Alex Ziwak is an American actor who has appeared in over 70 episodes of the long-running hit TV show Blue Bloods, as an undercover cop. He is also a Tae Kwon Do Master, 9th Dan Black Belt. Alex and I had a wonderful and fun conversation about the show and martial arts, his life and family, how playing Eastern European characters is in his genes, his career working with icons such as James Gandolfini and Al Pacino, idols and inspirations, being one of the nicest “bad guys”, modelling and much more.
Read on to find out lots more about Alex Ziwak, actor and martial artist.
DB: You asked about my name, Davina, and how to pronounce it.
AZ: I know how you feel, my last name is Ziwack.
DB: I was going to ask you to explain how it is pronounced.
AZ: A lot of people call it, Zai-wack because of the i, but it is pronounced Zee-wack. My father was Ukrainian and my mother was German. That’s why I get a lot of Eastern European roles – it’s in the genes.
DB: And is it just Alex, or is that a shortened form?
AZ: It’s short for Alexander, but then everybody calls me Alex. In the martial arts there are different titles such as Grandmaster and Master, but I feel comfortable just being called Mr Ziwak or Sir.
DB: Have you got a middle name?
AZ: I have a confirmation name, Peter. My father’s name was Petro. That’s Ukranian for Peter.
DB: Where were you born, and what was it like when you were growing up there?
AZ: I was born in New Haven, Connecticut. We had a neighbourhood of children and I went to St. Francis Catholic School. I was an altar boy, played basketball, and played with the kids in our neighbourhood. We would play outside, baseball, basketball and street hockey. If we wanted to go someplace, we would take the city bus and go to downtown New Haven and hang out there. As I grew up I went to Eli Whitney technical school and I took up drafting because I enjoyed drawing.
During this time, I did training in the martial arts, along with my sister. My parents thought it would be a good idea for us to get into something where the sport was more of an individual thing, like some people do gymnastics or swimming.
I was always interested in the martial arts because at the time in the States we had the TV show called Kung Fu and Bruce Lee was the Green Hornet. I was like, “Wow! That’s really cool, I want to do that.” Not because I want to learn how to fight, I just wanted to learn martial arts and it looked really cool. Me and my sister went to this school in Connecticut, watched the class and joined, and it’s been that way ever since. At the same time I was going to high school and playing basketball.
After that I went to Greater New Haven State Technical College: I have an Associate’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering.
I was also singing in a band, called Ziwak. We had two guitar players, bass player and a drummer, and would play Queen, Kiss, Alice Cooper, Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith and Bon Jovi, all sorts of stuff. We had a lot of fun. It was great and we had our own songs. But just like sometimes relationships and marriages don’t last (for a lot of different reasons) we went our separate ways. But we still get along and are still friends. It was a good time.
I always had that artistic side of me (martial arts is an art form) and I was interested in the acting. My martial arts instructor in Connecticut had to leave, so I reached out to a gentleman in Los Angeles, called Grandmaster Hee ll Cho. Next to Bruce Lee he’s on the most magazine covers, so he was pretty well known. As a child growing up, they had a lot of martial art magazines, and I would see him in them. I told him my story, sent him my certificate and then went out there to meet him. I started training with him and the rest is history.
He said, “Alex you have a unique kind of look, you should look at getting into the acting, or modelling.” He did acting himself and had different actors and their children train at his school, so that’s what I did when I came back.
DB: You have a sister, is she your only sibling?
AZ: Yes, she is, she’s four years younger than me. She lives two towns over, is married and my niece is 14 years old. We trained together all the way coming up, and then opened up the schools and would teach together. She’s a CPA accountant, so she would take care of the books which is important. As her daughter got older she got involved in gymnastics and that took up a lot of time. Then she started work and it was hard for her to get to the school, so then she said, “It’s better for you just you do it and I’ll still help with the bookkeeping”. So she’s still involved, but not the teaching.
