No Illusions, Just Talent & Perserverance
Lots of people have talent. Some succeed, others don’t. Some are a flash in the pan, others are enduring artists. Irina Maleeva is a perfect example of why I love the entertainment business. A talented and successful actress and singer, her journey is unique, inspiring, and taking new turns all the time.
Born in Bulgaria, she speaks seven languages. Irina first established herself as a child performer in Italy. At the age of 15 she was discovered by Fellini and performed in three of his movies. Along the way she accumulated degrees in painting and set design and studied at the Cinecitta Drama Film School and RADA in London, receiving the training that was the foundations for a successful worldwide career in films, records, television, stage and cabaret.
Her performances include a lead with Orson Welles in The Merchant of Venice, Fellini’s Satyricon, Spirits from the Dead and Roma, and she has worked with Visconti and Rossellini. Irina has had leading roles in European and American movies, starring opposite James Mason, Valentina Cortese, Therence Stamp, Anthony Franciosa and Charles Grodin.
In addition to her film achievements she was the lead of the Italian-French co-production TV series Poly in Venice and The Girl without Identity. In the USA she has been a guest star on Days of our Lives, The Gilmore Girls, Pensacola, Just Shoot Me, Six Feet Under, Angel and Threshold. She was a principal recurring actress on the TV series Cracking Up and The Bold and the Beautiful. She then guest starred on American Body Shop and the TV hit series Heroes, as well as, the role of Ruba in Twelve Miles of Bad Road. If that were not enough, she created a music video of Irving Berlin’s Let’s Face the Music and Dance that has been selected to screen at the prestigious 4th Annual New Media Film Festival June 11 & 12th in L.A. If you can't make it to the festival, click here to see the music video
SOCAL: Your mother was a successful stage actress in Europe. Did you always know you wanted to be a performer or did you have an aha! moment independent of her career? Do you have any brothers or sisters and if so, what do they do?
Irina: Since I was born literally in my mother’s dressing room at the National Theatre in Sofia, Bulgaria, it was all so clear to me what I wanted to do in life. I wanted to be an actress. This desire has never left me my entire life. Against my mother’s will I became a child actress. She was coaching children for an audition as the girlfriend of Pinocchio and I went to the audition without her knowledge and got the part. I was six. I was a little Bulgarian black haired Shirley Temple. As for siblings, I had a brother, Maley, who became a lawyer. Unfortunately he passed away at a fairly young age from diabetes.
SOCAL: Where are your favorite places to live and work? Where do you call your principal home city now?
Irina: My favorite places in the world are wherever my family is and where my work is. At the moment my home is in Los Angeles with my husband Nate and my two puppies, Romeo and Juliet. They are golden retriever and Siberian husky mixes. Romeo has blue eyes and he is a “force,” while Juliet is beautiful like a dancer and she is “the brains.” So as you can imagine, we have put fences around both our houses (in Beverly Hills and Malibu) so they cannot escape and still … they figure out a way. The luck is that when I call them, they run back to me. I love L.A., I love New York, and I love Rome. They are all “home” to me.
SOCAL: Please tell us about your one or two favorite roles to date, and why.
Irina: My favorite film role was Jessica, daughter of Shylock, in the BBC production of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. It was written and directed by Orson Welles, who also played Shylock.
Another part I loved playing was the crazy contessa in Union City, a film noir for which I received an award and starred opposite Debbie Harry (Blondie) and Pat Benatar. I also loved the part of Mata Hari in the theater play Mata Hari’s Last Dance, which I did at the Court Theatre in Los Angeles. She was a fascinating and intriguing spy. I also loved playing the part of Arkadina in a theater production of Chekov’s The Seagull.
SOCAL: Can you tell us about some favorite actors and actresses you have performed with?
Irina: The most memorable experience I ever had was making the movie, The Merchant of Venice, in which Orson Welles was the star (Shylock), as well as, the director and screenplay writer. Working with Orson Welles were the best times of my career. I was cast out of 100 actresses who auditioned for the part of Jessica. It was an incredible experience. He taught me so much and treated me as his own daughter. He was one of the biggest geniuses of his era. And how many girls, at my age then, were lucky enough to even be in the presence of such a genius? I felt truly lucky. During the scene with my big monologue as Jessica, I was so nervous that I ad-libbed when I ran out of (or forgot some of) the lines I’d memorized. I was terrified that he would hate my performance, but he loved it! I collapsed to the ground after my rant, and after a long silence, the entire crew (and Orson) applauded. It felt wonderful to know he loved my acting. The next day a chair was brought onto the set – a chair with my name on it. I will cherish that moment as long as I live. I was an actress. I belonged on screen!
