SYFY audiences need no introduction to Aleks Paunovic, who followed up his appearances on Stargate SG-1 (2002) and Painkiller Jane (2005) with a star-making turn as Marine Sgt. Omar Fischer on Battlestar Galactica. He went on to appear on Stargate Atlantis (2007), Caprica (2010), and Continuum (2015) before taking on the role of Julius -- vicious vampire in Season 1, compassionate human survivor in Season 2 -- in Van Helsing.
We spoke with Aleks about the many sides of Julius as well as his experiences working on BSG and this past summer’s War For the Planet of the Apes.
Julius went from being the most vicious villain of Season 1 to one of the most compassionate and tender characters of Season 2. The change is immense; did you approach it as playing two completely different characters, or are they indeed two sides of the same coin?
Aleks Paunovic: That's an interesting question. For me, in Season 1, it was all about thirst and power, and there was a lot of insecurity in there that led to anger. I do some work with a Red Cross anti-bullying campaign; a lot of anger comes from fear, and for Julius it was that he doesn't want to lose power or his mom. For the second season, how I connected it was the compassion and empathy; Julius remembers everything that he did as a vampire, and from there it was siding with and honoring his 1930s origin story, which was full of both compassion and violence as a boxer.
I spoke with Neil [LaBute] and the writers about Julius. I think he's of the earth, probably a farmer, simple and wanting to live a quiet life. It's all about compassion and nurturing, and in Season 2 he has a chance at redemption and getting his heart back. It's a through-line with Season 1 being fueled by his backstory and then applying that as a human to Season 2.
I especially liked the Depression-era scene depicting Julius' origins in this season. What was it like going back in time and shooting that?
Out of the whole season, that sequence has been my favorite! The entire department that made 1936 come alive was a whole phenomenal thing for me. It was so large-scale and I loved doing the moments with Julius' mother, and the costume department did an especially amazing job. Definitely my all-time favorite thing to shoot this season. I come from a boxing background so naturally I wanted to showcase that and show what I can do, but the boxing scene in particular was great in that they let it go on for a certain length of time to show that Julius needs to feel punished for not being able to take care of his mother. It was important for me to see him taking those hits.
Going back to Season 1, in which Julius is a vicious monster that eats babies. What was your favorite scene or moment from that season?
There are so many scenes from Season 1 that I love. I love sitting from my throne and addressing my ferals and sipping from a skull and having a feral/dog sitting next to me [laughs]. All of that stuff is so out there; looking down at all these feral vampires and being Julius all full of anger and when they yell 'Cut' I couldn't stop giggling because it was just so much fun.
Did you have an earlier version of vampire Julius that later evolved into who he ended being or did you pretty much have him as a character from the start?
I think talking with Simon [Barry] and Neil, I pretty much had him from the start, especially when I was working on backstory, figuring out that there's no other emotion from him except for thirst and anger and this need for power and blood, and of course the nuance and the colors of the relationship with his mother that I wanted to make sure was there. They guided me through that -- it was pretty great!
Going into Season 2, did you know ahead of time that Julius was going to become human again or was it a surprise when you first read it in the script?
Well, as Neil likes to do, he loves to tease me that I'm gonna die in like every third episode. [laughs] The whole season, I'd be like, "Oh I just read Episode 10, it's phenomenal!" and Neil is like, "Huh. You made it to Episode 10? You're supposed to be dead!" and I'd be like, "What?" So going into Season 2, they really didn't give me a lot to go on other than it was going to be really fun to do, and then them just having the faith in me as an actor to take that swing and believing in me and the role is a testament to the teamwork of the whole Van Helsing production and everyone championing each other. So even though Neil tries to kill me every second or third episode, I think he likes me and wants me to stick around. I was just in New York and he did it again to me and with a straight face and I'm like, "I'm not going to be in Season 3?" and he just turned around and walked away. [laughs]
You mentioned your boxing background. Was there any specific physical training regimen you went through for Julius?
