Her hands clasped in front of her chest, the girl in the black-and-white picture looks lost, her eyes staring far ahead, searching for some sort of way out. Battered? Abused? Trapped? Heart broken? In a single moment, she checks all those boxes.
It was a look and character that Galina Boulgakova perfected. A battered woman trapped in an abusive relationship, or a sexual-assault victim, or a grief-stricken widow or even a prostitute. She dove into those tortured characters, getting into their heads and exuding the kind of heartache directors on the stage and screen in Moscow wanted.
Problem was, once she got into that mindset, she didn’t know how to get out.
“One day, I felt like I’m in a jail, in a jail with these characters,” she says. “They were holding me and I couldn’t live my life.”
She had a happy marriage. And a career that she worked hard to get. Colleagues on and off the set were supportive and caring, too. But after a while, playing a broken person left Galina broken, too.
It wasn’t until more than two decades later — after she’d left Russia for the United States and had started teaching acting at the Colorado Film School — that Galina understood the damage that immersing herself in her acting had caused. Over the years, she developed a system for actors to still get into those characters and exude the kind of emotion they need, but to do it in a way that allows actors to shut that sorrow off.
With help from Film School adjunct professor Margaret Norwood, Galina wrote a book this year called “Sanity in Acting,” which she is using as a textbook in her classes and which she hopes will be used by actors the world over. The book is also available at amazon.com.
As a young actress in Russia, Galina was an ardent follower of the famed Stanislavski Method, and like other actors and actresses at the Moscow Theater, she had a knack for those deep dives into characters, immersing herself. When Americans first saw the method almost a hundred years ago, they were amazed. The visiting actors from Russia shocked New York crowds and theater types, exuding an honesty and depth that they hadn’t before seen.
“Actors were real. They were breathing, they were blood and bones and everything,” Galina says. “It wasn’t acting at all, they were real people.”
That black-and-white picture is from the set of a Russian film in the early 1980s called “Fathers.” In it, Galina played a young woman in a relationship with a married man. When the relationship sours, the man won’t let her leave and keeps her as a sort of hostage. Galina was able to be that battered and trapped woman on set, but she found herself being the same person when the cameras were off.
Part of it was a practical part of the job: She needed to stay in character for a role that she had fought hard to get, and getting too far away from the pain and suffering the character needed might have made her acting suffer.
“I was afraid if I leave it will be hard to jump in again,” she said.
But that wasn’t the sole reason for her troubles. It wasn’t just that she was scared to get too far away from that battered and abused woman she played on screen. Galina just didn’t know how to get away.
After throwing herself into role after role, Galina said the demons her characters battled became her own. Every slight disappointment or difficulty in her real life was magnified times a thousand, Galina says.
“When you come home, you are still there,” she says.
Only later in her life did Galina start to understand the damage the system she studied had caused her. Eventually, she started studying psychology, spirituality and other schools of acting. Overtime, she developed a system that emphasizes the need for actors to break away from a character when they are finished.
Norwood, the professor who co-wrote the book with Galina, says the system Galina has developed and taught her students is different from what they find elsewhere.
“What’s so unique about Galina’s work is her holistic look at the person and using these techniques to really solidly connect to the character and bring truthful behavior to the screen and then being able to go home and be sane and happy and a whole person who hasn’t been damaged by this psychological work,” she wrote in a CCA newsletter. “And that right there is something you don’t find in other textbooks.”
Galina says a crucial part of the method involves actors understanding who they are on a very deep level so they have a sort of “home base” that they can always return to when the acting stops.
“And there are no monsters there,” she says. “It is who we really are.”