Interview: Vladimir Kulich (THE 13TH WARRIOR, GRAVE WALKERS)

In Interviews by Corey1 Comment

Vladimir Kulich is an opposing force in film, someone who should never be over-looked and be given the credit he deserves. Having started in television, this former hockey player has had memorable roles on THE X-FILES and ANGEL while making an impression on the big screen in films like THE 13TH WARRIOR and THE EQUALIZER. Vladimir has been working hard and has several new projects nearing completion and I was given the opportunity to chat with him about them, working with Jesse Johnson, and how Jerry Bruckheimer sucks at hockey.

Corey Danna: You basically started your career in television. How difficult was it to get started?

Vladimir Kulich: It was actually pretty easy. I used to own a white water rafting company and I had contracts with Boeing, the U.S. Navy, and I also had a contract with Stephen J. Cannell. He did WISEGUY, 21 JUMPSTREET, and all those shows. One day they all came out and to make a long story short, I talked myself onto one of their shows. I did one small little role on 21 JUMPSTREET in 86 or 87 and it led to me doing little roles up in Vancouver on all the Cannell productions. So that’s how I ended up on T.V., I snuck in the back door. Vancouver was hosting all the big U.S. television productions, so if you were a local actor, you had a pretty good shot of getting in, though they were small parts.

CD: You had prominent roles on two of my all-time favorite genre shows, THE X-FILES and in an even bigger capacity on ANGEL, could you talk a bit about working on those shows?

VK: Thank you for mentioning those two shows, no one ever seems to bring them up. With THE X-FILES, they wanted someone to play a Norwegian and I told them I could speak Norwegian, which I can’t (laughs). I did learn how to for the show since I had like two or three pages of dialogue I had to do in Norwegian. I had to do this with a guy named John Savage. This guy was really well known and was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in THE DEER HUNTER. We were doing this scene and John just couldn’t memorize all the Norwegian dialogue so I had to hold the cue cards underneath me for him to read. If you watch it, you’ll notice that while he’s looking at me, he will look down at my chest then look back up at me before he starts to speak. He does this a couple of times. I found it pretty funny that this Academy Award guy had to read cue cards off my chest. ANGEL was just crazy! They wanted someone imposing to play this demon character and the casting director was a fan of THE 13TH WARRIOR. The moment I walked in there it was pretty much my role but I had to put on all that make-up. In hindsight, if someone came up to me and offered me a role where I had to be in all that make-up, it took four hours to put on, two hours to take off for 8 episodes and ten weeks, I don’t think I would take it. It’s rough! It was like a wetsuit I had to put on but the face was what took the longest. Once they had everything sealed off I was stuck in it for the day. You can’t go to the john when your in it so you had to suck it up for like eight or nine hours. I like to eat but I could only eat really small portions and I didn’t really drink much.

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CD: Your big breakout role was in THE 13TH WARRIOR. Can you talk a bit about working on the film and the unfortunate events happening behind the scenes?

VK: Yeah, we were all undiscovered actors from Europe, we first got together and shot it in Canada, and when we all got together we realized this could potentially be a career making film for all of us. We were really excited about everything. I’m a pretty intuitive person and I could see the tension rising between director and producer, John McTiernin and Michael Crichton. There was just something going on underneath the surface, I thought it could be a great film or it would crash. I was also wondering if the world was ready for a viking picture, I actually think the world was one year shy of a viking picture. The studio basically dumped our picture and nobody really saw it when it first came out. The following year, GLADIATOR comes out. It has a great advertising campaign, great reviews, and the whole world gets to see it and loves it. We didn’t play in any theaters, so I thought if THE 13TH WARRIOR came out after GLADIATOR it would have done really well. Up to that point, there really wasn’t the warrior type of films, there wasn’t samurai stuff, viking stuff, there wasn’t even King Arthur. It was just a different kind of time and the warrior type of picture was a gamble. Sadly, we lost that gamble.

CD: Despite the problems going on behind the scenes, you still had a very good film and an amazing cast with people like Omar Sharif and Antonio Banderas. Can you talk a bit about working with them and working on your first major Hollywood picture?

