Six Season 2: Nikolai Nikolaeff on being 'the Russian Guy' and how he learned to keep his "head down and arse up"
Australian actor Nikolai Nikolaeff talks 'Six,' 'Daredevil,' 'Mile 22,' and how he rose to prominence after a quiet beginning in his home country
Nikolai Nikolaeff is set for an eventful year. The Australian actor, who has found success in portraying Mr. Azarov in Netflix's critically acclaimed mystery drama 'The O.A,' as well as Russian mob boss Vladimir Ranskahov in 'Daredevil,' David Coleman in 2013 comedy-drama 'Camp,' and Leo '2Dads' Kosov-Meyer in Australian drama 'Sea Patrol,' will play a starring role as a Chechen/Jihadi alongside Olivia Munn in the upcoming season of History channel's Navy Seal-centered drama 'Six.'
He reveals there's much more to his character, Tamerlin Shishoni than initially meets the eye and an interesting backstory that may or may not have made the cut. "Tamerlin Shishoni is how we know him by his official name but there are two other names he goes by. When we first meet him he's working for the CIA with Gina Cline (Olivia Munn). He is known by the name John."
"I don't know whether they've left it in or not but one of the Seal guys goes 'Did you pick your name, John?' to which he replies that he did because it's the second most popular name in America. The Seal presses, 'Why number two, why is that?' and he's told that it's because number two always tries harder."
Nikolai is impressed with how much thought was put into the background and development of Shishoni. "I think that's a really cool insight into the character and how he thinks. Instead of being number one, he consciously picks two because they work harder and strive for more to become the number one," he says.
"We see his evolution, beginning from a low-level fixer who has some really traumatic and heartbreaking things happen to him, and who is effectively betrayed and he has these really awful things happen, to his eventual rise to become who we know as 'The Prince'," he continues.
The typical, clichéd gangster-type are now shunned for an anti-hero with a tragic past that the audience can empathize with, effectively fostering online debate. The Punisher, Venom, Deadpool, Suicide Squad, and most recently, Thanos, have all entered the mainstream consciousness and played starring roles in major franchises, signaling that Hollywood and film, in general, has seen a shifting attitude towards the characters that have been traditionally the 'villains.'
Nikolai similarly feels that the 'bad guy' badge Shishoni will undoubtedly be branded with is unfair. He explains: "He's had a lot happen to him that you wouldn't wish on anyone. If there's one thing I hope the series does, is that the audience when they watch it, they might ask themselves 'What kind of person would I become if this kind of thing had been done to me?'"
"I feel a lot of them would be uncomfortable with the answer because if you had your whole family executed, and nothing left anymore to live for, you'd be very very upset and, dare I say, take vengeance on all the people that brought that around to your existence. So the 'bad guy' is an easy way to label him but no one's born that way," adding that the tragic circumstances surrounding these characters made for a better viewing and that as audiences got smarter and smarter, no one would want a 'dum dum villain.'
While he played a relatively smaller role on the show, he speaks glowingly about his time as Vladimir Ranskahov on Netflix's 'Daredevil,' and his time on its sets in the Big Apple: "It was an amazing experience to act in such an amazing project like Daredevil and to bring a character to life like that. Every time I read the script, I couldn't really believe how much thought they've put into him, and I didn't think they could do better."
"Each episode that came out blew me away and I got a bit overwhelmed. It was a very, very cool experience. Also, being from Australia, and wanting to move and work in America, and to be doing it in New York of all places on a Marvel TV series in conjunction with Netflix was a very, very special feeling."
His reverence for 'Daredevil' is not just from a professional standpoint either. Friendships established on the show are still going strong, he says, disclosing how he still remains in contact with Charlie [Cox], who played Daredevil, and Gideon Emery, who portrayed his brother Anatoly Ranskahov. There was also a general awe of the city, and he could do little to hide the excitement in his voice as he described shooting scenes in Red Hook, and in the backdrop of the iconic Statue of Liberty.
Nikolai has turned out in a variety of roles over the course of his 20-year career, but of late, a common theme has emerged in the type of character he gets to portray. Vladimir in 'Canal Road,' Vladimir in 'Daredevil,' Mr. Azarov in 'The O.A,' Tamerlin Shishoni in 'Six,' and soon, Aleksander in 'Mile 22': The Australian actor of Russian-Ukrainian descent is often picked to play the 'Russian Guy.' But he's not worried about being typecast, at least, not anymore.
"I used to be worried about it, but I had an interesting experience," he says, talking about how he wanted to audition so badly for 'Akira,' a Leonardo Di Caprio-produced film meant to be the live-action version of anime artist Katsuhiro Otomo's 6-volume graphic novel, that he went to see an acting coach who changed his perspective.
