I starred in a Russian sitcom with Ukrainian President Zelensky — it taught me something about the Ellen DeGeneres controversy

Being a vagabond immigrant actress and a Soviet Jew can teach you some surprising lessons about politics

Jessie Kanzer
New York
Wednesday 09 October 2019 15:15
Ellen DeGeneres defends friendship with George W. Bush

“Here’s the thing: I’m friends with George Bush,” admitted Ellen DeGeneres, after being photographed sitting next to the former president at a Cowboys football game recently, much to the chagrin of the Twitterverse. “In fact, I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have... We’re all different, and I think we’ve forgotten that that’s OK that we’re all different.”

I’ve always loved Ellen — she's a fantastic entertainer, in my opinion — but in that moment, I couldn’t have loved her more. Her words felt like a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stifled atmosphere — the mix of frenzy and dread we now live in.

The question of Trump’s impeachment hangs over our heads like a storm cloud above parched land. For me (perhaps, for many of us) it feels personal: my own past once collided with Volodymyr Zelensky’s, the Ukrainian president whose interactions with Trump could be his undoing.

Ten years ago, Zelensky was an actor/comedian on his way up and I was a vagabond immigrant actress on my way to nowhere. Because I was born in the Soviet Union and spoke Russian, I got a small part in the Russian romcom No Love in the City, which filmed in New York, where I lived, and starred Ukraine’s future president. It was his first big film and my last — I had a few more small TV and internet roles and eventually threw in the towel. And everyone now knows where Zelensky ended up: smack in the middle of our country’s political soap opera.

Suffering from somewhat societal ennui, I’ve been turning to the Tao Te Ching a lot lately — the ancient Chinese philosophical text that succinctly explains the world and our human fallacies. I’ve been a student of the Tao since my tumultuous twenties; it always seems to say what I need to hear.

“When the country falls into chaos, official loyalists will appear; patriotism is born,” I read. Ahh, I realized — that’s why Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” worked so well. Our country has been falling into chaos for a long time now (maybe it always has been): Trump getting elected is proof.

But what’s next is what we’re all so eager to know as 2020 draws ever closer. And that’s where the Tao Te Ching’s subtleties help me most. “If you need rules to be kind and just, if you act virtuous, this is a sure sign that virtue is absent,” it says.

Trump thinks he is almighty, “in [his] great and unmatched wisdom,” while labelling his opponents as the destroyers of this country. But the left’s animosity in the name of virtue is not the solution either.

“I hope Trump gets throat cancer,” I’m constantly seeing written on Facebook — though the ailments wished upon him vary. Last month, actress Debra Messing called for the names of all those attending a Trump fundraiser to be revealed so that people would know who not to work with. Folks now end friendships over politics, families have blow-out fights. And tweeters attack Ellen DeGeneres for sitting next to and sharing a laugh with former Republican President George W Bush.

“When I say be kind to one another, I don’t mean only the people that think the same way you do,” said Ellen, “I mean be kind to everyone.”

Ours is a world where reality stars and comedians alike become president, where children are the most powerful activists, and where a talk show host sounds wiser than any politician. I don’t have the answers (only questions) but, like Ellen, I believe in kindness — less hatred, more tolerance seems a given. As a Soviet Jew, my family history is filled with the the tragedy of intolerance.

“What is a good man, but a bad man’s teacher? What is a bad man, but a good man’s job?...The Master doesn’t take sides; she welcomes both saints and sinners,” I read in the Tao, as I sip from my “Oprah 2020” mug. It was a gag gift from my husband, who finds my preoccupation with female talk show hosts humorous. Nevertheless, a girl can dream.

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