NEW YORK – In the elevator on the way up to the sixth floor, I wonder, what will I ask her? The truth is that I wanted to meet her for a very long time. The door opens and her “guardian angel,” Stavroula Toska, welcomes me with a smile. She is so friendly that I feel at home. “Come in, Olympia is eager to meet you,” she says.
Dressed in purple, regal and yet unpretentious, Olympia Dukakis welcomes me.
All three of us sit together. They offer delicious Greek biscuits and bars. Dukakis asks, “Do you smoke? Can I smoke while you are here?” “Oh, a cigarette would be fine, for the company” I answer and she gives a satisfied smile.
Toska and Dukakis met nine years ago. From that moment Olympia was a mentor and a friend to Stavroula. They then worked together on the award-winning documentary Beneath the Olive Tree.
Last December, Stavroula received a phone call from Olympia’s then assistant, Haley, who told her that Olympia was in the hospital. “I went to visit her and I thought, ‘This is it, we’re losing her.’ I then talked to her family, and after she was finally released from the hospital, we said I would stay for a couple of days to watch her, to hang out with her.
“Oh, that’s it, I got stuck here and she tormented me every day. She doesn’t listen to me, she makes fun of me all the time, but I still let her think I controlling her,” Stavroula said jokingly.
She adds, “We were talking to her agent about the possibility of making a comedy about everything that’s happening here in this loft. I have already begun writing something, and her brother Apollo will be it in, too.”
Olympia said, “My brother was the reason I became an actor. I remember, he wanted to become an actor since he was six years old. And it affected me. When I was in college, I was chosen along with another girl to perform in a production for a project. The class decided it. And after this performance I discovered that I loved participating in productions and writing.
“So I started a company in Boston. It was the 1950s. At some point, however, the others began to leave for New York. I built a theater in a building belonging to the mafia. I was sitting on the balcony and noticing the owner doing business with the people who took care of the buildings. He took packets of money from his pockets and handed them over so they would do what he wanted without bothering him.”
When asked what made her leave and come to New York, she replied after considering the question for a moment, “Yes, they were all gone. Everyone was leaving Boston. There was no one to perform.”
About her arrival in New York, Olympia said, “I remember standing outside the Manhattan library and thinking, ‘Now what are you going to do?'”
She shared an apartment with two other girls. She started working at the Phoenix Theater, “at the offices, however, as a secretary. A friend of mine, John, helped me find the job.”
She tells me about friend, an actor. She loved Olympia and helped her. Trying to remember her name with no effect, she tells me her story. She married, divorced, and then started drinking. She became an alcoholic and eventually passed away. Recalling the past and the fond memories she shared with her friend, Dukakis sighed, “Ach, mana mou.”
“At some point, I realized I would become known as an ‘ethnic actress’ because of my name,” Dukakis said as the conversation turned to her Oscar win for Best Supporting Actress for Moonstruck in 1987.
When asked how it felt when she heard her name, she replied, “I said ‘I got it, I got it, I got it.’ You could see it in my face. I had no idea I would get it. Although the producer of the film believed in me and considered it to be a given.”
It was the time when her cousin Michael Dukakis was a candidate for President of the United States. Two children of immigrants, one running for President and the other winning an Oscar.
“He called to congratulate me. He was so excited and proud. But I was, too, for him, who came so close to becoming a world leader.”
The cast of Switch posed for a photo at Olympia Dukakis’ loft. Photo: Courtesy of Eunah Lee and Julian Dilorio
It’s Friday. In a little while Olympia has a lesson.
“Every Friday she teaches advanced acting lessons to professional actors who come to her loft,” Toska said.
“She teaches the four chairs method, based on the four emotions. We think we’re going further, not just for actors. I think it is interesting not only for actors but also for everyone because at the end of the day we talk about human nature, how we communicate with each other, how we understand the people around us, how we love.”
Our conversation returns to the comedy that the two are planning, based on their daily experiences in the loft.
“We are thinking about doing this because what I have been aware of all these years in America is that we Greeks and other ethnicities have grown up differently in the way we respect our parents and grandparents.
“In this country, when you grow old, they automatically consider you garbage. You’re just taking up space. So we have the ability to do something and we will do it. Olympia is a woman who is respected as a woman and as an actor. This will send a message. It will be fun, it will be funny, but always sending the message about how we behave toward one another,” says Stavroula.
During our discussion in Olympia’s living room, overlooking the beautiful potted plants opposite us, a little further on a worker silently goes about his business.
A scene from Switch with series creator and actor Stavroula Toska. Photo: Courtesy of Eunah Lee and Julian Dilorio
Shortly before I arrived for the interview, Olympia tells me that she was trying to persuade him to be interviewed. “Come on Dan, it’s time. Two seconds,” she called out. “Think of it as a job,” Olympia insisted. “I’m fine, thank you,” Dan shouted from within.
“Switch” means change. Change in conversation but also the title of a unique story.
It started off as a documentary idea and evolved into a series. The idea was Stavroula’s and at this point the conversation is of particular interest since it is a real-life story that few people know about.
“A few years ago, I had dinner with a very good friend and I heard the word ‘dominatrix’ for the first time. In Greece, what we call ‘afentra’ (mistress). My friend, then, told me that there are many men who pay a great deal of money for women to treat them in a certain way, to slap them around a bit. I was listening and I was shocked. And I thought, ‘I’ve been asleep all my life? How can this happen in our society and no one knows about it?’
“That night I went home and searched on the computer all night to see who these people were. The research lasted for a year and a half and I had decided that this would be my next documentary. I started reading books and searching for everything on this subject.
