How I came to portray an ex-KGB agent in 'Reagan'

Whether they know it or not, every American actor has a Russian connection because Konstantin Stanislavsky is the father of modern acting, and in my generation the great acting teachers like Meisner, Strasberg and Stella Adler all went to school on the Stanislavsky method (“the method” as it came to be called). 

There was a flowering of great art in Stanislavsky’s lifetime: the works of Chekhov, Pushkin and Tolstoy, and to this day the productions of the great Russian classics, performed by the Moscow Arts Theatre, are unmatched. 

But when the Soviets took over in 1917, bad things happened for the Russian people, and they proved to be disastrous and vicious rulers. Under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin, at least five million people were starved to death and within 10 years, his successor Josef Stalin starved six million more. 

Anyone who disagreed with Soviet policy was packed off to the Siberian gulags or shot. So much misery, so much fear, so much bloodshed. 

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When I visited Russia in 1991 to make a film, things were beginning to change. For the first time, an American film production was allowed to work in Moscow, and we had a first-hand look at the residue of the communist system. 

Walking in Red Square, the first thing I noticed was that everyone walked with their eyes down and kept to themselves, trying their best to be inconspicuous. At the international hotel (one of their best at that time), nothing worked! When I went down to get a light bulb, the girl at the desk avoided eye contact and pretended not to understand English. 

The department stores were bare and deserted and my interpreter, Olga, a distinguished, kindly woman who taught English expressed her sadness at the way things were in her country. My response was typically American: “Don’t worry. Things will get better.” “No, Jon,” she said, “things will never change for us!” The despair of this lovely suffering soul saddened me deeply and I only wished I could do something to bring her some hope and cheer.

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A few days later my prayers for Olga were answered with the arrival of an extraordinary woman from the U.S.: my mother. Mom was entering her 80s, had been diagnosed with lung cancer and had an operation that left her partially paralyzed on her left side. She walked with a cane, but she was an indomitable force who never let anything stop her from accomplishing what she needed to do. Not that she was stern. She was loving. But she was a force, and she was fun!

Mom was delighted to be with one of her three sons (I was the middle), and since my Dad’s passing I had made an effort to share my most exotic film locations with her. So, I arranged for her to join me in Moscow toward the end of the filming.

Mom set a busy agenda and I worked hard to keep up. Olga was completely smitten with her for she had never seen such a self-assured, strong-willed woman in her life. I remember walking down one side of Red Square after a morning of sightseeing and shopping for souvenirs, and my mother pointed her cane to the huge brick wall opposite us. 

“What’s in there?” she asked. “That’s the Kremlin,” I told her. “That’s where the government of the Soviet Union convenes.” She thought for a moment, and then said: “I’ll have to go in there, just for the hell of it!”

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With that, Olga fell to her knees on the pavement, laughing uncontrollably. She had never heard anything like that in her life, and she was overwhelmed. 

So, that afternoon, we found ourselves inside those very walls and mom was asking questions and observing the apparatchiks gathering in the courtyard – apparently on a break.

“Who’s that man?” My mother was pointing to a tall white-haired man who seemed to be getting lots of attention.

“That’s Boris Yeltsin,” I told her. “He’s the head of the government.”

“He seems like a nice fellow; I’m going to go talk to him.” And she moved off into the crowd. 

I tried to follow her and was surprised to see that no one interrupted her as she went right up to the big man. I was very concerned that she might be overstepping our welcome. Olga and I eased closer to hear as mom introduced herself to him. Yeltsin was very cordial. 

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Then, she noticed the pin he wore on his lapel. 

“What’s that pin? That’s a nice pin.”

“Oh, that’s my Communist Party pin.”

“That’s a nice pin, could you give it to me?”

“Oh no. I can’t. I need it for my work here.”

“Oh, you can get another one!” She playfully scolded.

He didn’t give her his pin, but Yeltsin was quite taken with her, and the two of them carried on a lengthy conversation with plenty of smiles.

Watching this meeting of East and West, Olga was frozen in amazement and delight. Maybe things would be changing after all.

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Fifteen years later, I returned to Moscow and I saw extraordinary changes. Certainly, it was hard to pull away from the communist culture after 70 years, but on this visit I saw young people behind the hotel desks. They were smiling and friendly and each spoke several languages. Restaurants were full and in the hotels everything was working and up to date. Entrepreneurs were busy creating successful new businesses, and people were openly attending churches and synagogues.

I knew, of course, that Ronald Reagan had had much to do with this, so when I received information about a movie on his life, I was happy to learn that there was a part I could play. 

In the film I have a young Russian actor sharing the screen with me who plays an up-and-coming politician. He is described in the script as “the rising star of Mother Russia,” and he comes to my flat in the Kremlin to ask questions about the past. I happily fill him in on my work as the KGB agent who had been assigned to follow a young actor named Ronald Reagan.

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The “rising star” is played by a very talented and attractive young Russian actor/musician by the name of Alexey Sparrow, who has a large following in Russia, and I know he will become a fan favorite here as well. I am excited for him. He’s a terrific young man. 

The film was shot during COVID – with all the difficulties that you might imagine, but everyone got through it in good cheer and with no very serious illnesses to report, thank God! Dennis Quaid plays Reagan, and Penelope Ann Miller, his wife Nancy, and I am looking forward to sharing it with the world this summer. 

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