The ladies I loved working with were Kathy Bates and Valentina Cortese, with whom I worked in the Italian film Kidnap Syndicate, starring James Mason. Valentina is amazingly beautiful in every way. A great actress and a friend. Kathy Bates directed me in the TV series Six Feet Under. I just love her fun and her intuition as a director.
Of course, I have to say that working with my mother on stage when I was 6 years old was one of the greatest experiences in my life! I played her daughter in a Bulgarian play in Sofia. I don’t remember the name of the play, but I do remember the joy of being on the same stage as my mother.
SOCAL: What was it like working with Fellini?
Irina: Working with Federico Fellini was like working with a magician. He controlled everything, even the weather, when he was directing a film. So when I asked him how to address him, he simply said, “Call me God.” That was the experience of a lifetime, a time I will never forget. I lived in a dream, and his movies were a dream. He didn’t need actors, just faces. He was like an orchestra conductor and we, the actors, were not even the musicians – we were just the instruments. And he played us all like the creative genius that he was.
SOCAL: You seem to thrive in all the major mediums (screen, stage, cabaret, and television). Do you have a favorite, and why?
Irina: My favorite medium is film. Somehow it feels more personal to me, and I believe you can express yourself in a deeper way by being natural, and by having your feelings and thoughts play across your face. I must admit though, as an actress I love to live on the stage. I love to show my real self to the audience and get their instant feedback and appreciation. I recently did my one woman musical theatre show at the Hudson Theatre in Hollywood and it was an incredible success. The show is called Illusions and was based on my newly released CD, also called Illusions, and on some real events from my life – some quite poignant, and some quite funny. The audience laughed and cried at the same time.
SOCAL: You are an established star. A performer of great recognition. SO . . . . why is a nice girl like you getting mixed up with New Media and creating a music video? Why Irving Berlin?
Irina: I don’t know the exact meaning of “a star.” I guess I was called that in Europe, but here I consider myself to be a working actress to whom the audience loves to react. And that for me is more than being a “star.” I am also a singer. Last year I opened the New Media Film Festival by singing a song from my CD called Crimes of the Heart, written by Amanda McBroom. The biggest compliment I received was when a young woman came to me and said, “I have been unhappy for such a long time and your singing transported me to France and back into the beauty of life, which I so much needed and missed.”
I live for these kind words from an audience member. I want to make people happy or make them think about the beauty of life. That is why I do my one-woman musical theater show. It makes me happy to know I had a part in bringing happiness to my audience. My music video Let’s Face the Music and Dance is based on the song from my CD Illusions, an old song by Irving Berlin, totally redone with a new rhythm and spirit of the Amazon jungle, created by my producers Stephan Oberhoff and Michele Brourman.
Editor’s Note: Illusions is available on iTunes and CD Baby I encourage you to visit Irina’s website at www.irinamaleeva.com where you can sample her incredible range of talent. A particular favorite of mine is a sketch she did with Conan O’Brien as a glass blower.
SOCAL: What kind of projects are on the near-term horizon for you? Can we expect more music videos from you?
Irina: I am working on a fun television project, which I can’t mention the name of at this time, with my very talented friend and actor, Justin Shenkarow. I hope the project will be completed by the end of September. And, of course, I will continue doing my one-woman theater show directed by Randy Johnson, who also created One Night with Janis Joplin. We are just trying to figure out the tour itinerary. I also see more music videos and CDs in my future.
SOCAL: What do you do for fun when you are not performing?
Irina: I love to travel. My husband, Nate, and I have traveled the world cruising etc. I love wild animals. We’ve been on safari five times all over the world. We’ve visited Antarctica, the Arctic, the Northern Countries, etc. and travelled all over Africa. I belong to a foundation that saves animal babies in Africa. I have now adopted five baby elephants through the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in northern Kenya. The Trust rescues baby elephants who have been orphaned or lost by their herd.
SOCAL: What advice do you have for young people trying to break in to the business?
Irina: The only word to young artists is PERSEVERENCE! and the ability to survive after rejection. That is our world. Good things and good careers come to those who persevere – those who keep trying, keep studying their craft, and never give up.