At a time when relations between the United States and Russia are breaking down, it’s important for us as American citizens, to look past all the crap, and to realize we are all part of the human race. Where we are from should be insignificant. Alexander Nevsky is a former Russian bodybuilder who is now a rising actor/producer/director in the film industry and he understands this as well. He’s making highly entertaining films while showing how Russian characters can get along with American characters. Not only do they get along but they become friends, fight common enemies, and together make the world a better place. Talking with Alexander, it quickly becomes evident just how passionate he is about the business. With the recent release of his action/thriller BLACK ROSE, his star is quickly on the rise and I was lucky enough to have a great conversation with him about it.
Corey Danna: You had a background in bodybuilding and writer before you became an actor. What drove you to take that plunge into film?
Alexander Nevsky: I was just a skinny kid from Moscow and I decided to get into boxing. They didn’t really show movies there but by the end of the 80’s, movies started to get there through home video. There was Stallone and Arnold and movies like COBRA and COMMANDO were my favorites. Of course they had muscle and action but there was a story as well. Those movies changed my life and I eventually transitioned into bodybuilding. By 1995, I was the biggest bodybuilder in Russia. I was 6ft 7in and 320 pounds instead of the 160 pounds I weighed at the end of the 80’s. This all happened because of my admiration for those guys, Dolph Lundgren, and even Matthias Hues. Matthias is such a huge guy but can really move and he knows the martial arts. In the 90’s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the entire movie industry there collapsed. In the 60’s and 70’s, we had our own little Bollywood there because the government supported it. In the 90’s when I became famous there, on Channel 1 (their major network at the time) I had a show which focused on bodybuilding and believing in yourself. You could find me everywhere but there was no movie business anymore so I couldn’t follow that dream. The total box office in Russia then, and I mean total, was like $2 million. That’s it! Last year it was $2 billion so things have changed. I didn’t just love action films, I love the movies of Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg as well, they inspired me. I eventually moved to the United States in 1999 and started my English program at the UCLA Extension and eventually I was accepted at the Lee Strasberg Theatre institute to learn acting. The funny thing was, I couldn’t even speak English. They just assumed I spoke it so I really had a hard time. I started to learn independent filmmaking in regards to producing and financing so when the film business changed in Russia so I knew I had to go back. I shot my first film, MOSCOW HEAT in English then had it dubbed for the Russian market. It was my first film and my fans, the ones who supported my TV shows, my books, came out to see it. MOSCOW HEAT helped to turn me into a movie star over there.
CD: MOSCOW HEAT was your first starring role and the first film you really turned into a reality. Can you talk a bit about the difficulties getting the film off the ground?
AN: When I was in the States, I did a few bit parts here and there but it just fueled me to want to make my own film. Eventually I met Sheldon Lettich (LIONHEART) and he offered me a part in THE ORDER, a film he did with Jean-Claude Van Damme and Charlton Heston. I was getting other offers too and the problem was, even with Sheldon, they only wanted me to play the stereotypical bad Russian. I really didn’t want to do that. It was a dream of mine to be in a film with Van Damme but Sheldon broke my heart. To his credit though, he understood and wished me luck. We kept in touch and many years later I sent him the script for BLACK ROSE. He became one of the producers and a close personal friend. I produced MOSCOW HEAT and co-wrote the script with my American friend Robert Madrid. It was very difficult to do because I didn’t have any experience. I had Michael York sign on which helped and so did my good friend Adrian Paul, so having such a strong cast surround me really helped. I think it was the first independent film, shot in English, to completely film in Moscow. It was hard to convince the investors but they eventually came around when the saw the potential in the story. It was difficult but it was a really great learning experience for me. It was a huge hit in Russia but it was sold to forty different countries to the home video market. Universal released it on DVD in the states and you could find it at every corner video store. I bet you remember those times, right?
CD: How could I forget?
AN: (laughs) It was great and you could find it everywhere so it was very successful.
CD: After it was so successful, how did you let it decide on which direction your career was going to go in?
AN: Bodybuilding was frowned upon in the Soviet Union before it eventually became recognized as a sport. Suddenly that all changed and there was a documentary on Russian television, the Russian version of PUMPING IRON, and it was called TARGET UNIVERSE. I was shot for the film and they told my story. I was the breakout star of the film. There were only three channels available in Russia but everyone watched it. I did the same thing Arnold did and promoted it as a good thing. MOSCOW HEAT was a huge success there but I didn’t allow it to change my mind. My path was already set and I proved I could open a film there. It was sold all over the world, it was a gamble, but it proved to my investors that I could produce as well.
CD: BLACK ROSE was your first feature film as a director. What was it about this particular story that inspired you to get behind the camera as well?
