Croatian actress Mira Furlan, who first rose to fame in Yugoslav film and theatre in the 1980s before emigrating to the United States in 1991 and appearing in hit television series Babylon 5 and Lost, died on Thursday aged 65.
Born in Zagreb in 1955, Furlan graduated from the Zagreb Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1978 and immediately joined the ensemble at the Croatian National Theatre (HNK) in her hometown.
She went on to appear in a string of acclaimed Yugoslav films in the 1980s, quickly becoming a sought actress, shooting several films a year. Highlights of her Yugoslav years include In the Jaws of Life (1984) and Three for Happiness (1985) directed by fellow Croatian émigré Rajko Grlic.
International audiences first came to know her in Emir Kusturica’s acclaimed film When Father Was Away on Business (1985), a bitter-sweet comedy written by Bosnian poet Abdulah Sidran, about a close-knit Sarajevo family living through the political oppression of 1950s Yugoslavia. The film was screened at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival where it won the prestigious Palme d’Or award, and was also nominated for the best foreign language film at the 58th Academy Awards.
In 1986 she met her husband Serbian film director Goran Gajic and by the late 1980s Furlan lived and worked between Zagreb and Belgrade. With the onset of the breakup of Yugoslavia and in an atmosphere of rabid nationalism in the early 1990s, Furlan was targeted by smear campaigns in the Croatian media. She was labelled a national traitor in the state media, received numerous death threats, and was also fired from her job the state theatre HNK in Zagreb.
Already a vocal feminist in the 1980s, she also became an outspoken critic of the nationalism and barbarity which had exploded immediately after the fall of communism in her multi-ethnic homeland.
“As far as the 1990s are concerned, it seems to me, looking at it now, that I really had no choice but to live my life the way I had lived it. If I had done anything differently, then that would mean that it’s some other person (speaking). I was one of those people who honestly believed in the so-called brotherhood and unity, and not only for our peoples but for all people in the world. And I still believe that this is the only option for the survival of the human race. Every other option leads to violence, suffering, and destruction. I don’t understand nationalism, I just don’t get that vibe. Maybe this comes from my upbringing in a family that was atheist and anti-nationalist, maybe that’s a result of my ethnic makeup as each of my four grandparents were of different ethnicity,” Furlan said in an interview for Pescanik in 2012.
‘Kind of a miracle’
In 1991, at the onset of the breakup of the country which developed into a full-scale war, she emigrated to the United States with her husband in search for a fresh start.
“It was completely like starting over, as if someone had taken a big eraser and erased my life… It was a strange feeling. But at the same time, we came to New York. I’ve always loved New York, and I’ve always thought that it’s like living in the world. It’s the world, not just one city, but it’s everything!” Furlan said in an interview with Daily Dragon Online in 2012.
Soon after arrival, Furlan auditioned for a role in the science fiction series Babylon 5 and went on to appear in all five seasons of the series from 1993 to 1998 playing Delenn, an ambassador of an alien race.
“We had four suitcases. But then, somehow, there was an agent who wanted to send me – not sign me, but send me just for trial purposes – send me to a couple of auditions. And one of them was Babylon 5. So it was kind of a miracle!” Furlan said.
In the latter half of the 1990s the couple moved to Los Angeles, where Furlan gave birth to their only son, Marko Lav, in 1998. In 2002 Furlan came back home for an appearance in a production of Medea, an ancient Greek tragedy by Euripides, staged by the open-air Ulysses Theatre on the island of Brijun, a project founded by fellow actor and US émigré Rade Serbedzija.
Furlan is also well-known for playing the character of Danielle Rousseau on the ABC drama series Lost from 2004 to 2010. She also worked as a voice actor and appeared in the the first-person cooperative heist game Payday 2, where she voiced a character called The Butcher.
‘Veterans of decay’
During the coronavirus pandemic, she spent some time in isolation at her home in Los Angeles, and gave one of her last interviews to Serbian state television RTS in May 2020, in which she said that the narratives, the vocabulary, and the divisions of Trump-era America are strikingly similar to what was happening in Yugoslavia during its violent breakup.
“We are kind of like like veterans of decay. We know what all of that looks like, and that is why everything that is going on in America – and what had been going on even before the coronavirus – feels like deja vu. The genie is out of the bottle, the same way it had been in our part of the world. We saw this happening before, and what happened here shows that once you release it, it will not go back into the bottle easily,” Furlan said.
Soon after the news broke, many friends and colleagues from the US and the Balkans paid tribute to Furlan.
“Mira was a good and kind woman, a stunningly talented performer, and a friend to everyone in the cast and crew of Babylon 5, and we are all devastated by the news,” the show’s creator, J. Michael Straczynski, tweeted.