Interview with Nikolai Nikolaeff
(July 2017)

Nikolai Nikolaeff appeared in DAREDEVIL Season 1 as Vladimir Ranskahov, the Russian mobster who formed an uneasy alliance with Daredevil against Wilson Fisk.

In this interview conducted by phone on July 25th, 2017, we chat about the whole experience on the show and learn some behind-the-scenes secrets.

Many thanks to Mr. Nikolaeff!

Kuljit Mithra: It's very nice to finally interview you. I was watching some of the press interviews you did for DAREDEVIL in 2015, and you had so much excitement in your voice... you were anxious to hear what people thought of the show. Can you briefly describe what this whole experience was like, being from Australia, getting cast on a show filming in New York that had a lot riding on it to be successful?

Nikolai Nikolaeff: It was a combination of things. Netflix was exciting. Marvel was even more exciting. I was in New York, not in another city pretending to be New York.

I remember walking down Red Hook; we were filming some of the sequences in Episode 5 where the factory blows up. I remember coming off a train and heading to the busy film set. And then as I was looking at all this awesomeness, I looked over the horizon and there was the Statue of Liberty just standing there, and I could see her from the side. That was a pretty special moment for me. I'm a Melbourne boy. I'd just moved to the States and then to be on this show in New York... that was really cool.

Look, we knew we were onto something special but I don't think you can dream of how big it's going to get. But seeing the web kind of increase with the Punisher and the three seasons... it's been great.

Mithra: One of the things I like about DAREDEVIL's first season was the focus on the backstory of many of the villains; there was a complete well-rounded story for your character Vladimir Ranskahov. You were playing more than just a "Russian mobster", you were able to show the relationship with your brother (played by Gideon Emery), the struggle to have your piece of the underworld, the (dis)honour among thieves... and in some ways, the audience gets to root for the bad guys. Do you agree? What was it like for you personally and also as an actor?

Nikolaeff: At the audition, the two brothers were originally supposed to be twins. Picture six foot five, massive no neck dudes. I was waiting at the front, going over my lines and this guy walks out. He was 6 foot 5, 6 foot 6. No neck. Like he was the guy.

A lot of actors will get put off by that, but I thought I'd go the clever route and play it in terms of what is power when you know you have that dude on your staff. Like from a physical point of view and all it requires is just a little head nod or eye movement or to not even need to say anything. So I thought I'm going to play it as if that's my henchman and he'll do what I want him to do. I'm not the biggest of dudes but that really helped me. And I just went in there and only did the one take. I could tell the story and then get out of there.

It was about two or three weeks until I got a phone call. They auditioned other actors and actually Jeph Loeb did say to me that they saw so many people but they kept coming back to my tape. And I remember going, "that's right, that's right." [laughs]

Mithra: There's a parallel with your character and Wilson Fisk's... they both are distracted by what has happened with someone close to them that they lose sight of what's really going on. Do you think Vladimir's weakness was his brother?

Nikolaeff: Do I think that his weakness was his brother? [long pause] I'll say yes but not in a negative way. These two guys have come from nothing and we discussed it at length with Gideon, what our back story was and just to own it all. And he was about to die. I think Vladimir was the stronger of the two. And you can see that throughout, like the kind of the ruthlessness and just the natural hierarchy that kind of evolved with it.

He's not a businessman but Vladimir wants a better life. And that's the thing about playing a character like this because they say you're the bad guy. Part of the script that I'm doing this month, it's a monologue where he talks about being in a boxing ring is a metaphor for this life. It's either hit or be hit you know. These guys had to do some hitting otherwise they'll going to get kind of completely trampled down.

Anyway, so there's love there, we've been through so much and when is enough, enough. It's very interesting because now with Anatoly gone and Kingpin... the truth has come out. Now these guys got nothing. Nothing to fear nothing to lose now. And he's armed with the truth as well.

Mithra: What was it like working with Gideon Emery, because that brotherly bond was very believable. Did he know how to speak Russian?

Nikolaeff: He doesn't speak Russian and we worked really hard together on his dialogue. I can only picture how hard it was for him... I mean you're saying stuff and you don't even know what it is. But he did a really good job trying to get it right. There was one day where he was going to transfer to English, he was going to say stuff in English for a bit of it. And they just told him they wanted it all in Russian. Whoa. So they kind of slowed down filming for 15-20 minutes to really let him solidify it.

