Interview – ‘Dracula: Voyage of the Demeter’ star Nikolai Nikolaeff talks being face to face with Dracula

Based on a single chilling chapter from Bram Stoker’s classic novel, DRACULA: VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER tells the terrifying story of the merchant ship Demeter, which was chartered to carry private cargo—fifty unmarked wooden crates—from Carpathia to London. Strange events befall the doomed crew as they attempt to survive the ocean voyage, stalked each night by a merciless presence onboard the ship. When the Demeter finally arrives off the shores of England, it is a charred, derelict wreck. There is no trace of the crew.  

The film stars Corey Hawkins (In the Heights, Straight Outta Compton) as Clemens, a doctor who joins the Demeter crew, Aisling Franciosi (Game of Thrones, The Nightingale) as an unwitting stowaway, Liam Cunningham (Game of Thrones, Clash of the Titans) as the ship’s captain and David Dastmalchian (Dune, the Ant-Man franchise) as the Demeter’s first mate. The film also features Jon Jon Briones (Ratched, American Horror Story), Stefan Kapicic (Deadpool films, Better Call Saul), Nikolai Nikolaeff (Stranger Things, Bruised) and Javier Botet (It films, Mama).

Leading up to the films release, I had the chance to chat with Australia’s own Nikolai Nikolaeff! We spoke about the experience of filming on a ship that was built for the film, and choreographing fights with Dracula.

Nick: It’s a pleasure to meet you, and I really appreciate you taking the time to chat today!

Nikolai Nikolaeff: My pleasure.

Nick: Before we break down Dracula: Voyage of the Demeter, I’d love to find out more about your character of Petrofski, and how he ended up on the Demeter that fateful night?

Nikolai Nikolaeff: Well, Petrofsky may not be the heart and soul of the ship [laughs], but he is definitely a workhorse. He’s fully tatted, unapologetic, lives life to the fullest. And when he discovers how much he is getting paid for this special voyage, he is very excited about what he can do with that money. In particular, getting to the nearest port and then getting absolutely shitfaced! That’s the best way to describe it. I definitely had a lot of fun playing that, that’s for sure!

Petrofsky is surrounded by crew members – a ragtag bun from across the world and they get tasked with taking this special cargo from Romania to England, and they don’t really know what’s in the crates. And of course, it’s bad news for them, because it’s pretty much Dracula in all his glory. This is definitely the big screen treatment of a well loved story.

Nick: It’s interesting you mention the treatment of the story, because I think it’s fascinating that this film is an adaptation of a singular chapter from Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ – a captain’s log. So, in the sense that this story is an expansion of a single chapter, what ideas did you bring to the table in order to flesh out Petrofsky in this world?

Nikolai Nikolaeff: Nick, I gotta say, thanks for asking. Because I’ve been doing this for a long time, and the thing that I just absolutely love about what I do is being able to be on a set, and you have to do what the script says, but every now and then, you get this idea. And if you’re working with a filmmaker who is completely confident in their craft, what you’ll find is they want to do that. If they don’t take it on board, it’s because they’ve got other things going on.

But, in this particular case, I was able to throw out a couple of ideas. In fact, one of the first meetings that I had with Andre [Ovredal, director] was via Zoom call, and I kind of didn’t hold back and just ended up giving him these four ideas that I had, including some of the tattoos that Petrofsky had on his body. I liked the idea that he was this tough, no nonsense guy, who then had a poem dedicated to his mother on his chest. It’s the tough exterior with a heart of gold kind of thing. And he [Andre] loved that!

I got to work with the Berlin makeup team and you know, a week later, we got these tattoos sent to us that were in my handwriting! It’s this beautiful Russian tattoo dedicated to his mother, which I ended up giving to my own mother. That was incredible.

