Gay, Russian Immigrant Role in 'Sweetbitter' Helps This Actor Confront Insecurities
Not only is it just first time being cast as a series regular on a television show, but it is also a departure from his typical “bad Russian guys,” he tells Variety.
On the show, Daniyar portrays outspoken back waiter Sasha, who works with Tess (Ella Purnell) in a busy New York restaurant. Like his character, Daniyar is also gay and a Russian immigrant, which he says helped him immediately relate to the character.
“It felt to me like, ‘OK, I think I can apply myself to it and apply my life experiences to it right away,'” he says of the role. “This character is so incredible and so dynamic. I think he’s larger than life and a real force of nature. It was incredible to even have an opportunity to play him and go and expand myself to [become] the character.
”Here, Daniyar shares with Variety the biggest challenge he faced portraying Sasha, his previous experience in the service industry, and the meaning behind the “baby monster” nickname on the show.
Was there anything you wanted to add to the your interpretation of Sasha not found in the book?
In the book, there’s a wonderful paragraph and it says that when Tess met him, “…in his eyes she could see everything. That he was a lover, the one who loved, who was dumped, who’d maybe killed people, who’d done everything, and had experienced everything in his live.” [Editor’s note: The full quote is, His gaze was so cold, you knew he had been everyone: a rich man, a poor man, in love, abandoned, a murderer, and close to death.] So, I don’t think there’s anything to add because Sasha is a pretty worldly character. In episode two, there will be one line that explains him. He says, “I’m everything, honey.” That’s Sasha. I think for the show I definitely had to expand myself and kind of give myself and go to the dark places that I’m afraid to go as Daniyar in order to honor the character. I think there was so much in it so I didn’t have to add. I just had to honor what is there.
What was your biggest challenge taking on the role of Sasha?
In my previous work…I shrank characters so they would fit me. For this role, I had to expand myself. I would have to go and confront my darkest fears. I had to deal with my stuff as I’ve dealt with [it] all my life. In a later episode, my character says Howard calls him a freak. People in college called me freak. For me to connect to it and go to that place of feeling completely ostracized and belittled — literally people I went to college with called me freak because I was different, because I was gay although I was not even open. It was incredible [that] I could honor that character only if I could go to those places and confront my insecurities, my fears, and my pain.
How did it feel to push past those insecurities?
I’m so, so grateful for this role because it’s so dynamic. In the pilot, I’m so aggressive, but at the same time vulnerable and I’m shielded. Later, you can see layers pulling off of Sasha and there’s so much more to him. There is huge depth and huge pain and huge joy. That’s quite incredible for an actor to play that range of emotions and feelings. It’s a pleasure to play that. I usually go for bad Russian guys — very much macho, bad people. Here I am playing a flamboyant [person], but at the same time [a] very strong character. Often I see gay characters on TV, but nobody like Sasha. Nobody as aggressive and as flamboyant [and] bold as Sasha.
Why do you think Tess immediately connects to Sasha when she meets him?
[Tess’s] main thing is she’s extremely empathetic. When we actually had the [restaurant] boot camp and [executive producer and author] Stephanie [Danler] came and she talked about her experiences at the Union Square Café and being a waitress. She spoke about empathy and she said one of the main things that was in common with every waiter at the Union Square Café was empathy. I think it was such a crucial thing that Tess has this huge heart and huge empathy. She empathizes with Sasha because she has been through it. My character is grieving, and she senses it. I think we bound on a common wound. My character sees that too. We create a friendship eventually.
How did you interpret Sasha’s “baby monster” nickname for Tess?
At first, I was like what is that? Then I had to read the whole book in order to understand what I am saying. Then I understood that I call her baby monster because my character Sasha sees her right away for who she is. She’s still a baby. She’s still innocent, but she has the capability to become a monster. She has the capability to take charge and be the strongest person in the restaurant. She’s a very, very strong female and she can do basically anything. That’s why my character sees her for who she is. I think my character always tells her the truth and has this great understanding that maybe Tess doesn’t understand herself. I think I speak in [a] secret code almost. Later, she understands what Sasha means and what he has told her before.
Would you call Sasha her mentor at the restaurant or her friend?
The way my coach and I broke down the character makes it definitely both. I take kind of mentorship over her but in a very different way than Simone [Caitlin Fitzgerald] does. Simone’s teaching her how to be graceful, but my character teaches her how to be a human being — how to explore life, how to be messy, how to do drugs, drink. But at the same time, to be honest to [herself]. My character confronts her with real questions like what does she want, what’s going on in her life. Later, Sasha opens to Tess in a very different way. We see him from a different angle [as] a very, very vulnerable person. I think he can do it only with Tess because she’s very vulnerable with him.
Did you have experience in the service industry before the role?
I did have experience in the service industry — not as a waiter, but as the bus boy, the dishwasher for quite a while. So, I knew some stuff. I knew how to three-plate carry but not in a graceful way. I knew how to serve but not in a fine-dining environment. We learned how to serve correctly. How to serve our guests only with open arms to them. I learned how to open a bottle of wine and properly serve it. Also our boot camp supervisor, the person who taught Stephanie Danler at Union Square Café, taught us and she was there during the shoot as well. So, if we had a dining shoot in the restaurant, she would be there. Every table has a number and then every person has a number so you don’t skip people. Everybody has to be served at the same time. To learn all those details and practice it is quite important, I think, to be true to the character, especially my [part]. In the book, it says my character is the fastest and one of the best back waiters. Everybody looks like they’re slacking behind me because I’m so fast. So for me, it was very important to do boot camp and learn the most efficient way.
“Sweetbitter” airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on Starz.