The Norseman Under the Lava- Part 1


1. Origins

Whedonopolis: How and when did you decide that you wanted to be an actor?

Vladimir Kulich: What happened was, my whole family were actors in Prague, and I really didn’t do any acting there. I hung out with my uncle; he had a theater in Prague, so I was around it, but I never did anything.

The best I ever did was get beer for him between intermissions. We moved to Canada when I was 12. Where I lived was a blue-collar place, so there was no acting, no artists, just sports, and I became a hockey player. I forgot about it. When I finished hockey, I was 21, 22 years old, and I didn’t want to be an athlete anymore. I didn’t know what I wanted, and all of a sudden, I started to read more, and to try to paint, but I was a lousy painter. I found myself in Vancouver and they were shooting a TV show called “21 JumpStreet.”

W: No way!

VK: Yeah, and at the time I had a rafting company, for river rafting, and one weekend, a couple of the producers came rafting. They said, “Why don’t you come down? We’ll give you a job, a little role. You have an interesting look, come down.” So I did one show, and then I started doing all the other shows in Vancouver, like “Wiseguy,” and “MacGyver”…

W: You did “Highlander.”

VK: Yeah, “Highlander,” and “X Files” was also shooting there.

W: Right, you did the episode with the submarine… Russian?

VK: It was Norwegian, not Russian, yeah. It was a ship that looked like a submarine, and it was floating and everybody was getting old… except me. And people couldn’t figure out why, and it was because I was drinking water from the toilet! (laughs all around)

W: There’s always a smart one in those groups!

VK: It was good because the scenes were all in Norwegian, and the other actor was John Savage. I don’t know if you remember him, but he’d been nominated for an Academy Award for “The Deer Hunter.” He’s such a good actor, and what was really funny was, if you ever watch the episode, he couldn’t memorize the Norwegian parts, so when the camera was on him, I had to hold the card with the Norwegian part here, so he’s talking to me and he would go… (makes motion of looking at someone’s face and then dropping the eyes to chest level to read the card, and we all laugh once again) It was my first really good experience, and so it took off from there. Then I moved down here, I had a green card, and then I did “13th Warrior” and a bunch of B-movies, and then I did “Angel,” and “Smokin’ Aces…” It’s a long answer for “How did you start?”

W: No, not at all! We like long answers! You said your first role was in “21 JumpStreet.” Do you remember what it was?

VK: Yes, I was a doorman! (laughs) I was a doorman; I opened the door… I can’t remember what I said, “Welcome,” maybe, or “Hello,” or something like that.


W: Okay. How was the transition to Canada? You’re 12 years old, you’ve lived in Czechoslovakia all your life, and suddenly you find yourself in this completely different place. How was that transition for you?

VK: It was horrible! Because, under Communism, nobody was wealthy but nobody was poor either, so there was no upper middle class. Everybody had the same food rations. Every day I’d line up to get bread, and then line up to get milk, and so did everybody else in the city. The doctors did it, and the street sweepers did it, so that’s fine, right? We moved to Canada, and my mother married a wealthy Canadian man, and he lived in the wealthy part of town, in Montreal. It was like living in Beverly Hills, right? I was amazed at how people lived! He had three or four cars, and we didn’t have any cars. It was overwhelming! After about a year (because my mother was difficult to be around, actually), the guy left. And all of a sudden, she couldn’t speak English, she didn’t have any skills, we had to move out of that house, because he’d sold it, and we ended up going to the poorest part of the rich part of town.

We lived in a tenement, and she had to get jobs, and she struggled. All of a sudden we didn’t live that well, and I could see the mirror, the difference between how wealth is over there, but I’m poor over here, but I’m at the same school with these kids. So I started to get really angry. I had a chip on my shoulder — it’s taken me until now to get rid of it, actually, and from 12 to 18 y.o, I was surrounded by rich kids, with rich attitudes, and parents who looked down on me. I had an accent; I looked different… I was a tall, blond, European kid with a thick accent, and these were all WASPs, you know? Bobby, and Billy and Joey Smith, and it was just painful! So I started playing hockey. I was OK at it, but not great. But I was a good fighter! (laughs all around)