Also, I have a son who’s 26 years old. I was married years ago and, you know, sometimes things don’t work out, I got no hard feelings towards his mother, we’re still friends. He lives in Hoboken, New Jersey and works in New York City at the New Freedom Towers for a company called The Zone. He’s a good good young man. I live in North Haven, Connecticut.
DB: Your mum came from Germany and your dad came from the Ukraine. Where did they meet?
AZ: They met in Germany. My mother was injured in the war. There was a piece of shrap metal in her leg and they wanted to cut off her leg. My grandmother was a doctor and said they could put a rod in it instead, but for the rest of her life she couldn’t bend her knee. In Germany she had a lot of surgeries. My mother was a singer in the choir and they would go and do different shows. My father went, met her and they hit it off. My father came to the States first. He lived in New York for the majority of the time, and then he lived in Pittsburgh for a while. He did what a lot of people do when they move here, which was to get himself settled in and then he brought my mother over.
DB: Where in Germany was she from?
AZ: Bavaria right down in the south. We used to go every other summer to visit my grandmother. We would go see the different castles and stuff like that. My mother was proud of America, she loved America, never was any hard feelings about what happened in the war and she just was very thankful and grateful to be in this country.
DB: Your father was from the Ukraine, that must have been “interesting” during the war.
AZ: He was actually in a book that somebody wrote about the war. They interviewed him. They had asked, “What are those trucks going into that soccer stadium? Are they working inside the soccer stadium? My father said, “No, those are dead bodies that they cover up that were put in there,” which is God awful.
DB: My father was in the war. He was in the RAF in Lancaster bombers, but he never talked much about it at all.
AZ: My father and my mother didn’t talk much about it. My mother was watching 9/11, and when the towers come down I could see she started to cry because it reminded her of Germany. She had a lot of friends, German friends, Jewish friends and she felt awful about what happened and how people were treated, just awful.
DB: What did your parents do for a living?
AZ: My mom worked as a seamstress for a gentleman called Felix, a tailor in New Haven. Felix did the tailoring and she would do the seamstress work. My father worked for LGD Defelice. An Italian gentleman and his family owned it and they were very extremely nice to my father, took him in and helped him get on his feet. He would work at the shop fixing the big bulldozer trucks and painting trucks. His company made up the JFK airport. My mother stopped working once we arrived. He would be at work all the time and my mom would be home. They liked my father so much that, when he retired, they still asked him to come back and work a little bit. Dad died at 77 from leukaemia. Safety wasn’t what it is today and he would paint, breathing those fumes. My mom said, you could smell it on the jumpsuit, but they didn’t know back then.
DB: I know music is really important to you, what is your first musical memory?
AZ: Oh, I can remember, this is good! I had a friend, his name was Danny and he had a paper route, so I would help him with that. I went over his house and he said, “I’m going to go and take a shower, here I’m going to put this album on.” And it was Kiss Alive! and I was like, “What is this?” I looked at the cover and I thought, “These guys are superheroes! You got a guy with a star, you got a demon, you got a guy from space…” I’d never seen anything like that, besides Alice Cooper who I already liked. Then the sound of it and the lifestyle. I remember that like it was yesterday.
DB: So was that the first record you ever bought with your own money?
AZ: Oh, yeah. Then he played Black Sabbath for me and I was like, “I’m into this kind of stuff.” I love Led Zeppelin and I was into the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. I love The Who, they were very polished. Bands from England felt very polished and aware of their image, the way they dressed, I liked that and found that very cool. I was never into somebody just wearing a flannel shirt, sitting on a barstool, playing the guitar. I needed more! That’s why I loved Freddie Mercury (such bravado), Robert Plant, Mick Jagger, Alice Cooper and Paul Stanley from Kiss, prancing around the stage. These frontmen that have some style and attitude about them. I wanted to be like Robert Plant and Paul Stanley and to be that cool. I liked their style. The way Plant would hold the mic and the mic cord, and Paul would cross around, Freddie Mercury commanding a stage, and his voice… I never heard a voice like that before in my life, it was just amazing! You know some kids grow up and want to be a specific athlete, but the singers… I gravitated to them.
