We’re with Ahmet Rıfat Şungar whose acting has gone beyond boundaries. Participating the Cannes Film Festival for the second time with Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Rıfat takes acting so down to the fundamentals that he eliminates all questions you might have. As he explains the professional choices of people around him as “moody,” he expresses his thoughts about today by saying “Acting has never been an action I did out of obligation. I don’t even want to call it an ‘action,’ it’s just acting!” Even if for a short while, we surrender ourselves to life from Rıfat’s perspective.
Choosing acting as something professional must outweigh your other options. Can you tell us about this process? How did it come along?
My perspective changed when I learned that the people I had the chance to work with at high school theater were actors, and I started thinking “What if?” But it took me nearly three years to decide to see this through. There were always auditions at school and I’ve always been pushed back by the idea that I was going to picked by someone else and that I had to convince them to like me. But I didn’t give up and was able to present myself as someone who enjoyed acting and wasn’t thinking who was watching him.
How did your family react to this decision?
Of course they were afraid. I was doing great at school and I could “guarantee” my life by studying in another field. They didn’t discourage me but they weren’t really willing to support me either. Then I got it! They were actually right. It’s a profession with a very vague definition. There are some faces on TV but you don’t see them again. All those lives we see on TV and disappear… But they didn’t resist me defending my decision. Then, the bad examples they thought of were replaced by the good ones they respect. I think it was good for me that they resisted because when I had to defend my choice, I realized that I had something I wanted to pursue.
What would your first recommendation be to someone who wants to be an actor?
They should be glad that they have something to perform rather than focusing on “being someone.” They should just act. They shouldn’t complain when their passion dwindles. They should care for their mental health. They should stay away from bad habits and remember that a clear mind can bring surprises beyond our imagination. I think I’m starting to talk like my father (laughs). I also don’t believe that every actor has to undertake a mission. I know a lot of people who’ve lost their passion due to political priorities or the need to say something. That’s not acting, that’s work. They should stay away from the thought that acting is more important than any other profession or thing in life by caring too much about it.
TV, Internet, cinema and theater… We’re living in an age of many platforms for actors. What do you think about that?
It’s a great blessing for those who feel the need to limit their imagination while creating something. The productions of similar scales with similar stories are replaced by new perspectives. Therefore, actors can test themselves in various projects and have the chance to take different roles. I think it’s going to be great. We see this more and more with projects such as Masum, Fi and Şahsiyet. It’s a great feeling for producers, screenwriters, directors and actors to partake in something they would enjoy watching later on, and I think it’s evolving towards that. For instance, the fact that Onur Saylak’s Daha was supported by Ay Production is a great source of motivation for people who wish to create something. Or the fact that as an actor, Onur has built new worlds and created projects in unusual ways. These are wonderful things and we need to talk about them. What’s good is good. We feel rotten as we talk about bad things and complain.
You were at Cannes with Nuri Bilge Ceylan for the second time. How would you express his cinematic language to someone who’s never seen his movies?
Nuri’s set is a place where an actor can set his mind free and feel safe. For one thing, he loves improvisation. But this is a topic that has been misunderstood. If you have a script that allows you to improvise and your framework is set, then doing an improvisation is great. There are some people who mistake improvisation with not having to learn your lines. In contrast, you need to know what goes on in which scene and you have to be open to surprises with this information at hand. Then we witness situations beyond what’s been imagined. Nuri Bilge is a director who offers his cast the freest playground possible. I’ve been always telling my colleagues who watch his movies that they should watch the background records and every book and diary he publishes about the movie. They really help a lot.
What did you imagine when you first read the script for the Wild Pear Tree?
It was weird. I felt as if I was going through all his movies, especially Three Monkeys. I think this was partly because that the protagonist is close to İsmail in Three Monkeys in terms of generation. I don’t know how to describe it but I can say that I had no sense of time and place in my mind.
You’ve been in many local and international productions. As an actor, what do you believe is necessary to chance in Turkey?
I want to know when I’ll start working and when I’ll be done. These are all very humane necessities and there must be a way. We should begin with simple things.
What are your criteria when you evaluate a screenplay?
Coherence is very important. It may be a role I really want to play but if the script is incoherent or contradictory, it becomes upsetting. I talk to the screen writer and the director to see how they look at the script. Because I sometimes read a good script but realize that we don’t have the same perspective when I talk to the people who are going to realize it. All these factors definitely affect the decision.
How do you work on your characters?
I don’t know exactly. I act by trying to adopt their perspective for daily incidents. I also try to set some ground rules like, “He is like this, he does this and he doesn’t do that.” I try to set these rigid points of reference. It feels great to deal with their weaknesses. There is one think I pay attention to and I think it’s very dangerous. Sometimes actors love their roles too much and can forget the unity of the project. Then you have to watch kind of one-dimensional personalities with no weaknesses who cannot have a relationship with his surroundings. I think it’s good not to know. Beginning the acting process with information can lead you to be defensive against guidance which is very dangerous. Let it flow and see where it goes. I think it’s better to act on this feeling.
Are you one of those actors who can watch themselves on screen?
It depends but yes, there is an approach like “I never watch myself act.” I felt this once and I realized that it was ridiculous. You may not watch it but why turn it into such a strict rule? Sometimes the director wants you to watch and sometimes not. It’s not that important for me.
How would you comment on your acting? What is it going through and how is it evolving?
It’s always been hard to leave the bed for school. But I was one of the first ones to wake up at weekends. The earlier I woke up, the more I’d play with my friends until I got back home. It’s the same now. I enjoy finding new areas of play and running around.
What do you think is the biggest handicap in terms of acting?
Complaining and comparing yourself to others. You shouldn’t be defensive while acting. Things can go south if you cannot listen what the other person has to say.
Can you tell us about a movie you’ve watched recently and been influenced by it?
Ali Atay’s Limonata is the first one among the films that have recently influenced me. I watched it really late but it filled me with peace and happiness. People think that simple is bad but telling something in a simple way is so special that it leaves a lasting taste on your palate. I hope to find a simpler way to tell things.
Interview: ERİM KOCATEPE
Photography: BURCU KANDEMİR