Salad Days With Russian Dressing

To get a good job, get a good education. Adam Tsekhman got both by going to jail.

But he ended his sentence with a declarative spasibo ("thank you"), putting a period on the period he spent incarcerated in a Russian cell.

Bang the shoe slowly?

No, Tsekhman's tsuris was of the scripted variety as the young up-and-comer got down and dirty in a Russian prison for "Zona" ("The Jail"), shot on set in Russia.

Who knew that the Penn grad would spend time in a pen and come out the more famous for it? Not even a B.S. in finance from Wharton could make him waver in his decision to explore not the stock market for a career, but that stock-in-trade of the arts — starving actor.

He's eating it all up. Because suddenly, the son of Soviet Jewish émigrés from Ukraine is universal, a familiar face, landing parts without even parting from his parents' homeland.

From Russia with "Lessons"? Indeed: He's gone from "Jail" to "Russian in 5 Easy Lessons," his latest venture, about to shoot in New York and Moscow.

It's all been a lesson — and an education. "I was studying theater at Columbia [University] in New York," doing post-grad work after Penn, says the Toronto resident, "and spent two weeks [vacationing] in Moscow, when I met up with a family friend, who got me a script for a prison drama to read."

Before they could lower the iron curtains, he had his first role.

"I had never worked in Russia," but wound up shooting the series between November 2005 and the following March.

Suddenly, the student was marching into the homes of Russian TV-viewers while shuttling between Moscow and off-Broadway, where Tsekhman spent time performing for the Classic Stage Company.

Classic case of the best student "internship" in the world? Just wait to hear what landed him in "Jail" in the first place.

"I played an American student who meets this girl, whose family tells the police that he raped her, hoping to get money — a Russian extortion plot — from this rich American."

Isn't it rich? His parents emigrated from the country only to see their son wind up back there in "Jail."

"I was the only Westerner in the cast and crew," he says.

Tsekhman takes a beating and keeps on ticking … "On the first day of shooting, my character is beaten and bloodied and naked."

Russian undressing during those salad days? Grin and bare it: "The show became a big hit."

But the clock was ticking on Tsekhman's fame; midnight in Moscow came sooner than he thought.

"The show was a hit, but it caused a political controversy because of its violence. Suddenly, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin made a speech, talking about violence and TV," and just as suddenly, as they said in the old days about the Russian who went against the grain and the party line … Has anyone seen Comrade Goldberg?

"We were moved," says Tsekhman of the erstwhile popular timeslot it had five days a week to the gulag of ignominy. And, just as suddenly, "The Jail" was jettisoned, sentenced to obscurity.

That's the spirit, but even more so, since Tsekhman busted out of "Jail" into "The Spirit," a short film directed by actor Joseph Fiennes, which had its premiere this summer at the Moscow Film Festival.

A thrill to be in this thriller? Indeed, says the actor of the movie making its American premiere at this month's Los Angeles short film festival.

Do the math: It all adds up for the former finance major. After all, he first went bullish on theater and bearish on a business career while at Wharton. "That's when I went to see a play there and wound up auditioning" for the Teatron Jewish Theatre, which is sponsored by the school's Betty and Philip Zinman Endowment for Jewish Cultural Arts. A newfound fool for love of theater, he auditioned for "Fool." "And that's what caused me not to be an investment banker," he says, bottom-lining it.

When theater talked, Tsekhman listened. But he didn't hear the entreaties of Lehman Brothers in Los Angeles, who offered him an investment banker's job. All he heard was the roar of the greasepaint. "Stepping on stage and feeling incredibly alive … it was an indescribable rush."

He's in no rush to exit this existence. And as the Toronto resident gets ready to tour Russia once more, this side trip is only one side of his family sojourns, which have taken a transgenerational Jewish journey from Russia to Israel to Australia to New Zealand to the United States and Canada.

Beyond that is another project projected for his film future: "I'll be starring in the first Canadian-Korean co-production, 'Anything Can Happen …' "

Anything, indeed. 



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