DB: Who are your musical icons today?
AZ: Alice Cooper, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Kiss, Queen. I like Lenny Kravitz to the Rolling Stones. I’m more of a rock and roll guy, that’s my genre. I like hip hop. I like Motown, and those are true artists with fabulous voices – and they can dance: Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin. I’m not a big country music kind of person but I like Keith Urban, he has a bit of a rock edge.
DB: So the first time you performed on stage it would have been in the band. Was that the first time you ever performed in front of people?
AZ: Well… as a child, my mother told me that being from Germany most children from that family have to play the accordion, so I played the accordion, “Wild Irish Rose” and all these other tunes. I remember I went around the neighbourhood and invited everybody to come over to my house. I put a bunch of chairs in the driveway, and I performed for them. I think that’s where I got the bug. And then I thought, “Well, the accordion is kind of nice but I don’t think you’re gonna meet a lot of girls playing the accordion! So I’m going to start taking up singing and maybe the guitar.”
DB: When you were in LA training for your martial arts and it was suggested you went into modelling and acting, was the thought not quite as scary because you’d already been on stage and performed as a lead singer?
AZ: Correct. I wasn’t as nervous doing the modelling and acting, I just didn’t know as much as I thought I did about the business back then. I met my friend Jayson Byrd (who takes the majority of my pictures on IMDB) at this place, The Soap Set. where a woman, Lisa Lelas, would have a workshop where she taught acting and I took classes. We hit it off and became really good friends. He would explain to me different things because he photographed a lot of people, from Bob Dylan to Alice Cooper to Lauren Hutton.
Then I did some soap operas, but I didn’t know my character. I was taking pictures, which is nice, but you have to develop a certain type of character. Then what happened was the 9/11 hit, and I thought, “Wait a minute, I think I’m just gonna hold off for a while travelling in and out of New York.” People in the business, including Jayson, called saying I should get back into it and that people were interested in me. I jumped back in and we took different pictures, but with me more as a character, not just modelling shots. There were more of me like a tough guy gangster, then in a suit, and then casual with jeans. So it opened up a lot of doors. The gangster roles, people would call me -a lot. “Okay, we’d like you to be a Russian mobster, Eastern European, Albanian, Chechnya…” I was happy. That’s when I had the goatee, so it worked.
Then I was with a modelling agency in Pennsylvania, and they said, “Alex, you should think about going scruffy because that will help you get more print work.” So I went scruffy, and it did help me get more print work as a Polish gangster like Viggo Mortensen, stuff like that. For different projects if they ask me to shave, I’ll shave or grow it back. I would wear my hair in a ponytail like Steven Seagal and wear it down, but then it was time for a change, I just want to switch it up.
DB: Do you think that’s reflective of how people view others in general, that they tend to categorise them according to how they look?
AZ: I agree. When I had the ponytail I would get more biker roles – I have a lot of biker friends and I can still pull off the biker thing, but I can do other stuff too. In casting, I suppose it’s easier if people can see something that they know is easier, malleable.
DB: I suppose it will sell on your CV that you already had all those roles where you had played Ukrainians etc. if need be.
AZ: Yeah, it just opens more doors. A lot of these casting directors, say like The Blacklist (I auditioned for them two times) so they know you and your character. When I watched Eastern Promise with Viggo Mortensen in a suit and a tie I said, “I want that look”. I would slick my hair back and so on. That trigger for me was seeing him in that movie. I’m not afraid to change and sometimes change is for the better.
In the movie with Al Pacino I had to get fitted for my prison outfit and then they asked me whether I could be clean-shaven. I said, “I’m okay with that.” In the last John Wick, I did a photo promo for the movie but when I got there I was like this [stubble] and then a woman came up and said that the director was wondering if I could shave. So I’m like, “Hell! I’m in John Wick, I can shave.”
