Aleks Paunovic on ‘Van Helsing,’ running of the bulls, and the power in no
Of all the characters that Aleks Paunovic has played over the course of his career (and he’s played a lot of ’em), Van Helsing’s Julius is the one that most closely resembles who he is in real life – according to the actor himself.
...Wait, what? Isn’t Julius a vampire – well, a former vampire at this point, but a vampire nonetheless?
Not only does Paunovic hold firm to this assertion, he’s got math to back it up.
“90 per cent of me is in the Julius character,” says the Vancouver-based actor and producer.
Paunovic and YVR Screen Scene are seated at a corner table in the restaurant located on the ground floor of the famed Sylvia Hotel, a retro fixture in Paunovic’s beloved West End neighborhood: eating bacon and eggs and talking vampires and art and what it means to be alive (you know, just your average Saturday morning brunch conversation).
“I consider myself a character actor,” Paunovic continues. “I love getting into characters. I love transforming. But Julius was one of the few ones where I basically just got to play myself. There’s no Russian accent. There’s no bravado. He’s a retribution-seeking man who wants to make sure everything is okay, and if he goes out, he’s going out on his own terms. He puts himself in these positions because he thinks he’s responsible, and in life, I always feel like, as a bigger guy, I need to be responsible. If trouble breaks out, I’m there. That’s just my nature. And so I’ve really enjoyed being Julius because it’s a huge part of me.”
Van Helsing is a post-apocalyptic thriller serial set in a world overrun by vampires where human beings fight for their lives from the shadows. Kelly Overton stars as Vanessa, the ass-kicking, gives-no-fucks descendent of the famed vampire hunter whose blood has the power to turn vampires human again.
The cast also includes a veritable "who's who" of the city's finest actors: Jonathan Scarfe, Christopher Heyerdahl, Rukiya Bernard, Vincent Gale, and Trezzo Mahoro.
Paunovic has inhabited Julius for three seasons (although, to date, only two have aired): in the first, Julius was a power-hungry, aggressive, blood-thirty vamp; in the second, he was – after a chomp from Vanessa – human, with a fresh arsenal of issues and flaws and back-story propelling him forward, some of which the writers (led by showrunner and playwright Neil LaBute) mined from the actor himself.
“They believed in me, and they saw what I was capable of,” says Paunovic; after the first season, “they saw me as Aleks and said, ‘It would be really interesting if he could turn and then have him play this guy who we always see after we yell cut.’”
This is particularly evident in “Love Bites,” the third episode of the second season, which incorporated Paunovic’s own history as a boxer, and his relationship with his mother, into Julius’ back-story.
“That, to me, was wonderful,” marvels Paunovic. “It’s a tribute to the writers going, ‘This guy’s a mama’s boy, let’s get a scene with his mom in there, and get punched in the face, he’s going to love it.’” Paunovic was nominated for a 2018 Leo Award for Best Lead Performance by a Male in a Dramatic Series for his work in that episode.
As for Van Helsing’s third season – which will hit SyFy this fall – Paunovic is both tight-lipped and chomping at the bit to share the journey with fans. “I think what’s really interesting about this season is locations change a little bit, character relationships are switched up a little bit, and you get to see Julius in a totally different light with one of the relationships, and it was something I was really happy about,” he teases after a long pause. “I can’t say anything else.”
It’s been a busy couple of years for Paunovic. Besides Van Helsing – which brought him to San Diego Comic-Con last month (“We had over 1000 people in our hall, and people outside waiting… It was so exciting to see the fans really react to us”) – he wracked up credits on television series like Zoo and Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, blockbusters like War for the Planet of the Apes, and indie fare like NarcoLeap and The Shipment. He’ll soon be seen playing a detective in Hard Powder (which stars Liam Neeson as a snowplow driver seeking revenge against the drug dealers who he believes killed his son), and will walk the red carpet at the venerable Toronto International Film Festival for the world premiere of Freaks, a genre-bending psychological sci-fi thriller from Vancouver directors Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein.
And Paunovic is also moving further into producing: a reality show called Rescue Music in which guitars are crafted from history-laden wood; and a series called Under the Rock with a couple of the writers from Van Helsing.
“I love when I hear people talk about a long weekend, because I don’t experience that,” says Paunovic. “Every day is a long weekend for me. I’m very lucky that the work that I get to do is so fun for me.”
But Paunovic isn’t just finding fun in his work; he’s also finding, and holding onto, gratitude and power. “The gratitude is literally loving what I do, learning from people who have been around longer than I have, and being able to help people,” says Paunovic.
As for power, Paunovic finds it in saying no: to certain types of characters he no longer wants to play, like one-dimensional thumb-breakers and no-nuance abusers; to working below a certain pay grade.
“When you’re just starting out, you’re saying yes to everything, which is okay: actors need to experience those moments of needing something, and the hunger, and going for it even if you don’t want to do it, but you’re going in to do it because you're just starting out and you want to be seen,” says Paunovic.
“And then you get to this moment – which I find very powerful – of going, 'I’m choosing to say no to this audition, this isn’t who I want to play at this time,' and then having them come back again with an offer as opposed to an audition now, and sticking to your guns and going, ‘There’s a reason I’m saying no’. There’s a power in that, a power in no, in this industry; it’s so strong, not for the other person, but in how you’re treating yourself, and what you want to do.”
“Those decisions are so powerful that they inform your next job, and your next audition, because you’ve just sat in your power,” continues Paunovic, adding, “You can’t jump here. You can’t go from one to five, because then it’s inauthentic. You have to go through those moments of, ‘I can’t believe I said yes to this.’”
Last month, Paunovic said yes to something that hadn't even been on his radar, but he did so with no regrets: the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. He participated in the annual event with a group of friends, and “there was so much respect and unity,” says Paunovic, drawing a distinction between bullfighting (which he doesn’t support, and has been banned in Barcelona and Madrid) and the running of the bulls.
“When someone fell, others would quickly pick them up,” he says. “We were all in it together. The run itself is only seven minutes, but there’s so much joy and celebration surrounding it. It was mind-blowing.”
Follow @alekspaun. Find the first two seasons of Van Helsing on Netflix.
Top photo by AaronRTS.