Actress Glenda Jackson considers it an honor to be associated with the kind of courage displayed by Andrei Sakharov and his wife, Yelena Bonner. "The remarkable thing about them is that they are mere human beings undergoing these kinds of tribulations. Not saints. It would be easier for saints," she said thoughtfully in an interview at her hotel room overlooking Central Park. She had come here for a few days to make certain the world knows about the new HBO Premere Film, "Sakharov."
Miss Jackson plays the role of Dr. Yelena Bonner, wife of the famous Russian scientist/dissenter (portrayed by Jason Robards) in the film, which airs on pay cable HBO channel Sept. 16, 21, 24, 26 and 29. It has aired only once before, in June, when HBO (which reaches about 13 million American households, close to 50 million viewers) broke its own release date for a one-time airing at the request of the Sakharov children in the United States, who hoped the airing might influence the Soviet Union to release their parents from exile in Gorky. The film is already in TV and theatrical release in many European countries and will probably be widely shown in theaters and perhaps on broadcast TV after the course of its HBO run.
"It's such a privilege to be associated with that kind of humanity," says Miss Jackson. "In this case I have been able to combine my professional capability with something I believe in fundamentally. It is often only by accident, really, that you can be associated with a piece that you feel is great."
But there have been too many examples of fine acting in worthwhile projects during Glenda Jackson's career, starting with "Marat/Sade" in the theater, the movies "Mary, Queen of Scots," "Sunday, Bloody Sunday," and "Stevie," and most recently BBC's "Elizabeth R" and the TV movie "The Patricia Neal Story" -- to attribute all of her worthy accomplishments to accident. She chooses her parts judiciously.
Jackson and I agreed that the film -- a straightforward docudrama sensitively scripted by David W. Rintels and subtly directed by Jack Gold with a minimal amount of superfluous melodramatics -- is more pro-human rights than anti-Soviet. It attacks the Soviet system more than individual Soviet officials. "The Sakharovs themselves," Jackson recalls, "have always said that they are in a sense symbols for all the people all over the world about whom we know nothing, who are being denied human rights."
Does Miss Jackson believe the Sakharovs may have seen the film since its original screening?
She shakes her head. "No. I can't think they've seen it, although they surely must know that it was being made. But it never fails to amaze me just how much information does get through both ways. Through Amnesty International, which helped us prepare for the film by giving us a great deal of background information, you can write to a prisoner of conscience anywhere in the world. They issue a list every month. It's quite extraordinary that the letters get through. I always find it amazing that all repressive regimes want to seem not to be repressive so that a letter will often get through."
How informed about the Sakharovs was Miss Jackson when she started the role?
"I knew what the situation was through news reports, but I was not particularly knowledgeable about the dissident movement.
"It was difficult to play Dr. Bonner, since very little was known about her. There were just two fuzzy photographs taken some time ago and some reports of her attending trials and things of that nature."
Both Jason Robards and Miss Jackson felt that the problem with the original script was that they were presented with the Sakharovs' actions from which they, as actors, had to build characters. "Jason complained that he couldn't play an idea. He was given all Sakharov's writings, but they are intellectual deliberations. OK, you learn that he has a marvelous brain and a huge soul. But you need something more than that to actually act out. And so we were both all the time trying to find human-behavior-type incidents for both of the Sakharovs."
It wasn't till after the film that Miss Jackson met Tania and Ephrem Yankelevich (Yelena Bonner's daughter and son-in-law from her first marriage), so they were of little help in building the characterizations.
Is Glenda Jackson doing anything in addition to her personal appearances for the film to help free the Sakharovs? One of the basic premises of the film is the belief of the dissidents that worldwide public opinion can influence Soviet policy with regard to human rights.
"Well, I write periodically to our foreign secretary and to the Russian ambassador in London. I have also occasionally written to the head of the arts and sciences in Russia, simply pointing out that something should be done. The British government and, I am sure, the American government continue to ask about them.
But can't average person do something?
"They can write to their own congressmen. Or they can write to the President and to the State Department and just urge that whatever is being done through diplomatic circles should continue to be done. And it wouldn't hurt for them to drop a line to the Russian ambassador in Washington, either."
Then, Miss Jackson's eyes light up with another idea. "Maybe people could write to the Sakharovs in care of Gorky, USSR. The authorities certainly know where they are. I think all those tiny grains of sand. . . ."