Movie Article

From Ukraine, With Love

Meet ''Everything Is Illuminated'''s Eugene Hutz. How a punk musician from Eastern Europe who'd never acted before wound up as ''Frodo'''s costar

When musician Eugen Hutz walked into Liev Schreiber's office last year, he had a simple goal: to land a spot on the soundtrack to Everything Is Illuminated, a film adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's acclaimed novel — and Schreiber's directorial debut. He walked out with far more: a starring role. ''About 10 minutes into it, I started to think that maybe he was the guy,'' remembers Schreiber, who continued to describe the quirky part to the singer. ''Ten minutes after that, Eugene said to us, 'I am that guy!'''

Not that you have any idea who the guy is. Eugene Hutz is by no means a household name, but that may change. For starters, he's got a look. Hutz enters a Manhattan restaurant dressed like some kind of hipster pirate, complete with a Rollie Fingers mustache and a lapel button that reads ''Think Locally, F--- Globally.'' ''No stylist necessary,'' he quips. Up to this point, Hutz is best known as the frontman for raucous punk band Gogol Bordello, whose shows are famously unpredictable — he once ended a gig by extinguishing a cigarette on his chest. Sipping a beer at the crack of noon, Hutz leans in and says in his thick Ukrainian accent, ''It is music to liberate your mind and all of your muscles.''

Thanks to Illuminated, Hutz is now poised to become a cult favorite in two mediums. Starring opposite Elijah Wood — who plays the uptight ''Jonathan Safran Foer'' character — Hutz, in a remarkable debut, is the film's comic highlight. As the narrator and translator Alex, he leads Foer on a haphazard search through the Ukrainian countryside for the woman who saved his grandfather during WWII. Essentially, it's a Holocaust-themed road trip with an unlikely quartet: a neurotic American, a swaggering Ukrainian guide, his crusty grandfather, and a slobbering mutt named Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior [sic].

Dressed like a wannabe B-boy, Hutz's Alex speaks in syntax-challenged patter, seemingly learned from a VCR manual. ''Forgive my speaking of English, Jon-fen,'' he says when they first meet, ''as I am not so premium with it.'' The goofy Ali G-meets-Yakov Smirnoff lingo scores laughs, but Hutz is also getting raves for his dramatic chops. ''There is an outward kind of charismatic, mad intensity to his performance,'' says costar Wood, ''and then there are many subtle moments that are really touching and beautiful.''

Schreiber scoured Europe to find the right person to play Alex. When Hutz's name first came up, it was as a musician, but his background made him a natural candidate. Born in Kiev, Hutz had not only the accent, language skills, and ethnic appearance but also the life experience. ''[Alex] has an indestructible optimism,'' says Hutz. ''I know it very well. The ability to make merry out of nothing is a survival method.''

Still, an accent doesn't make an actor. There's that whole business of actually, um, acting. ''Eugene probably had the most intense crash course in acting that anyone has ever been through,'' says Schreiber. Lesson No. 1: memorization. ''I thought it was absurd when they said I need to memorize all these lines. I thought there were methods around it,'' Hutz says, laughing. ''I definitely was a pain for them!'' And then there were those pesky call times. ''Sometimes I would come home from the clubs at 6 a.m., take a shower, and go straight to the set,'' Hutz recalls of the two-month, modestly budgeted shoot in the Czech Republic. ''I wanted to strangle Eugene sometimes for being hungover,'' Schreiber says. ''We'd shoot on sunny mornings and he couldn't keep his eyes open. Though I couldn't really yell at him most of the time, because I was out all night with him.''

A year later, Hutz is still recovering. ''I thought a movie would be a piece of cake,'' he says. ''But the mental exhaustion was just unbelievable.'' Would he sign up for another? ''Maybe,'' he says, pausing for a minute. ''Perhaps mind-scratching and psychopathic roles. I'm not interested in playing any normal people.'' That shouldn't be a problem.

30 SECOND BIO
AGE 33
BORN Kiev, Ukraine
ADOPTED HOMETOWN New York City
DAY JOB Leader of the cross-cultural rock band Gogol Bordello, whose latest album, Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike, infuses high-speed rave-ups with old-world accordions and fiddles. Two of their songs appear on the Illuminated soundtrack, alongside ethnic folk and a score by Paul Cantelon.
NIGHT JOB Hutz regularly DJs at an NYC club called the Bulgarian Bar, spinning a globe-trotting mix of reggae, polka, and new wave. ''It is such a blast,'' says costar Wood. ''I've gotta go again.''
WACK JOB He once ended a Gogol gig by putting out a cigarette on his bare chest.

Originally posted Sep 16, 2005 Published in issue #841 Sep 23, 2005 Order article reprints