THEO PANAYIDES meets a Paphos man who fills the room with both his size and his energy, going after big projects – his latest a human story of the women of ’74 – with emotion
The standard exchange of business cards comes with a twist: I hand over one card, and get two in return. One card belongs to Pavlos Charalambous, Marketing Manager and Creative Department Head at Aristo Developers, the other says Paul Lambis, ‘Author, Screenwriter, Playwright, Director’. Officially I’m talking to Pavlos, in a smallish conference room at Aristo headquarters in Paphos, with a world map behind him illustrating the company’s global reach – but we mostly talk about Paul, an award-winning author and theatre director now involved in a big-budget film version of 74, his own stage production set at the time of the Turkish invasion.
The two men are, of course, one and the same, ‘Paul Lambis’ being how Pavlos used to introduce himself to non-Greeks in his native South Africa. That was also where he won his first award, at the age of 18 (he’s now 45, 1974 being the year of his birth as well as the Turkish invasion), named ‘Best New Author’ by the South African Sunday Times for his book The Turkish Princess – a shot in the arm for any aspiring writer, yet in fact he put the writing on hold for a while, mostly because he had so much else going on. “I was very – I don’t want to say ‘a Greek celebrity’, but the Greek community knew who I was,” he recalls of those years in Johannesburg, the South African accent still very palpable.
He was ‘Pavlo’ on local Greek radio, chatting away on the breakfast show. He owned a one-stop shop “where you could come and get your Greek videos and your Greek CDs, and your bombonieres [favours] for weddings, and corporate gifts for functions”. He operated a mobile disco, packing out the dancefloor at many a Greek function. He owned a graphic-design agency and a promotions agency, the latter being perhaps his biggest money-maker; he bought the rights to Miss Greece South Africa and staged the pageant “on an international standard” two years in a row, 1999 and 2000. Paul Lambis is no newcomer when it comes to working on a grand scale, or imposing himself on the world. “My wife says I’m always the centre of attention!”
He had form, being a kind of local aristocracy. His grandfather’s brother was the first archbishop of the Greek Orthodox church in South Africa; Paul’s mum (who, unusually, had been born in the country) was “a very well-known fashion designer”. He himself went to King Edward VII School in Johannesburg, one of the famed ‘Milner Schools’ – private, all-boys, very exclusive and very traditional. “That was the school that defined who I am today,” he muses – though he’s actually an unusual mixture, very traditional in some ways (religious, family-focused, somewhat old-fashioned when he talks of mollycoddled Kids Today and their Google-ised world) but also a bit of a hustler, assertive, marketing-minded. He fills a room, both in terms of energy and, indeed, in sheer physical bulk – which hasn’t always been a good thing: “I’d reached, at one stage, 265 kilos from my depression. I’ve lost 105 now”. More (much more) on this later.
This big man comes with big projects – though of course you’re never sure (this is always an occupational hazard with showbiz folk) if they’re quite as big as he says they are. “Upon completion, 74 will be screened around the world at international film festivals in over 53 countries,” he’s claimed in an interview with the Scriptwriters’ Guild of Greece, which doesn’t seem to make any sense (how can he know in advance which festivals will accept the movie?). His monodrama Melina: The Last Greek Goddess, starring Paola Hadjilambri as the late great Melina Mercouri, won Best International One-Woman Show at last year’s United Solo Festival in New York – undoubtedly a great honour, yet he also tells me they were “competing against 130-odd countries for the prize”, whereas a New York Times quote on the festival website talks of “performers from more than a dozen countries” taking part.
Paul may have a tendency to embellish slightly (he is, after all, related to marketing manager Pavlos) – yet, even with that caveat, 74 looks like being one of the biggest films (possibly the biggest) ever made in Cyprus. What’s the budget? “I don’t want to say, but it’s quite a bit. I mean, it would basically qualify as a Hollywood feature, if you’re looking at the budget,” he replies cagily. “We’ve got a good team of investors – though obviously, at the end of the day, we’re also looking for more sponsors, if they want to be part of the project. We’ve found that a lot of people from abroad are very keen to get involved.” Easy to see how the diaspora might be drawn to such material – not just because, as Paul points out, Greeks living abroad are often “closer to our Greek heritage” (having grown up with their parents’ rather idealised values), but also because 74 is such a heartfelt, un-cynical project, drawn from hours of interviews with those who experienced the war and focusing especially on the female perspective, the women who suffered rape and abuse at the hands of marauding troops but still “stood up and fought as soldiers” to protect their children. “I love using the term ‘steel magnolias’,” he says earnestly. “Because I believe that they are flowers, but they’re tough as steel.”
Female protagonists often appear in his work; “I think women are amazing human beings, they’re the heart of the home. I know that my wife is my rock!”. There’s Melina Mercouri too, plus the title character in The Turkish Princess – which is also 1974-related, being the story of a Greek girl who was left behind during the invasion and brought up by a Turkish family, who believed her to be a Turk. He’s thinking of reworking that one, muses Paul, partly because his “ideology” has evolved in the years since – which I take to mean that he’s become more bicommunal, the worldview of a proudly-Greek South African in 1992 having presumably been rather one-sided. Even the stage production of 74 was a mite one-sided (“There were the odd people who said it was propaganda”), looking exclusively at Greek Cypriot suffering, which is why he’s done additional interviews with Turkish Cypriot women for the film version. “So you’ve got ‘Kyrenia’, ‘Morphou’, ‘Varosha’, who are your main actors,” he explains (the women he interviewed have been collated into symbolically-named heroines), “and you [also] have ‘Girne’,” telling of Turkish Cypriot woes, albeit mostly pre-invasion.
