Thirty-year-old Irina Gorbacheva is one of the most in-demand up-and-coming film actresses in Russia, and by far the most atypical. Her milky face has delicate pre-Raphaelite features but a strong, assertive edge. At 6 feet 4 inches, she is taller than most of her male costars. “Shoes are hard to find,” she says. “It used to really affect casting.” Gorbacheva shaved her head last December, revealing her look to her 1.5 million Instagram followers with a clip that showed her enthusiastically removing a black beanie. “This isn’t for a role,” she captioned the video. “It’s for me.” It was an odd move for a big-time actress in Russia, where beauty standards tend to be more constrained: not-a-hair-astray blowouts, impeccably lacquered pouts, and well-oiled cuticles. Many of her commenters compared her new look to that of the early-20-century poet Vladimir Mayakovsky—not the usual point of reference for a rising female star.
But Gorbacheva is a free spirit, magnetic with a frenetic, open energy. It is that sort of malleable, honest personality that emerged in her breakthrough film, Arrhythmia, a 2017 drama directed by Boris Khlebnikov and costarring Gosha Kutsenko. Gorbacheva starred as the pained and aloof doctor wife of an over-dedicated paramedic, a role that earned her Russia’s Golden Eagle Award (the equivalent of a Golden Globe) and the Nika Award for Best Actress (the equivalent of an Oscar). The film is heart-wrenching, emotionally frustrating, and deeply felt—a multilayered texture that Gorbacheva brings to much of her work.
Gorbacheva never wanted to become an actress. In fact, she says that she never really possessed a concrete career trajectory. She was born in the former USSR, in Mariupol, Ukraine, as one of three kids. Her family moved to the outskirts of Moscow after her mother was diagnosed with cancer. (She later died, when Gorbacheva was in third grade.) School did not come easily to her. “I couldn’t become an accountant or a medic,” she admits.
With limited academic prospects, Gorbacheva went to work at a cafe at 17. There, the owner took Gorbacheva under her wing and later introduced her to the founder of a revered dance studio, where the teenager began to take lessons. Another friend, also captivated by Gorbacheva’s infectious energy, suggested she try acting. “I thought, Why not? If I get it, I get it. If I don’t, I don’t,” she says. Gorbacheva applied to attend the prestigious, century-old Boris Shchukin Theatre Institute, arriving for her audition dressed in a red Adidas tracksuit. “I thought, If I get accepted here, it will be the easiest way to get an education,” she says.
From then on, Gorbacheva continued her training with both passion and trepidation. “At the end of every semester, a professor would say, ‘If you feel like you’re taking another space here, it’s better to go. One hundred and one people want your space,’” she says. “I thought to myself: You need to go now! But something inside me forced me to stay.” She went on to work in the theater in Moscow for more than seven years, performing in Macbeth, Midsummer’s Night Dream, and Joan of Arc. She refers to that time as the “best place for me—in my studies, my personal and professional growth.” It is only recently that Gorbacheva seriously ventured into Russian Hollywood—the movie-making machine centered in Moscow—catapulted partially by the virality of her Instagram videos, each infused with her brash humor and wit.
When we speak earlier this year, Gorbacheva is on an extended vacation—both from work and some of the personal matters that had begun to weigh on her. Last year, she divorced her husband of five years, actor Grigori Kalinin, and she speaks frankly about their split: “For me, to respect a person is important. When you stop respecting a person, the love is gone.” She has been traveling in Sri Lanka and has now settled for a few months in Los Angeles, where she is staying with friends and has rented what she jokingly refers to as a “student’s car.” Here, she lives in serene anonymity, untouched by the fame that has made her an immediately recognizable entity on the streets of Moscow. During her free time, she pursues English lessons and dance classes and works on her next project, a show of her own creation, titled Masha from Russia, about two Russian sisters who come to Hollywood. She tells me that she is deeply interested in how American film works and recently begged an acquaintance who is shooting in Los Angeles to let her tag along to the set, “just to be in the middle of it all, to see how people work, to help, and be there for the experience.” Turns out, Gorbacheva has always liked to learn.