Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are proud to present the following interview with OLYMPIA DUKAKIS
See below for screening details of her powerful new project Beneath The Olive Tree at Western Connecticut State University!
Olympia Dukakis is a true icon. She has won both an Academy Award and an Emmy Award for acting. She is a writer, director, producer, bestselling author, and, above all, a humanitarian who has lent her name and passions to many worthwhile causes. Pillow Talking is thrilled to have reconnected with her and to discuss her involvement as a narrator and executive producer in her latest project, Beneath The Olive Tree.
PT: We are so excited to have the documentary film Beneath the Olive Tree play at Western Connecticut State University [Western] where we both teach part time. It sounded like a great documentary – and then we found out that you were involved in it and we just had to talk to you.
(Wayne) As you know, it’s been several years since we did the PPMD [Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy] PSA together which, by the way, has brought so much awareness about Duchenne muscular dystrophy and is still being shown.
OD: I’m so happy to talk to you about it [Beneath the Olive Tree]. And I’m thrilled about the PSA and my involvement.
PT: (Wayne) If you recall, my son Wyatt [who has muscular dystrophy] who was in the PSA with you had sat on your lap at your suggestion for one of the takes. He said to say, “Hello!”
OD: Yes, I remember. How is he now?
PT: He’s going to be 20 in August. He is wheelchair-bound, but he graduated from high school and is taking a year off before college (or so he says) and is writing movie reviews for the local paper.
OD: He’s a man now. God bless him and good for him! You tell him we are all “bound” by something. He has the wheelchair, but the rest of us have our own ways of being bound.
PT: (Wayne) That is so true! But the PSA had another benefit for me. I met my true soulmate, writing partner, and wife because of it. She was a journalist at the time and had come to interview me about the PSA – that’s how we originally met. It was some years later before we were romantically involved.
PT: (Stephanie) I’m on the line, too. It’ so nice to finally meet you!
OD: Yes! Congratulations! That’s wonderful.
PT: Thank you! So let’s talk about Beneath the Olive Tree. How did you get involved with the project?
OD: Well I read the book many, many years ago.
OD: Yes! And I knew Stavroula Toska. She had had a script she wanted me to look at it and it really wasn’t very good, I had to say. I asked, “Why are you doing this?” I just knew that she didn’t believe in [her script]. She didn’t have any connection to it. She started crying and said, “I don’t have anything [else].” And then the book popped into my mind. I went to get it and I gave it to her. [Greek Women in Resistance] was about these women who were imprisoned on this island. She came back to me later, totally changed. Now she had a purpose and a passion and it was wonderful. And that’s how it got made.
PT: How did you first find out about the book?
OD: You are going back so many years, I can hardly remember. I think the author, who now lives in Greece, sent it to me. I read it and I was very moved by it – and the stories of these women. The Greek government, of course, didn’t do anything with it. But I had the book and I kept it. I thought this would be a great project for somebody. And then Stavroula showed up.
PT: And so it was like kismet! We know you narrated the film but you also were the Executive Producer on this project. Is this your first time working behind the camera in the capacity of a producer?
OD: No, I’ve actually been a producer in a number of projects. But this is certainly one of the most heartfelt ones.
PT: What’s amazing is the lengths and extent of the cover-up and how it was all swept under the carpet in history. It’s like the situation in the United States where, at the beginning of the WWII, Italy was aligned with the Axis powers and we had concentration camps here for Italians. Very few people know about that.
OD: And very few people today know that we had concentration camps for the Japanese!
PT: That’s also true! Can you tell us what do you and Stavroula hope to accomplish with this documentary?
OD: I think really it is to introduce people to the courage and spirit of these women which is extraordinary to me; to let them know that these women existed and not allow them to be lost in time.
OD: The women weren’t singled out. There actually were men in these camps as well. It was an equal opportunity oppressor (laughs). But the men certainly got more play than the women.
PT: Why do you think that was so?
OD: The government didn’t want people to know how the government behaved back then. Governments cover up a lot of things! Look what’s happening to us today!
PT: That’s so true. We can’t disagree with that. But this was a long-time cover-up and it is certainly long overdue that the stories are told.
OD: Yes, it was, and yes, it is.
PT: It was almost by happenstance that these secret journals of the women’s egregious experiences in the camps were found and revealed. When the existence of the journals was revealed, what was the impact?
OD: Controlled. It was controlled by the government.
PT: We saw an interview that your director did with a journalist and she didn’t even know that her grandmother was in one of the camps until she started working on this project.
OD: Yes, she didn’t know. It all was kept very quiet. It was a huge surprise for her to find out that she was the granddaughter of someone who was actually in one of the camps.
