Mark Wahlberg’s latest project Patriots Day was released nationwide Jan. 13. The film tells the story of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, from the lens of what then-Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis experienced leading up to and in the aftermath of the attack. The film features A-list stars like Wahlberg himself, J.K. Simmons and John Goodman – who portray law enforcement leaders [Goodman takes on the role of Davis]. However, going toe-to-toe with them in his portrayal of one of the notorious perpetrators is a Hollywood newcomer. Themo Melikidze, an actor born in the country of Georgia, makes his American feature film debut in Patriots Day as Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older brother responsible for the bombing.
Melikidze’s acting career began indirectly when he was a child and became intrigued by martial arts. Born in Tbilisi, Georgia, at the nexus of Western Asia and Eastern Europe, his family moved to Belgium when he was eight years old, to escape Georgia’s economic depression. According to an account by Melikidze’s public relations team, the Anderson Group, Melikidze was involved in soccer, swimming and martial arts as a boy, even competing for the Belgium national Taekwondo team. He eventually enrolled at VHSI Athletic Institute in Bruges, where he majored in Sport and Physical studies, became interested in gymnastics, track and field, parkour, calisthenics, and became the leader in the school’s dance and theater clubs. During his senior year, he auditioned for New York Film Academy and was offered a scholarship. With his Film Academy graduation performance, he attracted the attention of an off-Broadway company, Live in Theater. From there, his acting career only progressed.
Though he maintains other passions including martial arts, swimming, soccer, dance, academia and magic tricks, acting is his primary ambition.
Melikidze took some time to talk to TheCelebrityCafe.com about his path to acting, his role in Patriots Day and the upcoming 24: Legacy, and other aspects of his life and career.
TheCelebrityCafe.com: You picked up acting only recently but looking back on your childhood in Georgia and Belgium, were there any experiences, signs or influences that inspired you in some way to become an actor?
Themo Melikidze: You’re right as far as this being pretty new for me, especially with [Patriots Day]. It’s just really something that you don’t get taught – what you want to be or what you want to pursue as far as dreams go. But I do remember a moment back in Georgia that struck me so much. I was just playing with my brother – we had a little TV; it was black and white and there was a movie with Bruce Lee playing. It was a funny thing, it had Russian subtitles and they were talking in Chinese. I don’t speak either language, but something about what I was watching on TV did something to me. It inspired me – really from that moment, I wanted to know who this guy was, what he did, what the whole martial arts thing was about. That’s how I first showed interest in acting – I started in martial arts. In Kindergarten I had to write a letter to myself in 20 years. I wrote: “self, you’re going to Los Angeles or New York to become the next actor, celebrity like Bruce Lee.” It’s funny, it’s an amazing thing to realize that, to see that dream now come true.
TCC: What was your first experience with acting?
TM: I did a semi-professional theater in Belgium. I’d say that was really the first stage play, for an audience. It was called “A Person Without Dreams.” It was a small local theater, unpaid, but that didn’t bother me. That’s not what it was all about. It’s about practicing the art, just getting into these characters, making them come alive to see the reaction of the audience – which is the most amazing thing ever. So that was my first stage play role. In senior year at the VHSI Athletic Institute in Bruges we did a rhapsody study. We did [a version of] Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen. I got a feel for the environment of a set, just being an actor. I didn’t have any idea of what being an actor was back then, so I was just going out there experiencing, learning all the aspects. That’s what I did in Belgium, but once I made the decision to go to New York, that’s when I took it seriously. I got accepted into the New York Film Academy with a scholarship and I flew to New York [in 2012].
TCC: Tell me about your performance at your New York Film Academy graduation which drew the attention of Live in Theater.
TM: It was a scene from Drugstore Cowboy and we performed in front of agents, producers, etc., nothing big, but it was something. Carlo D'Amore, the CEO of Live in Theater saw my performance, came up to me and said, “look, I’d like to have you, if you’re interested in this off-Broadway –“ Initially, I had plans to follow a Bachelor’s Degree but when I got this opportunity, I didn’t want to say no. You’re out there acting, your experience value goes up, you learn so much more by just doing the work, so I went with that. It was an amazing, amazing year [2013-14] that I had. Because of that, it really fueled my passion as actor, being on off-Broadway shows. One drama won “most unique theatrical experience in New York.” I was cast in one show, then another show, then another show. I got three shows in a week and a half. It was half-scripted, half-improvisation, so every show was different. You had to be on your feet a lot with improv, and it was so cool as an actor to explore the character, experience new ways of telling the story. It was an amazing year. But after that, I had to go back home because my [student] visa was overdue. That was a little bit of a bummer. I was in New York, I was doing so well, gaining experience, then I had to go back home. But then fortunately, I applied for another visa and now I’m back in the States.