To be honest, it still sounds like it’ll be difficult to create much nuance; how, after all, can unarmed women in a time of war be anything other than victims? Then again, Paul isn’t really a political filmmaker: he’s not making a documentary, but “a human story about the consequences of war”. He recalls being in Athens for a gala, when he won a prize for 74, and a speech someone made about the power of a screenplay: “Whether it’s good or bad, it still creates emotion,” he quotes with approval – and emotion, more than anything else, seems to be the key to this gushy, expansive go-getter.
His plays (he says) provoke visceral reactions, wild applause and standing ovations; Melina Mercouri’s own brother took the stage after a performance in Athens, to tell the audience how moved he had been. Paul himself is forthright, uninhibited, a life-loving man of vivid passions. ‘Do you ever lose your temper?’ I ask – and am quite surprised (he seems so convivial) when he replies “Yes! Of course!”. He’s “an expressive human being,” he explains, “if I don’t like something I’m going to say it”. He’s quite confrontational sometimes, even with strangers; if he sees something “which is not right”, like bullying or queue-jumping, he’ll tell the person off – politely at first, but “if you feed me aggression I retaliate that way”. He’s strong-willed, and has no time for actors who are stubborn or difficult: “There’s no place for a diva in my world”. He comes off fiercely loyal (especially with family), OCD by his own admission, spectacularly bad at saving money, happy to share and occasionally overshare. Not only did he write his memoirs at the (slightly premature) age of 37, he also turned the book – titled Where Is Home? – into material for a stand-up comedy show, which in turn won him an audition for a part in the Will Smith movie Focus. It’s been quite a life.
What happens when so much energy goes wrong – or turns inwards, or gets channelled in unhealthy directions, or whatever it was that possessed Paul Lambis from 2008 to 2010? “I was very angry. I was in a depression. I hated being around people, I didn’t want to be out in the public eye. I was just eating myself into a coma. I call it ‘the dark years’…”
Driving to school to pick up his son one day, Paul got in a serious car accident; a woman missed a ‘Stop’ sign and drove into him – “It happened,” he says fatalistically; “It was written in the cards” – resulting in a serious pelvic break and spinal crack. Weeks in hospital stretched into months, with no signs of improvement. “I was told, ‘You’re not going to walk again’. The doctors even said to me, ‘Go and buy yourself a wheelchair’.” On the one hand, Paul stayed strong: “I remember my dad crying, standing next to me and crying, and I said to him, ‘Why are you crying? I’m going to walk, I know I’m going to walk’.” On the other – though he proved the doctors wrong – something snapped, or he lost his way, or the uncertainty of the move to Cyprus (he’d emigrated in 2002, driven out of South Africa by rising crime), coupled with the accident, threw him off balance; “I don’t like change,” he admits. “I need to know where I’m going”. Did his injury spark some existential domino effect? Was it a case of having to stop, then being unable to restart? Who knows why an active, extroverted husband and father suddenly turns into a hermit?
The result was a three-year blip, a plunge into a half-life of stagnation and self-pity. He’d always been a “big boy”, but now his weight ballooned to the aforementioned 265 kilos; he could hardly walk, even with crutches. Aristo were incredibly supportive, moving his office to the ground floor (he wasn’t yet their Marketing Manager, meaning he didn’t have to interact with clients) and installing ramps so he could hobble to and fro. His wife dropped him off, picked him up after work, then he climbed into bed – his bedroom had also been moved downstairs, while his wife and son slept upstairs – “and that was it, that was my life for three years”.
It sounds bizarre, talking of such things in the same breath as award-winning shows and big-budget movies. Yet your energy seems so smooth, I point out, so untroubled: “It’s a corporate environment,” laughs Paul, indicating the bland white walls of the conference room. He’s a different person onstage, a “perfectionist” and Method actor – and presumably a different person while in that abyss of depression. There are many sides to Paul Lambis. I should’ve guessed when he gave me two business cards, instead of one.
If there’s a through-line here, maybe it’s a tale of creativity coming to the rescue. It wasn’t the writing that made him “rise up like a phoenix” (the turning point was actually a night when his son had an asthma attack, and Paul forced himself to walk up the stairs and help the boy) – but most of the books and plays came after his depression, as if reconnecting with the teen who’d won ‘Best New Author’ all those years before; and now we have 74, a bold new chapter and surely the most ambitious project he’s ever been involved with. Paul likes to sound fatalistic (“Leave it in God’s hands”) but I suspect it’s a defence mechanism, like his formidably cheerful disposition – a kind of escape valve for a man so abundant he might otherwise explode, or else fall off a cliff into torpor again. “I’ve always been a positive human being, because I live by the motto ‘If you don’t laugh at life, life will laugh at you’,” he tells me; “So enjoy the ride!”. He shakes my hand very firmly, then goes back to being Pavlos Charalambous.