VK: The final cut was kind of goofy because of all the in-fighting, we even shot two different endings. At the end of the day, none of that mattered since the studio did nothing to promote it. The acting in it was great and there wasn’t any CGI, it was just real and gritty. I think that’s one of the reasons people really respond to it, the horses in it were even real and they fell on guys. It wasn’t diluted by computer generated effects and it just felt real. Working with Omar Sharif is what did it for me. My favorite movie has always been LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and the interesting thing is when I first saw Omar he was on a camel. When he gets off it, he comes over and introduces himself and says, “You know, the last time I was on a camel was in 1962.” I got to know him a bit, he’s a legend, and in many ways, Hollywood royalty. First and foremost, he was just a first-class gentleman, whenever we would go out to dinner, he would pay for everything, all the time. Even if we called hours ahead with our credit card numbers, the manager would always tell us that Mr. Sharif had already taken care of it. He told me the only reason he still worked was because he enjoyed meeting people, going out to dinner, and talking with people. It was the only thing that kept him interested in life. What I liked about Antonio was how if you didn’t know him, he would come off as this pretty, cute, Latino lover kind of guy with his shirt unbuttoned, he could dance, got all the girls, you know the type. When I met him, he was the complete opposite and completely hands on. The nicest thing was whenever we did a scene together, he would always try to make me appear better. He would help everyone get positioned for the camera, or even helped us with lines, he’s such a good actor too. He had no ego whatsoever and very self-effacing.

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CD: You have a tendency to end up in films with these crazy ensemble casts. SMOKING ACES was one of those. Can you talk a bit about that film?

VK: SMOKING ACES is a really good movie but I had nothing to do with it. Joe Carnahan liked me in THE 13TH WARRIOR and they just gave the role to me. It was two weeks in Lake Tahoe on a holiday hanging out with Andy Garcia. There were just so many actors but they were only on for one or two days, they were in and out. Nobody really had the chance to hang out, I hung out with Garcia, but I didn’t get to know anyone else.

CD: One of your most successful and high-profile roles was in THE EQUALIZER with Denzel Washington. I really dug your character and it seemed like a fun role to play.

VK: When I read the script, the way they described the character, Pushkin, was old, bald, and fat. They obviously wanted some old gangster who sits in the background terrorizing everyone. I didn’t even know why I was reading for it because I’m old, but not fat or bald. I often don’t get to play that type of character but I went in there and played it dangerous. They liked what I was doing and Denzel made the decision, which was a compliment. When I got there, I didn’t know who Martin Csokas was but I recognized his face. It turned out he’s my neighbor and just lives down the street from me. I never knew that. I would see him at the grocery store but I never knew he was an actor. We struck up a friendship after that. It was also pretty fun to terrify Denzel with my nakedness (laughs).

CD: So last night, I finally had the chance to see GRAVE WALKERS. It was a bit of a departure from what we’re used to seeing you in.

VK: I still haven’t seen the final cut of the movie, the cut I did see, the comedy was there. It has the bones of being a funky, cool, zombie picture.

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There’s this point in the film where the tone and tempo changes. I had a ball with it!

VK: One of the reasons I took on the role was so I could play an American.

CD: It was a cool role for you.

VK: Yeah, we shot in North Carolina, I bought myself some cheap Wrangler jeans and some old cowboy boots so I could walk around like a redneck and I enjoyed it! I’ve always liked country music so on my way to work I would have the country station on.

CD: And you get to do a great scene with Tony Todd.

VK: Tony!! I did a movie with Tony like eighteen years ago (SILENCE), so I’ve known him that long. He and his manager are the reason I’m even in the film. I think it will find an audience and maybe they’ll even do a sequel.

CD: The film I’m really excited about seeing is SAVAGE DOG!

VK: So am I!

CD: What can you tell me about your character Steiner and how he relates to the story?

