Actor Necati Şaşmaz is a fan of his onscreen persona

Actor Necati Şaşmaz is a fan of his onscreen persona

It wouldn’t be wrong to say that the long-running TV crime drama “Kurtlar Vadisi” (Valley of the Wolves) was a life-changing experience for actor Necati Şaşmaz.
Şaşmaz had no background or education in acting until he took on the leading role of Polat Alemdar in the series that debuted on Turkish TV in 2003. However, this did not prevent his rise to stardom in only the first season of the show, becoming one of the most popular names in the Turkish TV industry, particularly because he is associated with his onscreen character that mainly speaks to viewers with a high nationalistic sentiment.
Şaşmaz, who has since portrayed the same character in subsequent “Valley of the Wolves” spinoffs, as well as the 2006 “Valley of the Wolves: Iraq,” one of two feature films based on the same plotline as the series, is now bringing Polat Alemdar to life on the big screen yet again with “Valley of the Wolves: Palestine,” the controversial action flick that generated international buzz ahead of its theatrical release on Friday.
Kind, cheery and humorous, Şaşmaz, a man who bears little resemblance to his tough, gun-toting onscreen persona, speaks to Sunday’s Zaman in an interview on the set of the ongoing TV series during a break from shooting indoor scenes for next week’s episode.
Following the popularity of “Valley of the Wolves: Iraq,” many people said, “Polat Alemdar got revenge for the placing of sacks over the heads of Turkish soldiers.” Is the new film, “Valley of the Wolves: Palestine,” a form of “retribution” for the Mavi Marmara incident?
One shouldn’t see these as instances of revenge. We could call it perhaps, not revenge, but rather consciousness-raising. There are many clashes, wars, battles, and reigns of terror from different parts of the world that we know about only insofar as they are reflected in the media. The press and the media offer up reality through their own perspective, quite intentionally. We saw this in Bosnia, in Kosovo, in Iraq and in Palestine. We are bringing people the things that happen behind the curtains -- the real hearts of the matters -- by bringing them to the cinema. Our screenwriters have written some great storylines after doing intensive research. Audiences have expressed pleasure with what they have seen and have backed us. For us, what we heard was a sort of mass cry because we are talking about groups that generally aren’t able to have their voices heard.
Will this film have an international theatrical release?
The film will open in 81 countries. The more people hear our voices, the happier we are, of course.
The TV series is watched throughout the Middle East, the Balkans and Central Asia, and it has lots of fans in these places. How are you affected by this popularity?
Well, it used to be that in international airports it was only other Turks who showed an interest in us. But nowadays Arabs, people from the Balkans and even Africa stop and want to take photos, or talk.
You have always shouldered a mission in the series and films you made up until now. You seem to feel a duty to pass a message on to the viewers. Why have you chosen such a road for yourself?
Well, Polat in particular has a mission he has taken on. I believe that the screenwriters responsible for “Valley of the Wolves” share this same mission. There really are so many problems that need to be talked about, that need to be explained. Years ago my brother Raci Şaşmaz was asked something about whether the “Valley of the Wolves” series was coming to a close, or about to wind down or something. And at the time, Raci gave a great answer: “For as long as the stories we have to tell continue, so will the ‘Valley of the Wolves’.” There may come a time to stop or slow things down, though. And then it may continue, with a changed concept. The stories we are trying to tell are about our experiences and our problems. Sacks were placed over our heads in Iraq, and in Palestine people have been suffering for 60 years now. It used to be our fathers who would talk about what was happening in Palestine, and then we grew up and started talking about it on our own. Someone needs to tell these stories. There is persecution at hand here, and we are not just going to stand by. There shouldn’t be such suffering going on.
Did your decision to shoot this film come before the Mavi Marmara incident?
After we were done making “Valley of the Wolves: Iraq,” Raci, Cüneyt Aysan, Bahadır Özdener, the now-deceased Ömer Lütfi Mete and I talked about what we could do next. And it was at that time that the idea for this film arose. And the work on it began that very day. About a year later, when the research was finished, work on the script began. And just as soon as the script was done, the Mavi Marmara incident took place. After the incident our story did change.
How long did the filming take?
We shot it in 11 weeks. The negatives for some of the film’s action sequences were burned during the lab process. And so we had to re-shoot those parts, and that took a lot of time. It was really quite a burdensome process.
Before “Valley of the Wolves: Palestine” even opened in theaters, the media was already buzzing that Israel was angered. Did you receive any reactions to this effect?
We don’t know, really. We showed something for a minute and a half on the TV series. After that the consulate incidents took place. But this time around we are showing a film that lasts for an hour and a half. So we’ll see what happens.
“Valley of the Wolves” is a series with many viewers. Why do you think it is this popular?
Well, first and foremost I think people love it because it includes characters that people aren’t used to. The characters in the series reflect Turkish culture and its traditions, as well as all of its beautiful aspects. Another reason for its popularity might be the very realistic structure of the fictional storyline itself. People are presented with visual displays of things that others normally whisper to one another but might lack the courage to say out loud. What our scriptwriters have managed to do is turn these whispered things into visuals and prompt viewers to say, “See, that’s what I was talking about.” And this, in turn, has had a shock effect. After the series, people started to say, “Well, if that’s how ‘Valley of the Wolves’ says it happened, there must be something to it.” This was a result of great research done by our scriptwriters and their ability to read well between the lines and turn out great storylines. People became huge fans of the series -- they fell in love with it. And this love was unified with the character of Polat.
How has Polat Alemdar affected your life?
Polat is a character with 500 million viewers. He is a much-loved character. He has an incredible fan base. I am also actually a great Polat Alemdar fan. I don’t mean as a symbol -- I don’t want to fall into the situation of announcing that I love myself. No, as a character I love him. I wish everyone could be more like him. I wish more people could be as full of love and as resolute as Polat when it comes to the subjects of nation and family. This is why I am so infatuated with him. I just love Polat. But to return to your original question, yes, he has changed my life. But not just mine. Even just one character that enters into one episode of the series can change lives...
Do you spend most of your time on the set?
I am on the set five days a week. I set aside a day a week for interviews. Other than that, really, I like to spend time with my family. These days, there is an animation film for which I both worked on the script and did directing work, and I am working a lot on that. It will be Turkey’s first fully animated feature film. My life is completely full, and it passes like that. In my free time I also try to play musical instruments and read books. These days I am busy reading Kenize Mourad’s “Toprağımızın Kokusu” [“Our Sacred Land: Voices of the Palestine-Israeli Conflict”]. I recommend it to everyone.
 Who was your childhood hero?
... My childhood hero was Malkoçoğlu. His contemporary parallel is Polat. I used to read comic books: Tarkan, Kara Murat, Teksas, Tommiks. I guess that’s where the idea for an animation film came from.

