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Opinion

Op-Ed: That time I made a rom-com with Ukraine’s new president

Presidential elections in Ukraine, Kiev - 21 Apr 2019
Ukrainian President-elect Volodymyr Zelensky reacts after the announcement of exit polling during the Ukrainian presidential elections in Kiev, Ukraine on April 21.
(Tatyana Zenkovich / EPA-EFE / REX)

“Did you know you acted alongside the newly elected president of Ukraine?” my brother texted me last week. He included a screenshot of Volodymyr Zelensky’s IMDB page.

“Who me?” I wrote back, with the perplexed hands-up emoji, which every mom I knew used in her text communications.

That’s what I am now, simply “Mom,” the perpetually perplexed emoji. A decade ago, though, I was an aspiring star — head shots, managers and all.

My family came to New York as Soviet Jewish refugees when I was 8. We climbed up from hand-me-downs and food stamps to a prized split-level in the ’burbs. Struggling to fit in, I changed my name from Asya to Jessie and got a speech coach to get rid of my accent. After college, still living with my parents, I spotted a MySpace contest for a walk-on role in a sitcom called “My Boys.” All I needed to do was rack up votes.

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As an immigrant from a former Soviet country — and Zelensky’s momentary costar — I’m rooting for him. Better a smallish guy with a conscience than a big shot,

Sitting in a suburban library, voting on my entry from every computer, I launched my acting career. When a black car picked me up from a West Hollywood hotel to take me to set, I felt like a bonafide celebrity. A Match.com commercial followed, as did a role in a web series with Derek Wilson, who now plays Wolf on Hulu’s “Future Man.” I wore but a bra, thong and apron for a sexist cooking-show pilot produced by James Gandolfini.

And I was also in that movie with Zelensky, the 41-year-old Ukrainian actor-comedian who played a Ukrainian president on TV and then became one in real life in April. He’s like a liberal version of Donald Trump, a guy with name recognition but no governing experience. He wants to steer his country into the European Union and NATO; he favors abortion rights and gun control, and he keeps promising not to let the Ukrainians down.

I’m impressed, and not least because he didn’t stand out all that much on the set of “Love in the Big City.” Until my brother’s text, I hadn’t even remembered we’d crossed paths.

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Sometimes translated as “No Love in the City,” Zelensky’s first big film is a 2009 Russian rom-com. He was flown to New York with the other stars, while the bit parts went to local actors like me who spoke the language. I was “Girl in sports club No. 1” and earned $500 a day for what amounted to one line. Zelensky, baby-faced and slightly goofy, played Igor, one of three Russian expats who seduce women all over town until they’re cursed with impotence.

Thinking back, the future Ukrainian president was small of stature, a little older than me, and nice enough. In truth, I barely registered him. He behaved like a professional; he did his job. More memorable were the Russian big shot producers, who hung around chain-smoking, drinking Champagne and asking for recommendations on where to shop.

“You could make it, you know,” one told me as she poured me some bubbly, “you just need to fix your nose and chin.”

My nose I understood — every woman in my Jewish family had concerns about her nose — but my chin?

“What should I do with my chin?” I asked.

“I’d just get rid of the divot.”

I didn’t get rid of the divot — I wasn’t able to find it. Nor did I change my nose. I didn’t “make it” either. I moved to L.A., where I couldn’t get an audition.

En route to failing as an actress, I toiled as a waitress, a live-in nanny, a Hollywood Hills tutor, an extra, and a data-entry person. Later I worked in advertising. Now back in New York I have two energetic little Americans to care for — three, if you count my husband.

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Meanwhile, Zelensky parlayed his acting career into becoming the first Jewish president of Ukraine, a country with a long history of anti-Semitism. My paternal grandfather’s family lived there until the Holocaust. They got out just in time. My father grew up in nearby Moldova, my mother in Siberia. I was born in Latvia.

In his comedy series, “Servant of the People,” Zelensky played a schoolteacher who becomes president after his anti-corruption speech goes viral. In real life, he beat the incumbent, Petro Poroshenko, in a landslide with similar promises about fighting graft and ushering in change. Poroshenko is what you might call a Ukrainian big shot — a confectionery oligarch who let corruption run rampant.

“To all the countries of the former Soviet Union,” Zelensky said on election night, “look at us … everything is possible.” This week, when Ukraine’s election commission certified the vote, he quoted George Washington: “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire, called conscience.”

As an immigrant from a former Soviet country — and Zelensky’s momentary costar — I’m rooting for him. Better a smallish guy with a conscience than a big shot, right?

Jessie Asya Kanzer is working on a book about raising her American daughters.

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