There are thousands of Westerners in Prague, but it’s highly likely that none of them are as well known to ordinary Czechs as Dan Brown. He’s a Canadian-born theatre director and actor who for the best part of a decade has been regularly appearing on one of the Czech Republic’s most popular soap operas, TV Nova’s Ulice, or The Street.
When we spoke at a Prague café, Brown, who’s lived here for 14 years, described getting to grips with performing in Czech, and discussed the life of a jobbing English speaking actor in the city. But I first asked him to introduce his character on Ulice, bar owner Henry Rettig.
“Henry Rettig is an American from Texas who came to Prague shortly after the revolution, has a Czech grandmother, so there was a connection there, but didn’t speak the language. He worked – as so many expats here – in a whole pile of different areas, and eventually, with a love of jazz, opened up a small bar playing a lot of jazz and blues music.”
Did the producers tell you why they wanted an American character in the show?
“I think in trying to make a soap opera about everybody and normal life here, and there are so many more foreigners here than there used to be… I think they wanted a few foreign characters. There was a Russian, and then they brought in another Russian…”
A mutual friend of ours, Glen Emery, who has owned several bars in Prague over the years and who was also on Radio Prague’s One on One in the past, claims that your character is based on him. Is that true?
“There are certain elements that are based on Glen. But I have to work within the confines of what’s written, and certain things about Glen’s character I couldn’t get away with!”
Have there been any particularly memorable or interesting storylines involving your character over the years?
“I had to go away to Texas, once, because my uncle died and I inherited a ranch, apparently. I was going to be gone for a long time, they told me, but I was back after a few months.
“And then they unfortunately changed my dress style. They figured that as I was coming back from Texas, I should be kind of an urban cowboy. From that time, about six years ago, I’ve been wearing these dreadful…not all of it, but some pretty bad cowboy shirts.”
How have you found the experience of playing the same character for so many years? I guess that’s something very few actors ever get a chance to do.
“It’s been very interesting. At times it’s been very dull. The first year was hell, because my Czech wasn’t as good as it needed to be. I was getting by in Czech, but to act in another language is another thing altogether.
“I found it a terrible struggle, and I remember thinking in the first few months, I’m not going to be here for more than half a year. Because I couldn’t act, I was so stilted with the language.
“Then I became more familiar with it and I also realised I could improvise a little… A Czech writing the way they think a foreigner speaks Czech is actually not the same [as a foreigner would speak]. All kinds of words were being written that I would never use, and then they were writing in for me mistakes that I would never make.”
So do they allow you to tweak it to meet your own limitations, so to speak?
“Yes. Sometimes to go beyond as well, because there are certain things that I do know how to say, and colloquialisms and expressions that I’m fine with that they wouldn’t think that I’d be able to use.
“And again, I still get them writing mistakes in for me that I wouldn’t make after this long. Or they think it’s funny.
“But on the general question about playing it, as an actor it is fascinating. After a few years you just feel like you don’t have to do any preparation. You walk in and once your costume’s there’s not even any thought about making it into that character. It is acting, but it becomes second nature, very much.”
When one thinks of big soap operas in the West, one imagines that the actors must be recognised everywhere they go. Does that happen to you?
“It does happen to me. I don’t get swarmed and swamped everywhere I go but it’s pretty much a daily occurrence. Probably two or three times a week somebody wants a photograph or an autograph.”
Tell us about the other work you do. You were telling me you work in video games.
“Yes, for years now. It started by doing demos, and often doing all the voices for a demo of a game that they were trying to sell to a distributor, and the production would be finished somewhere else.
“But over the years we’ve managed to build up a good relationship with several of these companies…I was pushing for years, I said, we can do the final product here, which happens now. So yeah, I cast and direct voicing for several video games.”
“The most well known are probably Arma and Arma 2. Arma 3 is coming out – at some point! It’s made by Bohemia Interactive and is a follow-up game to Operation Flashpoint, which was a huge international success, apparently – I don’t play games.
“They couldn’t use the name. They had to change the name from Operation Flashpoint to Armed Assault, because they’d sold the copyright to a different company.”
Generally speaking, is there a lot of work here for foreign actors? I know in the past there was a lot of work, say in the ‘90s. But how is the scene now?
“It seems to be picking up again right now. It went very, very thin, so to speak, in the early to mid 2000s. A lot of American and British productions, stuff that was being made in English, started moving further east. They built new studios in Hungary and Romania, I believe.
“Almost everywhere in the world where there’s a film industry and a film commission, there are also tax loopholes and incentives for film companies. That didn’t happen [here] until 2008, I think it was. Because of that, there are a lot more productions coming in. It’s not at the level it was in the ‘90s and the early 2000s, but English-language films are being made here regularly now.”
Are there any big movies or TV series that you’ve been involved in that people might know the names of?
“Probably. I’m terrible at these things – I shoot something and I forget about it immediately... I was acting coach for the kids on ABC’s Anne Frank: The Whole Story, which was a mini-series.
“I’ve been doing some work right now on the Borgias, shooting at Barrandov, and in Italy and around and about… Dune – actually I had two different characters. I got killed in the first one and I was somebody else in the second.
“I just finished a Czech film that was shot in English. It’s based on an Arnošt Lustig story and will come out in December, I think. It’s called Colette. I hope it will be very good – the script’s nice…Hart’s War with Bruce Willis. That was a dreadful film, though. Am I allowed to say that?
“Unfortunately there hasn’t been a lot of high quality…there has been some high quality stuff that’s come through here, but usually we get cast in such small roles. Occasionally something will come along that’s a little better, or we get bigger roles in smaller films, which is fine.”
Finally, to get back to Ulice, is that something you will do indefinitely? And do you regard it as your bread and butter?
“Because I don’t have a main role, it can’t be my bread and butter, because I’m supporting a whole bunch of kids. I don’t shoot enough for it to pay for my living. But it is the most consistent, because I’m freelance. I know that every month there’ll be something, though it does go up and down.
“I will stay… If they don’t do anything with the character, I might go a little bit crazy. But I can’t say no to work. We’re prostitutes, actors.”
How much notice would you have to give if you wanted to leave? They could write out Henry Rettig and send him back to Texas, maybe.
“They might do it to me, who knows. I think I’d have to give – it’s in my contract – six months, or something. I’ve got a feeling they’re going to send me away for a while and see how things go. But that’s just my guess. Because they’re always doing this to see how the audience react. And, who knows, they may bring me back and change my role.”
And maybe your outfits.
“Maybe my outfits. Please.”
Prague to finish reconstructing Kafka’s house in May
Banned 1954 documentary on Tibet returns to cinemas
Underwater remains of Prague’s first bridge explored by researchers
The 1946 US operation that proved a propaganda coup for Czechoslovakia’s Communists
Why is it so hard to remove a Czech president?