The coach for the New York Rangers, his name was Joe Ferguson, he kinda took me under his wing cos he liked me, for he’d grown up in the same way, and he got me a tryout with the Rangers. I didn’t make it, so they sent me to the farm team in Port Huron, MI, and I spent a year there. I fought, fought, fought, until one day I woke up. I’d never lost a fight, and I said, “Oh, God, I think I’m gonna lose a fight soon. I can feel it!” So I quit. It was too terrifying wondering when it’d happen, when I’d lose a fight… It’s kinda like someone who makes a lot of money in a lucky way, but doesn’t know how long it’s gonna last? Or the actor that doesn’t believe he’s such a good actor, but he became a star, and he doesn’t know how long he can fool the people before they realize, “Oh, God! This guy is not what he thinks he is”? So that was the deal. The shift was pretty extreme, once we lost all our money, and stayed in the rich neighborhood.

2. The 13th Warrior

W: How did you become involved with “The 13th Warrior”? How did the project come to you?

VK: It’s a really good story; an example for anybody’s life. I was with an agent, and I didn’t feel he was working for me at all. They’d send me to auditions for Nazis or terrorists, and it was just frustrating, so after a year, I fired them. I fired them without having another agent to go to. Normally, you find another one first, but I’m the kind of person who’d rather be alone with nobody than alone with somebody. So I fired them on January 2nd, and I remember walking down Venice Beach, and it was before cell phones, so I had a pager. My pager goes off like four days later, and it was the people I’d fired. They said, “I know you fired us, but there’s some Viking movie that you’re really probably right for. If you want, we can submit you.” I sai
d okay, and I went to read for it.

They didn’t tell me anything about the producer or the director, they played it really low key. They had me read the guy’s part, and it felt just natural, really easy, for it was well written and it suited me. I walked away, and I didn’t hear anything. Two months went by, and suddenly, in March, I started thinking about it. I’d completely forgotten about it! So I called the agent, who was still fired, and as I was saying, “Did you ever hear anything about…?” he said, “It’s funny you called! They called this morning and they want to meet you. John McTiernan wants to meet you.” He’s the director of “Die Hard” and he never meets people; John is a reclusive person who lives in a ranch in Wyoming. So I went to meet John McTiernan, and it was the most bizarre meeting.

We’re sitting there at this huge table, and there’s John with his cowboy boots –that’s all he does, he raises cattle when he’s not doing this- and he talks like this (drops his voice even lower), in a deep, deep voice, and he keeps asking questions. (Imitating John McTiernan) “You’re good looking. Are you a model?” (normal voice, biting the words) “No, I’m not a stupid model!” So after, like, half an hour of these questions, I say, “Okay, I get this guy; he thinks he’s a tough guy who wants to really pick me apart to see what I am made of… “ so I said, “John, I’m trying to answer all these questions, but I’m getting tired of them, so please, ask me what you really want to know.” He says, “Oh, I’m so sorry! It’s just that we’re going to be shooting for 10 months, and it’s gonna be in the mud, and in the rain, and in the forest, and I just wanna make sure you can work under the pressure.” And I start laughing about it. He asked why, and I replied, “I worked on rafting for 10 years in northern Canada. ‘Course I can do it!” So I gave him a video of my rafting business, and a video of “The X Files,” which was perfect cos it was in Norwegian, and we had to speak Norwegian in the movie! He goes, “OK, we’re gonna do a screen test in two weeks,” and so we do the screen test, and it was great because they tried mustaches and beards, and none of that crap worked. The moment I put a mustache or a beard on, my face just disappears, you know? So in the end, I just had to let my hair grow and that was it.

W: So it’s your hair in the movie?

VK: I started out with hair extensions, because I had short hair, but since it took 10 months, the last two months I took ‘em off. So John said, “We’ll call you in two weeks, let you know,” and I remember just… I could smell it; I could smell a possible career, you know? A major picture; it’s goddamned John McTiernan! And Michael Crichton! And it’s a lead! And they wouldn’t tell me it was a lead; they had me read different scenes from the script, and finally one day, as they’re all eating from craft services, I grabbed a script and… (mimics quickly leafing through a script while looking over his shoulder not to be caught) “Oh, there’s not a lot of meaty dialogue, but the guy has the best dialogue and he’s throughout the whole thing, and he dies beautifully in the end.” So I tried to steal the script when I was leaving, because I was gonna go to that crappy agent that I’d fired and say, “Look! Ask for a lot of money! He’s the second lead in the movie!” So I’m going to the car, and they caught me. “No, you gotta leave the script here; you can’t take the script.” Shit!

