He recently starred in the TV series Vikings but today he stops by The Action Elite to talk a little about his life, his inspirations and his new movie Savage Dog which stars Scott Adkins, Cung Le and JuJu Chan.
You’ve had an interesting career which at one point had you as a professional hockey player for the New York Rangers farm team, and representing Canada at the 1977 World Sailing Championships. How did you make the transition to acting?
Well my uncle had a theatre company in Czechoslovakia and in the summers and Christmas holidays my mum would ship me to my uncle and I would help him with his theatre. From when I was about 4 years old up until I was 10 I was a stage hand; I did props and sometimes I would stand in and sometimes I would even have a small part in the Shakespeare plays as the little jester in the corner. I would just sit around and look goofy so I never really acted at that age but I was around it and I understood it so I was very comfortable with it. Once we escaped Czechoslovakia (which was still communist at the time) we moved to Montreal in Canada but there was no theatre and I was in a blue collar part of the city.
The only thing we did there was play hockey so I played until I became pro and then at age 21 I got out because I didn’t think I had a future. I went straight into racing sailboats because in Canada as you know everything freezes up for 6 months and when the ice breaks in April it’s “let’s go get sunburn” or “let’s wear our shorts” and I was near a lake so I ran down to the yacht club and I got a job there. Next thing I know I was racing for Canada (laughs). Anyway, I was doing all of that and after the world championships in Long Beach in 77 we took a river rafting trip in the Grand Canyon.
At that time I had no idea what that was. I took the rafting trip and I fell in love with it so I thought we could do this in Canada; we have rivers so my first job was near where you are in a place called Pembroke, Ontario which is the Ottawa River where the very first Canadian Rafting company started called Wilderness Tours. My job was to take Pierre Elliot Trudeau (then Prime Minister) down the Ottawa River and not drown him…. which is another story (laughs).
After that I moved to Vancouver and started up a rafting company there and we took the cast and crew of 21 Jump Street rafting and one of the producers and I became friends and he said “if you want to come down we can get you a part in one of the shows you could play a thug as you’re big!” Of course I said “I don’t want to play a thug, I’m an actor! Classically trained from Czechoslovakia.” So I completely BS’d my way onto the show 21 Jump Street. That was it. Once I did that then I realized that this is what I want to do which was full circle I guess from childhood and I’ve been doing it ever since.
It’s kind of like it was meant to be really wasn’t it?
Yeah, it was but my mother would always kind of hint at it but never actually say “you must do this!” and I would of course never listen to my mother. If she said I art I would go the opposite and get a chainsaw then cut a tree instead. Mothers are sometimes right and in this case she was definitely right.
Do you still play hockey at all?
This is a funny story; at age 21 I walked away from it completely and at age 47 I started to play again because Jerry Bruckheimer had a little hockey league for celebrities and actors. Once in a while in summertime the pros would come up so it was like movie stars hobnobbing with NHLers. I skated with those guys and then while I was skating I ran into a childhood friend called Ian Turnbull who was a Toronto Maple Leaf and he played with Börje Salming who was a very famous defenceman until he retired his jersey.
So I’m playing hockey with Bruckheimer and this big fat bald guy who refuses to wear a helmet and he starts to smack me and I start to smack him and it nearly turns into a fight. So I get on the ice and I ask “who is the big fat bastard who keeps whacking people?” and then someone says “that’s Ian Turnbull”. I’m like “that’s not Turnbull! Turnbull is like 6ft tall and 180 pounds!” So we knew each other but he didn’t know it was me because I still had the long hair from The 13th Warrior. So we’re back on the ice and we start to go at it and I started to talk to him in French because we used to play for a team called the Junior Canadians; I coaxed him in French to get him pissed off. Then I’d say “Yeah Turnbull, you’ve always been a loser; even when you were 14 and you lost your lunch money and started crying”. He goes “who the fuck are you?” and I said “Vladimir”. He goes “You’re not Vladimir!” and so on, so to make a long story short we rekindled our friendship 27 years later.
So yeah I did skate a lot until about 4 years ago and then by body said “nahhh, let’s try motorcycles instead”.
