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December 24, 2002
RON MEETS THE BEAST: A Conversation with Vladimir Kulich
In early November, SCIFI Wire ran a brief story about Angel, wherein Jeffrey Bell described what was in store for the folks at Angel Investigations. "I think what we're going to do is sort of scatter people, to a certain extent, emotionally and physically," Bell told them. "We'll be bullying them and bandying them about for a while, until they need to come together to fight this horrible Big Bad that will show up in episode seven, I think it is, which will be the show right before we take a break over the Christmas holiday."
Bell added, "So we're kind of putting big, nasty, horrible things in everybody's way so that they really are uncomfortable with each other. This way, when they do have to come together there are a lot of fun and horrible and interesting things to play. The Big Bad will be a corporeal force. It's going to be a thing. I'll leave it at 'a thing.'
Well, ladies & gentlemen, the "thing" has arrived. It's crawled up from the bowels of the earth to tear a path of destruction through Los Angeles, and while we still don't know exactly what it's here for, we know two things: It's major, and its arrival doesn't bode well for anyone. Even coldhearted Lilah Morgan has agreed to help by handing over some Wolfram & Hart info to Angel & Company. The "Senior Partners" of her firm have been cooking up an apocalypse since the dawn of time, but this is not the one they had in mind, and she's as scared as anyone. In The Beast's big debut, he not only tossed Connor & Cordelia aside like used tissues, he faced the combined might of a heavily-armed Angel, Gunn, Wesley and Lorne, and made it very clear that they are entirely out of their league. There's no denying that this is the Biggest Bad that this crew has ever come up against, and as it set off a flaming tornado that brought fire raining down on the whole city, we were left wondering, right along with our heroes, what anyone could possibly do to stop it.
So now that we've seen The Beast up close and witnessed at least a little of what it's capable of, we are led to wonder about the man behind the make-up. Where do you find an actor with both the physical dimensions and the dramatic intensity to convince us that he's the living embodiment of Hell?
The producers of Angel had to look no further than Vladimir Kulich. At a broad-shouldered 6'5", the Czech-born actor has made a career of playing characters who command respect and don't get pushed around (although nothing's been confirmed, a project has been discussed that would see him taking on the role of Thor). Best known for his role as Buliwyf, opposite Antonio Banderas in John McTiernan's 1999 Viking epic, ‘The 13th Warrior', Kulich has attracted a loyal fan base that is thrilled to see him temporarily joining the cast of Angel. On breaks from his long days on the set (sometimes upwards of 16 hours), Vladimir was kind enough to set aside some time so we could discuss his career and the experience of being the Beast.
You're obviously quite the commanding presence, and you've played a lot of very physical roles. Do you alter your workout regimen to suit the character, or is it more about generally staying in shape for whatever comes up?
"I really don't train physically any differently for any role. In the past I used to do physical exercise to help become the character, but what happened was that the body got ahead of the spontaneity of the work and so it became a transparent performance. Working with Christopher Plummer, he noticed that I was lifting weights because the character was a big strong person. He said to me, " Why don't you just act strong?" I haven't picked up a weight since."
That's a great anecdote, and it calls to mind Laurence Olivier's dismissal of method acting when he worked with Dustin Hoffman in The Marathon Man. "My God, man! Why don't you just ACT?" Good point, as the real art to the craft is portraying something different than what you already are. So since you don't train for individual characters, what do you do to stay in shape?
"I did a brief stint as a professional hockey player and lately have started ice skating again as a form of nostalgic physical therapy."
Sorry, do you mean you once played professional hockey, or you had a role as a hockey player?
"I played junior hockey in Quebec. John Ferguson, the great Montreal Canadiens player, number 22, would come to watch me play. He was a great fighter, and I was a fighter. When he became the coach of the New York Rangers he gave me a shot at the Rangers' rookie camp. It was a short stint and I ended up in the Rangers' farm system, got tired of fighting and retired at age 20."
You were born in Czechoslovakia and moved to Quebec at a young age. Did you stay in Quebec until you moved to the states?
"No, later I moved to Vancouver and started a river rafting company near Chilliwack, BC."
What are your impressions of Canada, especially now that you've left?
"I still love Canada but find it a difficult place to be when it comes to working in film. Sometimes you just have to go to the source."
Very true. A lot of Canadian actors move to Toronto or Vancouver to work, but it eventually leads them to the U.S. for just that reason. Where were you living when you got your first paying acting job?