Anyway, two weeks go by, exactly, and the call comes. It was very funny; they wanted me to sign a contract called a “test deal.” They make you sign a contract before the screen test for a certain amount of money. It’s a game they play, because if you don’t give them the performance and they don’t want you, they can say “goodbye” and if you had a deal for, let’s say, $100,000, they don’t have to pay. If they love you, all they have to pay you is the $100,000, even if you’re worth a lot more because you can bring so much more to the project. So I told my agent, “They’re offering this much money” –it wasn’t $100,000, it was much less. “Tell them we want at least this much more, because I’ve read the script, you know?” And he was afraid. “But it’s John McTiernan and Michael Crichton, and it’s a great opportunity…” I don’t know; I just had some good balls then, so I said, “Screw that, go after it!” And he didn’t, so I fired him.

W: (laughing) Again?!

VK: Yeah! What happened was, when I did the screen test, we failed to agree to a test deal price, so we had no contract. Two weeks later, they called, and I’m at home, in my little 300 sq. ft. box, and it was Ned Dowd, one of the producers. “Vlad, it’s Ned. The guys looked at it, and are prepared to give you the part, congratulations.” “Thanks, Ned,” and I’m listening because I could feel I was on speakerphone. “So the deal is this much money,” blah blah blah, and I’m like, “You know, Ned, that’s great, but I’ve realized this is the second lead in the film, and I have to be up there for 10 months, and unfortunately my agent doesn’t have the courage to ask, so I wanna ask for this much.” And he just stopped, and started talking to someone. I went, “Ned, am I on speakerphone?” “Yes.” “Who else is in the room?” It was just like God was coming through me, I swear. “Well, John McTiernan is here, Michael Crichton is here,” and I start hearing, “Hi, Vlad! Hi, Vlad!” And so I pushed it, and I got $10,000 more, which is nothing, but I went, “OK, you know what? Screw it! It’s 10 months, and there’s gonna be overtime,” And they gave me $10,000 more, and it was more for my ego… And so we did the deal and we started shooting. The stories I could tell you!


Vlad and Antonio Banderas

W: Tell us whatever you want…

VK: One of them? Okay, the best one is this; it’s pretty funny. I never rode a horse in my life…

W: But you ride so well in the movie!

VK: (laughs) They paid a lot of money to teach me! At the first meeting with John, after he asked me all those questions like (imitating McTiernan again) “Are you a model?” we’re finished, he walks me to the door, and he asks me, “Can you ride?” And honestly, my head wasn’t even thinking about horses, so I said “Yes.”

W: Do you always say yes when they ask you if you can do anything?

VK: When it’s safe; otherwise you have to say “no” if you can’t back it up. So he asked me, “Can you ride?” and I go, “Sure!” I’m thinking motorcycles. I don’t know why; I didn’t think of horses. So they fly me to the set, and everything’s great, and then the next morning, we go to the corral where all the horses are, and all the wranglers and the cowboys, and all 13 actors – “13th Warrior,” right? Even though the title was originally “Eaters of the Dead,” after the book. So we have to get on the horse, and I go, “Oh, crap!
” And all the actors are walking around, some can really ride, some are like me…

W: I thought I’d seen a couple of actors in the movie riding in “Braveheart…”

VK: There weren’t any actors from my movie in “Braveheart;” there’s a couple of guys who look like those actors, and I tell you why there weren’t any of ours in it: You couldn’t be more than 5’6” to be in “Braveheart,” because Mel (Gibson) is not very tall, and in this case they wanted everybody to be well over 6’, because they wanted to make Antonio Banderas look small, for the contrast between the Arab and the tall Norsemen. That’s why I got the job, because I was tall. All the guys were over 6’5”; it was unbelievable!

