david j. moore chats with actor Vladimir Kulich about The 13th Warrior, Ironclad, The Equalizer and his new projects Grave Walkers and Savage Dog…
Perhaps best known for playing Buliwyf in The 13th Warrior, the big budget epic sword and sorcery-type film from director John McTiernan and writer Michael Crichton from 1999, actor Vladimir Kulich towers above his co-stars in most of the projects he’s been in. Imbued with a distinct look and voice, Kulich also co-starred in films such as Decoy with Peter Weller, Red Scorpion 2 with Matt McColm, Crackerjack with Thomas Ian Griffith, and Firestorm with Howie Long. Over the years he’s specialized in playing Nordic heroes or stalwart warriors in projects like Ironclad and the TV series Vikings, but he’s also versatile, appearing in key roles in Smokin’ Aces and The Equalizer with Denzel Washington. His latest projects are the independent horror film Grave Walkers and the action extravaganza Savage Dog, co-starring action perennials Scott Adkins, Cung Le, and Marko Zaror.
david j. moore: Let’s just jump right in the middle of your career. There are so few human beings who’ve actually lived to play Beowulf, one of the greatest heroes in literature. I want to start with that. I vividly remember going to see The 13th Warrior in theaters. I know the film was called Eaters of the Dead originally. I saw preview trailers for Eaters of the Dead once upon a time.
Vladimir Kulich: Right, right.
DJM: Maybe you can tell me the whole saga of how you came to star in The 13th Warrior.
VK: I’m actually in my living room right now, looking at the original poster for Eaters of the Dead, but they changed the title. It’s a cool poster. After we finished the movie, we went to Paris on a holiday, and I got off at the train station in Paris, and I walked by a bookstore, and they had copies of Eaters of the Dead, and it said, “Now a major motion picture.” There was a picture of me on the cover and on the back. I thought, “I made it: My career is taking off!” Weeks later I’m still in Paris, and I get a call from Michael Crichton’s office, and they said, “We’re changing the name of the movie.” Michael’s neighbor thought it was too scary a title. He was out watering the lawn, and the neighbor said, “It sounds like some kind of a horror movie.” So they changed it to The 13th Warrior. I thought that was not good. All those books had already been printed. It was based on Michael Crichton’s novel Eaters of the Dead, and those books were reprinted with that title with the movie images. They had to pull all those off the shelves. But it all started with a call for me to go and read for this part. Nobody would tell me what it was. I was told to just show up. I read for a casting person. Three months later, I get a call saying that John McTiernan wants to meet with me. Then it all came out in the open. They screen tested me, and I jumped through a lot of hoops to get the part. They looked at Stellan Skarsard too. Then we went around the world. We went to London, to New York, to Scandinavia, and Toronto. I was the first guy they saw, and they chose me.
DJM: You played Buliwyf, who is essentially Beowulf. Did you read Crichton’s book Eaters of the Dead or the original poem to prepare?
VK: I read the poem. I had the book too, but the original story was basically the first novel in English literature. That was the first novel, supposedly. It was very difficult for me to get through it. Academics inject their own academia into the poetry of the words, and they tend to complicate it. You don’t know what these people are talking about. I found one that was kind of scaled down, clear and simple. I kind of understood what it was about. It told the story of a selfless heroic character that we all want to be in real life.
DJM: The 13th Warrior, in my opinion, is the most literal of all the Beowulf adaptations. I love it. They talk about the “fire worm,” which is their idea of a dragon, but it’s actually just a bunch of men holding torches. Stuff like that. It’s so cool. Talk about filming it a little bit. You were with a whole bunch of radical actors on location. Banderas and the supporting cast were all fantastic.
VK: Just to touch on what you said about the fire worm being a bunch of guys holding torches: What I liked about it was that we didn’t have any CGI. To get that effect … was it supernatural? They had to do it without special effects. I think that’s one of the reasons why the movie is so good. Everything is real. Everything you see was done as it was. One of the reasons why people were affected by the movie was because it was real. It was shot in the mud. There’s nothing fake about it. Everything today is shot with green screen. There’s no emotion. When you have to act out on a stage in front of a green screen … I don’t care how good an actor you are, it’s not going to connect. This is one of the reasons why this movie holds up to comparison to other great films. It was shot on location in the elements. First of all, I got to work with Antonio Banderas. He’s a really good person, and I enjoyed working with him. I also got to work with Omar Sharif. He was Doctor Zhivago! He was the guy from Lawrence of Arabia: Two of my favorite movies! He made movies in the ’60s when they still made movies in that grand, epic scale. A thousand, two thousand extras. Omar Sharif, to me, was a legend. The first time I saw him, he hopped up into a cab where I was and he gave me a double kiss and he looked at me, and I was like, My God – this is Omar Sharif! He was all smiles and friendly. Every night, Omar would pay for the bill for our food. Sometimes that was 20-30 people. We’d try to sneak our credit cards to pay, but he said, “No, no, no.” He told me he didn’t like to act anymore, that it had lost its magic. He was an old school guy. He would reminisce about the old days and say, “I only do it now because I want to have dinner with my friends.” He was that kind of a guy. For him, money comes and it goes. On wine and food and living well. Enjoying life. He lived life. It was quite nice to be around him.
