Nikolai Nikolaeff: SIX on History

Nikolai Nikolaeff joins History Channel’s hit series SIX this season as shadowy terror boss The Prince. I had so much fun interviewing Nikolai, he was incredibly engaging and interesting, to the point we may have gone a bit longer. It was a blast! Basically, picture your imaginary Australian best friend (everyone has one right?) and you’d be picturing Nikolai. Which is slightly disconcerting since he’s almost always the villain on screen. I hope you enjoy our slightly rambling discussion!

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credit Mitch Jenkins

Can I start by saying you not having a Russian accent kinda trips me out a little!? I know in my head you’re Australian, but even when you were typing, I was like “yeah that’s Russian.”

Oh yeah right ok, it’s knocked a couple of people off actually. The first time was on Daredevil, I came on set and the producers were like, “man this is trippy because we’ve heard the audition. We’ve known you as this guy, and then this happy-go-lucky Australian dude walks up.”

Thank you so much for agreeing to this and taking the time. I know you’re super busy and have the premiere coming out and everything.

It’s very exciting actually. To be part of the mechanism of this big thing, to be one of the new guys, trying to kind of earn my place on the team.

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Photographer Michele Thomas

It seems, outwardly of course since we only see what people put on social media, that the actors who play the SEALs are all very close, tight-knit. With you coming in as the new guy, is that hard to get into?

Yeah, look. It was. The Prince is an interesting character, he’s referred to in season 1 a number of times. So no pressure there! I think they talk about “The Prince is not happy”, and I went “oh ok. Well, that’s me.” I had to go down some really dark rabbit holes to prepare for the role. What we find out in season 2 is who the Prince is, the backstory to him, as well as who he becomes. Who they deal with now. He’s had some really awful things happen to him.

You’re like, “I can’t tell you anything”

No, no I can. His family is executed, and all he really wanted his whole life was just to have a better life for his family. I guess any father or mother can relate, they are universal truths I guess. Everyone wants to just have their little family taken care of, and seek a better life. He tries really hard for that, and then it all comes crumbling down in a really atrocious way.

He was born in Chechnya which is already a really hard place. I don’t know if you know much about that but the Chechyan conflict is just terrible. A lot of the western media doesn’t really cover it, they did a little while back. Anyways, Chechnya, the awful things that happened there, and the Bosnian crisis as well. He was born in Chechnya and then moved to Bosnia. He’s got a Muslim background which is an interesting thing for me to bring to life.

Yeah. And so researching these God-awful things that have happened in those parts of the world is really hard to process. To take it on and then do it justice, to bring it to life and embody that. But then somewhere in there you have to come back to your own reality and I’m a very happy Australian actor who’s living in America and just recently got married.

Congratulations!

Well, thank you very much. I feel like I won the jackpot. So you have duties to be kind of normal to your significant other.

So now to circle back to your original thing. The cast got along really well, it took me a couple of months. I instantly got along with them, but our storylines – they’re doing their thing, our filming schedules were polar opposites. But around the 2 ½ month mark we went out for a drink and it was just the best. Those boys really went out of their way to make me feel welcome. They did it all along, but with our filming schedules, I was coming back and forth from L.A. What an honor to meet them properly and get some drinks. I had a couple of them over the other day, Kyle and Edwin came over. On Monday, Barry, Edwin and I did a show called Noches Con Platanito which is a Spanish speaking talk show. They are famous for a)being in Spanish, b)the interviewer is dressed as a clown and c) they do these crazy games. Kinda like a Jimmy Kimmel. It’s one of the single most bizarre nights of my life. I just love it, every second of it.

Anyways, it’s like the polar opposite of the character I’m playing as you can imagine.

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Photographer Michele Thomas

So when you’re in that darker head space, trying to come home to your wife, be normal. What helps you make that adjustment? Is it just, this is work guy and this is home guy?

I have always been really good at what I call “Tools Down”, it’s an Australian term. Tradees use it, carpenter’s and stuff, “alright it’s three o’clock, tools down.” Put down my tools, let’s go have a beer and go home. I have always been pretty good at that, but this character and the scale of it, as well as the subject matter, was harder to let go of. I went through a couple of months of preparation for it and you’re watching people getting executed. People who are no longer on this planet. In both Chechnya and Bosnia (let me just say right here you can tell that this role, and the research he did still weigh on him heavily).

You’re watching real-life footage from the early 90s, hand-held stuff. People laughing as they’re killing these humans, and it’s really jarring from the charmed life that I’m living, that I’m fully aware of. That I’m here living in Los Angeles, that I’m an actor. Yesterday there was whatever glitzy event, red carpet, champagne and let’s talk about blah, blah blah, how bad it is that my audition didn’t go through, whatever trivial stuff. I’m listening to friends talk about that and I wasn’t. I kind of receded into myself.   