Did you have any particular influences growing up?
I was always moved by Richard Harris; maybe because he was blonde and I’m blonde but he was also very manly and also kind of sensitive. I think we as men are more sensitive than women to be truthful and yet of course we have to cover that up. I always got the feeling when Richard Harris performed there was something richer and deeper underneath the manliness of him. I always felt the same way when I was playing hockey and I was an enforcer; I used to fight a lot and it used to tear me apart to fight because inside I did not want to fight yet I had the nature that I absolutely wanted to destroy somebody (laughs). So I was always at odds with that so I think a guy like Richard Harris who is very rugged and yet is extremely tender especially in the movie A Man Called Horse. I think Richard Harris made me think you don’t have to look like a pretty boy to be in show business.
He was a fantastic actor too; I was always a fan myself…
What’s funny about that is I live in Venice which is a very small town and there’s maybe 4 cafes and I go to this place called The French Market. One day I go there and this guy sits down and we start talking and it ends up it’s Richard Harris’s son Jamie. He’s got 3 boys; of course I told Jamie the same story I just told you. So yeah, Richard Harris is sort of my inspiration.
I’d like to talk about one of your upcoming movies that we’re all excited about called Savage Dog. Can you shed some light on the story as it’s so far quite shrouded in mystery?
Yeah, it’s gonna be great ; I’m not just saying that because you’re supposed to say that about everything. I’ve done over 20 films and about 25 TV shows; now that’s not to say I was the star of any of these TV shows but I’ve done them. What I’m getting at is I’ve worked with a lot of directors and this guy Jesse V. Johnson blew me away. He’s related to the legendary stuntman Vic Armstrong and he really is a great stunt guy who understands camera movements but like Richard Harris he’s also a sensitive guy. He wrote what I think is an amazing script especially for the character Steiner that I play because this guy is kind of a classic, nasty ex-Nazi hiding out in Indochina in 1954. He’s tormented because he has an illegitimate daughter and trying to make peace with her while running a work camp. So he’s this tough guy who runs this penal colony but he’s also trying to be sensitive about his daughter and it’s all causing him this great torment.
Jesse Johnson wrote what I thought is an amazing script
In comes Scott Adkins’ character who plays an Irishman (an IRA guy) hiding out because he’s got people after him. He’s actually a really good fighter so Steiner uses Scott Adkins’ character to fight and to make money. We’ve also got Cung Le who is a real martial artist and he’s my right hand man who cleans up my messes.
We also have a really cool guy called Keith David who was the voice of all those documentaries so I was just so happy that they got him because a lot of the movie got narrated by him. So why not get the best narrator in the world to do the movie? So you’ve got the best narrator from all the Ken Burns documentaries (who also acts in the movie). You’ve got Scott Adkins who I think for a martial artist is a really good actor (laughs). You’ve got the guy who could play Bond in the lead; you’ve got JuJu Chan from the Crouching Tiger sequel who in the eyes of Asian investors is worth a lot. They are able to put a lot of money into the movie from their side and she’s also a very good actress who was also surprisingly born in Boston.
We’ve also got Marko Zaror who is the funniest guy; he doesn’t drive and he doesn’t know how to get to the set so he’s using Uber (laughs). I ended up giving him rides and the worst thing you can do is get Marko Zaror into your car because he’ll start talking about how you should eat. No Sugar, no sugar, no sugar; he’s teaching me how to ferment milk! So it’s a very interesting movie to work on.
What can we expect in terms of action? I hear it’s done without CG…
I think because Jesse knew we are doing an action movie with fight sequences in 1954, you’re not going to have Bruce Lee doing triple axles in the air. You’re gonna have whatever the heck it was that they had. I have a black belt in Okinawan karate which I got when I was in Montreal. I got that because I was growing too quickly, I was uncoordinated; I was 6ft 5 at the age of 15. I thought it would be good for my coordination and since I was a fighter it was good to have. So I understood all of those basic movements for all of those martial arts. I think Tae Kwon Do became popular in the 80s so we all of a sudden started getting all these spin kicks and all that. Even that is still a very simple form of martial arts and I think anything after that is Hollywood.
