In 2018, a guest at the wrap party for romantic comedy Me You He She asked its star and co-director Volodymyr Zelensky if the rumours were true. Was he running for president?
“His wife Olena’s face turned as white as a ghost,” recalls cinematographer Bruce Allen Greene. “At that moment I realised that yes he is really running for president.”
President Zelensky was elected a few months later with 73 per cent of the vote. Now, he is a global icon, a war leader who draws comparisons with Winston Churchill and has world leaders clamouring to meet him.
The transformation is dizzying for colleagues, critics, and fans who knew him as a stand up-comic fond of lewd gags and extravagant costumes, the goofy lead in a series of hit comedies, and the voice of Paddington bear.
But some still see traces of the old showman in the president’s charismatic public addresses.
“I’ve been experiencing that for seven years, watching him hold the camera,” says Mr Greene, who worked with Ukraine’s leader on several productions.
The cinematographer describes Zelensky the actor as an everyman in the mould of Tom Hanks, who retained the common touch with the public as he became one of the best-known stars in Ukrainian entertainment. Mr Greene suggests this has been key to his success in both showbiz and politics.
Zelensky’s stamina would also serve him well in both businesses. He was known in the trade for his habit of finishing one 12-hour shoot, then heading off to begin another.
The future president was said to have been a lively presence on shoots. “On the set he was as funny as on the screen,” says a Russian producer who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the subject in his homeland.
One of the ironies of Zelensky’s career is that it was forged in partnership with what is now the enemy.
Russia’s film industry is larger than Ukraine’s and the comedian often worked in Russia, with largely Russian crews, on Russian-language productions. He opposed a decision to ban Russian cultural figures from Ukraine following the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Politics and war have tested those relationships. But the Russian producer says of his old friend that “what he is doing now is only worthy of respect”.
Colleagues also describe the comic performer as an unusually sharp businessman for an entertainer. That quality was reflected in both the box-office success of his productions and his rise to the top of the industry, and then beyond.
“He found ways to make movies as a business,” says Ukrainian film critic Maxim Filatov, recalling that Ukrainian films were rarely made with an eye on profitability at the rime.
Kvartal 95, a production house founded by Zelensky in 2003, went on to become a media empire with hundreds of employees.
Success as a businessman elevated him into powerful circles and relationships with influential figures such as billionaire oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, who broadcast Zelensky’s shows on his 1+1 channel and supported his election campaign.
Few believe that the actor’s most famous role as anti-corruption crusader President Vasyl Goloborodko on Servant of the People, just a few years before he took the part for real, was entirely a coincidence.
Zelensky formed a party of the same name in 2017 ahead of his presidential run, and Mr Kolomoisky’s channel ran the show back-to-back in the lead up to the vote.
Was Servant of the People part of the election campaign? Zelensky hinted as much in a recent interview with David Letterman. “Maybe after my presidency is over I will be able to answer that question,” he told his fellow comic.
Despite questions around the circumstances of his sudden transition from showbiz to politics, colleagues describe it as part of an idealistic moment in Ukrainian history after the Maidan revolution of 2014, as young, fresh faces displaced the old, discredited, Moscow-facing elite.
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Zelensky brought friends from the entertainment world into government with him. Producer Serhey Trofimov was appointed deputy head of the president’s office. Kvartal 95 director Ivan Bakanov became head of Ukraine’s security services.
The president has since demonstrated ruthlessness in firing both old friends, and having former patron Mr Kolomoisky’s home raided as part of an anti-corruption crackdown.
Zelensky is no longer the joker of his youth now that he has settled into the more challenging role of leading Ukraine’s fight for survival. His scripts now evoke pain and anger rather than laughter. But crucially, he has taken the public with him.
“Nobody expected that this… actor would grow up into such a powerful state leader,” says Ukrainian film journalist Nataliia Serebriakova. “It seems to me that war as a terrible tragedy made him stronger and more human.
“Now we are really proud of our president who was a simple comedian.”