I remember this moment really acutely, I went to a café here near where I live, it’s called PCP, and somebody is talking about their iPhone cord not being long enough, and I’ve just been watching these God-awful things happening to these people to get ready for the role. So you can imagine that kind of duality. It took me a couple of months to let go of it. Again, I’m usually good at it, but this was a bit more. Way more. My wife was saying I was grinding my teeth, I wasn’t sleeping very well and she said, “you need to figure out how to switch on, but maybe you’re immersing yourself in too much.”

My whole thing is that I want to do justice to the role because I’m not just a “bad guy”. That irks me. The thing is I do it myself, it’s convenient labeling things.  They’re the good guys, I’m the bad guy, they’re trying to get me. I challenge anybody. That’s one thing that this show can do, and I think it did in season 1. The first episode opens up with one of our “squeaky clean” guys committing an outright war crime.

At this moment in our interview (chat?) my dogs lost their minds and we had a little interlude lol. I won’t bore you with the details.

What you were saying though, that’s one of the things I love about this show. The “villain” is so dynamic, so layered. You understand why they are doing what they’re doing. You may not agree with the way they do it. I was going to ask if we’d get all of that backstory with you that we did with Dominic Adams as Michael Nasry. From what you’re saying that’s obviously going to be the case again this season.

Yes. Audiences are getting smarter. They don’t want a mustache-twirling bad guy for the sake of being bad. No one is born wanting to do this shit. Again, there are universal truths or universal things that people strive for. It’s having dinner with your family, a peaceful life, laughter, and the Australian in me is I want a beer with friends. When it’s completely and utterly ripped away from you and you’ve got no chance of doing that anymore, I challenge anyone to not be angry.

I hope that’s conveyed in the series, and I think it is. I think people can empathize with what he’s gone through.

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credit Mitch Jenkins

You’ve played a lot of “bad” guys, but it sounds like maybe the most difficult because of the real-life. You were great in Daredevil as Vladimir, but he certainly didn’t have the Chechnya type backstory. Will this role make it harder for you to want to do darker roles in the future?

Nah. No, I do dark very well (laughs). Because I can drop it usually, but this one was especially challenging because it’s real life. It’s based on real life people, 2 in particular. Monzer al-Kassar, who is a very charismatic arms dealer living in Spain. He’s a killer and dealt with multiple regimes, both legal, officially recognized and not.

The other guy who I’m going to say is VERY scary is Omar al-Shishani who was dubbed the ginger terrorist. He was the ISIL military leader. He was a Chechen jihadist who served in Syria as an SGT in the Georgian Army. He’s got a big red beard and is one of the guys that The Prince was modeled on.

I guarantee you I’m on watch lists now because of my research material. If you went over my search history while I was getting ready for this.

Ok. So. Wow. This is all so interesting, but my heart like hearts just thinking about it all. I spent 10 weeks in St. Petersburg during college, so 2003 and still a lot going on with Chechnya and friends that I had met there. So this is all really interesting.

I’m really, really jealous. I have always wanted to go there, I’ve been to Irkutsk and Vladivostock when I was 9 years old. Look, at 9 you’re at the mercy of your parents and what they want to do. I would really like to go to Russia on my own terms. Especially because it’s so dear to me.

Yeah, the current political climate is good for me because it looks like there is work coming with the stories that are being made. But the Russian people have gone through a lot, I don’t know, it’s kinda sad. (Again, please understand that Nikolai obviously has a huge depth of feeling here, the connection to his history and work is strong) It just seems to be a constant hardship. My Dad visited Russia maybe 5 years ago, and he said that it is a very, not a ruthlessness, but a very harsh place. The people are harsh.

Yeah. They will give you the shirt off their back, but you might also find something missing.

Yeah, that’s right. If you know them they are very embracing and they’re a very happy people really. But the shit that’s plagued them the last 100 years is quite tough. My mum and her dad were born in China and I went there about 3 years ago. I was talking to a lady who was faced with a choice; go back to Russia after the Chinese government kicked everyone out, or to continue abroad, go to Australia and America. She was 17 at the time. It was very interesting talking to her, I got the sense that she questioned the choice that she made. A lot of her friends, they’re just a bit more easy-going, they’re a little bit happier I guess, living in these blessed countries.