DJM: As I understand it, there are two different versions of this movie. Did you guys have to go back and do reshoots? What happened there between McTiernan and Crichton? Did Crichton take over the production? Do you know anything about that?
VK: Of course. I was there. My understanding is that there was a fall out between the two of them. It had to do with me, but I’m not 100% sure if that’s what caused it, but I think it did. In the first week of shooting, Crichton was there and something happened with me on the set. After it happened, Crichton said to me, “Well, I’m going to leave, and I’ll see you back in LA when this is done.” I didn’t see him for nine months and I thought it was very strange that he would just leave and never come back. What happened was there is a scene in the movie – a very simple scene – where I first arrive in the village and we enter the mead hall. We walked in and I have a line like, “What troubles this place?” So we did it, and it was “Cut, cut, cut.” I turn and I look over to where McTiernan was standing, and Crichton walks over and says something to McTiernan. The next thing I hear is, “Okay, Vlad, do it again. Walk down the steps a little slower.” So I did it again a little slower and that was that and we moved on. Turns out that – from what I overheard – the fact that Crichton would tell McTiernan how to direct a scene, McTiernan did not like that. I don’t know if he told Crichton to get off his set, or what happened. That was a turning point. Crichton’s revenge came at the very end after the movie was shot. They decided – and I don’t really know who “they” is – but I suspect that it was Crichton and the studio, and they decided to change the editing of the film. John McTiernan had edited it with his own editor, and it was two hours and some odd minutes. Crichton came in with his editor and they chopped the movie down to something like 90 minutes. They took a good 35 minutes out of the movie. Some of those moments were wonderful. They brought that movie down to a short amount of time. I saw both cuts. I saw McTiernan’s cut. I was invited and I watched it. It was much darker than what you see now. What John does is that he’s a very visual filmmaker. He loves the visual kind of story, but Crichton is a writer. A writer doesn’t trust the quiet moments. He wants to fill it with words and cut out the quiet moments. Whereas a guy like McTiernan can trust the quiet moments. They took a lot of the guts out by removing the quiet, powerful moments.
DJM: Wow, so you’re just one of just a handful of people who got to see McTiernan’s cut.
VK: Yeah, they tested it up in Simi Valley. I guess that there were about 150 people in that audience. They saw it, and I saw it. I liked it. It was gritty, it was dark. I guess they were afraid of the rawness of the movie. For me, it’s such an emotional movie. We put so much into it. It’s hard for me to watch. Let’s face it: If that movie had been distributed properly and if it hadn’t been dumped by the studio, it might have made my career. It’s hard for me to look at myself from 20 years ago. Who I was. I’m still doing it, and once in awhile I do something good, but that is my “What might have been” movie. I look at that movie and think about what might have been.
DJM: I think the next movie I remember seeing you in after The 13th Warrior was Ironclad. I was like, “Hey, there he is again!” I really liked Ironclad. It was a solid movie.
VK: Well, see there you go. Ironclad was done for 17 million dollars with the RED camera. We shot in Wales, England. You’ve got Paul Giamatti in it. We had some fantastic actors in it. If it had been a studio that had distributed it and given it a push, it would have been great. It would have done well. This thing was as good as anything out there. It was raw and brutal, so I’m surprised, again, that they couldn’t get any traction with it.
DJM: Let’s backtrack to the beginning of your career. Talk a little bit about your first few gigs here in Los Angeles.
VK: I was in all the TV shows in the 1980’s and into the early ’90s like MacGuyver, Wiseguy, Booker, Highlander, and Cobra. Out of that, I did a miniseries called The Big One: The Great Los Angeles Earthquake, and then I got into “B” movies like Crackerjack with Thomas Ian Griffith, Red Scorpion 2 with Matt McColm, and Decoy with Peter Weller. Then I got The 13th Warrior. After The 13th Warrior, I did some episodes of Angel, but in the meantime I was flipping houses in Venice with my girlfriend. When I did Angel I played a character called The Beast, and they made me look like a devil. From there I did a movie called Smokin’ Aces, which was directed by Joe Carnahan. It had a great cast like Ray Liotta, Peter Berg, and Ryan Reynolds, a whole bunch of people. I played a character named The Swede. Carnahan liked The 13th Warrior and he asked me to do this. I worked on it for about five days. It paid incredibly well. Then I did Ironclad and I also worked on a show called Vikings.
