It’s not an easy time to release a film featuring a gay Cold War love story between two members of the Soviet Air Force. On one side of the fence are blockades from countries like Russia that would deem it “gay propaganda,” and thus ban it from screening. And now, following the invasion of Ukraine, there are entities that reject any content centered on Russian characters.
Firebird, set for an international release April 29, is walking this political and cultural tightrope. In a recent Zoom from Estonia, star Tom Prior (Kingsman: The Secret Service) stresses that the film is in fact a British-Estonian coproduction. But regardless, he finds a blanket ban “extraordinary” because “Russian culture is just so phenomenal. And we can’t just write that off.”
Additionally, in an era when “don’t say gay” bills and LGBTQ+ book bans are spreading in the United States, a story like Firebird’s is more vital than ever. Inspired by The Story of Roman, a memoir by Sergey Fetisov, the film retells the real-life relationship between the private Sergey (Prior) and the fighter pilot Roman (Oleg Zagorodnii), as they pursue a romance that could threaten their careers and lives under the scrutiny of KGB agents.
Directed by Peeter Rebane with cinematography by Mait Mäekivi (Prior also serves as a producer and cowriter), Firebird is a rare bird of a film in which a gay love story is given the grandeur of a sweeping period romance; this writer can attest that audience members at an Outfest screening last year were in awe of the visuals. “There was no compromise made when it came to making sure it looked authentic and real,” Prior asserts. “And honestly, that’s something I intend to continue to make, is stories which are about very inclusive, open-minded characters in extraordinary circumstances in such scale.”
Another awesome takeaway is the lesson the world can learn from Sergey, who passed several years ago. “He went after love at all costs, and he pursued the yearnings and the calling of his heart and to follow his heart rather than crumble in fear…. I’d really hope and love it if people can take a little bit of that flare and that inspiration to love a little bit more deeply and to follow their heart just a little bit more daringly,” Prior says.
Prior is a “great believer” in being the change one wants to see in the world. The actor, who identifies as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, sees the small acts of everyday people as crucial in fighting the larger forces of evil in the world — from the war in Ukraine to anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. Prior himself expresses how “really shocked and…worried” he’s been for his costar Zagorodnii, who is Ukrainian and lives in Kiev. Thankfully, Zagorodnii has managed to evacuate most of his family from the country, but he returned to the capital to check in on a café he runs there. “As crazy as it sounds… people are just getting on with their life, but they’re just living in a war zone now, which is just unimaginable,” Prior says.
But one needn’t feel powerless. “People are asking, what can they do? And I always find it a really excellent exercise into going, ‘Well, what can I do in my own life? What behaviors can I [employ to] demonstrate a little bit more compassion towards somebody…to create more hope, create more possibility or inspiration to the people that are around me?’”
“Politics has a huge amount to answer for [regarding LGBTQ+ equality] but so does every single person and every single opinion that they express and show,” he adds. “And a family in which, let’s say could be very homophobic, who end up having a son or a daughter who ends up coming out — [that] can be a massive [turning point] for that family for acceptance, or it can be a total disaster and it can rip the family apart. And every single time that happens, there’s an opportunity for greater acceptance.”
Bravery is contagious. For LGBTQ+ people, even small displays of Pride can go a long way. “When somebody’s courageous enough to walk down the street and genuinely have a public display of affection… that gives permission for somebody else to do the same thing,” Prior finds.
The 31-year-old actor notes how far Hollywood has come in its push for LGBTQ+ visibility and acceptance. He recalls hearing an insider there declare a few years ago, “I don’t want to know if you’re an alcoholic, and I don’t want to know if you are part of the [LGBTQ+] community.” He interpreted the remark to mean “don’t cause any problems” by coming out. In the past five years, he’s seen this antigay sentiment “burnt out” of the entertainment industry. “Personally now, I feel able to have an open conversation and basically associate myself with being a member of the community,” he says. “And there is so much diversity now that anything goes, and I find that amazingly liberating.”
His great hope is that Firebird plays its own part in inspiring “people to follow their hearts a little bit more, and follow authenticity, and be courageous in demonstrating those behaviors of change and of authenticity and love,” he concludes. “And hopefully, that gets quite contagious to the point where people are living from a more inspired and happy point of view.”
This article is part of Out's May/June 2022 issue, appearing on newsstands May 17. Support queer media and subscribe — or download the issue through Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.