(left)Ivan Okhlobystin as Rasputin in his return to acting after having been ordained as a priest in the Orthodox Church.
(above)Father Ioann Okhlobystin carrying out his priestly duties in a Moscow church.
(uppermost picture)Okhlobystin bears a rifle during a hunting trip.
Ivan Okhlobystin gave up film acting to become a priest. Now he’s back and playing Rasputin.
By Alastair Gee
On weekends, Father Ioann Okhlobystin can be found tending to his flock at St. Sofia’s Church of the Wisdom of God, opposite the Kremlin in Moscow. He wears a long, black priestly cassock and sometimes gives sermons about love and friendship.
During the week, Ivan Okhlobystin acts in big-budget movies and writes scripts for action films. The priest, who uses his lay name for work, likes buying luxury watches and has a fondness for Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
What do his parishioners make of his alter ego as a screen idol?
“They’re indifferent,” Okhlobystin said in an interview last week in a Moscow coffee shop, dressed in baggy jeans and with a hat hiding his long hair, which had been dyed red for a role. “It was interesting at first, but they got used to it.” As for his fellow priests, “90 percent of them have a good attitude to it. We chat about it. They’re people, too, you know.”
Okhlobystin, 41, acted in films from 1992 until 2001, and was known for his gritty performances in movies about the army and Russia’s drug-enamored nouveaux riches. He also wrote tens of screenplays. But then he decided to give it all up and was ordained.
This year, he’s making a comeback — Okhlobystin says his upcoming appearance in “Conspiracy,” due to be released late December, will be the first time a priest has taken the lead role in a Russian movie. The film, directed by Stanislav Libin, is about Grigory Rasputin, the mystic who was a controversial friend of Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna and, some say, part of the reason Russia’s monarchy was so disliked and eventually overthrown.
While researching the role of Rasputin, Okhlobystin gained sympathy for the charismatic mystic, or as some see him, religious charlatan, who was not ordained in the Russian Orthodox Church. “He was a gifted person; he undeniably cured diseases,” he said. “Of course, he wasn’t a saint — he got drunk; he was raucous in restaurants. But my research shows that he wasn’t a pervert.”
He’s also working on a number of new scripts, one comedy and another about terrorism. Compared with a priest’s wage, it’s highly lucrative work — Okhlobystin said he had just agreed to write a screenplay on biblical themes for $180,000.
Okhlobystin’s return has been welcomed by his friends, though they still sympathize with his choice to enter the priesthood.
“Of course, his decision to become a priest was a big shock for a lot of people,” said Kristina Orbakaite, a pop singer, actress and daughter of Russia’s most famous pop star, Alla Pugachyova. Orbakaite plays the empress in “Conspiracy.” “But I understand his decision. His soul at some point began to need it.”
She added: “I’m a believer — I’m a Catholic. I’d like to dedicate myself more to my faith, but nevertheless to a greater extent I’m a secular person. I’m an actress, I have children, a mother. But in spite of his burdens, he went further.”
Okhlobystin was born at a holiday resort in the Tula region. His father, aged 62 when Okhlobystin was born, was a doctor there. His mother was 19.
Although he studied directing at Moscow’s prestigious VGIK film school, Okhlobystin took his first acting role in 1992’s “Leg,” after being persuaded by his friend and the film’s director, Nikita Tyagunov. He played a soldier who loses a limb during the Afghan war. Okhlobystin then wrote and directed 1992’s “Arbiter,” and realized he never wanted to direct again.
Over the next 10 years, Okhlobystin acted and wrote the scripts for dozens of Russian films, notably appearing as a spy in 2000’s army-themed “DMB” and alongside Fyodor Bondarchuk in 2001’s “Down House,” which is based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot” and touches on similar themes — hard drugs, clubs — to the British film “Trainspotting.” He wrote the scripts for both.
Despite his mother’s disapproval, Okhlobystin chose to be baptized when he was 14, and his faith grew stronger with age. He presented a religious show on television in the late 1990s, but he said his decision to enter the priesthood came as he was driving in the Moscow region with a priest from Tashkent.
“On the way the the car broke down, and we sat for several hours on the road and played chess. He played chess very well. We chatted about life, and then he said to me, ‘Everything’s going very well for you, and you’ll achieve whatever you want. But you’re a little bit out of place.’ And I said, ‘What place do I need?’ He said: You should become a priest.’”
“For an Orthodox Christian to refuse when he’s asked to become a priest — it’s crazy,” Okhlobystin said.
The priest ordained Okhlobystin at his church in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and upon taking orders, Okhlobystin disappeared from movie screens.
Despite receiving a number of acting offers, Okhlobystin said he turned them all down. He wrote a few screenplays, including this year’s “Paragraph 78,” set in a future where soft drugs have been legalized. But mostly he devoted himself to religion, serving at a number of churches in Moscow, and became a devotee of the U.S. futurologist Alvin Toffler. He also spent more time with his young family — Okhlobystin has six children, the oldest of whom is now 11. That all changed recently.
“At the beginning of this year, [the makers of “Conspiracy”] made me a very attractive offer,” he said. “An official offer by letter. I showed it to my boss, and he said, ‘This is a great job, the money’s good, you could build a church with this.’”
Okhlobystin wrote a letter to Patriarch Alexy II, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, asking what he should do, and received permission to appear in the film. Okhlobystin won’t be building a church with the proceeds, however — he’ll keep a large portion of it, and with the remainder plans to set up a rest home for stressed Muscovites in the countryside.
The money wasn’t the only deciding factor — filmmaking is like a “drug,” Okhlobystin said.
Other priests could follow in Okhlobystin’s footsteps if they wanted — they’re not forbidden from acting by scripture, said Father Georgy Ryabykh, a spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchate.
“The question of whether acting is suitable for priests remains to be decided,” he said. “The general rule is that a Christian shouldn’t take a role that promotes vice or anti-Christian sentiment.”
As proof that cinema and the Orthodox Church can go hand in hand, last year Pavel Lungin had a huge hit in Russia with his film “The Island,” set in a remote monastery.
The film was shown at the Radonezh festival of Orthodox film, which is blessed by Alexy. It even prompted tabloid rumors that one of the lead actors, Dmitry Dyuzhev, was preparing to join a monastery.
For now, Okhlobystin is abstaining from roles in which the character has sex on screen. He’d also prefer not to take a part that involves swearing (and admonishes his acquaintances when they do). Though it’s preferable for Russian Orthodox priests to have a beard, Okhlobystin doesn’t — most roles don’t require one and, in any case, he said he is unable to grow one.
Other than that, he says becoming a priest hasn’t made him into a new person.
“Nothing has changed. Everybody says that people change. But I haven’t seen it in myself. Earlier I liked the music of Dead Can Dance. And I like it now. Earlier I liked BMWs, and now I like BMWs. And drinks — earlier I loved Calvados, and now I love Calvados.
“Now I have obligations. That’s the only difference.”