Brighten the Corners

'Everything Is Illuminated' star Eugene Hutz lights up the fair

The Minnesota State Fair is grounds for some of the most heterogeneous people-watching imaginable. Spend a few hours peeking at the dust-veiled populace of the Mighty Midway and your senses will be offended and aroused in equal measure. You'll be convinced you've seen everything. Then Eugene Hutz shows up.

Hutz, the charismatic ringleader of Slavcore band Gogol Bordello and the unlikely star of the film adaptation of Everything Is Illuminated, sticks out like a shot of Guinness at a milk bar. Rail-thin, he's dressed head-to-toe in black on a day in August when the mercury is nudging 85, and he's sporting the sort of thick, rakish mustache that's usually seen only on '70s porn stars and Old West saloon-keeps. His signature gold chains gleam in the sun, and he wears a pair of oversized black sunglasses that could either be a comic affectation or an actual bid for privacy. (He occasionally slides one lens of the glasses aside to expose a single milky blue eye, but the effect is more unnerving than encouraging.) Naturally, everyone stares. "There should be more people here like me," Hutz deadpans in his thick Ukrainian accent, surveying the crowd.

Raw power: Eugene Hutz in 'Everything Is Illuminated'
Warner Independent Pictures
Raw power: Eugene Hutz in 'Everything Is Illuminated'

As Hutz settles into the beer garden with a glass of Summit, a smitten teen engages him in conversation while her mother looks on nervously. "I love his accent," she mumbles to anyone within earshot. Hutz tells the girl that he's in an upcoming movie. "Is it rated R?" Mom asks.

Hutz, who has been described as the Ukrainian Iggy Pop, isn't known as a PG sort of guy. Gogol Bordello's manic stage shows have become legendary, with Hutz's unpredictable antics and penchant for booze making him a darling of the drama-starved music press. "It's an exhausting discipline," Hutz says of his hardcore frontman persona. He likens the stage shows to long-distance running, a favorite hobby in his youth. "You think there's no way you can do it. But you can." Lately Gogol Bordello have been touring exhaustively in support of their latest album, Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike. It's a lifestyle that seems to suit Hutz. He splits his time between New York and L.A., and doesn't seem to claim any city--or country, for that matter--as his proper home.

The comparisons to Pop have grown tiresome for the fiercely nonconformist Hutz, though he says he's an Iggy fan. "Marcel Marceau was always called the 'French Charlie Chaplin,'" Hutz explains. "People need something to reference. But it limits you." The comparison seems tenuous anyway, since Gogol Bordello sound nothing like the Stooges. In fact, they don't sound like any other band you've ever heard; their music is an intoxicating hybrid of klezmer and punk, accompanied by Hutz's alternately tender and bracing vocals. Originally, the band was slated only to contribute music to Everything Is Illuminated, but director Liev Schreiber saw star quality in Hutz and cast him in a surprisingly beefy role for a relative unknown.

Alex, Hutz's character in the film, is a chipper Ukrainian translator who makes his tourist client Jonathan (Elijah Wood) seem like a sodden mope by comparison. It's hard to reconcile the bright-eyed, boyish hip-hop enthusiast in the film with the real-life Hutz, who'd rather talk about Russian literature than breakdancing. Indeed, according to Hutz, he and Alex don't have many traits in common: "He's a dynamo--that's the only similarity between [Alex] and me," Hutz says modestly. "The character is 10 years younger than me. He hardly knows anything. But he's very optimistic."

Hutz seems refreshingly cerebral for a rock star, especially one who gets more press for his drunken gypsy-jackass shtick than for his lyrical insights. "Our band should really be called Bulgakov Bordello," he says, citing The Master and Margarita as an influence. He mentions an obscure Serbian director as his favorite filmmaker and stalls when asked to name some enjoyable American movies. "Blue Velvet," he eventually says, smirking a little at the hipster predictability of his choice. "And Barfly. And Bad Lieutenant."

Despite the enviable buzz around his creative pursuits, Hutz refuses to strive for fame and fortune. "What is celebrity?" he asks disdainfully. "Such an American-cultivated thing. The work is important. Nothing else matters." To cope with the media attention, he has developed a foolproof strategy for dealing with the press. "Drink Jäger at one interview and whisky at the next," says the only black-clad Ukrainian under the Space Tower. "Or lie. That's what I'm doing right now."

 
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