A Zelensky story in New York

amExpress is an opinion column about life in New York, with info on the news, events and people who define the New York experience.

It’s a classic New York story, just like the one about the Manhattan real estate maven who became president, or the mayor who became his lawyer and unofficial international envoy. In New York, you never know where the person next to you will end up. 

It starts with 38-year-old Jessie Kanzer’s family immigrating from the Soviet Union to America when she was 8.

Her’s was an immigrant childhood in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, a focus on education. There was some of that New York serendipity early: She says she took acting classes near Union Square along with Scarlett Johansson. She went to NYU Stern School of Business “mostly out of an immigrant pressure to do something practical,” she says. But after school, she indulged that big-city bug, that yearning to get your face out there. “I definitely wanted to be on air,” she said. 

She did some journalism and hosting of TV and internet shows, she says, even interviewed those other big-foot New Yorkers Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton. Through a contest, she won her way onto a TV show called “My Boys”: partially, she says, by gaming the system and voting for herself multiple times, an early internet hack of sorts. The hustle paid off.

She kept taking more acting classes, auditioning for parts, and then in 2008 she found the one on which our story centers: a Russian rom com translated roughly as “No Love in the City,” filming in New York.

It may not have been Steven Spielberg. She didn’t, overnight, become Scarlett Johansson. She was cast as “Girl In Sports Club No. 1.” She used her maiden American name Jessie Bronfman. Local actors who spoke the language like her got small parts, but the big stars were foreign, including an unassuming guy named Volodymyr Zelensky.

Nowadays, Zelensky is the president of Ukraine. He has gotten tied up with those other New Yorkers, the president and the former mayor, all due to a phone call in which the U.S. president asked Zelensky about a favor and an investigation into a political opponent.

But back then, Zelensky was playing the role of a dentist who comes to NYC and gets cursed with impotence. Go figure.

Kanzer says Zelensky “kept to himself.” There was “nothing about him that drew much attention,” she said. That was a contrast to some of the other people attached to the project, very gregarious, flirting with the young people on set.

Did she expect that he would go on to be a national leader? “Not at all,” she says.

She has written about her brief encounters with the now-prominent figure, and she’s been thinking about that brief role since the release of a summary of the July phone call between the former actor and President Donald Trump.

In the summary, Zelensky seems to flatter Trump, saying, “You are a great teacher” and noting that he has stayed in Trump Tower. He suggests a plane ride with Trump but on Trump’s plane, “which is probably much better than mine.”

It sounded to Kanzer like the kind of thing some people raised in the former Soviet system might have learned to do to placate whoever they need to placate. 

“They will find any way possible to get to their goal,” she says.

Kanzer, who lives in Westchester, never met Zelensky again after that New York movie shoot, but after writing about their interactions she says she has fielded some interest in developing a show.

Maybe a chance at a little of that New York fame.

Mark Chiusano