Mithra: Well to his credit I didn't really notice that... well I don't speak Russian... but I never felt like this just sounds wrong.

Nikolaeff: Right, usually you call out the bullshit. But with this, Gideon did a great job. He's quite convincing.

Mithra: Vladimir spends a lot of time trying not to say the name "Wilson Fisk"... and I'm trying to think back, did you have any scenes with Vincent D'Onofrio? Was it all by Walkie-Talkie?

Nikolaeff: It was through that Walkie-Talkie. His section with the car was filmed just next door where we were. So I did offscreen lines for him. I got to meet him a number of times and it was very cool as was meeting Rosario [Dawson].

A funny story: Joe Quesada came on set with his wife and his daughter. I'd never met him, I didn't even know who he was. I asked Charlie [Cox] who's that guy over there sitting down at the monitors. You could tell the respect towards him. Charlie says, oh that's Joe, have you met Joe? So he leads me over and introduces me. And when you're on set you kind of forget what you are wearing because you're seeing through your own eyes. You don't look in the mirror too often. I shook his hand, I shook his wife's hand and I shook his daughter's hand and she's got this kind of slightly fearful look. I realize that I'm covered in blood because it's the scene where Daredevil's got me on the ground and is just laying into me. I've got blood dripping down my face. I'm really nice and approachable in real life but at that moment I looked like death.

That's the funny stuff that we do. This show got me to do guns and bulletproof vests and breaking through multiple levels of a warehouse with rotting floors. And there are some sets where it's like this is the script, stick to it. That's it. You know this is what we say you do. There's potential to be just like a talking puppet. But the beauty of Daredevil was like for me anyway, I had a couple of ideas that I presented to them and I said guys how about this? They were receptive and it's very satisfying creatively to be heard and to be given an opportunity to do it. And both my ideas were actually used in the series. One of them you'll recognize, like Vladimir has this kind of cool, calm and collected demeanor and then snaps into a fucking blind rage if stuff's not happening as he wants. I modeled that off.... have you ever seen a movie called The Professional?

Mithra: That's the one with the Jean Reno.

Nikolaeff: One of my favorite characters is the police chief played by Gary Oldman. And he says get everyone and he yells EVERYONE!

And the other one was to translate "Suck my dick". Instead of saying it in Russian. You know covered in blood, saying it in English it's kind of disturbing and funny. [laughs]

Mithra: I forgot about that! That's right.

Nikolaeff: Great writers on the show. Marco Ramirez and Joe Pokaski.

Mithra: Your scenes with Charlie Cox were great; I was wondering if you could comment on those scenes, all bloody, injured, lying on that warehouse floor. Lots of great back and forth with dialogue and also physically demanding.

Nikolaeff: It was maybe three or four days to knock out those sequences.

I love what I do. I love acting, I love sets, I love being a cog in a big mechanism. So I'm very appreciative to be on that set you know. And one thing that happened with me is I'm covered in blood and they put this kind of blood all over me and it would dry. Because this is hours of waiting around for the next shot to be set up or are they going to ship the camera over there and so on. So my blood would dry up in my shirt and actually became like cardboard. Right before action would come, they'd spray it with fresh water to loosen up the dried blood. I had my own drink bottle of fake blood like a boxer and I would just shove it in my mouth and spray it.

When you're just standing there kind of drenched in blood constantly and dirt and grime and especially being on that floor, there's a potential to get really sick of it. But I've always been good at looking into the future. I knew that I'd be talking to someone like yourself now about my experience back then and laughing my ass off. And so that kind of helps me in the moments I can I can stick around and be like yeah it's cool. I mean I smell but it's not going to be forever. And I know we were again creating something pretty cool. There's so many people that have tried so hard to make this... the scriptwriters, the art department and so on so you don't want to be that guy who's just constantly complaining about stuff because let's face it you're an actor. For me in New York, on a Marvel show, filming Daredevil, you've loved it your whole life... can't complain.

Mithra: There's a point in those warehouse scenes where it finally dawns on Vladimir that he's been double-crossed, but there's still reluctance to work with Daredevil. In the end they have to work together. In many ways it reminds me of how Punisher and DD had to work together in season 2. Is it the case of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend", or did Vladimir not really have any other option?

