Celebs Who Have Ukrainian Roots

The February 2022 invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces created an outcry in the international community, including in the United States, where roughly more than a million people of Ukrainian origin reside, according to a 2019 census. Granted, that's only a small fraction of one percent, which partly explains why that Slavic ethnicity doesn't get much profile in America. Ukrainian representation in the entertainment industry is equally miniscule — although, in that short list, you'll find a few legendary names, from marquee actors to influential directors and producers.

Some of them are highly vocal about their origins, like Mila Kunis and Milla Jojovich — both born in the agrarian nation, often called the "breadbasket of Europe" — frequently speaking out about the atrocities affecting Ukrainians ever since Russia annexed part of the country in 2014. Others born in America with Ukrainian bloodlines, like former "Baywatch" star Erika Eleniak, have offered similar sentiments. But perhaps understandably, the majority of actors whose genealogy can be traced back to Ukraine tend not to make a big deal out of it: Several of them are at least two or three generations removed from their Eastern European forebearers and either keep those backgrounds personal or don't see any effect those Ukrainian connections might have had on their successful careers. 

Fair enough, but that said, it's surprising to find out a few superstars listed here have a bit of Ukrainian in their DNA. Pass the pierogies, please, and check out which celebs have Ukrainian roots.

Leonardo DiCaprio

For years, actor Leonardo DiCaprio has frequently told people, especially during European press junkets, that he was "half-Russian" (via The Guardian) — which might partly explain why he'd "love to play" Vladimir Putin, whom he met in 2010. For someone who made a lucrative living playing such famous people as reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes and FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, portraying the controversial leader would be a major coup, his 2022 invasion of Ukraine notwithstanding.

But DiCaprio, whose own bloodlines reportedly also include Italian and German origins, per Ethnicity of Celebs, might not be completely accurate about his Russian connection. A more thorough examination of his kinship by Public Welfare reveals that his grandmother, Elena Smirnova, lived in the Ukrainian city of Odessa. Her family fled the city when she was three, after the 1917 Russian Revolution and before the country that became the Soviet Union invaded Ukraine two years later. They made their way to Germany, where she eventually met her husband. Hardships suffered after the Second World War compelled the couple to move to the U.S.

She was a loving influence over DiCaprio, who called her "Oma" and visited her occasionally after she moved back to Germany. In an interview with The German Way conducted a decade before she died in 2008, DiCaprio's Oma said that success hadn't gone to her grandson's head, noting, "He's the same dear boy he's always been."

David Duchovny

The truth was out there for David Duchovny, best known for his FBI paranormal sleuthing in the sci-fi hit "The X-Files." But in real life, that truth lay somewhere in Eastern Europe. For the longest time, Duchovny always thought his lineage was Russian, until he starred in a beer commercial in his ancestors' supposed country of origin. The commercial, made in 2014, starts with Duchovny, a native New Yorker, claiming Russia is where he "got [his] family name from." Then he started wondering, "What if things turned out differently? What if I were Russian?" The ad goes on to portray the actor as a cosmonaut, a Central Red Army hockey player, and even a Russian rock star.

According to Russia Beyond, the beer ad sparked controversy over its timing, as it was released a few months after Russia's annexation of Ukraine. It also raised questions about Duchovny's true roots, prompting a writer from HuffPost to do some digging. Contributor Megan Smolenyak found a 1920 Declaration of Intention form from when the actor's great-grandfather, Abraham Duchovny, emigrated to the U.S., which revealed that he had previously lived in Kiev (now Kyiv), aka Ukraine's capital. 

The confusion over the actor's roots is understandable, however, considering Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union when his great-grandfather left. Armed with that knowledge, he went public later that year. "I grew up thinking I was Russian only to find recently that I've been Ukrainian all along," Duchovny tweeted. "Never too late to change."

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan isn't one to talk about many things. Throughout his prolific career as a groundbreaking singer-songwriter, he's seldom given interviews. For the most part, he doesn't have to, given his rich catalogue of material that includes anthems like "Blowin' In the Wind," "Tangled Up in Blue," and "Highway 61" is more than enough to do all that talking for him. And while the Jewish heritage of the man once known as Robert Zimmerman is widely known, somewhat more surreptitious are his Ukrainian origins.

So, leave it to a brain trust as prestigious as the Nobel Foundation to provide us with some scant details on where Dylan, born in Duluth, Minnesota in 1941, genealogically came from. A biographical portrayal of the artist, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, reveals that his grandparents lived in what is now Lithuania and Ukraine. This would probably have suited Dylan, who's not known to be a stickler for extensive factoids — and the same goes for his material. 

"If a song moves you, that's all that's important," Dylan said in his Nobel address. "I don't have to know what a song means."

Erika Eleniak

Unless you've dedicated a lot of your TV time gazing at beach beauties running in slow motion across Californian sands, you're not likely to recall many Hollywood outings involving Erika Eleniak. The Los Angeles native, who starred in the first three seasons of the lifeguard drama "Baywatch," didn't mince her words when commenting to Fox News Digital about Russia's invasion of Ukraine shortly after it began in February 2022.

