.
You don't praise each other?
We're quite harsh with each other, I mean, in the context of work. Other than that, I can praise him like nobody’s business, because I know it's the only way to get your way in anything with a man.
Is there anything about him that can still surprise you? I mean not in a negative way, but in general?
It doesn't matter whether the surprise is positive or negative. I believe that when two people stop surprising each other, that's the end of the relationship. Surprising each other and wondering upon something the other one is capable of is the spice of a relationship in my book.
Is such a thing still possible after all these years?
It is, we've been together almost 20 years. As your value systems and priorities rearrange, each stage of life brings you completely different perspectives and completely different experiences. So there's always something that surprises you. I don't find it good to stick with one thing forever, I don't oppose to change. When I stop enjoying one phase, for example going to the cottage or visiting a sauna with a friend group, I'm completely happy to get off the bandwagon, if it’s not getting me anywhere and giving me anything. Change will come, it's only natural. Life is too short to dwell on things.
Is this a matter of age as well?
If I'm referring to age at all, it's just in the sense of this amusing phase where one doesn't even notice how old one is, until it's pointed out, which is the most beautiful thing about it. I think that's the most zen phase of life, when you don't even notice that you're a year older again. Personally, I find having plans terribly stressful – I don't like to make plans because it makes me sad when I don't get to realize them. I only have this plan in my head right now, that I'd like to keep writing and I'd also like to fit everything else in and not get overwhelmed. But I think I can do it, I think I can cram it in somewhere.
The book's already selling, is it a success?
It came out May 13th and it's out of stock.
So there's gonna be a reprint?
There will be a reprint.
In theatre, the reward for the actors is applause. So this must also be rewarding in a sense.
It sure is. I get several messages a day from people who have bought and read the book, saying they have got to know me in some way through the book and the like. It's not just random readers, but also people who maybe understand the field in some way. For example, a book blogger I didn't know before wrote me that it's not unusual for an actress to write a book, but that she actually liked mine and that it's well written. These are the small compliments I like to collect.
It's well-timed, too. The „Anatomy“ series, which, as you said, finally made you more well-known, just ended airing. That must be a good sign.
My PR manager, Anička, helped me a lot with the last phase, especially the promo, to get the book out there. But even if we've been planning the release for years, we couldn’t have timed it this well marketing-wise, even If we wanted to. The book came out the day the bookstores reopened after a year of lockdown. It was a week when even people who don't normally visit bookstores all that often dropped by. Of course, it was also well-timed in the sense the Anatomy ended.
Somehow it all worked out during this spring, that also because of the end of Anatomy, I got an awful lot of people following me on social media, which I hadn't understood, believed, accepted, or respected at all up until that point. When my son told me that I had two thousand more people on there overnight, I had no idea what that meant or how to deal with it. My younger colleagues told me that it was great, that I could already build on it and that the promotion I would do on those social media would have a big impact. It was a lot of factors that came together to make the book sell like hotcakes.
Where are you going on holiday this summer?
We'd love to go to the seaside because we haven't seen it for a long time. I think that for the whole family seeing the sea is a certain signal for the brain to relax. That's what we'd like to do, but we haven't planned it yet. We're not big planners in general. Then I'm looking forward to the boys going to pioneer camp and my husband and I having our sweet fortnight, where we fill our calendar with a bit of work to make good use of the time, but it will also give us those quiet evenings I’m looking forward to the most.
Thank you so much for the interview.
What do you have in common with Táňa Šnajdrová from Anatomy of Life?
What has fame given you and what has it taken away?
Where do you feel most at home?
What was the last thing your sons did that made you laugh to tears?
Now that things are loosening up, where are you and your husband going on a date?
How do I understand the title, "How I Wasn't at the Lions"?
What did the coronavirus teach you?
What's the best advice your father-in-law, Victor Preiss, gave you?
Your dream role?
What do you think about the coronavirus vaccine?
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
Who do you think would make the best health minister in this country?
When was the last time you did a good deed?
What's the most challenging medical term you had to learn for Anatomy of life?
What would you ask me?