Nikolaeff: I wonder if they would be friends in different circumstances. What comes to mind is Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro in Heat. There is that respect and I wonder if they would be friends in another life. I think he says that to him anyway. I think he definitely fought it, definitely fought to go out on his own. He's at all times weighing all his options.

I think there's a couple of points where it changes. He's still my nemesis and it's a very confusing time. But when I'm on the floor and I'm saved with the flare and whatnot, I imagine that Vladimir wouldn't be questioning it. Yet it was too easy to find that mask [on Anatoly's body]. And could this really be part of a bigger thing and Fisk has been kind of ruthlessly using all of us and it causes us to be annoyed at these games. I think Vladimir is a bit of a straight shooter, "we don't say his name". I mean you could see on his face when Wesley says that, I made no attempt to hide my distaste for his lapdog. Even though Tobey [Leonard Moore] is a great friend of mine.

Mithra: He's from Australia too, right?

Nikolaeff: He is, he's from Tasmania. And he's on Billions now and he's dominating. Fantastic.

Mithra: Your character met his demise battling Wilson Fisk's crooked cops in that tunnel... but I still hold out hope Vladimir somehow made it out alive and will reappear in a later season. You think Vladimir's story is done?

Nikolaeff: I'm going to be honest with you. You know this is Marvel we're talking about. I mean how many times have you seen people die and then all of a sudden they are not so dead. Did you by chance see a certain YouTube video... I've been waiting for this for a while. There's this video dedicated to all the Easter eggs in Daredevil that have been uncovered. And I've waited for three years for the one about me to be uncovered. And finally I got sent the link to it when somebody finally found it, with my special tattoo. Do you know anything about this?

Mithra: I think I saw you posted something about it on your Instagram, something about a ring.

Nikolaeff: Yes. Yes. Well, multiple rings.

Mithra: OK. I didn't get the reference though so maybe you can explain it.

Nikolaeff: Both brothers have Russian gangster tattoos, lots of them. There's a wealth of visual treasures that you always can't even see because the palette they are using on the show is dark. They're not afraid to go and be in the shadows. So one of my tattoos that you get a very quick glimpse of... pretty much if you freeze frame at a certain spot at the beginning of Episode 4 and then brighten up the contrast you'll see it.

And they actually went back. We finished the day of filming and they realized that they didn't get the special shot of this. And so they stopped everyone from going home. We stayed for another half an hour to get this key shot of one of my tattoos on my wrists. And that's part of a plan that Joe Quesada had. Or has. Maybe I'll just leave it at that. You can have a look and maybe you or your followers will enjoy the hunt and the speculation.

Mithra: You're going to give me something to think about now.

Nikolaeff: Yeah. I've been waiting three years for somebody to finally see this. And it was very cool, like it's happening finally. Wow.

Mithra: So all those tattoos and then the scar that you had on your face... how long did that take. Because I'm sure those aren't real tattoos. How long does that process take?

Nikolaeff: We did get faster and faster towards the end. We'd done it so many times. Also I had no qualms about going home with all my tats. If I was going to be filming the following day I would just leave them on. Like when you get dressed in a suit you feel a certain way as opposed to wearing sweatpants. Getting on a New York subway tatted up was an experience, I felt invincible. And you see people looking at you. So to answer your question, half an hour, in the beginning days just about an hour and then it probably came down to about half an hour in the end. Josh Turi is the special effects makeup guy and he pretty much handled only me because of the special tats that he designed as well as the scar and we worked together. He had this way of giving something that kind of pulled the skin and it kind of gave you a slight pull to it. You know like how skin will heal irregularly. I've got to say everyone on the show was just at the top of the game and that means you're going to elevate as well.

Mithra: I know you have to get going, but can you talk about anything that you're working on. Is there anything that you can talk about that's coming up.

Nikolaeff: Yeah. I'm flying up to Vancouver to begin work on the show. This is a different show and I can say that it hasn't been announced yet I think they're doing a press release or something at least they're asking for photos today.

[The project was announced after the interview, Nikolaeff will star in the second season of "Six" on the History Channel.]

It's been a pleasure to meet you.

Mithra: Thank you for your time, this has been great. We'll chat soon. Take care.

(c) 2017 Kuljit Mithra & Nikolai Nikolaeff
Daredevil:The Man Without Fear

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