PT: It’s also surprising that these women did not talk about the camps sooner – even the women who wrote and hid the journals under the tree. Or maybe it’s not so surprising because they were so oppressed and the events were repressed.
OD: Yes, well who was going to advertise it for them? Certainly not the government or even the church.
PT: Well that is the great thing about this documentary. It will have a long shelf-life and be an excellent resource to students and the general public. How long did the actual documentary take – from start to finish?
OD: I think it took about five years.
PT: Were you given dailies or did you just see a rough cut when it was done?
OD: Stavroula gave me the rough cut.
PT: What did you think when you finally saw everything pulled together for the first time?
OD: I was so excited that it had gotten to that point. She had made a commitment to see it all the way through and indeed she did.
PT: We know it’s been critically acclaimed and although we’ve watched parts of it, we can’t wait to see it in its entirety with the students at Western! We know you’ve had a long and highly successful career in the entertainment business. What do you tell students and up-and-coming filmmakers? What advice do you give?
OD: I guess the same thing that I was told and what I believe, and that is to just follow your passion.
PT: (Stephanie) How do you go about selecting the projects that you want to be involved with today? Obviously this one had a personal, cultural element.
OD: It has to be something that I feel a passion for. Something that really moves me and touches my heart and conscience.
PT: We both were shocked and horrified when we learned about these concentration camps. It’s a tribute to documentary filmmakers like Stavroula Toska to bring these issues to the forefront and fill in the holes in the history books. What do you want students to take away from the film?
OD: First of all, just an understanding and a respect for these women and how they handled themselves. I know that Stavroula’s interviews were rather extensive. I hope the viewers see that there is a place for conscience; a place for activism. These are not just empty words, but they are real and they matter. And it’s important that we respond.
PT: How do you perceive the differences in making a documentary like this one and a bigger budget type of film?
OD: For some people fiction is the way and for others documentaries are the way that they can express themselves and deal with what matters to them and yet still feels important. One is not better than the other. They come from different sensibilities.
PT: (Stephanie) when you first started out in the business, did you always have that fire in your belly –to be a storyteller? How did you get started in the entertainment business?
OD: (Laughs) That’s another story. I wanted very much to be at the heart of my life and the times around me. I always wanted that.
PT: Well, that is obviously reflected in the projects you choose. You are a great humanitarian and have done so much for so many worthy causes. In terms of working on those kinds of projects today, do you think it has changed from when you were starting out?
OD: It’s pretty much the same as far as the effort is concerned – the desire to get involved, to do something that really matters, that feels important and relevant and timely and affects the lives of people. I think that that pretty much drives a lot of people. I don’t think that’s changed. For some people, it’s making money – lots of money (laughs) so that hasn’t changed either.
PT: (Stephanie) I think what’s great about today, despite some of the pitfalls, is the ability to use social media and the internet to promote projects like Beneath the Olive Tree. It gives a push for projects that don’t immediately get in front of people.
OD: I think that anything that people can use – whether it’s the internet or writing [on social media] – or anything else people use and feel comfortable with is great.
PT: Are you working on any projects right now?
OD: No, I’m not. The only thing I’m doing right now is teaching.
OD: I teach acting in New York. It’s interesting and fun.
PT: What do you see in your students vis-à-vis the art of acting?
OD: I see the same desires – to be good actors – to be diverse and be able to do plays and films. It’s not different from when I started. They have the same ambitions, issues, and the same problems that everyone has faced and will face in the business.
PT: Well we are really looking forward to the screening of Beneath the Olive Tree.
OD: I hope you enjoy it!
PT: We are sure we will! We have one last question – our “signature question” that we ask everyone – and it’s a hard one. If you could sum up your life and career to date in one word what would it be?
OD: (Laughs) I don’t think I could do that. There have been so many wonderful people I’ve met and so many opportunities I had along the way, I don’t think I could possibly come up with one word.
PT: (Laughs) That’s still a great answer and it’s probably the first time anyone has ever said that. Thank you so much for this interview.
OD: Thank you! I appreciate your interest and response to the film makes me feel really good.
PT: Well, we know it’s a wonderful film with an incredible message and we will do our best to get the word out!
OD: Thank you my dears and good luck to you both!
A screening of Beneath the Olive Tree will held at Western Connecticut State University (Western) at 6 p.m. in Room 125 of the Science Building on Western’s Midtown campus, 181 White St., Danbury. The film, narrated and produced by Olympia Dukakis, is based on secret journals found buried beneath an olive tree on the island of Trikari, which served as a concentration camp during the Greek Civil War. The screening, hosted by the Center for The Study of Culture and Values and sponsored by the Macricostas Family Foundation, is free and the public is invited. A reception and opportunity to meet the director will follow the presentation. For more information, call (203) 837-9400.