Vanessa Lemonides '97, Actor
Slavic Languages and Literatures
Enthralled by Russian culture
I came to Princeton with a talent for foreign languages and a passion for acting. I found my home in the Slavic department after observing fellow cast members backstage preparing frantically for their Russian oral exams. They told me how difficult it was but how great (and quirky) the professors were. I was curious, and went to the second day of Russian 101 taught by Natalia Reed, one of the most colorful characters in the basement of East Pyne at the time, with her striped thigh-highs, manic energy, and thick Russian accent. ''Tak, rebyata (so, guys) Russian is a chauvinistic language -- all the feminine endings are 'oy!' like the women are scared or something.'' For the character studies alone, I was hooked. It was also academically rigorous but I was so thoroughly entertained, I rarely noticed the work.
As an artist, I flourished in the Slavic department, which felt more like a supportive family than a department (majors were outnumbered 2:1 by faculty). I wrote plays and short stories in Russian, gave concerts of Russian music with Professor Caryl Emerson and our motley Russkii Xor, and performed scenes from one of Gogol's plays in a Russian drama class. I also spent a summer studying and living with a Russian family in St. Petersburg, one of the most culturally rich cities in Russia. There, with the constant coaching of Valentina Sergeevna, my Russian ''mother,'' I achieved native-sounding Russian.
She took me everywhere, and I happily adopted the role of a Russian girl. She drilled me relentlessly on the way to the market about how to ask for a half kilo of cheese (and not give myself away). I was constantly asked for directions on the street, and frequently stumped street hawkers who couldn't place my accent (''Moscow?'' ''Princeton, actually.''). Gaining fluency in the language allowed me to slip into another skin, to think and behave in a new way, to become someone else. The actress felt right at home.
From poetry to plays and films
I returned to Princeton and wrote my senior thesis on the poetry of Marina Tsvetaeva, working closely with a professor who had always encouraged my creativity and newfound love of poetry. With her guidance, I refined my ability to analyze and interpret challenging text. Little did I know that these skills would be relevant to my future acting work. I'm often called on to do cold readings at auditions, which means I'm handed a scene or two from a script and given five minutes (or less!) to prepare before performing it in front of a director. My strong analytic skills allow me to gain a solid understanding of a character and the action of the scene and to make connections quickly with little context -- a process similar to analyzing poetry.
When I studied acting in New York, I was able to read Chekhov in the original and handpicked my translations when I worked on scenes from The Seagull and Uncle Vanya. My intense ear training came in handy when I won the role of Little Voice and had to imitate Judy Garland, Shirley Bassey, Barbra Streisand, Edith Piaf, Marilyn Monroe, and Billie Holiday. Because I speak fluent Russian, I got the opportunity to work with Robert Duvall on his film ''Assassination Tango.'' I've done a lot of Russian and Russian accent voice-over work on ''Sex and the City'' (when Baryshnikov was guest starring) and on ''The Manchurian Candidate.'' Fluent Russian is a special skill that's gotten me into more doors (and earned me more money) than I could have imagined back in the basement of East Pyne.