DB: You did your degree, and then you got into acting via modelling. Did you do a lot of modelling?
AZ: I did a little bit but not as much as the acting. I did some runway, but less than maybe I would have liked, but I was doing more acting. I have a print agent now and I feel like that’s where I am really doing a lot of stuff right now.
DB: If you cast your mind back again, what was your first onscreen role?
AZ: I first started doing student and independent films. The first film I ever worked on was Fight the Panda Syndicate. There was a paper called Backstage. They were looking for a sergeant, and I submitted for it. The gentlemen, Christopher Pickhardt (who I’m still friends with) and Jason Dale gave me my first opportunity. Actually they had my son in there as an extra too, which was very nice.
Then there was a movie called Gravel with Ingrid Alexander and after that, I auditioned for a movie called Front Man where I played a singer in a band. I remember going into the city, and they wanted me to pick a song, so I chose “Surrender” by Cheap Trick, sang it and got the part.
DB: You could get used to how film works by actually doing the job.
AZ: That’s what I tell people – do student films. Just like in the martial arts, you don’t start off as a black belt, you have to take the steps. I said to myself, “I need to learn this craft and then have something on my resume.” I didn’t get paid, and I didn’t care that I didn’t get paid, I needed the experience. I didn’t know the lingo, I didn’t know all the stuff that goes on. Then I learned stuff and met a lot of nice people that I’m still friends with now. A lot of these people that are directing student films end up being on major movie sets, and TV sets, and they remember you, and then they call you in to work with them. You know you can have a great look, but they want to see how you act. You got to have some stuff with you on film where you’re acting. So I got those clips and I use them to get different parts.
My first time working on a major film was with Michael Douglas. It was called A Perfect Murder. I was an extra in the bar and I didn’t care, I was learning as I went along the way.
DB: And you’ve been in a whole bunch of films since.
AZ: A lot of different movies and different characters. I was in the movie The Drop with James Gandolfini; his last film before he passed away.
DB: And Tom Hardy.
AZ: Tom Hardy would say, “Hey, how’s it going?” And give me a big hug. James Gandolfini couldn’t have been any nicer. What a nice gentleman! Everything you folks heard about James Gandolfini, how sweet he was, a big man, but a big heart too. He was lovely. I remember teaching at the school, finished with the children’s class and my phone was just blowing up and they said, “James Gandolfini passed away….” He was friendly, complimentary, encouraging. You know, some actors when you get done, someone at his status can just walk right off set. Oh not James, he would come up, shook our hands, “Nice job guys. You guys did awesome.” And between takes, “Keep up the good work,” and joke around with us. He was a lovely gentleman, and he’s definitely missed.
I remember, the scene was in a bar. I was going to walk into the bar and here comes Mr Gandolfini, big burly guy, so I said, “Well I’m gonna let James Gandolfini go first”. He comes out and goes, “Hey, you’re one of the heavies aren’t you? What’s your name?” I told him and he said, “Nice to meet you.” Wow! I was big Sopranos fan, you know. I mean I’m not saying I talked to him on a regular basis, but what a nice man. He had his son there too. I had a minor role but they didn’t treat me any different, and they did that, even to someone who was playing a bar patron, and you’ll always remember that.
DB: Thinking about the many other movies that you’ve been on, and the icons that you’ve worked with, what really stands out in your mind? Is there somebody that you feel that you learned a lot from?
AZ: Speaking of icons… I worked at a little part in the movie The Irishman. It was with me and two other gentlemen in the cafeteria playing prisoners and eating food, and there’s Al Pacino and Martin Scorsese. There’s no one else in here, except us and the camera. Seeing how Al Pacino works, how he conducts himself, and then having him come up to you and say, “Hey! You’re not eating that food, that’s not good. I feel bad that you’re eating that and I’m eating the ice cream sundae.” That was really cool.