No, I basically did what I always do -- I love to box and I train quite a bit, I'll do free weights and stuff, but my biggest thing was making sure I was prepared for any sort of fighting scenes. Julius isn't about swords or any kind of ninja stuff; he's just a straight brute and goes for the punches. I love the gloves they gave me, I thought, this is perfect, this is the perfect Julius armor. Julius is also the type of guy who's "I don't want to learn this, I don't want to learn that, this is what I know best and if this is how I go out, so be it." I don't think he's afraid of death; he almost welcomes it, but it has to be on his terms.
Neil knows I'm a big fan of Wanda, the tricked-out apocalypse ambulance, and you get to drive her this season. Is she an actual working vehicle? I love her.
It's an actual working vehicle and driving her is an absolute blast, it's so much fun. [laughs] Her reveal in Season 1 was one of the coolest things I've ever seen, and Axel gets to drive her, but then I get to drive her in Season 2, and it was a blast. I love Wanda.
If you could play any other character on Van Helsing, who would it be?
That's a really good question. I dig what Doc is doing; I don't think anyone could do it better than Rukiya [Bernard], she's such a phenomenal actress and goes from being loved to hated and back and forth and I love what she's doing; that would be a fun character to do. I dig the new character Lucky, she's kick-ass and I love that. Vincent's [Gale] character Flesh is great, too. Obviously everyone wants a crack at Vanessa but she's really in a different league, I'm not even going to attempt to touch that. I also like Scab; he's the epitome of the creepiest vampire ever and Rowland [Pidlubny] absolutely annihilates that; that's another one where I can't touch anything he's doing, he's killing it. I admire everyone that's killing the roles, and there's a few where I would love having that storyline, but I just love watching them more than anything.
It's so great because we shoot it out of sequence, we do block shooting, you just have to keep focus and keep to the script so when I watch the episode there's a lot that I've forgotten and a lot that I'm surprised by. I'm like any other fan watching this show -- I'm just as enthralled and excited because it feels brand new to me. Ramping up toward the end of this season, there's some amazing things happening and I can't wait for people to see it, it's going to be pretty great.
If you couldn't do it yourself, who would you want to play you in your biography film?
Jason Momoa. I think he's doing some phenomenal work. I worked with him on Stargate Atlantis and we became friends. Watching his career take off and watching the work he's been doing, especially Game of Thrones, I think he's a breakout star.
You've been on a handful of other SYFY shows, one of which is Battlestar Galactica. Do you have any fond memories from your days on that?
I do. I'm best friends with Karl Agathon, who plays Helo on the show, and he introduced me to a lot of the cast and helped get me on the show as Sgt. Fischer but my favorite moment on the show was the boxing episode because I was the one that choreographed all the boxing and fights for everyone. I would go training with Jamie Bamber and Edward James Olmos and that was so much fun because I got to connect with everyone on set. Being in my element and meeting these people in their element was a blessing, especially since I was just getting my wheels rolling with Battlestar. Everyone was lovely and I'm still good friends with everyone to this day.
You played a role in War For the Planet of the Apes. What was that experience like?
I played Winter and it was great because … it's Andy Serkis. I mean, are you kidding me? I get to work with that guy? And he couldn't have been more lovely and supportive and encouraging of the things we did. We had a month of Ape Camp to bond and learn how to be a primate not only physically but emotionally, and that took me by surprise. Terry Notary was the guy who helped everyone in their ape training and we had these arm extensions that were built specifically for each primate -- we learned how to walk, run and basically bastardize our sign language so we wouldn't be so smooth with it. The emotional aspect was the heart of it -- we started every day in Ape Camp with everyone sitting in a circle and finding our center and letting all of our inhibitions and insecurities go and starting the day that way, because a primate just is, is just to be. There's no vindication, there's no insecurity, they just are. So that was the biggest thing to crack down and thanks to Terry Notary, who plays Rocket in the film, it made me a better actor for all my other things because it really taught me to let go of everything else.
And during Ape Camp, Andy, even though he'd already done three of these movies, joined us to bond with the new actors. That's not something he had to do but he did and that’s a testament to his professionalism. It was an amazing experience.
What’s next for you?
I did a film called Siberia with Keanu Reeves that should be coming out soon and a film called Hard Powder with Liam Neeson and Laura Dern and a film I produced called Puppet Killer, which is a horror comedy that we’re hoping will be ready for next Christmas. I've been keeping busy and it's been a blast!