Bulgarian Wife Goes From Silver Screen to Diplomatic Scene
In Bulgaria, Boriana Puncheva-Petkova is a distinguished film and television actress, as well a director, producer and writer, who is recognized almost everywhere she goes. In Washington, she’s a rising star of a different kind — the wife of Bulgarian Ambassador Latchezar Petkov — who is learning her way around diplomacy while still ambitiously tackling “projects” back home.
“I am not the typical ambassador’s wife really,” Boriana began. “I do it gladly … but having grown-up children, I have my own activities as well — books to read, research to do, theater and cinema projects to finish. Of course, when I am here, I am the ambassador’s wife and that’s my role. But I will be going back and forth, probably every four months or so. Wherever I am, I use the Internet and Skype so I am always in touch with everyone in both countries.”
And she’s clearly got fans on both sides of the Atlantic. “She’s a superstar to us,” said Sasha, the ambassador’s secretary. “Someone as well known as Julia Roberts is for you. We are so excited to have her here.”
Boriana graciously bows her head, her sparkling dark eyes peaking through her bangs.
But her humble nature belies the impressive staying power she’s enjoyed in Bulgaria’s entertainment industry — beginning with Soviet-dominated times, through a decade of tough political and economic transition, to today, with Bulgaria having joined both NATO and the European Union.
From 1982 to 1992, Boriana acted in more 20 movies and television films, her most famous being “Dami Kanyat,” or “Ladies Choice,” directed by Ivan Andonov. In 1985, she completed her master’s degree with “Kindergarten,” a documentary that won three awards at Bulgaria’s National Film Festival in the cultural city of Plovdiv.
Over the years, Boriana has served as the chief director of Bulgarian National Television and executive producer of a number of Italian musical videos, though she is perhaps best known for her six-year stint directing and acting in one of her country’s most popular television shows, “Club NLO/Club UFO,” a variety and comedy repertoire show with guest stars.
An only child born in Poland in 1962, Boriana has always been interested in show business. Her mother was Polish and her Bulgarian father was the legendary film director and cameraman Borislav Punchev. So it wasn’t a surprise that after high school, Boriana attended Sofia’s National Academy of Theatre and Film Arts, beginning her professional acting career at 22.
“My first movie was with the biggest stars in the Bulgarian movie business and the director was famous too. The story was about a man who was a driving instructor and all his female students fell in love with him and tried to catch him. My mother in the film tried to arrange my marriage with him,” Boriana explained. “It was a great adventure for me, my first film. I arrived in this little town where they were filming the production. My father had warned me to go to sleep early so I would be rested for the early morning call. So at 10 p.m., I was ready to go to bed.
“But the leading man and the woman playing my mother knocked on my door and asked me to go out with them. When I said that I was going to bed early, they said, ‘Are you crazy? Young lady, it’s a sin to go to bed early! Come with us — we’re going out to have a drink and go dancing.’
“I went out with them and at 8 a.m. the next morning, everything was OK,” Boriana recalled. “When you are so young, it’s hard to look bad, and after a night out you may even look better!”
But the actress also saw the grueling side of the business. “I once went through screen tests for three months, every day, for one film. In the end, my character disappeared from the script. I was so unhappy that I cried for a week,” she said. “If you are only an actor, you have to wait to be chosen, like a piece of meat in the shop. At a very important moment in my life when I was about 27, I decided that I wanted to be independent and started thinking about directing, writing and even producing.”
And she discovered that each role has very different benefits and responsibilities. “When you are the actor in a movie or play, you think more about yourself, your role, your business, and you can take holidays and nights off,” she said. “As the director, you have to think about everything, nonstop — even when you sleep you have to think about everyone and what they are doing.”
Today, Boriana wears a new hat as an ambassador’s wife. This Bulgarian power couple just arrived in Washington last fall and had their debut together at Bulgaria’s National Day reception on March 3. Word had already spread throughout the Bulgarian community that the new ambassador’s wife was actress Boriana Puncheva, even though the official invitation listed her as Boryana Petkova. Nevertheless, her fans and old friends were already on hand to greet her.
That included acting school classmate Rossitza “Rosie” Petrov, who herself has had an active acting and broadcasting career, both in Bulgaria and in the United States. “I even starred in one of her father’s films,” said this Virginia resident, who left Bulgaria in 1987. “Tonight, as I went through the receiving line, I was afraid that [Boriana] wouldn’t recognize me, but when I reached out to shake her hand, she said, ‘I know you’ — and it’s been thrilling to see her, catch up a bit and be together again after more than 25 years.”