Another person (because one of my favourite movies is Goodfellas) is Ray Liotta, and I’m his right-hand man. He approached me, “Hey, I’m Ray. How’s it going?” To see him do the scenes that were long and just rattle them off. He was very nice, very funny, would kid around with me about the martial arts and how we were going to do a fight. I learned a lot by watching these different people: how they act on set, what they do, what they do to prepare and so on and so forth.
On the set of John Wick, seeing how Keanu Reeves prepares, was very interesting. He would sit in his chair, then get up and just walk over to where anybody was, stop, and then walk over somewhere else to go over his lines. Everything you heard about Keanu Reeves is just spot on, really nice and so polite.
DB: How do you prepare for a role?
AZ: Okay, so say for instance I’m preparing for an Eastern European role: I reflect back on different movies that I’ve worked on, different people that I saw that were doing speaking roles on those movies, how they did their dialogue, how they spoke. I was on a show called Delocated on the Comedy Central, as one of their regular Russian mobsters, for something like four years. I remember the principal actors, how they would speak with the accent. So I would pick up on that and then going back to how my dad would talk with his friends. I don’t speak fluent Russian or Ukrainian, but I can do the accent. If I was preparing for a doctor, I research on the internet about different doctors, watch different movies, but then also being on set, maybe with someone who was playing a doctor, and watch.
I realised, when I used to go for auditions, I would over-analyse it, to the point where you can’t do it, your mind just freezes up on you. So, I say to myself, “Now you’re going back to being a child. You’re going to have fun, playing make believe,” so it’s not like a test. You don’t have to say every word exactly as in the script and at the beginning I didn’t realise, so I would put more pressure on that. Now I go for auditions (usually I’m off book) if I say a word that means the same thing, it’s not that big of a deal. I learned a lot about myself from watching my self-tape auditions where I wasn’t reacting to what the other person was saying, I was too busy thinking about what I had to say.
You learn as you go along, the way you look at yourself. Just like athletes or musicians or boxers, they look at videotape, you’re always trying to improve. Even in the martial arts, when they go compete, the parents videotape them, so then afterwards we sit down and analyse it and they see for themselves. I find it as a way for me to improve my craft and help other people, when they see themselves. It’s not that they don’t believe the coach or instructor, it’s, “Look, let me show you, so you see for yourself, why you were off balance, so now we need to work on improving that so that is not happening.” I feel like I’ve improved from watching myself and learning about the different things that maybe I wasn’t doing.
DB: Do you watch yourself on screen?
AZ: I watched myself on tape I just did on Wednesday for this new show called The Equalizer. They’re shooting in New Jersey. Queen Latifah is going to be in it (I admire her work) and they were looking for a Serbian gangster. I did it, watched it, and was pleased because I could see from when I first started, to where I am now, there was a lot of growth. You don’t want to beat yourself up, but you can definitely improve and learn from your past.
DB: As an actor it must be very helpful with your martial arts, in that you must have a very clear idea of what your body is doing, or where it is, at any given time, so that must transfer in a useful way for when you’re on set. When you want to be still, for instance.
AZ: This is true, because in the martial arts you practise self-control which means controlling your body and controlling your emotions. Onset when they say “be still” it means being still, and when they say “please no talking”, no talking. The martial arts has helped me with the discipline aspect of it: to discipline myself to achieve my goals but also to discipline myself when I’m on set. I always tell the students, “If you want to achieve your goal you have to persevere.” The martial arts, a lot of people think it’s a lot about kicking and punching and stuff, yes, it’s true, but there’s a whole other aspect of it. It has helped me in the acting and life in general, and it’s helped children in school, and adults in their jobs…
DB: You have been in an enormous number of Blue Bloods episodes over the years, what has it been like working on the show?
