Zeljko Ivanek on Damages, Lost, and playing the good guy for a change

Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: Zeljko Ivanek has been a working theater, film, and television actor for more than 30 years, but his profile took a phenomenal upswing in 2007 after he received Emmy acclaim for his performance as Ray Fiske on FX’s Damages. Since then, Ivanek has barely had time to breathe, pulling guest-star spots on Lost and True Blood as well as recurring roles on Heroes and Big Love. He can currently be seen in the ensemble of Fox’s new drama, The Mob Doctor.

The Mob Doctor (2012-present)—“Dr. Stafford White”
Zeljko Ivanek: Well, I’m just starting on it, really, but we did the pilot in March, and we’re shooting the series in Chicago, which is pretty thrilling. It’s kind of a cool story. I think I was drawn to the project, first of all, and then the character. At least I’m the good guy this time around. For a change. [Laughs.] But I’m hoping things will get a little bit more complicated as we go along. What I’m hoping will come out of it is… the central story belongs to Jordana Spiro’s character [Dr. Grace Devlin], with her being kind of caught between her new life and her family ties to the mob and all that. I guess I’m just hoping that spreads out a little, and basically, as her cover gets blown a little bit, everybody in her life is going to be compromised somewhat, and they’ll have to figure out how to deal with that, whatever that may mean. I’m thinking in terms of people compromising who they think they are or what they think they might do in a certain situation. So you know, as her boss and mentor, I’m hoping that’ll compromise our relationship as well. It’s that possibility that interests me the most.

The A.V. Club: Given how many different series you’ve guest-starred or had recurring roles in over the past several years, you don’t seem to be hurting for work, but what are the merits to having a series gig?

ZI: Well, the last few years, I’ve really pursued the longer-term series stuff, because there’s a big difference, certainly, between series work or even recurring roles than being a guest star. When you’re guest-starring, it’s very nice, but you’re there very briefly, and it’s right there in the name: You’re a guest. It’s very hard to get a real sense of belonging. With recurring and regular roles, at least you have a sense that this is a home and a steady place. And that’s what I’ve been craving more and more. It’s just… there’s a comfort level. The more you’re there, the more you feel you belong in this place. You know everybody, and it just gets in your bones more and more, and the more it feels like it comes naturally, the easier it is. Not easy like it isn’t any work. [Laughs.] But the more it feels like you’re wearing the character like a really good-fitting suit.

The Edge Of Night (1981-1982)—“Sammy Wheaton”
ZI: Oh my God! Funnily enough, I just recently saw… I’m doing a play in New York, and the woman who cast that show came up to me after a performance one night. I hadn’t thought about her in years before that. I was doing a play in New York then, too, which made a little bit of a splash Off Broadway, and I think that role on The Edge Of Night came from that. I was playing some street thug paid to steal someone’s purse or something. Actually, I saw it not too long ago. It turns out I have it on video somewhere. I did three or four days, something like that. It was kind of my first introduction to television and the soap world, and I got to be home and do the play at the same time. I just remember being, like, slightly scuzzy and squirmy. But youthful! [Laughs.]

AVC: As you said, you were working in theater before that, but you started doing more TV and film in the wake of The Edge Of Night. Had you been actively looking to make that transition?

ZI: I thought I’d be doing theater, really. That’s all I had experience with growing up. I mean, I saw movies and television, but I don’t think I really connected at a young age that that was acting, that that was part of the profession. What made more of an initial impression on me was the theater we saw when we moved back to the States [from Slovenia]. We lived in the Bay Area and went to ACT—American Conservatory Theater—in San Francisco, and that’s what I thought of as… like, “That’s acting, people doing plays.” And that’s obviously what I did in high school and college. So I didn’t really see any avenues beyond that, and it’s mostly what I did the first few years out of drama school. So the TV and film stuff kind of trickled in later, and then took over.

Donnie Brasco (1997)—“Tim Curley”
ZI: That’s a great true story, and I got to meet the guy whose story it was based on. It was a great working experience, with a lot of New York actors. We did it mostly in New York, but then we did a portion of it down in Florida as well. Johnny Depp was terrific. It was also one of the times when I actually had more than five words to say in a movie. [Laughs.] I actually felt like I was part of the story, so that was cool.

I just remembered one odd story from that, and it’s one that happened years later. Literally, it was, like, 10 years after shooting Donnie Brasco. I was shooting something else and was given a wardrobe—some suit—and I put my hand in my pocket and pulled out a notecard I’d used in Donnie Brasco. I was wearing the same suit some 10 years earlier, and the notecard—which was a prop—was still in the pocket after having been sitting in some costume shop for all that time.