And so we’re there with the horses, and they’re trying to pair the actor with the horse he’d look best on. Since I have a long body, I need a really tall horse. So we’re in the corral, walking around here, and then McTiernan says, “Come on over here, guys,” and everybody moves on horseback… and I don’t know how to make the horse go, or turn, or stop, or anything, so I’m just hoping he just follows. They’re all over there, and I’m still over here and finally the horse starts walking. Good! I’m just pretending that I’m taking my time, and I’m the last guy. In the next corral, there was a camel that we’d used for the Arabs, right? Well, this horse had never seen a camel, and he got spooked, and took off! And I’m like (mimics flopping around) And I’m hanging on to the saddle; I’m not even holding the reins, and the horse is flying, and I’m gonna crash into these guys over here. Suddenly, there’s a gate here, and the wranglers opened the gate so I could just keep going. They didn’t want me crashing into anybody, so as the gate is opening, and the horse is going towards the gate, someone yells, “Pull in the reins!” I go, “Where are the reins? Oh!” So I start pulling, and I was stronger then –I was working out because they wanted me to be muscular, so I had power- and I’m pulling but it wasn’t helping. The horse just kept going and going, and I keep pulling and pulling and as I’m pulling, I’m losing my balance, I’m going this way (leans over to his right) and the gate is opening and I see my head going towards it, so I pull one last time and I broke the reins, and I fell of the horse. I missed the gate by this much (separates hands about a foot apart).

I’m just lying there, going “*censormode*!” And there’s silence. I get up and I look up, and there’s John McTiernan, with his cowboy boots and his cowboy hat and his jeans… And he has an incredibly deep voice. (imitating McTiernan) “Eh, Vlad… I thought you said you could ride.” I said, “Yes. Motorcycles.” (laughs all around) So they spent a month teaching the guys who can’t ride to ride. All I had was a two-hour riding class every day for a month. I wasn’t laughing. We were there for a month, just rehearsing, and all we did was learn Norwegian, learn to ride a horse, learn to use swords, and eat and drink. It was amazing! So that’s my funny story, my “crazy horse from hell” story.

I wanted to say one more thing about “13th Warrior.” Remember how I had fired my agent and then they called? If you want something, you have to completely close one door before the next one opens. You know what I mean? I fired the agent; I’m walking around Venice Beach with no money, no nothing, and then I get an opportunity. I didn’t have any money, but if I hadn’t fired that agent, they probably wouldn’t have tried to get me that role. But it made them hungry and it made it happen. It’s the same thing with relationships; I’ve learned that. When a relationship is dying, and you want out, but you don’t want to be by yourself, so you play the thing to the ground while you look for the next one? It’s the worse thing you can do. You can’t do that. You have to finish that one, be by yourself for a while, and then start looking. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. I’ve learned that the hard way. Can I tell you one more story?

W: Sure thing!

VK: You know how everybody has the love of their lives?

W: Right.

VK: When I was a kid, I always envisioned this woman. She’d always look a certain way, and was always walking near the water. It’s all I can tell you. When I was 20… 21 years old, when I stopped playing hockey and before I started acting, I was lost. I didn’t know what to do. I got a job in a summer camp, in Montreal, and my job was to just clean the place up and get it ready for the kids. I was working by the lake, where the boats were and everything, and it was at the end of the day. At the top of the hill, these school buses came with the camp kids. There are hundreds of kids getting off, running all over the place. These are handicapped kids, so they are all over the place. Then the counselors and the teachers got out, but for some reason I just kept looking at that last person far away, that looked like a dot, that just started walking towards me. We’re still talking… 500, 600 yards, and it took like a half hour for that person to get closer. In the meantime, everybody went in different directions; nobody was coming towards me. The dot became a woman, and I kept looking, and she kept coming and coming, and then I go, “Oh, my God! This is the woman of my dreams!” She looked exactlylike in my dreams. She came up, introduced herself, and I fell in love with her. It was beautiful, you know? I had my motorcycle, and the whole summer we went out, we had beers at night and all that… The only problem was, she’d gotten married two weeks before that. So it’s like, we had beers, but that’s all we had. That was in 1977. I only saw her once since, and I knew the man she’d married. I knew him, it was the weirdest thing, but here comes the story. That happened in Montreal, and we shot “13th Warrior” in British Columbia, on the west coast.

