Daniyar: An American Tale

Daniyar: An American Tale

The Russian born actor opens up about coming out, 'Sweet Bitter', and the modern American dream.

The Russian born actor opens up about coming out, 'Sweet Bitter', and the modern American dream.

Photography: Christopher Domurat

Styling: Sadie Sapphire

Text: Andrew Bevan

There is a cliché moment in every young gay man’s life when he first discovers the power of Madonna. But when a young, closeted Daniyar was privately blasting the Queen of Pop’s “Express Yourself” in his oppressed former motherland of Russia, the song not only become an anthem of survival, but a personal prophecy that transcended cliché. “It gave me hope, belief, and understanding that there is a world where you can be free to pursue and achieve your dreams—or at least to try it,” explains the thirty-year-old co-star of Starz’s new half-hour dramedy Sweet Bitter.

He takes a brief, yet thoughtful, pause as if to say “buckle-up” for what he’s about to divulge. “It’s a long story. Where should I start?” Daniyar quietly quips. “Society in Russia is very anti-gay so I grew up thinking it is horrible and wrong, despite having had an inclination that I was a gay myself.”

Russia’s antiquated views and legislation toward homosexuality caused an adolescent Daniyar to repress any feminine traits and the urge to play with Barbies. At the early age of four, he discovered a passion for the theater. It became a safe place and means to find and be himself. “Acting was my way to escape and gave me a free world where I could use my imagination,” he says with a soft spoken tone. “If I couldn’t handle my emotions in real life, I could go through a character I was playing, and I would cry and let all that repression go.”

Daniyar eventually moved to Moscow for college studying petroleum engineering, and spending his off time performing. It wasn’t until a three-month work and travel program ten years ago in New York city that Daniyar could fully taste the meaning of freedom. “I was like, oh fuck there are gay people, and they are so open and are not ashamed!’” he exclaims. “After that, I went back to Moscow, and I thought I could find peace there, but I couldn’t no matter how hard I tried. Gay people are suffering too much there.”

The first chance he got Daniyar, with a work visa in hand, fled his oppressive country for the greener and more liberated pastures of sunny California. Within three months he applied for asylum and six years later, it was granted.

Expectations of Hollywood and the American dream were quickly managed. “I thought I would show up and the red carpet was going to roll out from the plane and someone would scout me. That didn’t happen! Nothing happened,” he remarks. “It was a tough social adjustment. America is a very different country in the way people communicate and talk to each other. The way they see themselves and their country. If you have an accent or don’t speak properly, you feel inferior.”

Despite his poor English skills, Daniyar persevered with his new life and joined an improve group and theater company in San Diego before eventually moving to Los Angeles. To mark the new chapter, he dropped his last name of Aynitdinov due to a strained family relationship and heritage he is less than proud of. “My grandfather was abusive, and I’ve never liked to carry his last name. It’s not me, I don’t want to be associated with that,” he discloses. “Daniyar is enough for me.”

Hollywood is now getting to know Daniyar on that first name basis as well. Before landing his big break on Sweet Bitter, he guest-starred on hits like Scandal and

Claws, as well as wrote and directed his own short films. And although his IMDB profile is peppered with roles that include “Russian thug,” “Croatian thug,” “Russian Commando,” and “Border Guard,” Daniyar isn’t the least bit worried about being typecast. In fact, he revels at the potential challenge each job can bring. “I see it differently. I’m at the beginning of my career, and maybe I will be stereotyped, but at the same time, I have an accent, and I’m bold, and there are roles for bold, aggressive looking Russian guys,” he says. “It’s the artist’s job to find that humanity and humor in a character, even if it’s not on the page. There are many Russian bad guys being portrayed right now. When you work with creative people, they won’t paint any character with one brush.”

Daniyar’s tenacious character of Sasha in Sweet Bitter is no exception. The show based on the popular 2016 novel, tells the story of twenty-two-year-old Tess, played by Ella Purnell, who comes to New York City and lands a job as a back waitress at one of the city’s most illustrious restaurants. There she meets a gregarious gay co- worker, Sasha and the two eventually become best friends. But don’t think is a typical Carrie and Stanford or Will and Grace situation. “He is not a stereotypically Russian guy, nor is he stereotypically gay,” declares Daniyar. “He is flamboyant and feminine, but there is a strong dominant core to that, and he doesn’t apologize. Most importantly he is not a sidekick or a follower. Ella’s character is more his sidekick even though she’s the lead.”

Sasha’s sense of self is well informed by his fearless off-duty style which juxtaposes both aggressively masculine pieces with softer, feminine elements. The wardrobe did more than just help Daniyar find his character. “After filming the show, I feel more comfortable and confident. I don’t like any looks that are cookie cutter or too perfect. I need to add something that is ugly or off,” explains Daniyar, who as a young boy would secretly watch fashion shows on television when no one was looking. “Before I knew what the notion of being gay was, I used to dress interesting and crazy. When I turned eleven or twelve, I became ashamed of who I am, and I became more conventional. When I moved to America, I slowly started to break my identity and find myself again.”

His character’s fierce, no holds barred attitude has sped up the process of bringing Daniyar out of his comfort zone. “In real life, I’m a vocal person, but I’m not aggressively vocal. Sasha is liberated and says what he wants when he wants,” says Daniyar who is more of a homebody than his partying on-screen counterpart. “Playing this role has helped me to be bolder in the real world. It’s tough to go to those places emotionally, but it’s gratifying. In my real life, I have some judgments and convictions, and I’m not as open-minded as Sasha. I have to extend myself where I personally am afraid to go.”

Finding his first bit of success is helping the undoubtedly grateful and determined actor to reclaim himself and finally enjoy his new life. “I will be super honest. All my life I tried to survive. I’m from a poor family. When I moved here, I was illegal, and I wasn’t allowed to work. I didn’t’ speak English or have friends. It was super challenging. I needed to make money, and I couldn’t enjoy life,” he admits. “After I booked Sweet Bitter and finished filming an episode, I had a few days off, and I was thinking to myself ‘I always tried to survive and I survived.’ Now I need to live, and I don’t really know how yet. I’m researching what I like. I had hobbies when

I was a kid, but I didn’t embrace them, or I hid them. I’m finding myself. I’m discovering myself and what I like and what I don’t like. I need to be kind and gentle to myself.”

While he has come a long way from the closeted kid privately blasting “Express yourself, don’t repress yourself,” Madonna’s timeless mantra continues to resonate. “I’m extremely emotional and empathetic, and that can be looked at as positive or negative,” he adds. “Initially with being gay, I felt my femininity, and my emotions were weak and something I have to get rid of. I envied aggressive and masculine traits, and I’m not that. Now I’m not afraid to express my feelings. I’m embracing and realizing how strong I am.”

Photography: Christopher Domurat Styling: Sadie Sapphire Grooming: Jenna Nelson Styling Assistant: Teenie Mitchell Photo Assistant: Haley Brinkerhoff Words by: Andrew Bevan Special thanks to: Chelsea Photographic Services, Nichole Vicchiarelli (Special Projects), Alla Plotkin, Jonnie Chambers


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