I’m personally sick of watching people do all of these things which are completely unrealistic. It was fun for a while because it’s a nice visual but when everybody does it for the whole friggin movie I start falling asleep. But if you bring it back to a character driven one on one like the cage fighters, it’s a very simplistic form of fighting. You watch these fights and you get engaged in the character. First of all you’re a fan of one fighter or the other even if you don’t care about anybody you’re just attracted to one of the fighters. So you kind of start pulling for them which I think Jesse has done with this movie. He’s made it character driven where they’re gonna fight and it’s not gonna be crazy, unrealistic movements. It’s gonna be a soulful force which you can see in the actor’s eyes with one or two kicks, a chokehold, etc. and it’s exciting because you’re going to care about the person.
I kept saying that during The 13th Warrior; I was like “guys, it’s called The 13th Warrior and you killed off 7 of them but you didn’t establish them so nobody is going to care who they were!”
So their death is meaningless, nobody cares; if you had established each character and it wouldn’t take a lot to give them a scene where you get to know them a little bit then when this character is killed off and you’re engaged as the audience. Jesse did that and created specifics for every character in the movie. So every time somebody shows up you know who he is and you either like him or you don’t like him. So it’s a character driven 1954 period piece set in Vietnam.
Would you say Steiner is a full on villain or are their different shades to him?
Oh he’s definitely the villain; basically Steiner is based on an Austrian character called Otto Skorzeny and if you look him up you’ll see he was a paratrooper. When Mussolini was arrested they had him on a mountaintop towards the end of the war; so Otto Skorzeny comes in with 15 gliders and 80 paratroopers and invades the mountain to rescue Mussolini. He puts him on a little plane and sends him back to Berlin so he was known for doing heroic things which were most likely embellished as time went on. Skorzeny got captured at the end of the war and put in a concentration camp and they interrogated him to see who was a war criminal. They were going to execute him because he put on American uniforms and infiltrated the American side. Then a British Commander said that they had done the same thing so they gave him something like a 10 year sentence and a year and half later he broke out. He had 5 of his paratrooper buddies dressed up as US MPs in a jeep and he took off for Spain and nobody bothered going after him again.
How did you meet director Jesse Johnson?
I met him through Matthias Hues who I’ve known for about 20 years and we are like brothers. We ride motorcycles together, he goes to Gold’s gym every day and I go… once in a while (laughs). One day Jesse approached him to play this character in the movie and he went on Facebook and saw a picture of me with Matthias. He asked Matthias if he knew me as he’d like to offer me the role of Steiner so Matthias made the connection. So we sat down and one of Jesse’s favourite movies was The 13th Warrior so that’s how that came about.
When you get a script what do you like to see that will make a character appeal?
I think the first thing is it has to be truthful; it has to be realistic and if it’s not realistic then it has to be so crazy that you almost want to believe it was real. Anything in between can be really bad. I‘m not that picky to be honest; as long as it’s interesting. Like some of the dialogue that Steiner has in Savage Dog is very cool because he’s got a daughter who’s trying to connect with him but he doesn’t want to do it and he’s confused about his emotions. There’s a wonderful scene where he starts writing this gorgeous letter to his daughter where he starts to open up but something happens… and I won’t say anything else. The letter was getting kind of schmaltzy and I was getting worried it would go too far… then something happens which was great.
Is it out this year or next year?
It might be out by Christmas but now I think it may be 2017.
What else do you have coming up?
I’ve just got a role in the new Training Day TV Series; it was so bizarre so I don’t know if the character will live or die. I had the audition last Monday and got hired about 5 minutes before you called me. At this stage I don’t know much about it but I do know that Antoine Fuqua is the producer on it and he directed The Equalizer so I wouldn’t be surprised if I had a little help in getting this part. It’s going to be an expensive production so I hope they can go a little more raw and dark.
I have other things in the works but I don’t want to talk about things which might never happen because you know how that can go (laughs).
Sure thing; thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us today and all the best with Savage Dog and Training Day.