24 (2002)—“Andre Drazen”
ZI: That was cool. I think I was supposed to be on for three or four episodes, and it turned into 15 or something. It was a cool experience, because they would shoot two episodes at a time. And it was the first season, so just the momentum of that storytelling was really thrilling. I think when I joined the show, they were still not quite clear what country I was from, so my accent may be a slightly nebulous Middle European something or other until they finally settled on Serbian. [Laughs.] Plus I got to have Dennis Hopper as my dad! And it was nice to be there for a stretch of time and play a part in an ongoing story arc.

Homicide: Life On The Street (1993-1999)—“ASA Ed Danvers”
Oz (1997-2003)—“Governor James Devlin”
ZI: That was [executive producer] Tom Fontana, who was a huge mentor to me in the business early on. We met at the Williamstown Theater Festival many, many years ago, and he was the first person who kind of helped me out with the business, as far as agents and casting agents and what to do. He helped me get started in so many ways. The first thing I did for him was Homicide, and then Oz, which was an incredible collection of actors, many of whom, unfortunately, I never worked with. I had a center of about four or five people that I tended to work with. But it was just the most incredibly satisfying acting experience. Also, I got to be home in New York, roll out of bed, and show up at the set 10 minutes later, because we shot nearby for a while.

AVC: Oz was a pretty intense show, but given your position, you probably didn’t have to deal with nearly as much of that intensity.

ZI: Yeah, it wasn’t as intense for me, because I was wearing a suit and strolling in and out of the place. I think it’s fair to say that some of them had it much, much harder. But I also blame Tom, because I think that role started the succession of nefarious-men-in-suits roles for me, a territory I’m still kind of trolling these days. [Laughs.]

Homicide, though, that was a recurring role, but it was the first time I was really on a series semi-regularly for a while. I’d go down to Baltimore, and again, it was just an amazing ensemble of actors, but shooting it down there really was a case of a city becoming a character in the story, which was really cool. I commuted; I wasn’t there a lot, so I can’t really say I have many true Baltimore experiences to relate. Both Oz and Homicide, they’re critically admired, so it’s not like they’re really neglected, but I wish they’d found bigger audiences.

Dancer In The Dark (2000)—“District Attorney”
ZI: [Long pause.] Oh! Oh yes, of course. Sorry, I got focused on “District Attorney” and didn’t even think about the name of the film you’d said. I don’t think of myself as the district attorney. I forgot that’s what I was! But that was incredible. We shot that in Copenhagen, and it was the first time I’d worked with Lars von Trier. We showed up twice. The first time was just to, like, choreograph this huge number, and then the second time was to actually shoot it, with 105 cameras concealed all over the set. That was amazing. The work environment around that, being in Copenhagen for this week of shooting… It was just a completely different sense of workplace than around here. You actually knocked off at, like, 5 o’clock, because people had families and had to go home. It was just a very different feel to the whole thing. And I had people I sort of knew, like Joel Grey, and some who I knew vaguely from New York, but actually got to know better there. And then I wound up doing two more movies with [von Trier]. So that was very memorable.

AVC: How was the dancer herself?

ZI: Björk was amazing, actually. I think at the time she and Lars were, uh, having some issues. [Laughs.] Let’s put it that way. So it was a little uncertain that they were supposed to shoot, that everybody would actually be there. But everybody showed up and behaved beautifully. And she’s incredible in the movie. For someone who is not an actress, that whole movie is built around her vulnerability, and I just think she’s astonishing in it.

The Soldier (1982)—“Bombmaker”/“Cleaning Lady”
ZI: Good God, man, you have done your research! [Laughs.] I didn’t even know if that was on my IMDB page. I was doing that same play in New York when I was doing The Edge Of Night, and I think they came to see the play, and somebody said, “We have this part of the bombmaker. It’s just, like, a day. Would you want to do that?” And then later you see a cleaning lady planting the bomb, and in the play, I was playing… everybody played two roles in the play, and in the first act, I was playing this Victorian wife. So I jokingly said, “Well, I could play the cleaning lady, too!” [Laughs.] And they took it not as a joke and cast me as the cleaning lady, also. So at some point in the movie, suddenly there I am in a gray wig, looking shockingly like my mother, dusting and planting a bomb. That was, I think, the movie thing I did. Or… wait, did I do Tex before that? I can’t remember which of those was first.


