By Sergey Toymentsev.
Alexander Nevsky is a Russian bodybuilder turned actor, writer, producer, and now director. Before coming to Hollywood in 1999, he established himself as an enthusiastic promoter of fitness as a lifestyle in post-communist Russia. Besides being a media star and hosting his own TV show there, he has also authored ten self-help books on bodybuilding. In Hollywood, Nevsky is known for producing and acting in such action films as Moscow Heat (2003), Treasure Raiders (2007), and Magic Man (2010). In 2014 he directed his first film Black Rose starring Kristanna Loken and Adrian Paul, an action thriller about a serial killer hunting for Russian prostitutes in the streets of Los Angeles. Just as in his other films, in Black Rose Nevsky plays an action hero, a good Russian cop who sets all things right, by which he sincerely hopes to counter anti-Russian sentiments currently popular in Hollywood.
You started your career as a bodybuilder. How can you explain your transition from sports to movies?
When I was a teen, I was very skinny and, thanks to watching lots of Hollywood movies, I changed my life because I became a boxer first because of Stallone’s Rocky and later, when I watched Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan the Destroyer, I started bodybuilding. It took me about three or four years to change my body. During the Soviet Union era, bodybuilding was illegal in Russia; it was not considered as sport, and they even called it “athletic gymnastics.” But thanks to perestroika, it all changed. In 1993 Russian TV made a documentary about bodybuilding and they chose me as their main hero because I had a good story to tell about how I changed myself. Because at that time there were only three or four official TV channels, so almost everyone in Russia watched that documentary. After that everything was easy. In the 1990s I became the first real bodybuilding star in Russia. I started my own TV show, wrote four books, and was on TV all the time where I promoted bodybuilding as an active healthy lifestyle. Everything was perfect except one thing: in the 1990s the movie industry crushed completely in Russia. In 1999, for example, Russia’s total box office was two million dollars. Last year it was two billion. So the transition to movies was natural for me. After I graduated from Moscow State University of Management, I moved to the US in 1999. I studied English at UCLA and acting at the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute in West Hollywood. And in 2003 I produced my first film Moscow Heat. Even though the transition was tough at times, it was enjoyable all the way.
The title of your first book is How to Become a Schwarzenegger in Russia. Can you say that Arnold Schwarzenegger is a role model for you?
Arnold Schwarzenegger is an icon. Not just for a bodybuilder but for everyone who wants to succeed in life. Arnold did it all in bodybuilding and after that he used his bodybuilding fame to create all these other unbelievable steps in his career: as an international movie star, as a politician, etc. So yes, he was and continues to be my role model. When I was 14 years old, I remember I used to have his poster on the wall and I really wanted to be like him and everything. Eventually, yes, they started calling me “Russian Schwarzenegger” back in Russia after years of my training. But when I met him personally in 2000, I was introduced to him by Ralf Moeller. I saw that in real life Arnold is as great and perfect as he was that role model for me many years ago when I started to train. But let me tell you. I was smart enough to understand that you cannot use other person’s fame in your career, really. You can only use it for inspiration. This is why I established myself as a bodybuilder in the 1990s and an actor and producer in 2000s.
Arnold Schwarzenegger is in politics now. Are you planning to try yourself in politics too?
You know, only a lazy person didn’t tell me that I found a perfect timing to release my Black Rose in America about Russian-American friendship. Of course, I know what’s going on in the world right now. I think it’s important that we will produce more movies like Black Rose where both Russians and Americans are not enemies but friends and buddies. I am not a politician. I am an artist. For example, when I was a bodybuilder, my politics was to fight against steroids. Steroids were legal in Russia in the 1990s, so one could buy them in any gym. And I spoke against them in any article or TV interview I could until they were banned. So now, when I am doing movies, my politics is about friendship and cooperation between Russians and Americans. You can see it in all my other films I produced, like Moscow Heat, Treasure Raiders, or Showdown in Manila. If you check recent Hollywood films, all the bad guys are Russians there. I don’t think this is good. So back to your question, I am not thinking about a real political career right now but I am being political in my movies.
Are you trying to break this Hollywood pattern in which Russians are viewed as bad guys?