AZ: Working on Blue Bloods I have had some of the best times in my life! The people that I work with, and have worked with, are our family. I can’t say enough good things about Blue Bloods. I’m grateful and blessed to work on that show for 10 years and the people that I work with, they’re lovely. I mean, every time when I would drive home from the Blue Bloods set, I tell myself how fortunate I am to be working on the show with Tom Selleck, Donnie Wahlberg, Bridget Moynahan, Robert Clohessy, Greg Jbara, Abigail Hawk, I can go on and on. And then my friends Norman, Suzie and Charles, the 1st AD Joe as well. It’s been an amazingtime. A lot of fun with a lot of great people. I hope it lasts forever! You look back in your life and that’s always near and dear to my heart and I can honestly say I love those people. It’s a family, that’s what it is.
DB: Who is the cheeky, naughty one of the family then? The one who tends to do practical jokes and things?
DB: It’s written all over him.
AZ: He likes to have a lot of fun on set and to joke around with the other actors. He’s a very nice guy. Actually his father-in-law works on the show too. They feed us really well on set, I mean things are different right now, but Donnie likes Taco Bell, so he would order Taco Bell for everybody on “Taco Bell Tuesday”. We’ve a joint here in the States called White Castle and we have “White Castle Wednesday”. He’s always very nice to people that come and are hanging out to maybe get a glimpse of him. He’ll go outside and chat with them and take pictures. My friend Rob Clohessy, who plays Sid on the show, is a very nice guy and we communicate via Facebook and Instagram. It really is a family.
DB: Having all those extra nice things like the Taco Bells is a great way of keeping morale high.
AZ: Donnie does that and the people that are on the show really keep it upbeat, and are very friendly and nice. If they see a new face on the show, they welcome them and they don’t make them feel uncomfortable. There might be someone new, and they don’t know where to go, and the PA or the AD will say, “Well follow Alex, he’ll show you where to go.” And I’m like, “So follow me.”
DB: Does it vary from set to set when you’re the new person who’s only coming on as a guest for an episode or two?
AZ: It varies, but I’ve never really had any bad experiences where people were rude or anything like that. I’ve always been made welcome. I’ve noticed that a lot of people that worked on different projects with, they’re working on another show. That’s true too with the different casting agents that you go for an audition with. They’ll see your name and know you, but you still have to do what you have to and be professional. They’re not jerks, they’re nicely trying to help you. I remember auditioning for this movie out in Hoboken and a gentleman there said, “You’re the mob boss, so you don’t have to overdo it, you’re more laid back, more cool.” I didn’t get that part, but I’ll remember that for another time when I have to go for a mob boss. The tips that I’ve gotten I know have helped me. I know sometimes I have this not approachable look, but they say, “You’re one of the nicest bad guys in the business.”
I remember when a director lined us up and said, “Alex, I’d like you to stay in the atrium because you really don’t look like a regular hotel guest.” A lot of times I kid around, I’ll go on set and my friends will be in the other room and I’ll say, “Hey! I’m just back here, I want you to feel some positive energy!” We laugh, it’s not supposed to be a punishment!
DB: How important is costuming for you in a role? And will you ever use that when you go to an audition for a certain role?
AZ: In Blue Bloods I portray an undercover detective, so it’s pretty much jeans, sneakers or boots, leather jacket, hoodie and no logos. But when I go for an audition, if I’m auditioning for a mob boss, I will wear a pair of a black slacks, a certain pair of shoes, maybe a zipped up black mockneck, with a sports jacket, or leather jacket. I do try to dress like the person I’m auditioning for. I remember I auditioned for Madam Secretary as a security guy, and I dressed like a security guy.
When you arrive on set, they do costume fittings before. On some shows I bring my own clothes and they say, ‘wear one, bring two’, that means wear one outfit and bring two more. They may mix parts of the outfits around but there’s other times where I have to go get fitted and wear their clothes.
I have tonnes of clothes. My mother used to say to me, “What are you going to do with these clothes? You have no room, where you gonna put them?”
