Though he left his native Kiev for London with his family as a youngster and then became a successful international star, Alec Utgoff candidly reveals that he still feels like an outsider in his adopted city.
“I’ve always felt a bit ostracized,” he says via Zoom, adding, “from speaking to other foreigners here, it is a general sort of feeling. Everything’s in its own kind of box.”
Utgoff, 35, has managed to break out of the box, with memorable turns in Hollywood films including Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, in which he starred alongside Kevin Costner and Chris Pine as well as his star-making turn in Netflix’s
He now stars in Never Gonna Snow Again, a dark comedy from the Polish filmmaking team of writer/director Malgorzata Szumowska and cinematographer Michal Englert, whose previous collaborations include Mug and In the Name Of. Their latest film premiered at last year’s Venice Film Festival, where it won the Premio Fondazione Fai Persona Lavoro Ambiente Award and subsequently was Poland’s official entry for the 93rd Academy Awards, although it was not one of the final nominees.
Utgoff plays Zhenia, a Ukrainian immigrant who arrives in Poland and plies his skills as a hypnotist and massage therapist to secure a work permit from an unsuspecting bureaucrat, and then begins working in an upscale suburban Polish neighborhood, where he soon learns that financial security doesn’t necessarily equate with happiness. Through massage and hypnosis, he takes his clients, some of whom cannot disguise their bigotry and xenophobia, to a place where they come to terms with what’s bothering them. Meanwhile, Zhenia fights his own demons, particularly the devastating loss of his mother following the Chernobyl disaster when he was a child and his enduring feeling of helplessness of being unable to save her.
Never Gonna Snow Again, is being distributed through Kino Lorber open in New York theaters today, to be followed with an expansion to Los Angeles Aug. 6 and then a national rollout. It is a mesmerizing look at how class, immigration and global warming converge in a modern-day suburban setting.
Angela Dawson: What drew you in to Never Gonna Snow Again?
Alec Utgoff: It’s very much static. The process was much more about a concept than a (traditional) storyline. It’s nothing like I’ve ever done before.
Dawson: Was that the appeal for you because it’s so different from the other work you’ve done?
Utgoff: Absolutely, this was not in my comfort zone. I’d seen Malgorzata’s work before. She has incredible cinematography with Michael Englert. They’ve been working together for many years now. It was one thing in the beginning that I was worried about. I asked her, “Where’s the story?” By the end, she and Michal reverted back to how they usually work, which is a very fluid process. As we shot, they came up with new ideas.
As an actor, you have to be very adaptable and bring your own thing. I always want to make sure there’s a point to a scene. Sometimes, with movies, you have to kind of have to let go and not focus too much on intention. So, that was my challenge, really. It was something I had to get used to while doing it.
Dawson: Having emigrated from Kiev (in the Ukraine) to London when you were a youngster, did you ever feel like an outsider as your character Zhenia does?
Utgoff: Always. I still do, especially in London. I think America is different. I feel London is much more secluded. When I was in America—I only lived there for a-year-and-a-half—it was different. Americans were much more curious, in general, about different cultures. But it’s just a different mindset. It’s a different perception of “these invaders” and how you perceive them.
Dawson: Besides being a foreigner that cannot verbally communicate with his clients, Zhenia has these extraordinary abilities to connect with his massage therapy and hypnosis. Did you learn massage for your role?
Utgoff: I did take three or four classes after which the masseuse said I could probably do this as a profession. I tried to really massage in the scenes because that’s what I had as a tool. As an actor, you have to do things. The thing about concept and ideas is that with too much of it, it can be inhibiting so I felt that with the physicality of it, I could somehow be a little bit more in the moment.
It was a different language they were speaking. They were speaking Polish and I don’t speak Polish even though I had to speak it in some scenes. I knew what they were saying to me, generally, although the actors improvised a little bit, but doing the massage allowed me to be a little more in it.
Dawson: And the hypnosis? Did you study that as well?
Utgoff: I was really trying to use my diaphragm in those scenes. The hypnosis was another on-the-fly idea that Malgorzata had. The same with the dancing. I just went along with it. So, I went on YouTube and watched people doing hypnosis, and wrote what I thought I should be saying because I didn’t really have anyone there (on set), especially in Russian, to help me. We then added some bits because she felt I could do it. But, the way I did it, I didn’t base it on anything. I just got it from a lady online that I watched. You just have to go along with it, I suppose.
Dawson: There’s this underlying theme throughout about climate change. Even the title of the movie suggests climate change. Is that something you personally feel strongly about?
Utgoff: Absolutely. I believe this film has a little bit of everything. In terms of climate change, nature, right now, is acting up in a way I’ve never seen before. I’m not very pro-consumerist but, at the same time, I’m not an economist that understands the inner-workings of it all, but I definitely believe there needs to be a balance struck between the scientific community and the financial community. That’s for sure.
Dawson: While the overall story is a rather somber one, there’s an element of dark humor throughout. Was that Malgorzata’s idea from the beginning, or did the humor find its way into the script during production?
Utgoff: We didn’t have a script, really. We had a concept. The story changed so many times. The original idea was completely different from what (the film) is now. The original idea was that Zhenia had a sister with Down syndrome. There was another story where I had a brother and then that was shelved. They were trying to find their way through the process. They’re a very visual, very intuitive sort of team. It’s kind of a metaphysical aesthetic.
Dawson: You finished production on Never Gonna Snow Again in February 2020 right before the lockdown. So, what have you been up to since then?
Utgoff: We were lucky to finish when we did because we went into lockdown here in London soon after. We were free to walk around our yard or around the park, but that was it. Fortunately, I live close to Hyde Park so it was very convenient. But, generally, we were just waiting for the next news. So, I played the piano and took up Spanish properly because I live in Spain as well and could never really converse with my friends there. And I also always wanted to read literature in Spanish so I’m currently (early on in) the process. I think it will take me another year to speak comfortably. So, I was learning that with my teacher on Skype. Otherwise, I’ve just been reading history books—old school classics, really. And, not working out. I can tell you that. I’ve been eating a lot of sweets, like everybody else. I went to Spain to see my family so I was just eating, drawing and running.
I came back (to London) for some work and I’m doing a couple of projects. Both are TV and both are something I’ve done. They’re nice little projects to do “in the meantime.”