Another idea I pitched that I was so thankful to come up with and pitch to Andre – and not only did we do it, it actually ended up being used in the marketing material! If you look up the trailer on YouTube, it’s one of the thumbnails! It’s a screenshot of my face with this demonic hand coming down over us. That was an idea I had where I was desperately trying to reach for this last glimmer of hope, which is his knife. And then this hand gently comes from off screen and gently places it on my face and you see all that hope extinguished. I came up with that from watching a wildlife video of a lion and a gazelle, with the lion just holding the gazelle down, and it’s game over. It was pretty special.

Nick: That actually leads nicely into my next question, because speaking of lions and gazelles, there’s a few people on the Demeter who have less than fun encounters with Dracula. I was astounded by the prosthetics and makeup that Javier Botet [Dracula] was in for this role, but I’m interested in knowing what it’s actually like having to choreograph those scenes where you have to get quite physical with him, and what was it like seeing him come out in those prosthetics on set for the first time?

Nikolai Nikolaeff: So this movie felt like one of the last bastions of old school Hollywood. In fact, most of this movie was made practically. There’s a couple of green screen elements for those wide sweeping shots. But the make up, prosthetics, the ship that was built was 66 metres long in an ocean filming tank off the coast of Malta.

And working with these practical elements, you really didn’t need to imagine too much because there’s this demonic face looking at you. Then there is an animatronic flying around, making all kinds of movements. It was definitely a moment for me to take stock of how lucky. On the soundstage next to us in Berlin was a film or TV show being done for Netflix with the 360 degree screens. And you know, I do a lot of motion capture work for things like Call of Duty, so you definitely have to envision that world and you’re wearing these ridiculous suits. I’m no stranger to that! But, being able to be put in a position where I didn’t have to make the world with my imagination was a true honour.

And Javier, that guy! The way his body moves – he can just switch it on. He would show me what he is practising, and he did this thing where his arms just go back at this unnatural angle. I think the audience is going to be delighted with the physical artistry of this film. From the actors, from the makeup, the shipbuilders, the art department. Of course, all under the stewardship of Andre Ovredal, who is a true artist. What he has crafted here, I think, will be remembered for many, many years to come.

Nick: I want to discuss the ship itself more, because I was interested to read what Corey Hawkins was saying about the training you guys had to do in order to learn what it was like to actually sail a boat from that time period. What was the experience like for you?

Nikolai Nikolaeff: We got do a bootcamp in Germany. We drove about 2 hours out of Berlin, and we, as a whole cast, got to sail on a ship. And the crew on that ship just put us through our paces. We shadowed these guys, getting into the thick of it. And my character, again, is a bit of a workhorse, right? So, when the sails go up, he’s the one pulling it up. Having that tactile kind of experience of getting on the ropes… Look, I’m an actor, but I like to think I’m a blue collar actor and I like to get into the thick of it. In my other life, when I’m not in Hollywood movies, I know how to get dirty and change the oil on a car!

Being on the ship, and being taught how to do everything, then going on to the sets knowing what it is physically supposed to feel like – I got sandbags put on the end of the ropes, at least 100 kilos to put the blood, sweat, and tears into it.

Nick: And then on the other hand, like you mentioned earlier, outside Petrofsky is tough, but he has a softer interior, and is a man of the sea and understands the superstitions that come with that. In your process as an actor, do you have any superstitions yourself before going into any performance?

Nikolai Nikolaeff: Well, I don’t change my underwear [laughs]. There’s your headline: “smelliest man in Hollywood”! No, look, I don’t have any superstitions myself. Head down, arse up, and just let the work speak for itself. That may evoke a giggle out of the US audience, it’s a very Australian term! I love getting into the thick of it with any opportunity I had to be on set to watch Andre helm this amazing movie.

It’s practical. It’s huge. It’s got fire, explosions. It’s got animals. It’s got Dracula! We were filming on the water, with waves crashing and smashing the cast members for weeks straight, so we definitely had to get our game faces on. It was cool to load up together and battle through this epic movie. I’ve got some lifelong friends as a result of that.

Thank you to Nikolai for this incredible chat and for his time, and thank you to StuidioCanal for organising the interview! Dracula: Voyage of the Demeter is in Australian cinemas from August 10.

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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