DJM: Right, how was it for you to return to the Viking era with your part on that show?
VK: It’s tough. When I heard about that show, I didn’t have an agent at the time. By the time I found out about it, the show had already been developed. I got ahold of the producer, and he said, “We’ve got a character that dies in the fifth episode. We can give it to you, but we don’t have anything else for an older Viking.” So I did it! They stuck the wig on me, and I looked like an older version of my character in The 13th Warrior, I swear to you. Even in Ironclad I still looked like that guy. If you put a wig on me, it works! I was told that I was upstaging the lead actor on Vikings … I looked like a Hell’s Angel! (Laughing.)
DJM: Let me backtrack a second here. You glazed over your entire career in a heartbeat. You worked with some pretty big action stars in different projects: Guys like Thomas Ian Griffith, Matt McColm, Howie Long in Firestorm, and Michael Dudikoff on Cobra. Any comments about working with any of those guys?
VK: Howie Long … he’s a very likable guy. He was such a natural, relaxed guy, and we started fighting in a scene, and he grabbed me and I went down and I saw his hands, which were bigger than most people’s biceps. I said, “Howie: How do you train?” He said, “I ride the bike and I do calisthenics.” He was a freak of nature. One of the biggest guys I’ve ever met. He was just born that way. It was weird. Thomas was a really good guy, a really good piano player. I never understood why his career didn’t take off. He was so creative and sensitive. He became a full time writer on TV shows, so I’m glad he’s doing well now. Matt McColm was a stuntman who I never saw before or after Red Scorpion 2. He was a regular guy trying to get through the acting. He tried to be an action guy. I remember working with John Savage on that movie. He was nominated for an Academy Award. He was a lot of fun to work with.
DJM: At this point in your career, were you satisfied with where you were at? You were getting better parts in movies.
VK: Yeah, I was. But I don’t know. I did a movie called Decoy with Peter Weller and Robert Patrick, and we spent a full month in Saskatchewan, Canada. Robert Patrick had just come off of Terminator 2 and Weller was still known as Robocop. We were all living in houseboats. Peter Weller grew up in the Hollywood royalty when there was still a studio system, and so every night we’d go down to an Indian reservation and rent movies, and Weller would have education night, film school night by Peter Weller. I remember one night we were watching an old movie with Marlon Brando, and he would look at the shots and explain how the shot was done with one take, one shot without an edit. All of a sudden I would see it. Peter really opened my eyes to filmmaking. He’s educated in film. He became a director for TV.
DJM: The last film you were in that I saw was The Equalizer with Denzel Washington where you come in at the end as the big bad guy. How did that happen for you?
VK: I don’t really know how I got it, but I remember auditioning for it. Here’s what happened: they were shooting it, and the character I played was the leader of the Russian mob. He was supposed to be in his ’70s and fat and bald. That’s how he was described. They were already shooting it in Boston, and I get a call: “They want to see you for this part.” I read it and they took me to Boston. They gave me some notes and did a taping, and then they hired me. I’m big and muscular and I’m not bald or fat. I realized that they needed this character to be a threat to Denzel Washington’s character. There’s no threat to him for the whole movie. I was naked in the shower for that scene, and when the camera is rolling and Denzel is smirking at you, you better shit or get off the pot and do the scene.
DJM: Vladimir, you’ve got a new movie called Grave Walkers set to be released soon. Would you say something about that film?
VK: Grave Walkers was shot a while back in North Carolina. It’s a fun little zombie movie, well written. I did it so that I could spend some time with my friend Tony Todd, who’s also in it. The film gave me the opportunity to play my first American character and take a break from the Viking type casting. My character Sheriff Pete is just a good ol’ boy trying to save his small town from zombies.
DJM: What have you been working on lately?
VK: I’m just finishing up a very cool martial arts action film called Savage Dog, starring Scott Adkins, Marko Zaror, Juju Chan, Cung Le, and me … I’m the glue that holds the movie together. It was written and directed by Jesse V. Johnson. Jesse is a very talented and experienced writer, director, and stunt coordinator. What makes the movie stand out is its setting and time period: Indochina, 1954. Basically it is Vietnam as the French pull out and before the US enters. It’s refreshing to see old school fight sequences suitable for that time period instead of the current onslaught of CGI triple roundhouse spins.
DJM: What else would you like to say, Vlad?
VK: I’ve made a career out of this. I bought a house in Venice, California when it was still affordable to buy a house in Venice. I’m grateful that I’m still here, and I even got a call to go to Dubai to go to a comic con for $20,000 to sign autographs, but I couldn’t go! I’m grateful that people know who I am. When I met you, you knew who I was, which means my work has made an impact. I’m just very grateful for what I’ve got.
Many thanks to Vladimir Kulich for taking the time for this interview.
david j. moore