Interview with Šarūnas Zenkevičius


Relationships between people and animals, mutual understanding between species and ways to live side by side are favorite topics of conversation among the animal lovers. And nothing is more gratifying than meeting an interesting interviewer who brings his own unique perspective. This is what happened to Šarūnas Zenkevičius, theater and film actor, musician and long-time vegetarian. Together, we opened up new layers of thought as we chatted virtually about value choices in the acting profession, animal welfare behind the camera, and creative ways to tell compelling stories. We invite you to read!


Acting is undoubtedly one of the most dynamic professions. Šarūn, how do you manage to combine the attitudes related to compassion for animals with this activity? Maybe you have to make certain compromises, or maybe unexpected and creative solutions come to mind?

I have been a strict vegetarian for almost 17 years. I don't eat meat, fish, any other animals, dairy products (to be fair, sometimes I can't resist milk chocolate), occasionally I eat eggs. 

Earlier, around 2005, when I just started filming in various movie series and episodes, I was not yet a vegetarian, but the idea of giving up meat was already growing in me. I come from the town of Švenčionėliai, filming usually took place at the Lithuanian Film Studio in Vilnius. During my lunch breaks, I noticed that there was a vegetarian option. Of course, not always, and at that time there was still a wild stereotype that vegetarians eat fish. But for me, coming from the province, it was a kind of discovery. There were almost no such choices in my environment. It is likely that they would have been misunderstood, laughed at, or interpreted in some way - "maybe the person is sick with something", "maybe he is following a certain diet". And here it is normal and acceptable. So I often remember the movie theater as a place that kind of encouraged me to make a final decision.

The main things I deal with in cinema and theater are clothes and food. There have been several occasions when animals have also participated in the pitch. Also, some of the characters I play quite possibly eat meat. I remember playing a prisoner-of-war chef who made a fish stew in the POW scenes in the film "Tvano Nebus" (dir: Marat Sargsyan) yes. The fish is also important here because of the biblical symbolism. The scene is indirect, resolved through magical realism: the food being prepared was made from invisible ingredients that later materialized or began to be found. Although there was no such scene in the script, the director came up with a shot on the set where I, as the chef, had to chop up the cooked fish. I was a little confused, although the scene insert turned out to be reasonable. I cut my hand while cutting that fish - also very symbolic. I don't know if that's why they didn't put that scene in the movie. Well, in the scene of "The Last Supper" I had warned the director that I would not eat fish, so I only ate separately prepared potato and vegetable stew.

On the other hand, if it was important to see the meat being eaten on the screen, it would not be difficult to replace it with seitan or soy products. Milk - plant-based oat, coconut or soy drinks. Visually, it would be indistinguishable from the "original". Even the same fish could be made vegan if that was the goal.

The bigger problem is the clothing - usually leather shoes. It happens that both cinema and theater need a shoe that is authentic due to the historical accuracy of the time depicted. Often it is not even produced, rather it is found. So I tend to accept the terms as they are, even though I wish it were different. Such a shoe could also be made from vegan materials, but this would require additional financial resources, production capabilities and the motivation of a part of the team to do exactly that.

Šarūnas (on the left) with members of the "Judu" group. Photographer Pijus Ganusauskas.

And do you have to face environmental assessments (from the team and relatives) because of the desire to avoid animal products? Do you find support and like-minded people among your colleagues?

My decisions have long ceased to surprise either my relatives or my colleagues. Yes, there are quite a few pescetarians, vegetarians, and a few vegans in my environment. Mostly those who eat little meat and animal products. It's always fun to meet new like-minded colleagues.

A desire to live healthier, animal welfare or concern for the future of the planet - we know that people give up animal products for a variety of reasons. What is your own motivation?

My position is mostly based on ethical and moral principles. I don't want to take the life of an animal that wants to live. I don't want to cause pain to an animal because I know what it is. I do not accept animal confinement, forced reproduction and breeding for the purpose of killing. In general, looking at an animal as a kind of material is repulsive and seems wrong to me, especially since it is not necessary for a person.

However, I try to avoid harsher assessments of who, what, how and why they choose in life, and I expect the same from others. If a person is really interested, I always share my knowledge and experience. I don't think that much can be achieved or changed by coercion, I don't change my lifestyle. However, if I start to be embarrassed or pressured to implement opposing ideas, I am not inclined to give in. The essence of all these disputes is usually the same - a person wants confirmation before himself and others that he is doing the right thing. Does anything change after such an argument? Mostly not. But at the same time, it also means that most people, regardless of their decision, think about meat, where it comes from and that it is not an easy and comfortable topic.

Animals on the set and on the stage are something new. Do you think animal welfare is given enough attention in the film and theater industry? Share if you notice a divide between Lithuania and the world on this issue. Or maybe we just go hand in hand?