"I was doing the scene for him and he told me: 'You're a good man, tell me about yourself.' I said, 'Look, I'm from Australia and the last couple of projects I've done, I've been playing the Russian guy. I'm worried about being typecast.'"
"He goes: 'You know what, screw that man. I say get typecast because in this day and age, you know, it meant it [the role] worked out. If you're known for something it means you're getting work and I think that's important. Otherwise, you're just an unemployed actor whose whinging about being typecast."
That opinion begins to hold a lot more weight when Nikolai reveals who that particular acting coach was: Taylor Sheridan. The screenwriter, director, actor, and filmmaker reached prominence as David Hale in FX's 'Sons Of Anarchy' before going on to write the screenplays for 'Sicario' and 'Hell or High Water,' the latter of which was nominated for four Academy Awards and is also one of Nikolai's personal favorites.
"Look, I'm not worried about being typecast as the Russian guy because I've got the Australian thing going for me as well," jokingly adding that his American accent wasn't half-bad either. "It's been a couple of years that I've been the 'mob boss guy' with the Russian kind of flair, but I'm pretty sure there'll be other roles, and right now, I'm absolutely enjoying my ride."
He responds bashfully to a compliment on his flawless depiction of said 'Russian guy,' but credits an important figure in his past for his current success: "I got some good advice many years ago. Reach for the stars but keep your feet on the ground."
Nikolai also offers up a quip that he says stuck with him: "My agent in Australia, he's very a tough cookie and his advice was 'head down, arse up,' which is the Australian way of saying 'Let the work speak for itself. Do good work and good things will come.'
Having kicked-off his acting career with roles in Australian children's television series 'Crash Zone' and 'High Flyers' at just 16-years-old, Nikolai then appeared in 'Subterano,' 'Wicked Science' before landing the Rhino Ranger in 'Power Rangers Jungle Fury.' Despite having played out more than a decade back, the memories stay strong with him.
"It [High Flyers] was an amazing opportunity for a young kid to be on such a huge show. And I think, where I am now, I've matured a lot," he laughs. "Gone is the young kid on that show many, many years ago. And as I've matured, my facial features have changed. And well yeah, I play the Russian guy very well now."
The walk down memory lane has invoked some cherished memories for Nikolai. He admits that while he acted in Power Rangers, it was not something he grew up watching. Instead, his childhood consisted of squatting in front of the telly to catch 'Transformers' and 'He-Man.'
"TMNT turned out while I was in school and I really loved them. There was also this movie called 'The Goonies' and what I particularly like is back then, it had a particularly dark kind of subject matter." The actor feels that the current shows have worn it down and that he thought it was important for children to be exposed to more varied programming, adding: "I responded well to shows like the Goonies where there is danger involved, but maybe that's just my childhood coming back at me."
He also shares an incident that he says changed his life. "As a young kid, my dad didn't let me watch TV too much. There was a movie called 'The Last Boy Scout' with Bruce Willis that was playing and I convinced him to let me watch it. It's a big action film and the name suggests that it had something to do with the boy scouts and building stuff but it was packed with explosions. You know, a classic Bruce Willis film. I knew then that I wanted to do something like that myself."
Nikolai excitedly talks about his upcoming film, 'Mile 22,' which will be directed by Peter Berg, but says he can't go into further detail about the season 2 of 'The O.A' because of how the entire crew is trying to keep details closely under wraps.
'Mile 22' will feature Mark Wahlberg in the titular role, with the likes of Ronda Rousey, Lauren Cohan, John Malkovich, and Nikolai appearing in various supporting roles. Asked what it was like to work with some of the biggest names in the industry, Nikolai had nothing but praise for his peers. "It's a very sexy film and fans of Peter Berg and Wahlberg are in for something special."
"It's going to be a summer blockbuster and I'm honored to be a part of it. When most guys work together they form a sort of family and to be brought in and to join that kind of a crew is special. I play a mysterious character who you don't know what is quite going on with him until the end, and I can't wait to see the completed film."
"Peter Berg and I got along like a house on fire and I really dig the way he directs and very excited about it. August 3rd is the release date and all I can say is, buckle up!"
While he can be seen on screen commonly showing up as the cold, emotionless villain who cares little for relationships and friends, in real life, Nikolai is as pleasant as they come. Despite taking time out of a busy schedule to open up on his roles, influences, and all things acting, he's still incredibly courteous and polite as we end our conversation. There are no rushed sentences and no hurried tones but instead, a humbleness that belies his growing stature.