Interview: Nikolai Nikolaeff on Dracula: The Last Voyage of the Demeter, being approved by Spielberg, and working with his “villainous” face

*This interview took place prior to the current SAG-AFTRA strike*

Melbourne-born actor Nikolai Nikolaeff will be the first to tell you he’s aware he gives off “villain” vibes; “It’s got resting “I’m going to kill you” face,” as he states.  And it’s because of such that he’s carved an international career for himself in a variety of less-than-heroic roles, ranging from such acclaimed series as Daredevil and Stranger Things, to his latest big screen encounter in Dracula: The Last Voyage of the Demeter.

As the film sets sail across cinema screens the globe over (you can read our review here), Peter Gray spoke with Nikolaeff about working on the gothic horror film, how it felt to know he was being overseen by one Steven Spielberg, and why he’s okay being dubbed “the poor man’s Willem Dafoe.”

Congratulations on the film.  I like to go into films knowing as little as possible, so it was refreshing to see a Dracula tale told in a much different manner than we’ve seen thus far.

I think there’s definitely a movement to, you know, put a modern spin on the classic tale, and this one, funnily enough, is not really doing that.  The word “classic” comes to mind with this film.  Even the way it’s shot, the way it’s cast…and in the story itself it’s a really kind of beautiful and classic story.  It’s based off Bram Stoker’s Dracula, this chapter called “The Captain’s Log”, and that chapter is actually very, very short.  It’s a few pages of the Captain writing down how (his) journey disintegrated into the madness and what happened to (his crew).  I think because it was so minimal, it really kind of let the reader’s imagination go crazy.  This movie has been 20 years in development!

I love that they kept Dracula to the background and in the shadows for the majority of the movie.  They didn’t spoil his reveal by constantly showing him throughout.  It got me thinking that with that embodiment of Dracula, was there ever any time on set that emulated the atmosphere that the film projects? You always hear of horror sets being the ones where creepy shit happens…

When you flip the camera around, there’s 40 people behind the camera, and that kind of effects the vibe.  But having said that, I got to wander around the set when there was no cast or crew there, especially in Berlin when they were finishing off one of the main cargo-hold sets, and it blew my mind.  Especially stepping into it with no lights.  It was a different world.  It definitely had that spooky kind of element to it.  And the attention to detail that the art department paid to this was just phenomenal.  I mean, it’s an Amblin Production.  The head of Amblin is Steven Spielberg, so you’re not going to let him down, right?

It’s attracting the best of the best around the world, and everyone stepped up.  I can’t tell you how amazing the special effects and the creature effects department (are).  They just outdid themselves.

On the mention of the special effects, when you’re involved in a film of this ilk, do you want to be the character that gets mutilated on screen? If you’re in a scary movie, you might as well go all out, right?

Throughout my career…it’s something about this face.  It’s got resting “I’m going to kill you” face.  I’ve got this bad guy rep.  I’m a good guy in real life, but on screen I’m just somehow the bad guy.  And, of course, bad things happen to the bad guy.  I’m lucky that I’ve been covered in a tonne of blood.  In fact, I just caught up with a friend of mine who, for nine years, did my makeup on Daredevil.  We were laughing because her job was to literally spray me with the thickest, stickiest blood possible for pretty much three straight weeks.  I do love it, but a part of me is, like, I can probably go for the guy that gets to live? That remains untouched.  This movie however, I’m surrounded by gore and blood, and I loved every minute of it.

Your director, André Øvredal, knows how to execute tension and a solid scare.  As I said, I went into this knowing it was a Dracula tale of some sort, but what The Last Voyage of the Demeter presented was such a surprise.  The editing, the use of lighting, the singular location…it’s difficult in this day and age to feel surprised by cinema.

Yeah, look, Andre is a true artist and the story that he’s crafted, with this ambience, it’s quite amazing to witness.  I saw him crafting this on set, but when all the other people (on set) are at the top of their game and they all come together? It’s just this incredible kind of tapestry.  I don’t want to say masterpiece, but it’s a very well crafted movie.  I think we were all definitely aware that at the top of the flagpole was Spielberg.  It was an honour to be a part of it.  It definitely makes you want to step up your game.

When I was looking at your filmography, I noticed ‘Round The Twist in there.  That was just the most enjoyably bizarre show.  When you were on that show, acting at a young age, was it something you knew you wanted to continue to pursue? Whether it be in the Australian industry or international productions…

When I was 12-years-old, when a little known movie by the name of Terminator 2 came out…that’s what I wanted to do.  In my career I’ve been kind of bumping up levels recently, with the last two years being directed by and working opposite Halle Berry (in Bruised), and David Fincher in Love, Death and Robots.  It’s something that I’ve striven for my whole life.  I just really wanted to kind of work with the best.  So then to be on a set like this, with Spielberg kind of okaying my casting was definitely a moment.  From humble beginnings in Melbourne, then being in Sydney and doing Blue Heelers and Sea Patrol, which was particularly pivotal for me.  That was one of the best jobs I ever had.

I just want to stick around to do this for the rest of my life.  I’m so lucky to be doing this on the biggest stages in the world.  I’ve done the game for Call of Duty, and then Stranger Things.  I don’t know if you’ve heard of that one (laughs).  That was pretty special.  I’m really lucky to work in the United States and then be able to come back home and do homegrown projects.  I just want to do more of it.

Well, we love to see homegrown talent make it overseas, and I can now attest that you’re more than your resting face! Nikolai’s a nice guy, let’s give him a comedy or a love interest.

I am willing to play the good guy.  You know, I worked with Willem Dafoe on a movie called Togo, not to name drop (laughs), but he’s got those similar sharp features, but he’s been able to craft being the good guy too, so if I can be the poor man’s Willem Dafoe I’ll be happy.

I’ll do my best to put that out in the world for you.

Peter, thank you.  It’d be rude not to, mate.

Dracula: The Last Voyage of the Demeter is now screening in Australian theatres.

Peter Gray

Seasoned film critic. Gives a great interview. Penchant for horror. Unashamed fan of Michelle Pfeiffer and Jason Momoa.