VK: First of all, I’m sitting in my house, smoking a cigar I got from the movie. Steiner smokes cigars. I have my feet up on this beautiful $7000 desk I got from the movie. And outside my house there’s a sign that says “Colonel Steiner” and it hung outside my office in the movie. When we were done I asked the teamsters what they were going to do with the desk. They asked me if I wanted it because they didn’t want to move it. It’s one of those old, classic desks with brass handles, a leather top and inlay, and it’s all solid wood. That’s my intro as to how great I think SAVAGE DOG is! Jesse Johnson is probably the best director I’ve ever worked with. Most directors understand how they want a scene done and they understand how they want a scene lit. Jesse knows every single part of movie making. He’s a grip, he’s a technician, a computer guy, the writer, the DP, a producer, and the director. The guy could almost do the thing single-handedly. He has to stop so the other people can do their jobs. He’s so far ahead of everyone else, it’s his movie and he knows every single facet of making that movie. I was blown away and the fact that he liked what I was doing and didn’t have too many notes for me told me we were both on the same page. I felt very confident within the movie itself and it’s very well written for an action movie. I’m sixty years old and I grew up on Bruce Lee, Jim Kelly and growing up as a hockey player, I got a black belt in Okinawan Karate. All the enforcers were taking karate and I was also very tall and uncoordinated so I took it to help with my coordination. Around 76 or 77, they started going full contact. In competitions during my first three years, there was no contact. You would just touch the surface of your opponent’s ‘gi’. You got a point for a light touch but if you touched too hard, you would lose a point. Chuck Norris came from that era and he never fought full contact. These guys who came from that era never really hit anyone or took a hit until full contact came along. That was around 77 with guys like Joe Lewis and Ken Wallace, they were true fighters. I did that for awhile and I understood the limits but it would always come down to grappling. If you watch the MMA fights, there’s a lot of kicking and punching but usually they end up down on the ground grappling. That’s the way real fighting is. It’s hard for me to watch guys doing somersaults in the air, looking pretty floating through the air because I know it’s fake. I enjoyed it in the 70’s but by the 80’s I was over it. I told Jesse that if this was going to be character driven, where the fights are based on the character, then I would be happy to do it. Everything Jesse did was based off who they were. When these guys do their kicks and spins, it all had meaning because it was coming from the characters. Most these movies just put me to sleep, they twist and twirl but in real life they’d be goners. Unless they can really act, I can’t watch that shit. I was really surprised at how good of an actor Scott Adkins is. I told him at some point he could ease up on the martial arts he could get into the juicy acting roles. He could be James Bond.

CD: I’ve watched Jesse direct before, this guy is all over the place! He wasn’t sitting in some director’s chair behind the camera, he was getting his hands dirty just like the actors.

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VK: Amazing, isn’t he? I was doing a scene where I was supposed to be watching Scott fight and I’ve bet my money on him. Basically the camera is on me watching him and I’m hoping he wins so I can make some money, Jesse was behind the camera yelling, “It looks like Scott’s gonna lose! You’re getting pissed because he’s gonna lose! Wait a minute, he’s getting up, Scott’s gonna win! You’re happy again!” He was jumping up and down, falling on his back, rolling around on concrete. I was worried he was going to fucking hurt himself. Then I learned he started out being a stuntman. So this was all natural to him.

CD: I’m a big supporter of his previous film, THE BEAUTIFUL ONES, and I’m hoping SAVAGE DOG follows down a similar path in the sense that he perfectly balanced the drama, story, characters, and the action. I don’t want to see him get pigeonholed as a the go-to guy for generic action films, he’s better than that.

VK: Right? I couldn’t agree more. I think I did him proud with Steiner, he’s a very complicated guy. Jesse wrote some very nice scenes for me. The other guys did all the action and I was able to handle the drama, some of it was pretty serious stuff too. Hopefully, it will hold its own against the action and people will know this guy has so much more to offer. He’s a smart enough director, I think he will get there.

CD: You have Scott, Marko Zaror, Cung Le, these guys are beasts, were you able to hold your own with these guys in the film?

VK: I have a big scene with Scott in the end. I never really talk about the fact that I can fight. With hockey, I understand how to fight and I’ve hit a lot of people. So not only can I hurt somebody, I can take being hurt by somebody. I can take a punch, I’m durable. I thought about telling Jesse I wanted to choreograph this, I can throw a couple of roundhouse kicks in there, you know. I did a movie years ago called RED SCORPION 2. You heard of it?

CD: Yeah, Matt McColm!

VK: It was a ridiculous B-movie! I did all these stupid kicks and everything. I was even out of shape then. I was tempted to really get into it then I figured I’d just stick to what I was good at, which is hopefully acting.

CD: You’ve been pretty busy wrapping up all this stuff. Do you have any other projects lined up?

VK: CBS has just greenlit TRAINING DAY as a series. And I’m guest starring in the first episode. Bill Paxton is the lead in it and it’s Jerry Bruckheimer’s production company, it’s BIG TIME! Bruckheimer even has his own hockey team. He might be one of the worst hockey players I’ve ever seen, he tries though.

CD: Have you ever played with him?

VK: Yeah, maybe like fifteen years ago. I scored like six goals on him and he never invited me back. But you know what? Your grandmother could score six goals on Bruckheimer.

CD: Do you have anything you’d like to say to the fans you’ve gathered over the years?

VK: Wow, I’ve never been asked to say anything to my fans before. I’m just grateful that when I do something it’s not just for myself, that it affects someone else. When I act, I try very hard to be truthful in portraying an emotion and if it affects someone in a positive way then I’m happy.