During the lead up to the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, figure-skating champion Johnny Weir came under fire for opposing a boycott of Russia despite Putin's virulent anti-gay laws and an increasingly dangerous, violent environment for LGBTs.
Activists were stunned and appalled: In an OUT Magazine opinion piece, a disgusted Michael Lucas wrote, "[Weir] only cares, as usual, about himself. He is a huge celebrity in Russia. He wants to stay loved there, and he is happy to shill for them abroad to maintain his cachet there."
However, while making the EPIX documentary, To Russia With Love, Weir experienced an epiphany or two, as will viewers. The Sundance Productions-produced documentary, which Weir executive-produced and appears in, examines the struggles and triumphs of LGBT athletes and Olympians taking part in Sochi, as well as local Russian activists. Vlad, a gay Sochi teenager who personally endured harrowing tortures and repression, becomes a central figure, while athletes including Greg Louganis, Billie Jean King, Jason Collins, Blake Skjellerup and Anastasia Bucsis appear.
Via telephone, Weir, just appointed NBC's primary figure-skating announcer, discussed making the documentary and, yes, touched on his high-profile divorce from Victor Voronov.
Windy City Times: So how did you come to be involved with this project?
Johnny Weir: Last summerwhen all the anti-gay laws and propaganda started in RussiaI got thrown into it. I fit all the bills of someone who would possibly have a comment on all this: I'm gay, I love Russia, I'm an Olympian. For those reasons I got thrown into the middle. And I couldn't just make one statement and move away from it.
When the documentary idea came to fruition through Sundance and EPIX, everyone has been supportive of me and things I believe in, and I'm so excited to get so many perspectives of this story. I was super pro-athlete and maybe not pro-activism enough through the whole Sochi debate. I wish the issue were still as heated, because what I predicted has come true: Many people, now that the Olympics in Russia is over, have forgotten about the Russian LGBT community and what we can do to help them.
WCT: Was it easy to get fellow athletes to appear in this documentary?
Johnny Weir: There were several people I approached on a personal level who said "no" to taking part. But everyone in the film wanted to be. To live under the scrutiny of being judged and being placed on teams, it was very brave and daring of them to be part. Anything we needed, any questions we had, they were open. The hope is people remember what happened and the community we left behind in Russia, and people like myself leave the film with an open mind.
WCT: While in Sochi and Russia, did the film crew have to be sneaky about what [it was] actually shooting?
Johnny Weir: The Olympics is its own little world. This was my third time being on site. Walking around the park and venues, all you have to do is show a press badge and say you're making a documentary about the Olympics. I was there for NBC [to serve as commentator]. So I don't think we had an issue. The only thing we ran into was when the cameras went to the Russian Open Games, which was basically the Gay Games but held in Moscow a few days after the Sochi [games] ended. It got a little hairy there when events were "canceled" at the last minute.
WCT: Vlad, a gay teen living in Sochi, becomes a major part of the documentary, and Billie Jean King in particular attempts to help him escape the world of repression and violence he's stuck in. How did meeting him and his story affect you?
Johnny Weir: Well, a character flaw in myself that I really saw through filming this was that as long as my life is cool, I don't really look to dirty it by opening my mind to what goes on in other realms. I'm not the most "save another person." So meeting Vlad really opened my eyes, because I got to actually look him in the face and ask questions.
I was the only Russian speaker on our crew in Sochi and after all my NBC obligations were over I was able to have a sit down conversation about what his life was like. Being beaten, getting raped, having urine thrown on him. While it didn't make me an activist, it made me realize these things happen and they happen to real people.
WCT: How do you feel about Russia now?
Johnny Weir: [Homophobia] isn't just in Russiait's all over the world. Something I've believed from the beginning of all this, is I'm still not regarded [in the United States] as an equal citizen. Just a few weeks ago a gay couple was bashed in Philly, and that's 30 minutes up the road to me. So I'm not going to point a finger at another country when my own country is in shambles as far as gay rights. We make small steps all the time but everybody should just be equal. I took offense to many Americans pointing a finger at Russia because the games were going to be there, when we don't have a good situation here. I still love Russia and the culture, but I don't have to like the government or laws.
WCT: At one point in the documentary, you mention your divorce from Victor. How much thought or discussion was had [regarding] whether you would acknowledge it or not?
Johnny Weir: Well, my divorce doesn't define me as a person or public figure. I wanted as little attention paid as possible to it in public, because it's a very painful and difficult time for me. Aside from one conversation I had [on Access Hollywood] because I felt I needed to speak my truth at the beginning of all this, I haven't spoken publicly about it. It was a hard time for me in Sochi. I was doing great in front of the world, and so honored and proud of that, but the rest of my life was in shambles and it was hard not to make that a part of my daily life. But if you can't compartmentalize, you'll crumble.
WCT: We lost Joan Rivers this year, who had some zingers for you on Fashion Police. Did you appreciate her snark?
Johnny Weir: So much. Joan was always the loveliest person to me. While she did make fun of me, and had a good time doing it, I so appreciated it because she's a legendary comedian. So witty and funny. She worked so hard, and I hope to have that work ethic through my career. I so respect and miss her. I'll always be a fan.
WCT: Would you love to see sexuality eventually be a non-issue in sports? Even in the past couple of years, the number of out professional athletes has grown exponentially.
Johnny Weir: I hope that day will come. But it's sports. I was always under the impression my sexuality didn't really mean that much to my sport. What meant the most was whether I fell down or not. I'm not saying anyone should be in the closet, but in sports people need to perform well. The audience has to understand these are young people doing what they love to do, and work hard for every day. They're not promoting something they were born with. It would be the same as me going out on the ice and promoting the fact I was born white. That's not what sports are about. Sports are about winning.
To Russia with Love premieres on EPIX Wednesday, Oct.29, at 7 p.m. CT.