TCC: How did you come to land the role in Patriots Day?
TM: [When] I got back from Belgium I moved to LA. The first two, three months were some of the toughest moments of my life since I didn’t know anybody. In New York I at least had cousins, an aunt, some place to go, I could always ask them to help me out. In LA I did not know anyone and it’s so different compared to New York. Everything is so spread out. You need a car, there’s so much more to it than you think. But that didn’t stop me at all. So I got to LA. I couldn’t afford a car so I got a bike, I was doing everything with a bike. I’d be biking around for hours every day trying to get auditions – from commercials to theatrical, even non-paid student films, anything I could get my hands on to build my resume, build my reel. It was tough to keep moving around from place to place, because I never had my own place. I was basically couch surfing. It was very annoying but I’d made the decision to come to New York, I was going to follow through. That’s what I was going to do and I didn’t care what happened to me.
During that time I got an email from a talent coordinator at Park Noack Agency. At first I thought it was a scam – you don’t get emails like that from an agency trying to meet you. But I looked at the website, it was certified, so I gave it a shot. I sat down with [talent agent] Adam Park and he said he liked what he saw of me in New York. Initially he had thought to have me as a commercial actor. Then he gave me something from The Americans and I sent him tapes and he replied by saying we’ll do theatrical as well. It was huge having an agent in LA, especially at that time since it was so rough for me. We sent those tapes out to The Americans, to FOX (FX) and straight up, my first audition, I ended up getting a call-back. It was a very big thing for me. Everything was turning around. A week later, Adam was initially planning for presenting me to casting for Patriots Day. He sent me the breakdown for the two characters, the two brothers. I made a self-tape and sent it to Sheila Jaffe [Patriots Day casting]. I was invited for a live audition, then another audition, then a call-back with Mark Wahlberg and Peter Berg. I was like “is this Mark Wahlberg, the Mark Wahlberg?” It was amazing, and this is one of the most amazing roles of my life, the most intense.
TCC: Speaking of the intensity, how did you feel about taking on a role of such a notorious person, especially at this point in your career?
TM: You have this opportunity at the time to have a chance to audition in front of Mark Wahlberg, show him and Peter what I can do as an actor. It’s a big achievement already. It was an amazing moment, eventually booking this part knowing the overall message of the movie is so much more important than me just thinking how I feel about the character. The most important thing about the project is the message for the U.S. and the world. For me as an actor to contribute to a project like that is an amazing thing. That’s how I looked at it. This is my contribution. In order to tell that story as true as possible everyone needs to commit themselves 100 percent to the character. I had to, to make sure we tell it as authentic as possible. It was really tough, I can’t lie and say it was a walk in the park. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life, playing this horrible monster – it’s unthinkable someone could do something like that. It was very tough but challenging to me as an actor to get into the state of mind of this individual. But with the support of Mark and Peter, and working with Alex [Wolff, who plays Dzhokhar Tsarnaev], that helped me to get into character and have the confidence to do this right.
TCC: Did you develop a strategy for getting in and out of your character’s head space?
TM: When you have a character like this who’s based on true events, there’s no strategy, no way to get into the state of mind. It’s just impossible. What helped me was all the research I could gather from people in Boston. I was able to have a feeling of what was going on through the days before the bombing. I had the opportunity to work with John Allan. He was the boxing coach of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, he coached him for years. I had sessions with John in his gym and we talked about Tamerlan’s personal life, how he was as a person, how many friends he had, just regular stuff. It’s incredible to think a person like that with family, friends, a brother, a wife could do something like that. It gave me vital information I couldn’t get anywhere else. The main thing that drove me for this role was the hate I have for the character, the absolute disgust and hate. Every time, being on set, doing some of the stuff we had to do reenacting scenes… the hate I had in these moments really got me energetic, it drove me through the whole project.
TCC: What was it like acting alongside stars like Mark Wahlberg and J.K. Simmons?
TM: It was incredible, unimaginable to be on set with them. It’s really funny because 2, 3 years ago when J.K. Simmons won an Oscar for Whiplash, I was watching with my friend in Belgium. And now, to be on set with him, shooting this project in Boston, catch a few words with him, talk about the character, what we can do, this and that, it’s a dream. It’s absolutely incredible. It’s what I always dreamed of – doing anything to make this happen. It’s an amazing, amazing feeling. Mark Wahlberg as well, it’s incredible to know that your idols -- we see them as celebrities but if you’re eventually together on set, you see how much time they take to prepare for a role, how much time they actually work, you see how much time you have to work, it motivates you, it drives you to continue. It was an amazing thing. All I did on set was learn, watch my idols and learn from them.