I completely understand. That was one thing I had a hard time describing coming home. It was amazing! The food, and the art and the people! And yet, God, after 2 ½ months you’re just depressed. It’s just very bleak. I lived in a hostel, we had a lot of Australians come through, that’s who we pal’d around with. But we had a group of Russian country girls come through from the interior. They had been bused and were on their way to Poland to go strawberry picking, to get paid. We all tried to tell them, this is not a good idea, this is not what you think it is. No one is going to hire you and then take you 1000s of miles to go pick strawberries. We got a call 2 weeks later, they had taken their passports and then we never heard from them again. You can’t do anything, you have no idea where they are. I just think that the Russian people…sorry this is NOT what I wanted to interview you about!! That went down a strange road!

No no. Look, that just breaks my heart. It does. It has so much to offer, it’s such a rich empire. To hear that kind of stuff, I mean. This is the part that personally messes around with me a little. Again, the preparation for playing The Prince, and I’m a very happy-go-lucky person myself. I think that’s thanks to where I’ve been brought up, my friends and family. I’ve never experienced any of this. Delving into it was quite jarring and a challenge that I was definitely appreciative for.

It’s not lost on me how lucky I am to be able at the end of the day go, “alright, that’s done.” It’s a weird feeling. I spoke about this talk show that we did right? It’s ridiculous, we’re plugging the show and asking people to watch it. But as we’re doing this, having tequila shots with a Mexican clown, there is real-life tragedy unfolding. I don’t really know how to process it, to be honest. I tried my best during filming and it took me a couple months to get tools down and be able to walk away from it. I enjoyed myself with the rest of the gang. But they’re going through their hardships on set, but they’re not exactly having their passports taken. I don’t know. I’m digressing as well.

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Flags and Flowers event
@SIXonHistory

Well, let’s move on from the difficult stuff (both of us laughing, phew). You’re going to be in Mile 22, the new Peter Berg movie coming out. Can you tell us a little bit about your character Aleksandr?

So he’s a bit of a mysterious character. I won’t lie. You don’t really know what he’s about until the end of the film. Not everything is as it seems. Again, audiences are getting smarter so there are a couple of curve balls. So there is a segment of the script that I actually filmed, I don’t know if I’m allowed to post it, but I’ll tell you anyways. It says, “A fight ensues, it is one of the most vicious things that’s ever caught on camera.” Something along those lines, and that’s it! That describes the whole fight. There you go, stunt guys, you work it out now. That’s when I knew I was onto something pretty crazy. He’s kinda this mysterious guy who is chasing down the, um, main guy. We’ll see what happens.

I tell you what, being on a film with names like John Malkovich and Mark Wahlberg being thrown around is pretty cool.

I would imagine so. You’ve done a lot of work but, not big films like this. Although I think SIX is pretty big.

SIX is pretty big, but this is like a big Hollywood summer blockbuster film. In my 12-year-old brain, when I started wanting to be an actor, this was one of the things I always dreamt of doing. So here I am, filming in Atlanta with Peter Berg on this huge film, it was pretty cool.

(Here Nikolai asked me to watch the trailer for the film which turned out hilarious because I’m super awkward and clicked on the 2 minute long one instead of the 30 second one he meant. I won’t bore you with details, but go see the trailer)

While I’m looking this up, if aliens land on earth, are they friend or foe?

I think they’re a friend. Does anybody go out to be a foe? I don’t know, it’s not unrealistic. Well, you know, the 1st Fleet came to Australia and ended up taking out the indigenous population. They’re like, “yeah we just want a bit of life, but you guys don’t have a flag so we’ll take you out.”

So, Mile 22. Lots of big action! Do you get to do any of the big fight scenes? (He just grins) Yeah, you’re not going to tell me lol. Would you LIKE to do any fight scenes?

Yeah, I love doing those. It’s like a dance. I did a little short film a number of years ago called Forged, and I was in training for that. There was stunts involved and some wire work. Look, that’s the thing about this job, I absolutely love it. I’m learning every single day from these amazing people. The guys on Daredevil were just next level. So yeah…I’m open to everything.

It’s a real thrill to be attached to some scripts that are just really cool SIX especially, a lot of thought has gone into these characters, they want 3D people. I got some really kind words from Bill Broils who created the first season, and he goes, “The Prince wasn’t supposed to be this big in the second season. We were very very happy to have found you.”

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@NNikolaeff

Thank you seriously for taking so much time. Is there anything else you want your fans to know??

I’m just really excited about the year ahead. I’m hoping to continue the momentum and enjoy some other high quality projects. Thank you to the fans, we work really hard, and I feel quite blessed where I am. Looking forward to seeing everyone in the future.

SIX premieres on History Channel Monday, May 28th at 10/9c, then moves to its regular timeslot Wednesday, May 30th at 10/9c

Follow Nikolai on Twitter @NNikolaeff 

Follow us on @tvserieshub to live tweet SIX, or hit me up anytime @nolenag03 to chat SIX!