Strolling the pretty Linden Hills streets near his apartment, Odin Lund Biron goes unnoticed.
The sunbursts of glitter in Lake Harriet on a bright spring afternoon may have been more striking to passersby than the all-American face of a celebrity. That’s because his face is famous only in Russia.
“There’s something to be said for anonymity,” said Biron, a 30-year-old Duluth native who stars as an American doctor on “Interns,” a popular Russian medical sitcom akin to “Scrubs.”
For years, he has lived a dual life — with the spotlight on in Russia, and off back home.
But now, those two worlds are beginning to merge. In February, Biron shocked colleagues and fans of the show when he publicly came out of the closet in a country where sexuality is usually kept private. The revelation, first announced in a New York Magazine profile, invited a storm of media attention both in Russia and stateside. His co-star, who is famously outspoken in his homophobia, reacted harshly on Twitter. Russian tabloids got nasty. The New York Times did a follow-up.
That’s a lot of attention for someone who, when he’s not filming, works behind the counter at Clancey’s Meats & Fish.
“I think almost nobody believed him,” said Kristin Tombers, Clancey’s shop owner, about her employee’s Russian fame.
Over a legendary Clancey’s roast beef sandwich enjoyed from a bench at Lake Harriet’s band shell, Biron ruminated on the unusual trajectory of his career.
“It’s exciting that after 10 years of working [in Russia], that people know about the work I’ve done,” said Biron, stylishly outfitted in relaxed yet upscale Danish labels, the kinds carried at a North Loop men’s boutique. Just back from Moscow, having finished filming the sixth and final season of “Interns,” he plans to stay put, for now anyway.
“It’s just a feeling that it’s time,” he said.
Biron first went to Moscow for a semester of study abroad, but he developed an interest in Russia while growing up on the shores of Lake Superior, where his father owns a sawmill. Biron was in love with the lake and what he calls the “foundation” of living near such a massive body of water. “There’s something to be said for a kid whose brain is forming to have this fresh air,” he said.
His interest in Russia was piqued when, at his Montessori school, he met an exchange student from the Siberian city of Irkutsk, near Lake Baikal, the world’s largest freshwater lake.
“Ever since I heard about the fact that there was a lake like Lake Superior out there, I wanted to go,” Biron said. When he finally got to Russia, as an undergraduate student at the famed Moscow Art Theater School, he hung a picture of his hometown lake on the wall of his dormitory.
He graduated from the school two years later, one of few Americans to do so, and even with his very Scandinavian name, got jobs performing the works of great Russian playwrights in theaters around Moscow. He also led an all-Russian production of “Hamlet” in the title role.
“I don’t think any of us really predicted he would learn Russian while being trained there, that he would be chosen to tour in ‘Hamlet’ from among native Russian-speaking actors, and then become a television star,” said Gary Briggle, a Twin Cities-based actor and Biron’s cousin. “It’s just completely amazing.”
Biron had been making just $500 a month when he got cast on “Interns” and “my life changed, financially, career-wise, everything,” he said.
His character, Phil, who has gay dads, became something of a representative for Russians’ ideas about Americans, Biron said.
“Phil, as I think most Americans, has a really strong sense of justice — what is right and what is wrong,” he said. “And if it’s wrong, I will say something about it.”
Phil’s “isms,” as Biron calls them, stayed with him off-camera. Between the first and second seasons, Biron told producers he would come back to the show only if they would hire cleaners and “treat this place like a professional workplace.”
“I wrote the letter,” he said, “and they bought me a vacuum cleaner.”
The joke, he realized, was on him. “I’m glad I had that conversation with them, but I’m sure it gave them tons of fodder for their writing.”
Lobbying for a cleaning service was as far as his activism took him, until he impulsively decided to come out.
“It all just happened so organically,” Biron said. “I knew I wanted to say something at some point, but none of this was planned. I didn’t tell my producers. No one knew.”
The first days after the news broke were tense.
“It felt very naked,” he said. “All you wanted to do was huddle in your home and breathe and try to figure it out from there.”
But besides unfounded rumors that government deputies were coming after him, and his co-star Ivan Okhlobystin’s negative reaction on Twitter, “no one cared.”
Among the show’s audience of nearly 4 million people, Biron hopes there were some who found inspiration in his visibility.
“I hope and believe that it helped some people in Russia. The people that it didn’t help said what they said, and that’s fine. It’s done.”
Happy to be nobody
Biron just wrapped the last season of “Interns.” He has a film project lined up in Russia this summer, but other than that, he’s back in Minnesota permanently. And out of work.
The one-bedroom apartment he kept as a residence for breaks in shooting is impossibly spare, with only a couple of theater posters on the blank white walls. His reading material consists mainly of an antique set of illustrated Shakespeare volumes from Denmark and the latest issue of Cook’s Country.
He hopes to immerse himself in the theater and film scenes of Minneapolis. (His dream is to be in a Coen brothers film.) At the same time, he is pursuing another track — cooking. Biron is halfway through a culinary degree from Le Cordon Bleu.
He got his job at the meat market last year through sheer persistence. “He came into Clancey’s like every other day for about two weeks, asking when we were going to hire him,” said owner Tombers. She finally agreed to train him as a backup, and he stuck around. “He was so eager and so friendly and so positive, and just super-high-energy,” she said.
Now that he’s in the news, nothing has to change, she said.
“I wish he’d come back to work.”