‘Polat Alemdar is not the Turkish Rambo’

You said you have around 500 million viewers and fans. Do you ever experience the “drunkenness” of fame?
May Allah not begrudge us this. Every human has their excellent side. I certainly cannot say I have never made mistakes, for I have. But I am a servant. Allah says, “I cannot load more onto my servants than they can handle.” Everything that comes to us, whether good or bad, is from above. But we must be ready. I did not act in the first episode of “Valley of the Wolves.” The lead role in the series was offered to me. I wanted to think about it for a few months. I spoke with my friends and my mentors about it. They offered some great advice and warnings to me. I thought the moment I began acting in the series that the next day I would be in all the papers. I thought people would talk about me. But then only small bits of news came out about me. And I said to myself, “Oh boy, it looks like we’ll be going slowly.” And just as the popularity of the series rose gradually, so did the media coverage. We set out knowing that fame was a calamity of sorts. And that is an advantage.
So you are saying it was never your goal to become famous at all?
I have never had a goal of wanting the whole world to know me, to be famous or anything. When we got back from America where we shot the “Valley of the Wolves: Iraq” scenes with Sharon Stone, some of my friends asked me what I would do if I were a world-famous actor. I responded that all I would want would be to spend time with my loved ones. My real crew. Whether I were the world’s richest, most famous person, or poverty-stricken and downtrodden, I would want to possess the same warmth in my relationships with my friends. Because there is nothing as wonderful as being a part of a chain of love that is unconditional and has no staked interests.
Do you also watch the series?
If I am not busy on the set somewhere I definitely always watch it, never miss it. In fact, we watch it together as a team. I always have a lot of criticism for myself.
Are you uncomfortable that your character is billed as the “Turkish Rambo”?
Yes. Why is it that we don’t want to accept the existence of Polat -- why don’t we want to accept that we are strong in ourselves? Why should I be compared to or identified with Rambo? We put ourselves second by calling this character the “Turkish Rambo.” We are not trying to copy something else. In the eyes of the viewers Polat is much more valuable than Rambo. The phrase was written for the first time ever in the Spanish press. They called Polat the “Rambo Turco.” I reacted the same way there, too. I hope that from now on characters will be created that are labeled by people “like the Turkish Polat.” Don’t see this as arrogance. After all, why do we have to be second, or to copy others? That is what makes me uncomfortable. I want what is ours to be more valuable. That is what I am after.

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