Friday, April 5, 2013

It's not just who YOU know, but who knows YOU: An interview with Dimitri Diatchenko

You may not know Dimitri Diatchenko by name, but if you watch TV and go to the cinema there's a good chance you've seen his work. At 6'2", with a powerful voice to match his build, he's hard to miss.  Dimitri has worked on dozens of productions including big Hollywood films such as G.I. Jane, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Chernobyl Diaries--as well as independent films such as Clubhouse, his most recent film, and Goiterboy, his first. His TV credits include Walker, Texas RangerCSI: MiamiFamily GuySons of AnarchyHow I Met Your Mother; and a brief stint on General Hospital.  Avid gamers will have heard him put his voice to good use in titles including Call of Duty: Black Ops I II, Ironman 2 and Wolfenstein.  He also has a string of national commercials under his belt.  Whew!  The man stays busy!

(See IMDb and Dimitri's personal website)

I met Dimitri at Stetson University, where he was studying classical guitar (he has four solo CDs to his credit), and I'm fortunate that Dimitri agreed to this interview, thoughtfully responding to my questions by email.  What emerges is an interesting story of how one man got into making pictures and makes a good living doing it.  Dimitri isn't one of these actors who spends most of his time waiting tables and doing fruitless auditions.  He is a full-time working actor--not a superstar by any means, but he's working on it.

Over time, Dimitri has managed to create a space for himself by playing "heavy" or villainous characters, often as a Russian--calling on his Ukrainian roots to perfect his dialects and his experience as a former heavyweight champion in Taekwondo to deliver credible ass-whippings.  He also has quite a few comedic roles on his résumé.  Multi-talented, professional and a nice guy--he's out there travelling the world getting international exposure yet still takes the time to respond to questions for an obscure blog.  Very cool indeed!

LoS:  You started out studying classical guitar. 20 years later you’re acting in Hollywood. Did you always want to act in addition to playing music, or is it something that came about later?

DD:  I always had a penchant for acting, but never did anything until Stetson University.  I had to take a non-music elective as part of my course requirement and I chose the two classes where the hottest girls in the school could be found….acting and dance. Then I took an on-camera acting class in Orlando at a talent agency who soon represented me. They sent me out on auditions for student films and locally produced shows and commercials.

LoS:  I know you’ve answered this question in other interviews, but how did you get your start – what was your first paid role?

DD:  My first paid role was as a featured extra on G.I. Jane, the Demi Moore/Ridley Scott film. I drove six hours that day for a 5 minute interview in Jacksonville. I got bumped up to a day player and then to utility stunts during the next few months of shooting which started in Florida and ended in Los Angeles. It worked out well because I was planning to move to LA anyway.

LoS:  At what point did you seriously think you could make a living as an actor and at which point did you get an agent?

DD:  When I moved to LA my main intention was to be a working actor and eventually an A-lister. I had a few interviews with agencies when I got to LA that were set up by some actors from G.I. Jane. They were very helpful to me and I was being represented within a few months after my move.

LoS:  Does your agent seek out all your roles for you, or do productions call you up to ask after you based on the strength of your previous work? This is a variation on part one of this question: Do you have to read for every role, or do you get offered parts without an audition?

DD: At this stage in my career I get offers sometimes, but most of my roles I get through the auditioning process.

LoS:  Hollywood has its mega-stars who get paid millions per picture or hundreds of thousands per episode, but I assume you’re part of what Bruce Campbell refers to as “working-class Hollywood”. You work regularly on popular shows, including How I Met Your Mother and Sons of Anarchy. This may be an impertinent question, but what kind of lifestyle does your career afford you?

DD:  Well my goal is to be one of those millionaire actors with my own production company and all the perks that come with that lifestyle. Right now I would consider myself a working-class actor. I live off of my acting work entirely. I've hit six figures a few times. I live pretty conservatively. It's feast and famine sometimes. LA is an expensive town to just live a normal life. I also put a lot of money back into my career needs. I have steadily increased my living standard every year for the past 6 years.