TCC: And now tell me about your upcoming role as Khasan DuDayev in 24: Legacy?
TM: That’s fun. It’s an amazing, iconic show which I’m blessed to be a part of. It’s a lot faster than film, it’s cool to shoot in Nevada. It’s more about family struggle – my part, I play this kid who’s completely lost, brainwashed. All he wants to do is prove to his old man that he’s man enough, that he’s a man. He’s doing it by, again, reaching out to the jihadi campaign. He has key codes he’s trying to detonate with his sister… what I like about the character is it’s all about him proving to his dad that he’s a man. He’s a lost kid, and you really get to see that on 24: Legacy. I love how the writing is executed on the show because he’s not just another villain trying to take over America. It’s really about a guy who’s completely brainwashed by people from the Middle East, the jihadi and all he wants to do is prove something to his family. I get to act with Kathryn Prescott, who plays my sister [Amira], in the middle of all this. We had an amazing time on set.
TCC: Do you have any other upcoming projects?
TM: Well Patriots Day [was] released Friday, January 13. Then 24: Legacy, so hopefully by February 5, when 24 comes out, I’ll have another project coming up. So far, it’s back to work, back to auditions to book the next gig.
TCC: Do you feel that, with these roles in Patriots Day and 24: Legacy, you’ve officially broken into American show business?
TM: 10 months ago, I legitimately didn’t have anything. If someone told me this was going to happen, that I’d work with Mark Wahlberg, J.K. Simmons, I would think they’re crazy. It’s unimaginable to be in this position now, doing interviews… It’s amazing and I cherish this moment, I really appreciate the chance I get to do this. There are a lot of people out there trying to do the same thing, so many out there trying to get a break, so me realizing a dream I had in my head, I’m just really appreciating this moment, enjoying the heck out of it.
TCC: Out of curiosity, how would you compare American cinema to the industry in Belgium or Georgia?
TM: Here, they like to make things really big, really over the top. Everyone needs to know about it, there’s a lot of promotion, commercials. It’s an amazing thing because that’s how people know about the movies all over the world. But I noticed in Georgia and Belgium they keep it smaller, a little more attention to detail, to the small things. I don’t think you necessarily see that in Hollywood movies. That’s the big difference – and that’s amazing. If everything was the same, it’d be boring. I love how every culture has their own niche, their own thing that’s great. You have Bollywood movies from India, Russian movies, it’s all over the place. I like that diversity. But yeah it’s the little things that you notice coming from Europe to the US that are different.
TCC: You have a lot of other interests besides acting. How do you make time for all your passions?
TM: I find time for everything but I do not like to start a task or project half-committed. I always commit to everything I do. I spend a lot of time at the gym. I like calisthenics, working out, martial arts – that’s how I really started. [But I can switch it on and off] when it’s needed for me to make that switch to get comfortable and prepare for another part, an audition. It eventually comes down to what you love to do. If it’s something you hate, it doesn’t make you feel good, it’s hard to make that switch, it’s hard to focus, if you’re just doing the same thing over and over. But I love what I do, this is always what I wanted to do. If you pursue a goal, it will happen authentically. The magic, the gym, calisthenics, piano, I love to challenge myself, see what my body can do, learn new things. I try to incorporate it together with my acting career. It doesn’t matter where I’m going to be, I’ll try to find time to do my own hobbies, things to do to relax, take a moment, a break… it all comes down to what you love doing. If you’re doing what you love, that switch happens authentically.
TCC: Finally, what is your current goal for your acting career?
TM: Everyone has their own goal… for me it’s always been about how I got into acting – by inspiration. Like I told you, I was watching a movie of Bruce Lee and I was inspired by this unknown person with a name I didn’t know of and I got inspired by him to do what I do now in my life. So if I could do the same thing to a little kid on the other side of the word, in the U.S., back home in Belgium. If I could inspire someone to follow their dream and go through all the things you have to go through, if I could help you with that, that’d be the ultimate goal. Nothing beats out that, nothing beats out inspiring each other as human beings.
Get inspired by Themo and/or his projects. Catch Patriots Day in theaters now, and catch him this winter in 24: Legacy, which debuts on FOX after the Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 5.