Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Tell Me A Question: Vladimir Kulich & The 30 Day Challenge

After meeting actor Vladimir Kulich at the Pound of Flesh premiere, I had the chance to sit down with the imposing blonde figure from The 13th Warrior, Vikings, Ironclad, Smokin' Aces, The X-Files, Angel and much more. Unlike his cinematic image of stoic vikings and menacing assassins, Kulich in person is warm, affable, intelligent, candid and funny. We talked about a multitude of topics so I'm going to break it down into two parts. In this first chapter we'll focus on how Kulich got his start in the business and his journey through the Hollywood maze.

Although he's played many an Eastern European or Russian, Vladimir Kulich hails from a small border town near Slovakia. During the summers and holidays his parents would ship him off to his grandparents who in turn would send him to his uncle's. Kulich's uncle ran a theater company where he was introduced to acting via holding props and serving pitchers of beer during intermission. During this era all things western were outlawed but Kulich's uncle smuggled in a print of John Sturges' classic men on a mission flick The Magnificent Seven. We bonded over our mutual appreciation of the likes of Steve McQueen, Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson. "Steve McQueen was the guy that we all want to be." Like his favorite line from Hamlet, "this above all to thine own self be true", Kulich felt McQueen had that individual quality which many actors today don't. Kulich and I also share the same favorite movie, the John Sturges directed, McQueen starring The Great Escape which he's seen probably 10,000 times. Later in life, Kulich nearly bought McQueen's final home and rode up on his motorcycle to check out the "funky vibe".

When the Soviets invaded Slovakia, Kulich's family escaped to a small town in Canada outside Montreal where art and theater were not well regarded but hockey was. Being a physical youth, Kulich excelled on the ice and turned professional in 1976. After a short stint for the Rangers, in the minors and the International League, Kulich realized his career would not be a long one. During this period of introspection, he ended up working at a yacht club and was invited to crew at the World Championships being held in Long Beach. While in California on a 3 day break, the crew traveled to the Grand Canyon, hiking down to the bottom and rafting the rapids. Kulich fell in love with river rafting and after finishing the race, headed to British Columbia where many a great rivers resided.

Kulich started and ran a successful white water rafting business for 12 years. In the late 80's the cast and crew of hit TV show 21 Jump Street showed up wanting to rent some rafts for an episode. One of the producers suggested Vladimir come in for an audition and he started booking roles on Vancouver filmed shows like MacGuyver, Highlander, The X-Files and a series of low budget films including Crackerjack with Nastassja Kinski and Christopher Plummer, Red Scorpion 2 with Matt McColm and John Savage, Decoy with Peter Weller and Robert Patrick and Breach of Trust with Michael Biehn and Matt Craven. Reflecting on the time: "There was lots of work in Vancouver in those days, I did the circuit of Stephen Cannell shows, a bunch of cheap movies I don't even know what to say about." Craving juicier roles, Kulich made the decision to move to Los Angeles, his Canadian agent was not supportive, thinking he should be happy with what he was getting and that he would be back.

Moving to Los Angeles, Kulich gave himself 30 days to land an agent. After receiving 20 some query responses and landing one, Kulich gave himself another 30 days to book a part. On the 28th day, Kulich auditioned for a mini-epic TV series, The Big One: The Great Los Angeles Earthquake. The part: a hitman attempting to assassinate Nelson Mandela. Feeling he presented himself well, the phone didn't ring for 2 days and Kulich headed back to Vancouver and picked up his river rafting business. Kulich's agent called saying they'd been trying to find him for a week as he got the part. When asked if playing vikings and assassins worried him professionally, Kulich responded: "I'm in this for the long run. I can play the dad now that I'm older. In my 30's and 40's, you want me to be a killer? I'll be a killer. It's just energy." One thing that did annoy the 6'5", blonde giant was being cast as an Eastern European. His name Vladimir didn't help and Kulich considered changing it but never went through with it. Surprised at his lack of Russian accent, Kulich is often asked to lay it on thick, as he did in 2013's Antoine Fuqua/Denzel Washington hit, The Equalizer where he plays a gangster. "Half my friends didn't know it was me, I had a beard, I was tatted out and was speaking with that thick, thick accent."

While Kulich had theater and acting in the family, auditions weren't always so smooth. Going in for an unknown casting call that ended up being Joe Carnahan's 2006 gonzo, assassins on parade romp Smokin' Aces, Kulich had just broken up with a lady and flubbed his lines, telling the casting director: "Look, I just broke up with the love of my life and you're more than gracious for letting me stumble through this. Sorry for wasting your time." With that Kulich took himself out of the running but received a call that he'd been hired. Shocked, Kulich was told that Carnahan simply loved The 13th Warrior. While Kulich's appearance as the mysterious Swede in Aces came as quite the welcome surprise for familiar audiences, the actor wishes the role was expanded to give him more of an arc. In the film you're tricked into thinking The Swede is the king of all hitmen but ends up being a surgeon hired to extract the heart of one Jeremy Piven.

Growing up, Kulich's favorite actors were Klaus Kinski, Christopher Plummer and Max Von Sydow.  On 1994's Crackerjack, Kulich would find himself next to his idol turned co-star Plummer in the make up trailer. Running late one day after hitting the gym, Plummer instilled the following advice: "Darling, if you want to look big, act big." Kulich took it to heart and realized: "At the end of the day, it's here (the eyes and face), an actor can seem ten and a half feet tall but he's only five feet five, that's the power of film". On Sydow's inspiration: "I want to grow up to be an old fart in my 90's still acting like Sydow. He has that great voice." Kulich thought he had an interesting voice, cut a demo and landed an agent leading to the role of Ulfric Stormcloak on 2011's video game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. From his experience, video games is the most secretive business out there so when they showed him an edited clip, he was thrilled and shocked to hear his voice opposite idols Plummer and Von Sydow. Asked about the difference between acting in a booth versus on set: "It's the same. It's all imagination. If I'm physically doing the scene with you, I'm taking what you're giving me plus I'm adding to you even more. I respond. That's what I do in the movies, I do the same thing in front of a microphone. Only difference is I can be in a tee shirt and relax."

Many thanks to Mr. Kulich for taking the time to chat and in a bit of cosmic coincidence, today happens to be his birthday! Hope it's a great one and in our next chapter we'll focus on his most recognizable and iconic role, as viking leader Buliwyf in the John McTiernan and Michael Crichton medieval epic turned cult hit The 13th Warrior. "Lo there do I see..."


  1. Awesome interview!!!!! Cant wait for more!!!!

  2. I enjoy reading about Vladimir Kulich's personal life as well.

  3. His role as Buliwyf in the movie "13th warriors" has always been the image of a perfect Norse king in my mind! really like the character!!!!