Tex (1982)—“Hitchhiker”
ZI: You know, I think Tex might have been shot by the time I did The Soldier. In fact, yeah, Tex shot first, because we were only about a month into the play when I did that. I played a hitchhiker, and it was exciting, because—as we’ve just confirmed—it was the very first time I’d ever done a film. Tim Hunter directed that, who’s done Mad Men and a bunch of stuff since then, and Matt Damon starred. Wait, did I say “Damon”? Matt Dillon. Oh, God, don’t tell Matt Damon or Matt Dillon I said that. [Laughs.] I think I was in shock for the two days I was shooting, because it was just such a completely different experience. We were, like, in a truck, and because the scene took place as we were driving, we had to… I think we had to do the end of the scene first, then do the beginning of the scene, then do the middle of the scene. And we did it over and over again. I just had no experience with that, the whole doing things out of order. I was kind of like a deer in headlights. But it was a cool way to start.

Damages (2007-2010)—“Ray Fiske”
ZI: That is clearly one of my favorite things ever. [Laughs.] I loved the script when I first read it. I thought, “I’ll have to be around a good deal, for sure, because I’m representing Ted Danson, and he must be a big part of the story.” And I didn’t really find out until about three or four episodes in how much Ray Fiske was actually tied into the central elements of the story. So they kind of mapped it out for me a little bit at that point, where things were headed, and it just turned into one of the most gratifying work experiences. There was the cast, obviously, and getting to work with those people, Ted and Glenn Close. Then there was the writing, also… by the end of it, it just felt like the words were going straight out of the page and in and out of your mouth. That was the first major taste of feeling so completely at home in something. Part of it was that we were shooting in New York; part of it was that I was in it as much as I was and that the story was so personally engaging. I think whatever else I do, it’ll still be one of the most gratifying work experiences ever.

The X-Files (1994)—“Dr. Arthur Grable”/“Roland Fuller”
ZI: Now that was cool. [Laughs.] I remember him more as Roland, because that was the name of the episode, I think. That was near the end of the first season, wasn’t it? Certainly really early on, anyway. And it was a really cool part. I actually remember reading for it on the Fox lot, one of the incredibly few times where I read something and thought, “That’s as good as I can do.” It wasn’t like, “Oh, I have the job,” but, you know, you leave feeling like, “Okay, that’s as good as I could’ve done it, and I just hope they want it.” And it’s still on my demo reel, it’s still one of my favorite things, and… I don’t know what else I remember about it. It was just really completely different for me, like nothing I’d done before or even since.

Live Free Or Die Hard (2007)—“Agent Molina”
ZI: Whoa! That was a last-minute thing. I think I literally got called, like, on Wednesday, and… I don’t know if I replaced somebody or how that happened, but it was either a day or two days before I had to show up for four days’ work, which turned into something like five weeks in the end. Because it was such a big movie, the shooting schedule went all over the place. But I had a blast. And it paid for the renovations on my apartment because it turned into so many weeks. [Laughs.] But I loved Len Wiseman, who directed that. He also did Underworld. And it was a great crew, including a great first AD, Mark Cotone. Because… you work on something that scale and things can very easily sort of become the movie über alles, and everybody else just kind of scrambles, but the whole shoot was just run so beautifully and with so much control, but with good humor. And Len Wiseman—and Ridley Scott was like this, too—he just had such a sense of visual storytelling. I remember when I saw the movie, you always knew where to look. It’s like he just took your eyes and pulled them around. And this was with all the scenes, not just the action stuff. It was fascinating watching somebody who had such a visual sense of how to tell a story. That’s what I came away from it with.

The Rat Pack (1998)—“Bobby Kennedy”
ZI: Oh man! That was excellent. I still have my teeth and my wig from that. In fact, I think I used the teeth again in something else. [Laughs.] That was cool, because I love doing period stuff. What I remember most from doing that is the research. There was a lot of documentary stuff that I was looking at, and there was one amazing moment that’s really stuck with me, though it’s nothing specifically to do with what I did in the film.

There was a documentary about George McGovern, and it was an interview with him. He was older, so he’s looking a little more vulnerable, and he starts telling this story about this motel that they used for one of the campaign stops where… These two sisters ran it, who were very nice to them and would always gently complain about Bobby’s dog running around the place and into the kitchen at night. And then he segued out of that and into talking about… He suddenly started saying something like, “I remember, I escorted him to the airport, he was taking a small plane to a campaign stop, and I saw him kind of walking away…” And he suddenly looked so frail and so small, and he stops, and his hand kind of drops down, and he says, “And that’s the last time I saw him.” He gets very misty-eyed, his voice breaks, and he says, “Sorry, I’m getting tired, I guess.” There’s something so moving and dramatic about it, because he’s so not going there with the story, but this image comes to him, and suddenly he’s just transported back in time. It’s an amazing moment.

