‘Marco Polo’ actor Erden Telemisov’s journey from sales to screen tough guy

19 октября 2015, 14:53

When Erden Telemisov was living in his native Karaganda, he remembers getting sign after sign that he ought to be an actor.

Family and friends told him his big frame, shaved head, expressive face and charismatic personality would make him a natural in the entertainment business.

Then there was the day when a stranger walked up to him at a bus stop, shook his hand and said, “Thank you.”

“What are you thanking me for?” Erden asked, puzzled.

“Because now I know what a Kazakh batyr of old looks like,” the man said.

Erden, who at 6-4 and 250 pounds certainly fit the nomad-warrior image, had no idea that that moment would herald the kinds of roles he’d play as an actor and a stunt man in a few years, including two seasons of Netflix’s heralded “Marco Polo” television series. 

It wasn’t until he was 30 that he decided something was missing from his life as a sales director for a cosmetics and perfume wholesaler in Karaganda.

In search of something new, he left for an administrative job with the HIT TV music channel in Almaty. It was the start of an entertainment career that would see him play warrior types and other roles in Kazakh and international movie and television productions, including “Marco Polo.”

Although in his tough-guy roles his scowl can melt steel, Erden is actually an easygoing, funny guy and has played comedy roles. I’m one of his Facebook friends, and I always love seeing his latest pictures because many are hilarious. He deliberately tries to put a smile on his friends’ faces with those postings. 

This photo of Erden with friends displays the expressive face that has been a plus in his acting career. Photo courtesy of Erden Telemisov.

Erden’s big splash in “Marco Polo” was a fight scene in the first season with Lorenzo Richelmy, the Italian heartthrob playing Marco. Erden was cast as a huge Mongolian wrestler in the third episode of the season. True to Hollywood form, the smaller Marco wins the fight, although he has unexpected help from a woman warrior.

Netflix has been shooting the second season of “Marco Polo” this year. Last year a considerable chunk of the shooting was in Kazakhstan, but the producer, the Weinberg Company, decided to shoot in other locations this year.

When Erden joined Hit TV, the company recognized right away that he was not only a solid administrator, but he had an appearance and charisma that would play well in front of the camera. The channel put him in both music videos and commercials.

Erden shows his sense of humor with this shot of wall-to-wall parrots. Photo courtesy of Erden Telemisov.

Then, in 2005, he went to a casting for a historical movie – and got the part. He’s been an actor ever since, and loved it.

“I get to work with artistic, extraordinary people from all over the world,” said Erden, 40. “What could be better?”

The cast, stunt people and crew of “Marco Polo” included Americans, Canadians, Italians, New Zealanders, Chinese, Japanese, Malaysians and Kazakhs.

The first season of the series was shot in Italy, Kazakhstan and a Malaysian studio complex. This year the filming has been in Hungary, Slovakia and Malaysia.

Erden likes the fact that he’s doing something new with every film project. “I could never have dreamed of that,” he enthused.

Working in an office eight hours a day the rest of his life would have been a killer, he said.

Erden’s Almaty friend Zhaidok Zhandarbekov, who heads the internationally famous Nomad stunt team, introduced him to stunt work four years ago. It has made him an even more saleable commodity in the competitive entertainment industry.

Hollywood directors and producers say Zhanderbekov’s troupe is the world’s best horse-riding stunt team. The group also does fight scenes, takes falls from high places and performs other action work.

Erden said his gratitude to Zhanderbekov goes beyond introducing him to stunt work. He landed a role in “Marco Polo” because Zhanderbekov recommended him, he said.

Erden said most of the stunt work he does involves fights and swordplay. He’s too hefty to do horse stunts, he said – might break the horse’s back.  

Erden’s stunt scenes include swordplay as well as fighting. Photo courtesy of Erden Telemisov.

For the moment Erden is content to continue playing bad guys, including menacing warriors, soldiers and bandits. “Heroes are very predictable – everyone knows what the good guy is going to do,” he said. “It’s much more interesting to play a bad guy, partly because you never know what he’s going to do in the next scene.”

But he would like to diversify his parts over time, and play more leading roles.

His only lead so far was in a Kazakh television comedy series called “The 25th Kilometer.” He played a good-hearted guy who adored his wife and was terrified of his mother.

The project was “two months of non-stop, challenging work with top actors,” he said. “It was cool!” 

Another important role for him was in a Kazakh movie called “Fake – Watch Out.” He played a tough businessman whose lover nearly destroyed him by cheating on him. One day he became so immersed in his character’s plight, he said, that he “cried for hours.”

In addition to “Marco Polo,” Erden’s international productions have included the Kazakh-American movie “The Whole World at Our Feet,” whose lead was the American actor Armand Assante, and movies in Armenia and Uzbekistan.

His most important international production by far has been “Marco Polo,” however.

Erden and Lorenzo Richemly practiced their fight scene with the movie’s stunt coordinators for two months before it was filmed.

Erden Telemisov as the Mongolian wrestler who fights Italian actor Lerenzo Richelmy in the first season of the Netflix series “Marco Polo.” Photo courtesy of Erden Telemisov.

The scene was challenging because Erden had to land on his head without hurting himself or Richemly.

The production crew shot it 12 times before they were satisfied it was right.

“After every take, the crew and the stunt coordinators would run up to me to see if I was OK, that I didn’t break anything,” Erden said.

Luckily, he had been taking Thai kick boxing for four years so he’d be fit enough for stunt work.

“Thanks to this training and a very powerful neck, I was fine,” he laughed.

The most dangerous stunt he’s performed wasn’t in “Marco Polo,” but in the “Whole World at Our Feet.”

He had to accelerate a Jeep to high speed, then make a 360-degree turn and stop on a dime.

He said he wasn’t afraid for himself, but he was scared that if he made a mistake, he’d plow into the director and camera crew.

“The stunt was successful – everything went smooth,” he said.

What does it take to be a good stunt man?

“Intuition, self-control and a desire for self-preservation,” Erden said. Then he added with a grin: “We are stunt men, not kamikaze. Kamikaze have only one project in life, stunt men four to five projects a year.”

In addition to Richelmy, Erden got to work with actors Rick Yune, Zhu Zhu and Kim So-eun in the first season of “Marco Polo.”

Yune was in the first “Fast and Furious” and the James Bond film “Die Another Day.” Zhu Zhu appeared in the film “The Man With the Iron Fists,” opposite Russell Crowe. Kim So-eun is one of South Korea’s most popular actresses.

Erden stays in touch with many of the cast and crew he made friends with during the “Marco Polo” filming.

It’s not hard to understand why Erden gets a lot of warrior roles. Photo courtesy of Erden Telemisov.

One actor he developed a particularly tight bond with was Lawrence Makoare, a big New Zealand Maori who also plays warrior roles. Makoare was the fearsome Ork commander in “Lord of the Rings.”

When Erden had a birthday during the first-season shooting, Makoare made a point of congratulating him and joining others in singing “Happy Birthday.”

Although he loves movie work, Erden has been a fixture on television as well.

He’s hosted the “Personal Trainer” show on the KazSport channel and the Hit TV channel’s “Hit  Creation” show. He’s also co-hosted the “Studio 158” morning show.

A believer in giving back to the community, Erden has also been the public face of Kazakhstan’s Red Crescent relief agency.

After honing his acting skills for a decade, he feels he’s finally on the threshold of reaching the heights all actors dream of.

“The breakthrough lead role that I need is waiting for me,” he said.

After achieving more recognition, he said, he’d like to take a role behind the camera.

“More than anything, I want to be a director, to make my own movies,” he said. “That’s my ultimate goal.”

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