While in Washington, Boriana and her husband recently discovered the AFI (American Film Institute) Silver Theatre in Maryland, known for its selection of international cinema, and they are already planning to hold monthly cultural events at their residence. She also loves to go to New York to see the latest shows, but she’s anxious to see the rest of the country as well.
“Neither New York or Washington are America. Your country has various faces and I’m very curious to see more and more. I want to go to L.A., Chicago, Texas and to Alabama where I have a good friend. Here, everything is so far away and you have to fly for hours, but I don’t mind it. At home, Warsaw and Sofia are only one hour and 40 minutes apart, and when you land you’re in a different country.
“I like how Americans are so open and friendly,” she continued. “When you meet a new person, they smile at you. That doesn’t happen in Europe. In Poland, you might meet someone at a dinner party and after two or three years, you might create a friendship so you could be honest with each other. Bulgarian society is more open. They are more friendly and curious, especially the new generation. They have had the Internet, which is so important and has opened a window to the world. I always urge all these young people to learn English.”
Boriana’s own cinematic influences reflect her cross-cultural interests. “If I met Woody Allen, I would kneel in front of him. And I love to go alone to see those dark, Northern European films of [Ingmar] Bergman and Lars von Trier — romantic black-and-white beauties of neo-realism — plus the movies of Andrzej Wajda, the baron of Polish cinema.”
Yet Western cinema also represented everything Boriana couldn’t have early on in Bulgaria. “It was all very strange for us because we could see ‘the other side of the [Iron] Curtain’ — we just couldn’t go there except back and forth to other Soviet-influenced countries,” she recalled, listing American classics such as “The Godfather,” “Cabaret,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” — as well as films by Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg and Oliver Stone. “But we couldn’t see ‘the Deer Hunter’ with Robert De Niro because we were on the other side of the Vietnam War, or ‘Doctor Zhivago’ because of the way Russia was portrayed,” she noted.
“When Bulgaria was under the influence of the Soviet Union, it was a different time. It’s true that under socialism, cultural education and performances were subsidized because the state wanted to show the world their best,” Boriana explained. “But to see foreign films, it was always easier to see them in Poland because they had more freedom; they had a strong opposition party and underground. Since all my mother’s relatives lived there, I would go often.
“But when communist domination ended in 1990, it was very hard for all of us in the arts in Bulgaria,” she added. “For 10 years, everything stopped. We had freedom but we had no money for production of new movies. We had no experience of how expensive it is to support the arts. We didn’t know it’s impossible to make money on arts and culture. For us, that part of ‘freedom’ was a big lie. It took a decade before our film and theater industry could come alive again.”
Like his wife, Ambassador Latchezar Petkov also witnessed Bulgaria’s evolution over the years, having served for 30 years with the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In fact, he was in Washington in the early 1990s as the embassy’s deputy chief of mission, moving on to serve as head of the Bulgarian Consulate in New York and more recently as ambassador to Poland, where he met Boriana.
The two actually came together later in life, which Boriana said is “better.” Both had been married before and each had one child. Her 26-year-old daughter Christina is an advertising executive in Warsaw, and his 33-year-old son Jan is a businessman in Düsseldorf, Germany. After a five-year courtship, Boriana and “Latch” (her nickname for her husband) married in May 2007 and still enjoy newlywed chemistry together.
“My first marriage was very short. I was only 19,” Boriana said. “But when Latch asked me to marry him, it was very different for me to have someone love me as much as my whole family [loves me]. I was an only child and my family’s life was totally centered on me. It has always been very important for me to feel loved…. I’m surprised to be married again — I never thought I’d take the name of someone else — but what is most important is that we are together,” Boriana said.
“We met over business in Warsaw when I was director of the Bulgarian Institute of Culture and he was the ambassador,” she recalled. “In business, I saw all his good qualities and characteristics and how he handled real problems, and I began to love him.
“We came from Poland to be married in Bulgaria. Since we only had a long weekend for a honeymoon, we went to a Greek island. After four days, we had to go back to work in two different countries. I went back for a few more months with the Bulgarian Cultural Institute and Latch went to the Foreign Office in Sofia. So we decided to take our honeymoon in little pieces, several days at a time, over several years. We still have more to go.”
The ambassador is clearly looking forward to future trips with his new wife. “Boriana is the best thing that’s happened in my life … I consider myself a happy and lucky person, so I’ve been through lots of fine moments indeed,” he said. “She is simply the one and only that made my life real and happy by being truly emotional, loving and caring as a person, indisputably talented, gifted and creative as a professional, a lady of character that can be at the same time so funny that people will laugh to death … and all the rest of her that makes her my wonderful wife.”
About the Author
Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and lifestyle columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.