I was offered several times to play big stupid Russian bad guys. One of them was even for Sheldon Lettich’s movie The Order starring Van Damme and Charlton Heston. Jean-Claude Van Damme is one of my idols. But I couldn’t do it. They didn’t want to offend me, of course; they wanted to help because playing in a studio movie with the cast like that would open me doors to the Screen Actors Guild and get me an agent, among other things. But I explained to Sheldon that I simply couldn’t do that. And he understood it. Furthermore, several years later Sheldon became the executive producer of my film Black Rose where I am playing a Russian hero, which proves I was right back then.
In Black Rose your Russian protagonist is indeed a hero. How did you create this character?
First of all, I created the story. Brent Huff and George Saunders wrote a great script but the story was originally mine where I imagined a main hero for myself. He is big and strong and, what’s more important, he is a good man. Yes, he has a big gun like Dirty Harry but he uses it to defend those who are in danger. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s in Moscow or LA. When we all worked on this character, it was our intention to create a guy who would remind the audience about Arnold Schwarzenegger, Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone, and Paul Hogan’s character, Crocodile Dundee.
In Black Rose your Russian police major does not follow the rule of law all the time. Does it mean that for a Russian hero justice comes first and law second?
First of all, it’s a movie, not a documentary. So it’s hard to comment on what is a fiction rather than a reality. Nevertheless, in one scene in Black Rose my character has a conversation with an LAPD chief about political correctness and all those rules that a police officer should follow while being on duty. So the LAPD chief says that we all tied ourselves to all these rules and, as a result, cannot really bring justice anymore. So it’s a hard question, really. But I think that at least in movies good guys should win all the time and they should have bigger guns than bad guys have. They should also be bigger themselves than bad guys because, once again, they should win. And I totally believe in that. That was a great thing about Hollywood action films of the 1970s and 80s which we could see in the heroes of Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Mel Gibson. They play characters who don’t follow all the rules, but they win as good guys are supposed to. It’s also important for kids who watch such films, so they would know that at least in movies good guys always win.
The movies you produce look pretty old-fashioned: you cast action stars from the past and you borrow lots of tropes from action movies of the 1980s. Is your old-fashioned aesthetics dictated more by your personal interest or, rather, budget concerns? Or both?
Both, for sure. Before I started bodybuilding, I watched these movies a lot and they inspired me tremendously. Of course, I have a personal interest in such films. That was a choice. Budget-wise, yes, I obviously have to think about money while producing a movie, especially an independent one, like ours. But still, it was my choice, as both director and producer, to make a movie kind of like an old-fashioned actioner. That is what I really like about it and I am sure there are people who like it precisely for this. If you check the reviews of Black Rose, you could see some critics do get it. They get that the movie is made for the fans of that kind of genre. It was also my choice as a director to mix several genres in one film, such as action, thriller, comedy, and horror elements. But still, the classical Hollywood action film is my favorite genre. Furthermore, other movies I produced, such as Showdown in Manila and Maximum Impact, also have that feel because I am a huge fan of that genre.
What skills did you learn while being a first-time director of Black Rose?
Of course I learned a lot. First of all, a first-time director should have a much longer time of pre-production. You should be very prepared. When you are a first-time director of an independent film, all you should care about is preparation, which also includes the script. Another thing which I learned while directing Black Rose is that I was smart enough to surround myself with people who are both great professionals and my friends. And when I turn to my next project, I’d do exactly the same. I’d preferably work with those professionals who would hopefully be my friends as well, since they could better understand and support you through all the troubles.
Sergey Toymentsev is Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics at Florida State University as well as Senior Researcher at Russian Institute for Advanced Studies, Moscow State Pedagogical University. He received his PhD in Comparative Literature from Rutgers University in 2014. He is currently working on his book manuscript entitled Deleuze and Russian Film, which offers a Deleuzean history of Soviet and Russian cinema from Eisenstein to Sokurov. His articles and reviews have appeared in Journal of Philosophy: A Cross-Disciplinary Inquiry, Comparative Literature Studies, Scope, Studies in Russian & Soviet Cinema, Film Criticism, KinoKultura and others.