Aleks Paunovic is one of those people who dominates a room.
At 6'5" tall, of Serbian and Croatian descent, with a large, muscular build, his presence rarely goes unnoticed. Paunovic grew up in Winnipeg, Canada, with boxing blood in his veins. His father, uncle, and grandfather were all champion boxers in the old Yugoslavia, and Paunovic continued the tradition, winning championships across Canada in his weight category well into his 20s.
However, a love of creativity of the arts equally matched his athleticism, and Paunovic spent several years touring as the bass player of a metal rock band, Specula Black.
While on tour with his band, a casting agent noticed Paunovic and asked if he would audition for a film. He won the part, which led to an introduction with a stunt coordinator, who then recognized Paunovic's physical prowess and encouraged him to begin working as a stunt actor.
"I was basically playing in my band until 2:00 AM," Paunovic recalls of his early career, "and then I would jump into the car and go to the set and shoot an all-nighter, and just be a gopher and slowly learn the craft. I have so much respect for the stunt community, but it was just something that I couldn't do half-assed. What I really wanted to do was tell stories."
From that point, the boxer, rock star, and stunt actor changed the trajectory of his career, "so that I could concentrate more on telling stories, and making that the focal point of my career," Paunovic explains.
He has since created a vast resume that includes roles in both mainstream and indie films, television shows, and web series. "Being a character actor, I love the fact that I can create something out of nothing, and there are so many ways of going about it," he says.
Paunovic has created memorable characters in appearances on such shows as Battlestar Galactica, Smallville, Once Upon a Time, Psych, Arctic Air, The 100, Arrow, iZombie, Continuum, and Supernatural. He's had parts in popular films like War for the Planet of the Apes and Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, and worked alongside Keanu Reeves in Siberia, Liam Neeson in Cold Pursuit, and Anthony Hopkins and Ray Liotta in Blackway.
"Throughout my career, I've played a lot of baddies," Paunovic laughs, "I have a blast with it, just because I don't really connect to being a baddie in real life. But playing bad dudes in film and television has been a blast."
He admits, however, that one of the biggest frustrations of his career has been getting past the "bad boy" stereotype due to his domineering frame. "I want to be looked at as more than just a stunt guy or a big guy. I've always wanted to tell the stories-- but sometimes people can't get past the fact of my size."
When asked about favorite characters that he's created over the years, "one of the ones that really sticks out to me is a film that David Hollander wrote and directed called Personal Effects with Kathy Bates, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Ashton Kutcher. I played a mentally challenged man who was accused of killing someone.
"It was an opportunity where I got to play somebody that wasn't strong, that wasn't an alpha, and was in an extremely vulnerable state. I worked really hard on that character. I gained 60 pounds of 'bad weight' because I didn't want to look strong in it.
"I remember seeing it in the theater with an audience and some of the pivotal moments of telling the story of that character - to watch how it affected people in the audience - I always go back to that being one of the proudest moments within my career."
Recently, Paunovic's starring role on Syfy's Van Helsing, currently entering its fifth and final season, has offered the actor a chance to play a character with a dual personality. When he originally auditioned for and landed the part of Julius in season one of the show, the character was an aggressive, fear-inducing vampire.
In the beginning of season two, however, Julius became human again, which was a welcome surprise for Paunovic. A boxing backstory sweetened the deal even more: "I was literally like a giddy little kid then they told me they wrote a boxing episode," Paunovic laughs. "
The opportunity to go from vampire to human, and basically just doing 'Aleks' within that character was really a huge breath of fresh air, and I loved that aspect of playing Julius. But it's bittersweet. It's the best gig that I've had, and the longest gig I've had," he laments, referring to the end of the series.
"Knowing it was our last season, it was tough to go to work. That's how much it meant to me, and affected my life and lifelong friendships. And my god, the fans have been so supportive of the show. For us to go five years in this day and age of television is pretty great."
Fans have also embraced Paunovic's lovable giant of a character, Breachman Bojan "Boki" Boscovic, on TNT's Snowpiercer, starring Daveed Diggs and Jennifer Connelly.
"I went in for the audition, and it was originally a Polish character named Harold," Paunovic says, "And I'm Serbian, so sometimes I'll improv in Serbian. So, when I got the role, I was like, 'Okay, now I have to tell them I don't speak Polish and that my improv was in Serbian, so either we take it out, or we make the guy Serbian!'"
Paunovic coaxed showrunner Graeme Manson to go along with his ideas for the character, even allowing him to name the burly mechanic after his own brother, Bojan.
"Come on, man. Breachman Boki Boscovic!" he laughs, "How great of a name is that? Graeme really gave me a gift with that, so not only is the character now the one from the audition, but I get to make him mine. He's Serbian and I get to give my brother a tribute. The role is very close to my heart and I consider it a gift that I get to play it."
While Paunovic only appeared in two episodes in Season one, "You will definitely see a lot more of Bojan Boscovic in season two!" he says. "It's such a wonderfully talented ensemble, and there are some really amazing twists and turns this season. I feel very fortunate to not only be a part of this show, but to have a character that I can connect with so well."
In addition to these two roles, the Vancouver and LA-based actor has recently finished production or is in pre-production on a myriad of other projects, such as the YouTube series NarcoLeap, TV movies Hollywood North and Plains of Snow, and films Sheltering Season, XCII, Final Invasion, and Chained.
He's also working on a passion project in his hometown of Winnipeg, creating a production studio called Wonderlight.
"Winnipeg, has, arguably, the best tax credit in North America. Not only that, we want to create jobs within my hometown. Covid has definitely put a little bit of a hurt on things at the moment, but we are building relationships and looking forward to expanding Winnipeg into a vital production city," Paunovic says.
Although he plays so many "baddies," as he calls them, in movies and on television, Paunovic is really a self-proclaimed "mama's boy" at heart. As a youth growing up in Winnipeg, he did, admittedly, sometimes use his size to his advantage - a choice he now regrets.
"When you're young, and your hormones are going, and your testosterone's up, you make certain decisions out of fear. I remember there were times when I was scared because another kid was really smart, and I felt like he was making me feel unintelligent, so I would use my size to squash him. I used my upbringing as a boxer, thinking that was a way to show my strength."
Paunovic continues, "I think I just needed guidance - I needed people to let me know that it was ok to feel things, and it was ok to talk about them. I feel like I could've experienced so much more with an open heart if I didn't have that fear and insecurity and the need to make someone else feel like less, so that I could feel better."
Because of his experiences as a young teenager, he is now a strong advocate against bullying - often focusing on the bully, rather than the victim, to try to help stop the problem at its source.
As an actor, athlete, and musician who knows what it's like to be judged on appearances, Paunovic makes an effort to devote time to the Canadian Red Cross's Anti-Bullying Initiatives. "I think that so much can be solved with a lot of care and openness and a safe space to talk about feelings and emotions."
As Paunovic shows, just because someone dominates a room, it doesn't mean they're not all heart.
Season two of Snowpiercer premieres on TNT January 25th.