"I am stunned," said Eleniak, whose grandfather became "one of the first" citizens to emigrate from Ukraine and "settle in Canada," per the outlet. "I am sad, and I am sickened by the attack on Ukraine and the Ukrainian people," the actor added. Calling the attack "diabolical," Eleniak noted that she is "very proud of [her] Ukrainian heritage."

Keeping abreast of her lineage and a strong work ethic were the results of a strict family upbringing. Even after Eleniak scored a small role in the blockbuster "E.T." when she was 12, her mother doggedly made sure that showbiz wouldn't turn the youngster's head. As a teen, she graduated from high school and worked a few odd jobs before trying her luck again in Hollywood. In 1989, she started working on "Baywatch," before landing movie roles in "Under Siege" and "Chasers," as well as multiple TV spots from "CSI: Miami" to "Desperate Housewives." 

Vera Farmiga

It wasn't long after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced plans to invade Ukraine that actor Vera Farmiga voiced her dismay over the action on social media. The star of such films as "Conjuring" and "Up in the Air" took to Instagram and posted an image of Ukraine's blue-and-yellow flag, which included a few lines in Ukrainian from the country's national anthem to heighten awareness of the war to her more than 1 million followers.

It's not surprising that Farmiga, born and raised in Clifton, New Jersey, bears a strong connection to the beleaguered nation. Both her parents are Ukrainian, who in turn had parents who ensured they kept their ties with the country. "My grandparents made sure that we grew up with a deep appreciation for our heritage," the actor said to the Belfast Telegraph back in 2011. It also helped that the community she grew up in was also predominantly Ukrainian, and that she "didn't speak English until the age of six," at the outlet noted. "I don't intimidate easily," Farmiga said of the strong work ethic that eventually helped her break through into Hollywood. "That's just a quality I possess. I stand my ground."

Dustin Hoffman

Throughout much of his illustrious career, actor Dustin Hoffman has given the world his best with outstanding performances in such movies as "The Graduate," "Kramer vs. Kramer," and "Rain Man." And while he's earned a staggering seven Oscars nods for his work (and won two), he was also given back a piece of his Jewish origins that was kept from him for years. 

In 2016, Hoffman took part in the PBS series "Finding Your Roots" in a personal quest to find a missing fragment of his family tree, one that his father never revealed to him and the rest of his family, per CNN. Hoffman felt bewildered about his father's actions while looking at a file on his family's background. "Why did he want to erase all this?" he asked. That's when Hoffman discovered that his ancestors lived in Ukraine when it was occupied by the Soviet Union, but that morsel of information paled in comparison to what else the star found out. It turns out that his grandfather and great-grandfather were killed by the secret police as part of a Soviet pogrom to exterminate Jews. Fortunately, his great-grandmother fled to the U.S. after escaping from a concentration camp that had imprisoned her for five years.

Hoffman couldn't help but feel how the actions of his relatives had a fateful impact on his existence. "They all survived," he said tearfully, "for me to be here."

Milla Jojovich

Model-turned-action-hero Milla Jojovich once told the Sutherland Echo that her birth in Ukraine's capital city of Kyiv took place "pretty much by accident," but what she's said about the plight of Ukrainians is far more deliberate. In 2014, after Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, she accessed social media to voice her concerns for citizens in harm's way. "I have no taste for politics, but I will do everything in my power to help the helpless, not the ones with guns," she wrote on Facebook (via The Hollywood Reporter). "I have always put my money where my mouth is when it comes to helping people, and you better believe I will find out what I can personally do for the victims of the violence in Ukraine."

Her birthplace notwithstanding, Jojovich once admitted to Ukrainian Vogue that she never felt like a Ukrainian, adding, "No! ... I grew up in the States." When she was born in 1975, Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union — and to that end, Jojovich is fluent in Russian, as the first five years of her life took place in her mother's native Moscow. The family would then flee the country's communist oppression in 1981, emigrating to the U.S. following a brief stay in England.

After a successful modeling career and her breakthrough in the sci-fi movie "The Fifth Element," Jojovich made millions more as a zombie-butt-kicking protagonist in the "Resident Evil" flick franchise.

Mila Kunis

Mila Kunis was just a kid when she and her family left Chernivtsi, Ukraine for Los Angeles. At the time, she spoke Russian (a common language in the region) and not a word of English. She credits drama classes for accelerating her English fluency, as her acting chops won her accolades in TV's "That '70s Show" and movies like "Black Swan." Meanwhile, Kunis still speaks her native tongue, prompting friends to think she's talking in a sci-fi dialect. "I've heard this from Americans," she said in an interview with Conan O'Brien. "Apparently, when my dad and I have a conversation about just how much we love each other and everything's great, we're having a fantastic day, it legitimately sounds like Klingon."

But her feelings toward Ukraine might seem contradictory, at least on the surface. "I pray for change," she wrote in a since-deleted tweet in response to The Times of Israel's reporting on Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea. "My family moved to America when I was seven, however my extended family remains in the Ukraine." Around this same time, she swiftly shut down questions regarding her thoughts on the situation in a NJ.com interview meant to promote her movie "Third Person," saying in part, "Just because I lived there until I was seven doesn't mean I identify with Ukraine." 