W: That was British Columbia?!

VK: Yeah!

W: Damn, they fooled me!

VK: Good! So one day, I’m in my little armor, and we’ve just finished shooting in the castle, and all these extras are being shipped out of the place, and there’s this flow of blonde hair, and it was gone. I went, “Hmmm…” It didn’t register; it was a feeling. Next day, I’m on the same spot, talking to one of the actors. The extras are flying by me, and I have this weird feeling. There was a tap on my shoulder here, so I turned, but she went the other way. She was gone again. The third day, I’m still not thinking about it, still on the same spot, it’s like a big balcony overlooking the mountains, and there’s another tap on the shoulder. “Who are you?” And instead of who I thought she was, there’s a girl, 14 years old, who looked exactly like the woman back in ’77. And I’m looking at her, and I sense something and she gives me a letter. That woman was her mom.

W: Aw!

VK: I hadn’t seen her since… We shot that movie in ’99, I hadn’t seen the woman since ’77… 22 years! And I read the letter, and it said, you know, “I didn’t wanna disturb you. I just thought I’d say hello after all these years. I see that you’re doing what you love to do. This is my daughter. “ Well, the daughter is in the movie, and there’s a
scene before the last battle, where all the people are running into the basement, and you see the little 14 y.o. blonde-haired girl. So if you ever see it, that’s what her Mom looks like, except 30 years older.

W: Awesome!

VK: Yeah, and what’s cool about it is, I got that job when I really needed it, and I had full closure of my fantasy woman because her daughter showed up, so I was able to let it all go. She had a daughter, a different life…

W: It’s funny you should mention the girl, because I re-watched the movie this past Sunday, and I remember exactly the moment she showed up, because she caught my attention…

VK: She’s an extra. She’s just running down the stairs.

W: Right! And for some reason, it registered with me, go figure, and now we know why.

VK: Yeah… So that’s the story.

3. Angel

W: How did you get to “Angel”?

VK: Through “The 13th Warrior.” It was really funny; they called and said, “You know, they want to see you, because they want someone with your size, and the voice, but you’re gonna be all covered up in prosthetics.” And I go, “I don’t wanna do that.” I’m too egotistical. I want people to see my face, so I can get the next job. And if the actor’s all covered, you don’t know who he is, so I go, “No, I’m not gonna do that,” and then I heard it could be more than one episode, and it paid well, so I didn’t take it seriously. At the time, I was learning to surf, so that day I was surfing the entire day; I wasn’t thinking about it at all. I got out of the ocean, got into my truck and drove straight to their offices that were nearby (the interview was conducted in Santa Monica, CA). I went in, and when I go, I commit to it, but I didn’t think it was right for me at all, I didn’t wanna do it. So I went to read, and before I read, one of the writers –I don’t remember which one- came up to me, “I have to tell you: “13th Warrior” is my favorite movie!” And it was like, “Wow! Nice people!” (laughs all around) So I cranked it up and did it, and they hired me.

W: How many hours did you have to be in makeup?

VK: Cuatro! (laughs all around) Four hours, but you know what? An hour to take it off! That’s what I was surprised about, the hour to take it off.

W: Well, Doug Jones (who played the Lead Gentleman in “Hush,” the silent episode of “Buffy”) explained to us that it takes so long because the prosthetic has to be set in such a way that it moves when you move, and if it sets wrong, they have to start all over again.

VK: Exactly, because it’s a very fine layer of latex that has to stick to your skin completely, so when you do anything, it moves with you. Luckily, I never had that problem, cos the guy was so good. The funny thing is, he had been the assistant makeup artist on “13th Warrior,” Dayne (Johnson). He’d been with me on “13th Warrior” for, like, a year.

W: Oh, so you were…

VK: …back home.

W: The body part was an entire piece, or…?