A scene from Switch with series creator and actor Stavroula Toska. Photo: Courtesy of Eunah Lee and Julian Dilorio
“One of the things I was impressed with was that most videos and books and articles I read were on the surface. They are freaks, weirdos, sick people. And as I read, I was telling myself how it is possible for these people, family men… to do such things? What is it that leads them to this place?
“So, I said, I will make a documentary that will go below the surface, it will do a deeper search to see what will come out. I decided to talk to psychologists and women doing this job but also their clients.
“I started calling the women who did this job, to ask if they would talk to me on camera. Everyone said no. I insisted. ‘I want to understand their psychology, I do not care how many slaps you give per day.’ At one point, a woman told me ‘no one will do it, even if they talk to you they will want to cover their faces on camera and you will not be allowed by anyone to follow them home, to their family, work, when they go in the dungeon.’
“And then I said to myself that a year and a half of research was wasted. Then I began to ask myself what is it that pulls me into this world? What was it that I was so excited about and I was obsessed with?”
Stavroula then made the big decision. She got into this “world” herself to see up close what is going on.
“I went and found such a dungeon near Bryant Park where they were hiring. The ad said, ‘We are recruiting young girls, you do not have to have experience, come for an interview, legal work, not prostitution.’ I called them and told them that I was looking for a job, and lied that a friend of mine years ago did this job and I thought it was something I could do.
Actors Peter Giannakas, Stavroula Toska, and Eleni Yiovas in a scene from Switch filmed at Ovelia restaurant in Astoria. Photo: Courtesy of Eunah Lee and Julian Dilorio
“The manager told me ‘come in.’ I remember it was Friday and the 13th and I thought it was a very bad sign, it was December, it was raining. And… I was afraid. I would go there, I would lie. Within five minutes, she offered me the job. ‘You will do well here, customers will love you. You will be the Greek goddess, the Amazon,’ she told me.
“It’s crazy. When I think about it now, how did I come in with the lies, the tape recorder in my pocket… So I thought if they gave me the job I would go for training for two weeks, I would meet some people, write everything I can, and then I’ll go do some project.
“On Monday I got a job. The name I chose for myself was ‘Mistress Cassandra’ and from that moment the transformation began. It was so simple. From the first day you start training and learn how to crack the whip, how to handle the electric chair, etc. Each room had its own character.”
Olympia interrupts. “I think it’s time to smoke that cigarette we talked about.”
“You are a bad influence Olympia, I haven’t smoked in a long time,” says Stavroula and continues, “The manager threw me into the deep end on the first day of work. She sent me to meet with clients, which was against the rules. She believed I could handle it. There was a Chinese guy, a white guy, and a black guy. So, I got a picture of what’s going on inside, what each person is looking for. Indeed, there were many Greek customers. The tough guy, the patriarchy did not exist behind those doors.”
“It’s like playing a role,” says Olympia.
“I remember when I left the job and went out on the street, I suddenly saw the world with new eyes. I had woken up in another reality. I was 34 years old and I had no idea what’s happening in this world, what everybody is looking for, what he’s suffering, what’s happening in our mind and soul, what we’re carrying. There was a lot of pain in the dungeons.
“The rich, poor, every nationality and status, and the same with the girls, everyone can do this job. It has to do with behavior and not with the show as Hollywood has depicted it.
“I lasted two months. The owners I remember were an Argentine and a couple of Greeks. I would leave the job, go home, and write everything, details, feelings, on the computer.
“The owner suggested I become a manager when I wanted to leave. Then I thought that if I did, I would learn from inside how the whole system works and I said yes. The other manager learned about it and fired me on a day when the other wasn’t there because she was blackmailing him with customer information.
“That she would reveal their names. We had clients who were powerful, public figures. Someone was coming in at 2 o’clock that night and that morning I had seen him on TV.
“So, I said to myself, ‘Stavroula, gather your things and go, you overstayed your welcome.’ But I wanted to continue my research. So, I started working alone, I became the boss. I rented a space in another dungeon called ‘Parthenon.’ One of the owners there is also Greek.
“This was my Ithaca, the discovery of myself. I ended up doing this work for five and a half years. And then I wondered, ‘Will I do this work forever or will I go tell this story to the world?’ So I talked to Olympia about working together. I wrote Switch, based on real events and Olympia is starring in the series.
Olympia said, “This story must be told. And to be said in such a way that the public does not reject it. Like I did. I understand what this is about. Society needs to recognize things for women.”
Switch consists of eight short episodes and is a total of 86 minutes. Stavroula said, “My goal is to go to HBO or Hulu and become a regular series with one hour episodes.”
Apart from Stavroula and Olympia, many other Greeks are also part of the production, including cast members Stephanos Stephanou and Eleni Yiovas, as well as Vassilea Terzaki, Peter Giannakas, Viktor Koen, Tao Zervas, who composed the music, and Leonidas Eracleous who has also written music for the series.
“Leonidas is a very talented young man and a great musician. It gave me great joy and pride to work with so many talented Greeks,” says Stavroula.
When asked about her loved ones reaction to the show, Stavroula said, “The truth is that they were very impressed when they saw the series, they had no idea. My mom, of course, is still trying to figure out how I got into this place. She is 80 years old, from a different time. She wants her daughter to marry, to have children, to live near her in Sindos, Thessaloniki. She does not want her daughter to be in New York, on the other side of the world. I came here 18 years ago to study and I stayed. And, of course, I want to find my partner, to have a child. But I’m crazy about my job and I want to have balance with my personal life.”
The series is available on the Internet and has won eleven awards so far. Among them, two from New York Women in Film & Television (the largest organization of women producers, screenwriters, and directors) for best series and best actress, Best Web Series from Global Shorts, Los Angeles, Best Television / Pilot Program from the Calcutta International Cult Film Festival, and Best Story at the Santa Fe Film Festival.
The series is available online: www.switchtheseries.com.