Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has become an international icon amid the Russian invasion of his country. The former comedy star is now the heroic lead in his nation’s battle for survival.
He has been hailed as a wartime hero by Western media; admirers have flooded social media with fancams; and his courage has won him praise across the globe.
But behind the scenes, a close friend and Zelensky’s longtime film editor told Insider that the real “Volodya” is humble, peaceful, and lacks any kind of “celebrity remove.”
David Dodson, an American film editor, first met Volodymyr Zelensky in New York in 2008. They were both working on the Russian romantic comedy “Love in the Big City.”
For Zelensky, who was best known for his work with the Kvartal 95 comedy troupe, it was his first major role in a feature film.
And for Dodson, it was the start of a decadelong working relationship with the future Ukrainian president.
Speaking to Insider by phone from his home in Los Angeles, Dodson recalled how Zelensky, then 30, instantly made an impression on him. “He was just a remarkable presence,” he said.
At first, Dodson added, the men did not have a lot of time to hang out. But after Dodson was asked to edit the movie’s sequel, “Love in the Big City 2,” they grew increasingly close.
According to Dodson, their friendship blossomed after he came up with an endearing nickname for the young comic.
“I ended up just calling him Chaplin because he has a very Charlie Chaplin-esque quality to him,” he said. “His physicality in comedy and what he’s able to do with his face and the almost sympathetic, sad deadpan inside of his eyes.”
He’d make me feel like Steven Spielberg
The pair continued to work together until 2019, collaborating on 10 movies. Dodson also directed three of his movies.
Dodson described how on the sets of movies they worked on together, Zelensky was a consummate professional. He was “effortlessly funny,” full of energy, and respectful, he added.
“He’d make me feel like Steven Spielberg,” Dodson continued. “That’s just the empowerment and the goodwill that he brought with him every time he was around.”
Dodson and Zelensky blocking a scene on the set of “Me. You. He. She.” Maya Maksimova
Dodson stands in for Anastasiya Korotkaya during the blocking for a scene in “Me. You. He. She.” Maya Maksimova
Zelensky was easy to get along with and tried to maintain a “positive atmosphere” in the working environment, he added. But he sometimes grew impatient with people who were “belligerent” or “unnecessarily rough.”
On occasion, the film editor said, Zelensky lost his cool.
“I have seen him raise his voice, of course, and get upset, but it was never directed in a cruel way,” he said. “It was almost more like a teacher who wanted to see their student do better.”
He was the Tom Hanks of Ukraine
Over the years, Zelensky became a household name but, according to Dodson, this did not change him. He remained humble, the film editor said.
“He never tried to overwhelm you with his ego,” he added. “It was all about the group and how were we going to do the best job possible. When you’re around him, you never feel like it’s about him.”
Dodson said that whenever Zelensky was filming in Kyiv or Lviv, he would be mobbed by adoring fans. “He was the Tom Hanks of Ukraine,” Dodson noted.
He would never turn away or dismiss anyone who asked for a photo or an autograph, Dodson said. Sometimes, he added, he would sign “hundreds” of autographs and “do it all with a smile on his face.”
Zelensky was not only famous in Ukraine. Most of his movies were in Russian and marketed to a Russian audience.
“He was a well-loved comic, actor, and performer in Russia, but, after Maidan, everything changed,” Dodson said.
The Maidan Uprising was a monthslong wave of demonstrations in Ukraine that began in 2013 in Kyiv in response to the Russia-backed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych declining to sign a popular trade agreement with the European Union.
Tensions between Russia and Ukraine worsened in 2014 after Russia invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine.
Russia stopped broadcasting some of Zelensky’s movies after reports emerged that the Kvartal 95 media company, which Zelensky founded, had transferred money to the Ukrainian army during the conflict.
In turn, Ukraine’s ministry of culture banned Russian artists and cultural works from entering the country. “Love in the Big City 2,” which starred Zelensky, was included in the ban because it was made in Russia.
Zelensky publicly criticized the ministry for banning Russian actors from performing in Ukraine, calling for the head of the department to resign.
The comments, although controversial, marked Zelensky as a voice in Ukraine’s political arena. But according to Dodson, it was not apparent that Zelensky had political ambitions until they started working on the 2018 movie “Me. You. He. She.”
During pre-production for the movie, which was Zelensky’s first film in Ukrainian, Dodson said it became an “open secret” that his friend planned to run for president. Nonetheless, he said Zelensky was intensely secretive about it.
“The only way you knew he was working on his campaign, for example, would be if you went up to his office for a meeting and you saw a pile of 30 cellphones on his assistant’s desk,” Dodson said.
Zelensky announced his candidacy for the Ukrainian presidential election on New Year’s Eve 2018. He was elected President of Ukraine on April 21, 2019, beating the incumbent Petro Poroshenko.
Dodson continued speaking to Zelensky throughout the campaign and for a brief period after he was elected. But the pair lost touch due to Zelensky’s demanding schedule.
He’s completely beyond reproach when it comes to his devotion to Ukraine
The film editor said watching the news and seeing Zelensky stand up for Ukraine during the Russian invasion has made him “intensely proud” to call him a friend.
“It’s not as though I agreed with all of his political policy in his presidency up until this point, but he’s completely beyond reproach when it comes to his devotion to Ukraine and devotion to the Ukrainian people and what he’s willing to sacrifice in order to preserve their freedom, “he said.
Dodson is all too aware that Zelensky, and his family, are now Russian targets. Ukraine’s president has survived at least three assassination attempts from Russian-backed agents in the past week, The Times of London reported.
This pains Dodson. He said, “All I can do is pray for the safety of the Ukrainian people and, of course, for the safety of my friend.”