VK: It was a wet suit. Basically, what happened was— the worst part was that, right before I got the job, I’d gotten laser eye surgery, because I couldn’t see distances, and always wore glasses, so I said, “To hell with it! Let’s just do it!” We did one eye first, because I wanted to see if they’d blind me, so I said, “OK, that was good. Go and do this one!” Fine, “don’t do anything to your eyes for a week!” I get the job, and the first scene I did was lenses. And those things are nasty! They’re not like regular contact lenses; they’re oversized…

W: And they have a pinhole for you to look…

VK: Yes! And there’s a guy on set, and his job is just… (mimics putting eye drops in his eyes) every 15 to 20 minutes, just put that in there. So we started shooting in September, so October, November… I think the last time was December 15th, so almost four months of that. I was scared I was gonna mess up my eyes just after the surgery.

W: And the feet were…?

VK: They were like rock and roller boots, like Elton John wore in the glam old days; great for breaking your ankles! They’d put latex over them to blend them with the suit, and they added hooves to blend in. So I’m 6’5”, and the boots were like 6”, so I was like 6’11”, walking around… Freakish, freakish! The worst part, though?

W: Yeah?

VK: To take the suit off, if you’re on a set— It takes 20 minutes to take it off. There’s a zipper in the back that’s all glued, and the bathrooms were 10 minutes away. I managed to not eat a lot when I knew I was going to be in the suit, not drink a lot of water, but then they tell me, “You have to drink water, because you’re gonna get dehydrated in the suit!” I had to literally measure how much to drink; if I was going to be three hours in the suit straight, then I could have like three glasses of water. If I had four, I had to go pee. So it was three, but there was one time when I just ate too much at lunch, it was just a great lunch, and at the end of the day, I was like, “OK, the scene is gonna start in 10 minutes; it’s gonna take like 20 to take this thing off… I’m OK, I can hang in there.” Three minutes before, they tell me, “Vlad, we’re ready to go,” and I go, “No. I can’t do it!” So they put me in a golf cart -it was at Paramount- and they flew me to the bathroom, and the guys are working at it, and I went “Mmm…” (laughs all around) I don’t think I had an event like that since I was 1 year old!”


Vladimir and David Boreanaz

W: How did the cast receive you? Because they had been together for quite a while at the time…

VK: The funny thing is, my first agent was David’s agent, but I’d already fired that guy, as you already know, right? So that was the one thing that we had in common, and the other one was, he loves hockey and I used to play it. So that brought us together, but for the first month, he didn’t know my face. Nobody knew my face! I’d be there at 6AM, first one to go into the makeup trailer. The first thing is they do your face, and then you go have breakfast.

W: With the face on?!

VK: Yeah, with the face. In makeup there’s usually a photo of the actor, for the makeup artist, so nobody knew what I looked like. In fact, at the wrap party, with the makeup off– what’s her name, the one that was pregnant?

W: Charisma Carpenter.

VK: Yeah, Charisma, she went, “Vladimir, you’re good looking!” (laughs all around) Remember we’d kissed in one of the scenes, right? So nobody really knew what I looked like. David was really nice, and you know how if you’re a guest star in a show, you bring a nice gift when you wrap? My favorite thing to bring is strudel (that’s the favorite dessert in my country), and (Arnold) Schwarzenegger, whom I know a little bit
, goes to this Austrian bakery, so he told me about their strudel and I went there to get them. They’re about this long (opens his arms wide) and I bought six of them, they’re so good, for the cast and crew the last day, and I brought my dog. It’s a huge pit-bull, and the moment I walk in, David saw the pit-bull and fell in love with it, because he’s a freak about animals, he rescues dogs. And we started a really nice friendship in the last day. He still doesn’t know what I look like! There’s a nice picture of me and David with my pit-bull on my site, and David reaches up to here. Have you seen my website yet?

W: Yes, we put a link to it in our Charlaine Harris interview. Did you see it?

VK: Yeah, I just didn’t want to click on my name; I didn’t know where it was gonna go…

W: It was going to your official website, actually. We try to do that all the time.

VK: Thank you!

Don’t miss part 2 of the interview.

TNT is re-running the "Angel" episodes featuring Vlad’s arc as The Beast starting this Wednesday, June 13th, at 7:00AM and ending on Tuesday, June 19th.

All pictures courtesy

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