AN: After I finished the film TREASURE RAIDERS, I had an idea. I wanted to go back to MOSCOW HEAT because I really loved that film. My original idea was for BLACK ROSE to be a sequel following the same character from MOSCOW HEAT but this time he would go to the United States. I hired Brent Huff, my TREASURE RAIDERS director, to write the script for me. I’m also a big fan of thrillers so I wanted it to be more of an action/thriller. Eventually, George Saunders, who worked closely with Sheldon Lettich, did a rewrite. I became involved in a couple of other projects so BLACK ROSE was put on hold. I eventually went back to bodybuilding and competed in Mr. Universe for the first time and I won. After that, I really started to think about the next movie I should do, I went back to BLACK ROSE. So much time had passed, I felt it was too late for it to be a sequel. After we updated the script, wanted to make sure I surrounded myself with the best. The first person I contacted was my director of photography Rudy Harbon who I worked with on TREASURE RAIDERS and the upcoming SHOWDOWN IN MANILA. He was with me all the time and so was my friend Robert Madrid, he’s an actor, producer, and stuntman. I also brought on Sheldon Lettich as my executive producer so I surrounded myself with all these experienced people. When I decided to direct it, I hadn’t realized just how much time I had already spent on it. It had been over a year. It really took a toll on me physically, I wasn’t eating right, didn’t have time to work out like I’d like, and I didn’t sleep enough. I wasn’t trying to prove anything to anyone but myself and I wanted to try and mix different genres. Many directors and produces are afraid to do that, it’s a risk for studios and even more for an independent film. I’m really a huge fan of action movies, of thrillers, and horror movies, I’m a child of the 80’s. There was no separating these movies for me either, a Stallone movie or Chuck Norris movie were all on the same level as a Don “The Dragon” Wilson movie or Matthias Hues movie to me. In Russia, we didn’t understand that they were spending $90 million on a Stallone movie and maybe $1 million on a Norris movie. When I decided to direct it and make it an original and not a sequel, I was ready for it, I was already surrounded by such a great crew. The cast needed to be perfect. Kristanna Loken is so beautiful, we all know this, but she is such a great actress and an action star. We’ve become very good friends and she has been so supportive of me and the film. I had a very experienced cast who were willing to help me. Adrian Paul had directed before and was really helpful. Matthias Hues is a personal friend and he was there to help me out too. I’m sure you enjoyed the prologue with him, am I right?
CD: It felt like the opening of one of those great 80’s tough cop films.
AN: Exactly! He stole the scene. He’s sneaky, he knew I didn’t have time to work out so he worked out extra hard so he could look better than me (laughs). He was so much bigger than me and I hated it. I gave him a jacket to wear and he just took it off and put it away so he could show off his muscles (laughing). I had a few minor production problems, but everyone does, it really was a joy to make, especially because of everyone I was working with.
CD: The great thing about BLACK ROSE was the chemistry between you and Kristanna Loken. It almost felt like it could have been the launch of a series of films with these characters. Have you ever thought about bringing them back?
AN: I really give all the credit to Kristanna since she’s such an amazing actress, she forced me to pick up my game. One critic wrote that they felt it was like a T.V. pilot, in a good way of course.
CD: Hey, that was me!
AN: Ah-ha!! That was you?
CD: It was and I really did mean it in a good way. It felt like it was a set-up to continue the adventures of these two characters.
AN: You know, that’s a good idea. I’ve never really dealt with the T.V. side of things except to sell the rights of my movies to cable or something. It’s a very good idea though, especially now, we need to show some good Russians on American T.V. (laughs). I hadn’t thought of that before but I would like to do a series of movies with a male and female cop. Not a romance, more like THE X-FILES and the way Scully and Mulder interacted was so great, they worked together and respected on another. I want to do something along those lines. They were always equals. Kristanna played a really strong character and I wanted to show that and how our characters grow and learn to respect each other as equals. I don’t know if we will do a sequel to BLACK ROSE but I’m lucky enough to have her wanting to work with me again so I’m sure you will hear about something soon. I have two movies being sold at Cannes and the script for my next movie is ready. Once everything is caught up I’ll be moving on to the next project.
CD: You filmed BLACK ROSE a few years back, what were some of the difficulties you faced trying to get it out to U.S. audiences?
