No Russian Bad Guy

MT
At 200 centimeters tall, Alexander Nevsky is hard to miss. "I used to be bigger," said the superstar bodybuilder turned actor. "When I was at my peak, I had the biggest biceps in Europe at 23 1/2 inches [60 centimeters]. That's one inch bigger than Arnie's."

But like his hero Arnold Schwarzenegger, there is much more to Nevsky than sheer size. He exudes charisma and affability, alongside a studiousness not often associated with an action hero. And he is more than happy to be known as "Russia's Schwarzenegger."

As a skinny 14-year-old, Nevsky's mother bought him a ticket to see Schwarzenegger's "Conan the Destroyer" at a film festival in Moscow in 1986. The film inspired him, he said, and by 1995, he was the most famous bodybuilder in Russia weighing in at 145 kilograms. He had his own show on Channel One, "Self-Made Man," and his three books had sold 100,000 copies. "I wanted to show people that sport is good," he said. He also put out an anti-steroid message that he has been pushing ever since in his books and on his web site, www.antisteroids.com.

At the same time, Nevsky earned a doctorate in economics at the Moscow State Academy of Management. But when he wanted to make a move into the film industry, he realized this would mean relocating from Russia to the United States. "There was no movie industry in Russia at that time," he said. "I wanted to move forward, but there was nowhere to go."

In 1999, he took an English course at UCLA Extension in Los Angeles, where he also attended the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute. Strasberg was the chief American exponent of method acting, which he picked up from Konstantin Stanislavsky when he saw a performance of his Moscow Art Theater on tour in New York in the 1920s. "When I turned up with my broken English," Nevsky said, "they asked me why I had come here when I could have learned method acting at home in the original."

When Nevsky arrived in the United States, he was offered roles in a couple of films, including one with Jean-Claude Van Damme. But he turned them down. "I didn't want to play a bad Russian," he said. Sticking to his principles made things tough, and Nevsky didn't make much money for the first two years. But it wasn't just about principles -- it was a part of a well thought-out plan. "I always kept my Russian audience in mind."

His patience paid off. In 2001 he was offered work on the film "Undisputed," starring Wesley Snipes. This got him his Screen Actors Guild card, and the opportunity to meet stars such as Schwarzenegger and Steven Seagal.

"I asked Arnie for advice," Nevsky said, "and he told me, 'Produce your own films.'" The result was the 2004 film "Moscow Heat," co-written by Nevsky and starring British actor Michael York, famous for his roles in "Romeo and Juliet" and "Austin Powers."


Courtesy of Alexander Nevsky
Alexander Nevsky has worked with a lot of action stars, including David Carradine.


This was the first U.S.-funded film to be shot mainly in Moscow. The idea was encouraged by friends back in Russia. "I heard that the movie business was opening up again," he said. "People still knew me from my books and television show. This was still my audience."

Nevsky was also keen to show the West a side of Russia different from the prevalent stereotyped image. "I wanted to present Moscow to a foreign audience. People have their stereotypes, but I wanted them to see Moscow as a huge, beautiful city."

Despite the perceived stereotypes about Russia, Nevsky said he was overwhelmed by Americans' response. "Old people especially remember how Americans and Russians fought the Nazis together. I've never heard anything bad simply because I'm Russian."

Nevsky's latest film, "Treasure Raiders," which opened in Moscow on April 1, was in part inspired by a comment from Vin Diesel, star of "The Fast and the Furious" films, which are set in cities around the world. "He told me to try to make a 'Fast and Furious' in Moscow." The result is reflected in the name of the Russian release -- "Forsazh Da Vinci," or "Afterburner Da Vinci."

The film's plot follows an American professor (David Carradine, who starred in "Kill Bill") and a Russian streetracer (Nevsky) as they search for hidden treasure in Moscow. It was shot in Moscow and postproduction was finished in Los Angeles in 2007.

But then disaster struck. "Pirates stole the film from my Russian partners and released it on DVD," Nevsky said. "This could have killed the film, so I needed to save it." But rather than dealing with the criminals in the way he sees off enemies in his film roles, Nevsky used his instinct for economics and turned to the people at Comedy Club, the top Russian sketch show. They re-worked the film and turned it from an action adventure into an action comedy.

Nevsky said he was satisfied with the result, but a little concerned that his Russian audience would not be pleased to see their action hero in an action comedy film. "When I saw it at the premiere, I was in shock," Nevsky said. "It wasn't the film I shot." But he is happier that both versions will be available on the DVD, released April 21.

In an e-mail interview, Michael York praised Nevsky's work. "Working with Alexander was a pleasure. He was always courteous and professional."

"He has great intelligence and sweetness to go with it," York said. "The only thing he needs to do now is develop his own unique screen presence and forget about all those other icons that have preceded him, particularly the present governor of California!"

With his popularity in Russia, Nevsky finds a lot of aspiring actors coming to ask for cameo roles in his films. "But I tell them, 'Don't look for cameo roles. They won't change your life.' You should organize your life so that you have the main role. If you think you can make it, do it. Believe in yourself, but be realistic and be prepared."

"I have three rules," he said. "Love your family, believe in yourself, and move forward every day."