Hannibal (2001)—“Dr. Cordell Doemling”
ZI: Pushing Gary Oldman into the pigs is about as good as it gets. [Laughs.] And actually, what was really cool was just the downtime with Anthony Hopkins. I got him talking about his early days in the theater at the Old Vic with Laurence Olivier. Hearing him tell stories about that was really cool. But—oh, God, I shouldn’t even tell this story, but—I was going to do two days on Hannibal, and the first day, we were going to be shooting down in Richmond for this one scene, and I didn’t even know who I was working with. I’d only just flown in the night before. But I get the call and find out it’s Ray Liotta. I think, “Oh, that’s so cool! I really like Ray Liotta. It’ll be nice to finally get a chance to work with him.” So I go into the makeup trailer the next morning, they’re working on him, I didn’t want to interrupt, so I sit down in the next chair, and they start working on me. And at one point, he notices me and I think, “Okay, this’ll be a good moment to introduce myself,” so I say, “Hi, I’m Zeljko Ivanek!” And he said, “Yeah,” and then he goes, “Rat Pack…? ” [Suddenly looks horrified.] It’s not like we were just in the same movie: I actually worked with him for days! I mean, yeah, okay, it was several years before, but even so… I was just mortified.

Tower Heist (2011)—“Director Mazin”
ZI: That was just kind of cool because I was in L.A., they flew me out for, like, a day, but then we didn’t finish, so they flew me back out a few months later for another day. They’d been shooting so long that it was all kind of chaotic by the second time, but Ben Stiller, I knew slightly from before. Matthew Broderick was on the movie as well. So it was nice to be treated like royalty on a big movie. That doesn’t happen to me very often. [Laughs.]

Lost (2007)—“Edmund Burke”
ZI: Ah. The bus. [Laughs.] I remember the bus. Probably everyone else remembers the bus, too, if nothing else. I got to get run over by a bus, and how they did that was kind of amazing-looking. What a way to go. Plus, I got to be in Hawaii for a few days, so it was cool just for that. It’ll stay on my reel forever. In fact, I think it’s the end of my reel. You see everything else, then… [Smacks his fist into his palm.] Bus!

True Blood (2008-2010)—“Magister”
ZI: What I probably remember most—and I was just telling this to someone else—is that the first time I did the show, we did two night shoots in a junkyard in the Valley, with a lot of stuff to shoot, and we were kind of chasing the dawn, especially on the second day. And with the sun coming out, we literally shot all my close-ups for five scenes all in a row, all in one take, each one right after the other. I finished and it was, “Cut, wrap,” and I just remember being sort of stunned that it was over so quickly. But that’s how it goes.

Heroes (2009)—“Emile Danko”
ZI: I think I was coming off of Damages. It was right after the Emmys, and that was kind of an offer, which was nice. And it was 10 minutes from my house, which was really nice. [Laughs.] Again, I knew some of those people from before, and it was just nice to settle into another home for a little while. I was working with Zach [Quinto] toward the end, and then I also worked with Jack Coleman. I had a lot of stuff with Jack, and some with Adrian Pasdar. It was a really terrific group of people.

Big Love (2009-2010)—“JJ”
ZI: That was another one that came right after Damages. It’s such a bizarre world they were writing about, and… I don’t know if they ever totally figured out what to do with me. But I’d worked with Chloë Sevigny before, and there were a couple of other people I knew, so it was a nice feeling to be connected to some people right from the start. And I was always such a fan of the show that it was just kind of cool to be part of it. That’s another pyrotechnic death for the reel. [Laughs.] Another good demise.

The Event (2010-2011)—“Blake Sterling”
ZI: Funny you should mention that, because being here [at the Television Critics Association press tour] is giving me a little bit of déjà vu, since it seems like only yesterday that I was here to promote The Event. You know, the most frustrating thing about that series was not really being able to finish it out in any way that made sense. I didn’t know Blair Underwood before that, but I had a fantastic time working with him… and most of my stuff was with him. I really loved that relationship. It was such a large storyline to steer. I only wish it had gone on longer. I wish we’d had more time to follow through on the individual stories along the way. But, again, it was just really nice to have a home and to go to work at the same time. It’s just such a huge difference when you get to know people, and then once you become more familiar to them, they begin to start writing for you more. That’s when you really feel like you belong.

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