Interview: Ted Otis on working with Jan Němec

Expat actor had a small but crucial role in The Wolf of Royal Vineyard Street

There are a number of good expat actors based in Prague who do a lot of work on commercials, TV series and international films shot here. On occasion they also play in Czech films when an American is called for. Ted Otis is one such actor. He has had played a hitman in TV series Crossing Lines, a judge in the Czech crime film Gangster Ka and a senator in the historical drama The Lost Legion.

A role he is particularly proud of, though, is a US immigration official in The Wolf of Royal Vineyard Street (Vlk z Královských Vinohrad), the final film by Jan Němec.

The bad boy of the Czech New Wave died March 18, 2016, after an illness. Němec had almost completed his final film, a bizarre and freewheeling look at his own life. His crew finished the final scenes for him, according to his wishes.

“Meeting Jan Němec was a treat. He was clearly a big-hearted, passionate renegade. He told me he had been Václav Havel’s best man at his wedding and had some other great stories. I was unaware of his legacy as a pillar of the Czech New Wave until his young, reverent and very committed crew politely filled me in,” Otis said. “Despite being in only one scene … I feel honored to have worked on his final film.

Němec's legacy rests mainly on two early films: Diamonds of the Night from 1964 and A Report on the Party and the Guests from 1966. The first film is universally praised effort about two boys who escape from a train taking them to a concentration camp. The second is a much more difficult work that was seen as an allegory about totalitarianism. It was banned from screening in Czechoslovakia except for a brief time during the Prague Spring of 1968. After that it could not be seen domestically until after the Velvet Revolution.

Němec himself was banned from working in cinema and eventually went into exile in 1974. He did not return until 1989.

In the film, the character played by Otis is involved in the return of the director, called Jan John in the film and played by actor Jiří Mádl. Otis' character has to decide if Jan John will get the needed stamp in his passport. It turns into a discussion on the true nature of life and death.

“My scene was a bit challenging. I'd been given a chunk of additional dialog minutes before the cameras rolled, and it was all mixed in with what I'd already memorized. So there was some winging it and experimenting with the tone, which in retrospect feels like it may have worked. I hope so, I still have not seen the film, and we shot a year ago! I was in L.A. for the Karlovy Vary [International Film Festival] premiere and those bastards wouldn't give me my scene for my showreel! Of course, I'm kidding (kind of),” he said. Actors use clips of their best work in a showreel to try to convince casting directors and producers to hire them. Otis was recently in Los Angeles to film some commercials and work on other projects.

The filmmakers did not want to release his new material before the premiere, though. “They were very protective of the work, which I fully understand,” Otis said.

Němec always experimented with and embraced new technology, whether it was videotape in the 1970s or later video streaming on the internet.

“Another interesting element was how the production used drones to exit/ break/ float out of the fourth wall in certain scenes, which I thought was a really cool idea. God bless the maverick! Viva Jan Němec!” Otis said.

The drones are one of several atypical elements that give The Wolf of Royal Vineyard Street its experimental feel.

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