LoS:  In Chernobyl Diaries, I remarked to a friend that your character Yuri knows more than he’s letting on to his customers. Even though this isn’t ever made explicit, it can be inferred from some of Yuri’s expressions and statements. Is that an accurate reading, and if so, is that something that came from the director and the script, or did you bring that to the role?

DD:  For the sake of keeping the suspense in the film, I played Uri with a little mystery in his expressions, and tone and color. Brad Parker and Oren Peli liked what I was doing but we discussed every scene we shot as building the audience suspense.

LoS:  Do you create a back story to your characters, in your head or on paper, in order to enhance your performance, or do you work only from what’s on the script?

DD:  I spend quite a bit of time just thinking about the role I'm playing. A bit of a background story on them that either the script reveals or just my own take on the character. Keeping it as simple as possible, but layered.

LoS:  You mention in one interview about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull that you spoke a little bit with Steven Spielberg about some ideas for your character you had that he then integrated into the film; do directors often confer in this way with their actors and/or are they usually receptive to suggestions? Do you ever improv lines without clearing it with the director first, or is that considered unprofessional?

DD:  Some directors, usually the ones who have acted, are very receptive to what their actors are thinking about their roles. Spielberg was great like that. Most of my lines in IJ4 were improvised….and in Russian. I will improv for a purpose if the scene we are shooting dictates. I like living in the moment. If it works, we move on, if not, we do it again.

LoS:  What would be your dream role….and cast?

DD:  The role I play in Company of Heroes was a dream role and the cast was pretty awesome too. I'm starring in a WWII action film with Tom Sizemore, Vinnie Jones, Jurgen Prochnow, Chad Collins and Melia Kreiling. My relatives did the same thing that Ivan, my character's name, did during WWII. I am Ukrainian from my dad's side of the family. Playing Ivan brought back memories of the stories I would hear from my dad, uncle, aunt and babushka. I had the coolest role in the film. The only way it could have been better is if I got the girl at the end of the film. That may still happen. I hear they want to do another one.

LoS:  Is there a role or kind of project you’d never accept?

DD:  That's a tough one. The only thing that comes to mind is the role of a pedophile. I can't see me EVER playing that. It's just too horrible an energy to live with as I'm preparing for the role. My mind just will not go there.

LoS:  You’re an accomplished martial artist, which can only be of benefit to an actor. Has that ever clinched a role for you?

DD:  I made it a point to not market myself as a martial arts guy when I arrived in LA.  I've had many a fight scene in roles that were more action oriented. I do all my own fight scenes. I think my acting skill is what propels me, but I'm a physically imposing guy at 6'2", 230lbs, solid. It probably helped that I was a highly skilled martial artist for my role in Walker, Texas Ranger. I had to fight with Chuck Norris in the episode. That was a great gig. One of the best experiences I've had so far.  Chuck influenced me as a kid to start Karate.

LoS:  You’re also a classically-trained musician; what skills cross over into acting? I know you’ve actually played for one of your roles; any chance we’ll see you play again on screen?

DD:  Music and the written word are closely related so closely in my mind that often when I read through a monologue, a group scene or an entire script, I digest the material as I would when learning and performing a piece of music. An example is if you take a monologue and break it up into sections as you would a Sonata. You have a theme, development of the theme, a second theme that is related to the first theme and it's development and then a recapitulation. An essay or a monologue breaks up into sections that can be realized in the same manner. Furthermore, your interpretation of the written or musical performance should be realized with your own life experiences. This is what makes the material YOURS and special.

LoS:  Is there anything you feel you'd like to add? Words of advice for budding young actors?

DD:  The thing that is most UNTAUGHT is the acting business. These days you have to have a social media presence to help boost your following. It's good and bad. The good is that I have a fan base overseas that I never would be able to communicate with, real time, had I been a generation earlier. The bad is that it is so ever-changing. You have to stay on top of everything.....e.g. personal website, Twitter, Facebook, and whatever else is out there that the social media companies are coming out with. The ART of acting is only the very beginning of having a career as an actor. Creating your fanbase and creating your BRAND is the most important thing these days. It's not just who YOU know, but who knows YOU.


For a more complete view of Dimitri's work, check out the playlist of clips he's created from some of his roles, with a brief intro on how he got into the business:

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