Perhaps she felt it simply wasn't the right time or place for such a serious line of questioning. In February 2022, Kunis' husband, Ashton Kutcher, similarly tweeted out his support for her home country, writing, "I stand with Ukraine."

Steven Spielberg

Ever since "Schindler's List" won seven Oscars — including a best picture award — in 1994, director Steven Spielberg has frequently proclaimed his pride in being Jewish. He wasn't so vocal about his Ukrainian origins, however, until the premiere of a film project he co-produced took him to Kyiv in 2006. 

The documentary "Spell Your Name" chronicled a little-known chapter of the Holocaust that saw German troops stationed in Kiev during the Second World War massacre over 33,700 Ukrainian Jews in the space of 48 hours in 1941. The doc, the first one to ever profile the Ukrainian perspective of the Holocaust, featured interviews with survivors detailing their horrendous experiences during that catastrophe. "The stories and experience of survivors in Ukraine need to be seen and heard by the people of the world, who may not know what happened in Ukraine during the Holocaust," Spielberg stated at the time (via Access). "I really believe that listening to the stories of Holocaust survivors from all around the world is going to change the world and already has in many ways."

According to The Times of Israel, all of Spielberg's grandparents lived in Ukraine, with one couple residing in Odessa, and the other in Galicia. It's a part of his life that he's never forgotten. In one anecdote revealed in Medium, the Cincinnati-born Hollywood magnate reportedly remarked once his plane touched down in Odessa in 2006, "Finally, I am in my native land."

Sylvester Stallone

It turns out that the Italian Stallion has a bit of Cossack code running through his DNA. According to the Russian American Heritage Museum, Sylvester Stallone — aka the actor behind blue-collar pugilist Rocky Balboa from the "Rocky" film franchise — sports more than one source of ethnic roots. In the 1980s, his mother, Jacqueline Labofish, managed to trace her origins dating back to the star's great-grandmother, whose Jewish family emigrated to the U.S. from the southwestern region of Ukraine in the late 19th century, and had previously owned real estate and textile plants in Odessa.

At the time, Odessa was still part of the Soviet Union. But according to Boris Lozhkin, the head of the Jewish Federation of Ukraine, she reportedly had some help from folks in high places. "The search for Sylvester Stallone's Ukrainian roots in the 1980s was carried out by the KGB on the personal instructions of Mikhail Gorbachev," wrote Lozhkin in the text accompanying a Stallone YouTube video. "That was his gratitude to Stallone's mother, the famous astrologer Jacqueline Labofish, who made a personal horoscope for Gorbachev and predicted him the future position as the head of the USSR."

That genealogical connection might explain a Ukraine Gate story in 2021 about Stallone wanting to shoot a film about Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko, the Ukrainian siblings who made it big-time in the boxing circuit. While the piece indicated a 2022 release date for the project, it seems as though more recent events in Ukraine have likely put the venture on hold.

Steven Tyler

Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler has never kept his Ukrainian origins secret, but chances are the media was more interested in finding out more about his drug-fueled, hedonist days when his band churned out hits like "Dream On" and "Walk This Way" in packed arenas. But he made his roots front and center in 2015 at a Moscow media conference hours before they were slated to perform at a concert commemorating the city's 868th anniversary.

"My grandmother is German, and my grandfather is Ukrainian," said Tyler at the scrum, as covered by Tass. "They met at a time when Ukraine and Russia were one country." The rest of Tyler's lineage, just like his rock star life, is complicated. HuffPost added that Tyler is also Italian, while website Ethnicity of Celebs claims his bloodlines also contain strains of Polish, English, Welsh, and a sprinkling of African-American. 

All of that may have been confusing to Steven Tyler's daughter, Liv Tyler, a model and actor with enough cred to rival her pop. Liv thought her dad was musician Todd Rundgren, who had romanced her mother, Playboy pinup star Bebe Buell. But in an interview with The Guardian, when she discovered the truth, somehow things made sense to her. "I felt a connection in a very strong way when I met him as a little girl and I didn't know why at first," said Liv, who also qualifies as a celeb with Ukrainian roots. "But I figured it out rather quickly."

Katheryn Winnick

Katheryn Winnick may have played a Norse warrior princess on TV, but away from the set, she's Ukrainian from head to toe. In fact, the Toronto native was so deeply immersed into the Slavic culture when she was young, she never started speaking English until she was eight years old, per TV Overmind. In the language department, Winnick more than made up for lost time, playing Lagertha in the hit series "Vikings" for six seasons until its conclusion in 2020. 

But besides culture, her parents injected the same fighting spirit into Winnick that surfaced throughout the series, especially when it came to the plight of Ukraine. One of the first celebrities to speak out against the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, she took to her Instagram Stories to air her grievances. "I woke up this morning with texts from my Ukrainian family and friends saying 'it has begun,'" she wrote (via Euronews Culture). "Some fleeing, some taking shelter underground and others staying to fight." 

Captioning a photo of the Ukrainian flag on Instagram, she added alongside the #StandWithUkraine hashtag, "We are a Peaceful Country. We Do Not Deserve This War."