DB: You have done some stunt work haven’t you?
AZ: Yes I did some stunt work in the movie Gravel where I was talking to a woman and she “attacked” me and I showed her what to do. I also did stunts in the movie Proud Mary with Taraji P. Henson. It wasn’t major stunts, it was me getting shot and falling off the chair but still, I had a mat and I fell correctly and didn’t hurt myself.
DB: Is there anyone, acting or directing, that you haven’t worked with that you would love an opportunity to work with?
AZ: I worked on the movie The Irishman, with Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro was in the movie. I would like to work with him. I worked in the movie The Equalizer (I played a bouncer hitman) but I didn’t directly work with Denzel Washington. Those two I would like to work with, off the top of my head.
DB: Do you enjoy travelling for work or do you prefer to be at home?
AZ: I don’t mind travelling. I have my radio in the car, and my bluetooth, and my coffee, and I’m good to go. When I go, I feel excited because I have an opportunity to do something that a lot of people would love to do, and I’m actually doing it!
You have to remember, I worked as an engineer in a shop where bells would go off and you would have a break at nine o’clock for 15 minutes, and then the bell would go off at 12 and again at 12:30 and people have to go back to work. I remember where I came from. When I’m done, and I feel like I really accomplished something, it’s fulfilling and then it’s a nice comfortable ride home.
DB: How long were you working in engineering?
AZ: 10 years. Pratt & Whitney here in the States, which worked on aircraft parts for the company I was with, and they let go 100+ people, and I was one of them. At the time I was still doing the martial arts, because the hours I was working as an engineer gave me time to do that. When that happened, that’s when I really pushed the acting more, because… how many personal days can you take?
DB: I was thinking about how people say “one door closes, another one opens” and although you could have perceived that as: “Oh, it’s a disaster! I’ve lost my job!” it actually opened up more opportunities.
AZ: Correct. I mean I had a great boss when I worked as an engineer and he would let me go for auditions, but in this business it’s almost impossible if you’re working somewhere for a full day, five days a week. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket but have some kind of job where you have flexibility. A lot of these actors are waiters and waitresses or they have jobs like Fitness Trainers which allows them the flexibility to go for auditions.
DB: I was actually going to ask you about advice for people who are considering acting as a career.
AZ: Certainly one is have something else you can do because, you know, the majority of auditions that I go on, I don’t get and you have to have some sort of income coming in.
I also suggest that they get a good photographer to take really good professional shots. And look like your pictures. Worst thing to do is to walk in the casting agency’s office, and you look nothing like your headshot. I think develop knowing your type of role which you can specialise in. If you have people tell you that you make a really good doctor, make sure you take some pictures of you looking like a doctor. Get different looks, some in jeans, a T-shirt and a leather jacket and if you’re into fitness or martial arts have some of those. You have to have some sort of character, some sort of charisma, something interesting that an agent feels that when they can send you out, there is a good chance of you booking it, and then expand from that.
A lot of times people that will tell you that you’re wasting your time, ignore those. I’ve been in relationships where they say, “Why don’t you quit that and get a “real” job?” So, I suggest, whoever your companion is, that they be supportive of you, because if they’re not, it’s like an anchor: it holds you down. You should help each other try to achieve. Sometimes some people would rather be alone until they find the right person that understands that, because in this business, when you first start, and even if you’re established, you’re going to go through ups and downs financially. Try to find someone that understands that and if you can’t, you’re better off just being by yourself. Don’t let anybody take away your spirit and your dream, but then again you have to respect what they’re doing, to be supportive. When you go on set, or an audition, if you’re not united and centred…
DB: That centering, does that also link back to your martial arts?