It's a pity, I don't have that much personal experience in the productions of different countries to be able to give a more detailed answer. However, the British, American or Scandinavian films that were filmed in Lithuania and in the processes of which I managed to see work with animals at least from the corner of my eye left an impression on me - the standards of animal welfare are high enough. Even in mass battle scenes with horses (the series "War And Peace" filmed in Lithuania) he left a really good impression in terms of caring for animals, taking care of them, both during filming and during breaks, as well as organizing complex mass scenes. Many Lithuanians participated in those processes, so it would be wrong to say that it is only the merit of other countries, but I also think that Lithuanians learn a lot and improve during such processes. 

I play the ornithologist Vilias in the upcoming film "Siena" by Ignos Jonyns. The film actually captures quite a few birds - from ducks, pigeons to cormorants. The scene that caused me the most stress was when I caught a duck out of the water with a specially designed trap. I practiced the catch to keep the bird as stressed as possible, but the bird is not an actor and will sometimes come up with an action to sway it in its own direction.

The animal is vulnerable and that should never be forgotten. Therefore, the protection of the animal should be the direct duty and responsibility of us, who organize and supervise such processes. I think that the level of economic development of the country and animal welfare standards are often directly related factors, and this is also reflected in the film industry. And, in my opinion, Lithuania is chasing high standards of animal welfare.

A moment from the filming of the film "Siena" (dir.: Ignas Jonynas), photographer Paulius Zavadskis.

Movies constantly juggle the viewer's perception - at least for a few hours, the acted reality becomes real. It also happens that after a tense plot we breathe easier - we understand that people were not hurt, and the make-up, stuntmen, editing created the impression. How about the animals in this case? (Šarūnas discusses graphic scenes from several films, so we warn more sensitive readers)

I am of the opinion that no extreme scene, such as a special killing of an animal (such as a hunting scene) or mutilation (such as a battle scene with horses and overturning chariots), is inappropriate or unnecessary for a motion picture. Such cases have occurred in the history of cinema. Many of these or similar scenes can be solved with editing tricks, fake substitutions, computer graphics, and other ethical and creative ways.

For this reason, I have an internal conflict with some of the films of the past where animals were specifically killed or maimed. And these are very important films, cinematic masterpieces. One of them is Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. In it, a buffalo is brutally killed. The director claims that he did not slaughter the animal on purpose, but when he found out that the local tribe had already decided to perform the ritual, he took the opportunity to film it and put it into the film. Although there are those who believe that this is not true. Indeed, the scene is shocking and memorable for a long time - the shots of the buffalo are inserted together with the on-screen killing of Colonel Kurtz (played by Marlon Brando) and the song "The End" by The Doors. The film mostly raises the problem of the duality of the human soul: the rational, harmonious and completely opposite - instinctive, irrational and tragic - principle hidden in it. This scene captures a major turning point for Captain Willard (played by Martin Sheen) and allows us to experience something very rare in cinema – to witness even just a killing (both real and staged) but also to realize that perhaps this is happening in our hearts as well. conflict. However, would the scene have been less shocking and effective if the animal had not been killed in reality?

Lars Von Trier's The House That Jack Built reveals a profound and shocking portrait of a serial killer. The film shocks with its cold-blooded and gruesome grotesque, depicting the development of an anti-social, empathic person, whose childhood torture of animals eventually turns into increasingly extreme scenarios of killing people. There's a scene in the movie where young Jack (played by Matt Dillon) uses a pair of scissors to cut off a duckling's leg and release it into the water. After this shot, I immediately wanted to boycott the film, but… the animal was not harmed. The duck's leg was made of silicone and the scene was set up in such a way that I watched it several times and marveled at how skillfully it was all done.

Cinema is not a documentary, even if there is a striving for a documentary impression (documentary, in turn, also often does not avoid directing, but that is another topic). The animal being killed is, in the eyes of the viewer, an act of violence that in itself is brutal and shocking, which makes it effective. But to create the same effect by not doing that, but by finding a different, ethical and creative solution, is the essence of cinema. In my understanding, cinema is by its very nature a magical trick, and films that find a way to replace recorded real violence with fake, or instead offer an unexpected creative solution and still trick or shock us, have far greater artistic value.

A frame from the film "I was Max" (dir.: Lukas Kacinauskas)

We notice that animal ethics are often discussed in terms of facts, but they do not necessarily affect humans. Perhaps you could recommend artistic works - performances, books, films - on this topic that have left an impression on you personally?

I can recommend the book Animal Liberation by Peter Singer. The book discusses the exploitation of animals in animal husbandry, entertainment industries and laboratories on a philosophical, moral-ethical and practical level. The author examines possible solutions to these problems, and at the same time reviews complex and problematic aspects at various levels. The book is translated into Lithuanian.

We also contribute to the recommendations. Sharun, thanks for the interesting conversation, see you next time!


Currently, Šarūnas Zenkevičius is acting in the plays: "Breathing" (dir.: Agnija Leonova) and "Dialogues" (dir.: Motiejus Ivanauskas). Also, Igna Jonyn's film "Siena" will be released this year, in which Šarūnas plays the main role.




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