AN: Distribution in the film business is getting tougher and tougher. Saying that, for all your readers who want to get in the film business, don’t give up! Don’t wait for anyone else, just take a chance and do it. If I can do it, a Russian bodybuilder who only speaks broken English, then you can do it too. The DVD business is almost dead while digital is growing, it’s still not as big as DVD was several years ago. It’s really hard right now with the way things are to make your money back. I’ve established myself in Russia so it’s easy for me to open a film there and bring in some Box Office numbers. Internationally it did well, it was viewed as a Russian theatrical release. In America, it was a bit tougher. What we ended up getting with ITN, eOne, & Sony was a limited theatrical release, they put it everywhere on VOD and DVD with Redbox putting out about 45,000 units, a very good number. It will make its premiere on Netflix in the beginning of July so everything is perfect now. I made the deal with ITN in the summer of 2015, but I had to wait in line. That was O.K. thought and I have to thank all of them for believing in my film. To be honest with you, I really enjoyed all of the buzz for the film online, especially in the states. We even made Forbes magazine, that was huge for us. I understand now that it’s because of the situation with Russia and America. Maybe it’s not the best time to release a film about friendship between Russia and America, many people told me that. I think as a producer it’s my duty to make films like this and not about war between these two countries. They’re still the two biggest in the world, the strongest countries, China too. Russia and America are great countries, we should be friends and this was my idea for my films. So to answer your question, it wasn’t that there were any major problems, it just took some time to get the complicated deals together.
CD: You’ve moved on to some new projects and the one I’m most excited about is SHOWDOWN IN MANILLA which was Mark Dacascos’ directorial debut. How do you think he fared his first time behind the camera?
AN: Mark is a great guy and an unbelievable martial artist, I love his films from the 90’s. He and Jet Li were fantastic together in CRADLE 2 THE GRAVE. Just like Kristanna, people tend to forget just how good of an actor he is too. We shot a sizzle reel in 2014 with Mark directing. It was shot in Moscow and it was just something we wanted to do so we could present an idea we had for a drama. I saw how he was with the cast and crew so it was a no-brainer to give him SHOWDOWN as his feature debut. SHOWDOWN is like our answer to THE EXPENDABLES. We have Mark in the film, Casper Van Dien, Cary-Hirouki Tagawa, Don “The Dragon” Wilson who was my idol, Cynthia Rothrock, Olivier Gruner, Tia Carrere, and of course Matthias. This movie is non-stop action brought to the screen by a guy who really knows action. It should be out in the states by the end of the year. I don’t want to give much away but we will talk again about it after you’ve seen it. This movie was a dream come true getting to work with so many of my idols and people I respect.
CD: You also have MAXIMUM IMPACT coming out with much of the same cast. It almost seems like you’re just getting together with a bunch of friends and making movies.
AN: Exactly!! Andrzej Bartkowiak is a great director and I’ve been anxious to work with him. He’s also a director of photography and did films like THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE and LETHAL WEAPON 4. He was a legend in the business even before he began to direct. He did EXIT WOUNDS and I think that was the last great Steven Seagal film. ROMEO MUST DIE made Jet Li a superstar in the United States. He also did DOOM and I know many people were disappointed in it but I loved the film.
CD: I really liked it too!
AN: The only thing I had an issue with, and I asked Andrzej about it, was why they changed it from hell like it was in the video game. He said it was the studio’s decision and not his idea. That’s the sort of thing that happens when you have a big budget and a studio backing it. If they changed that one little thing, I think it could have made a huge difference, in box office returns too. I’ve known Andrzej for many years and in 2010, he flew to Moscow and told me he was a fan of MOSCOW HEAT, not the others so much. We had a talk about me possibly being a part of a new project but things just didn’t work out. We did become friends and for years we had been looking for a project to work on together. MAXIMUM IMPACT was a perfect fit, Ross LaManna (RUSH HOUR) wrote a great script based on my idea. It’s a straight up action comedy with an international flair we shot mostly in Moscow. I had a bunch of my friends on the film but we brought in a bunch of new people as well. Like Tom Arnold, who is hilarious, a great actor named Keith Powers (STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON), and Danny Trejo who I’m a huge fan of but we’ve never worked together before. Dacascos and Hues are in it but come on, you have to have your friends in it (laughs)! This is the biggest movie I’ve produced and it’s in the final stages of post production. Hopefully it will be completed by July or August and we can present the first trailer for the film in late summer or early in the fall. I’m really working like a studio now so I want to start my next film this year. I don’t think I will direct the next one but I will direct again for sure. It’s so difficult I will have to make sure I take the time to prepare myself. Back to BLACK ROSE, so many people have been supportive and we received so many great reviews. It was a huge compliment to me and you gave it a great review, you understood it, and I was so happy to see there is still an audience for this type of film. The Village Voice reviewed the film and they wrote, “Alexander Nevsky was as wooden in the film as Arnold Schwarzenegger was in his prime!” (laughs) They wanted to insult me but it was a huge compliment. I had to call my mom in Moscow to tell her I was compared to my idol (laughs again). FORBES compared me to Hitchcock and Walter Hill and they got the message about Russia and the United States working together and respecting each other. Maybe next year I’ll get behind the camera.
CD: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me and I’m a fan as well. I’ll continue to keep watching.
AN: Thank you for all your support. We’ll talk again soon!
Be sure to follow Alexander Nevsky on social media: Twitter – @NevskyAlexandr Instagram – @realalexnevsky
You can read the SlackJawPunk review of BLACK ROSE here.