"My first paying job was in Prague. I was a crying boy who lost his balloon in a small Czech film."
And when did you first decide that you wanted to be an actor?
"The first time I had to bring my uncle a pitcher of beer while he was performing on stage I knew that I would be an actor. I was maybe 4 or 5 years old."
That's understandable -- any job where people bring you pitchers of beer sounds pretty good to me too. You've certainly come a long way from a crying little boy to the architect of Armageddon. As far as I know, this is the most make-up intensive role you've ever had. I have to think that the hours spent getting into it every day and the general discomfort are challenging. After the number of hours you've logged in the suit, is it getting any easier to contend with?
"They say that 99% of the actors in California are unemployed constantly. So bring out the glue and the latex!"
Good point. And once the transformation is complete, do you make a point of staying in character? Does it require a lot of focus to stay that evil and intimidating?
"Once they put the makeup on me and I slip into that 50 pound suit, I can't help but crack up laughing… I mean the absurdity of a grown man getting paid for walking around in that very expensive Halloween costume! So it's easy to stay relaxed and humorous while working. And, no I don't like to stay in character between scenes. I wait for the word… ‘Action!'"
What was the casting process like? Was this a role you had to chase after, or did they pretty much decide you were the one before calling you?
"They called me in based on my work in the 13th Warrior. But I still had to read for it. They also told me that Ron Perlman was up for it. Knowing that just made the project much more desirable."
And now that you've got the part, how much are they telling you about the character and the whole story? Do you know how it's going to end, or are you just finding things out one script at a time?
"Well put it this way… any time I've asked questions about the character or his evolution, they gave me a clear answer. But now I find it more fun to know nothing. I read the material at the last moment and just go in there and do it. This way I hopefully will not fall into the trap of playing the ending."
So when the horns come off, what do you do to unwind? I'm curious about your hobbies and passions outside of acting.
"I love architecture. The older I get the more sensitive I become to my environment. It's amazing how space can make you feel good or bad. I like to rebuild houses and always try to open up the space no matter how small the building. It's kind of like a stage or a movie set for me. And, I'm playing the guitar. I never thought I'd be able to learn to play but it's really not that hard and it's a nice release to write your own little song and force it on your friends."
Andy Hallett, the guy with the green skin and the little horns you've been flinging around the set, is quite the singer. I could see a lot of commercial potential in the two of you performing together in your respective costumes. Can I start booking the tour now?
"You mean like Siegfried & Roy? You mean like Vegas?"
I was thinking more like the demonic Simon & Garfunkel. What did you know about Angel before signing on?
"I don't watch T.V. so I'd never seen the show prior to taking the job."
"I think this show is well written for the genre but frankly I prefer something a little less contemporarily hip and happening. But hey, who am I to talk?... I shop at the Gap! But seriously, I see how some of the directors, like Skip & Terrence have to struggle to make believable such a fantasy in less than 45 minutes per episode."
Amen to that. It's such a hive of creativity at every level, so I think they'd be a really exciting bunch to work with. I've heard that some of your favourite actors are Sydney Poitier, Juliette Binoche, and Fanny Ardant. I've always admired the first two, although I admit I had to do a little research to find out about Ms. Ardant. Is there anyone else that you'd jump at the chance to work with?
"The dead ones… Richard Harris, Oliver Reed… you know, the MEN!"
I sure do. The legendary hellraisers. I'm always surprised by people today who don't know how fascinating Oliver Reed was. What a character. How about people still living?
"Robert Downey Jr…. Viggo Mortensen. And as for the great women actors, don't forget to free Winona."
Poor Winona. I guess everyone's got their quirks. What traits do you like and dislike most about yourself?
"Sooner or later you better embrace it all, or you will miss out."
What's your vital daily ritual?
"Give Spanky what he needs."
"Spanky is my dog."
Gotcha. How do you spoil yourself?
"I tell myself I was good. Even when I wasn't."
I think there's probably at least a partial secret to success in that. What do you consider to be a mind-altering work of art?
"Laser Eye Surgery."
Not exactly what I had in mind, but I know what you mean. I just got glasses this year and I now live in a totally different world. Last question: What should everyone shut up about?
"Smoking in Bars. There are more important issues like avoiding war."
And with these timely words still reverberating, he stood up and pounded his mighty fist into the ground, sending up a terrible ball of fire, and disappeared, leaving the air thick with smoke, brimstone, and general good impressions. Thanks very much to Vladimir for being so generous with his time and cooperative in the completion of this article.