AZ: It does. It keeps me centred, it keeps me focused. It keeps me on the right track, on my personal bearings, my indomitable spirit and not wanting to give up. Even if I don’t get the role, and I thought I did a great job, I know I did it well and I don’t take it personally, that they didn’t like me, they might interested in someone else. Then guess what? You get called back by the same casting agent for something else, because they’re interested in you. Be positive. Don’t think negatively. Don’t be your worst enemy because you’re telling yourself, you’re not good enough, that you can’t do this, are not cut out for that. If you don’t get the role… you’re disappointed, but you got to move on and you got to have a thick skin.
DB: When you aren’t acting or doing martial arts training, what do you do to relax? Any hobbies or pastimes?
AZ: I enjoy spending time with my sister’s golden retriever, Maggie. I enjoy watching different sporting events. Sundays I watch football games. We have this channel called the Red Zone which goes from game to game; I enjoy watching that. I like to read and keep up on certain events that are going on. I like listening to music and listening to Sports Talk Radio: I find that very relaxing and soothing.
I mean, if I were with a companion, then I like to go out to dinner, to go see a band, maybe a good dance band, I like to get on the floor and dance a little bit. Going for coffee and maybe sitting outside and having coffee by myself or meeting up with friends. Jayson, Neal Smith and AJ, before this pandemic hit, we would get together on a Friday at this restaurant, SBC, and maybe have a beer and chat.
I like to exercise and workout too. I find that to be very therapeutic for my mind, because when I’m training people I’m watching what they’re doing. I would go to the gym and workout with my music on, or if I’m home I put on music or Sports Talk Radio and do my resistance bands or weight work. Doing that clears my head.
DB: What are you reading right now?
AZ: I read different things – maybe about what’s happening with the virus, things that are happening in the world… but am not reading any particular book.
DB: Who has been the most influential person, or people, in your life and how have they been influential?
AZ: I feel my mother has been the most influential person in my life, knowing what she’s gone through in the war. Then she had a bleeding ulcer, and they removed part of her stomach, and she survived – they even gave her the last rites. She had to have a hip replacement and then had macular degeneration, and yet she still had a zest for life, and was happy. This past June she passed away at 91. She was my inspiration, seeing how she continued to push forward and had a positive attitude, would always be happy and nice to people, even though she had her difficulties. Through her life there was a lot of pain and suffering. I never met my grandfather, my mother’s father. He was a director for the theatre in Germany. He left for work one morning and never came home. I see what she went through and she is still the basis of who I am today.
DB: She sounds indomitable, no matter what.
AZ: Me and my sister were there by her bed when she took her last breath and she knew we were there, so she didn’t pass alone. They say the people that are left behind suffer the most and you know they say there’s not a day that goes by… I still do what I have to do, but I keep these things close to my heart and I know that she would be proud of me, that I’m still doing it. She is reflected in me, but you have a hole in your heart and you never really get over it.
DB: What could you personally not live without?
AZ: Peanut butter. I love peanut butter. Peanut butter pretty much on anything. I make sure I have two peanut butter jars in the refrigerator at all times. I can’t live without coffee either.
DB: Last question: if you had just one wish that could be granted right here and now, what would that wish be?
AZ: I think to have my mother back. I mean I’m very blessed and grateful for everything that I have and the friends that I have. So many people, from my students at the school and their parents and instructors, and my Blue Bloods family and other people. And I have to say, really, people call them “fans” on Facebook, but I call them “friends” that support me and follow what I do. I love them and I thank them for that. I would like my mom back, you know, but I realise that’s not going to happen, so I have to move forward, and live life and make her proud.
[Photo Credits: Many of the photographs used in this interview are by Jayson Byrd]
[Edited by Lesley Anne Brooking]
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Link to 12 Insights from this interview with Alex Ziwak:
12 Insights from Alex Ziwak Actor, Martial Artist
Dan Bradford Actor, Producer: The Alienist, Carnival Row
Sera-Lys McArthur Actress, Producer: Outlander, Burden of Truth
Alistair Findlay Actor: Outlander, Highlander
Abraham Martínez Director of Photography
Daniel Thomas Actor, Writer, Director