Actor Aleks Paunovic punches past typecasting in eclectic roles

Former metalhead boxer from Winnipeg finds new career on the screen.

If you happen to spot Aleks Paunovic walking behind you on the street, you might find yourself thinking, “Wow, that guy is huge!” — and then step aside to let him pass you by.

And while it’s true that, at six-foot-five, the native Winnipegger is a really big guy, he is so much more than his mighty frame.

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He’s been a champion boxer (his career ended when he blew out his shoulder boxing for Canada at the 1999 Pan-Am Games), a stunt performer, a travel show co-host, a film producer, and a full-time metal-head who toured the country in a banger band called Specula Black.

But it’s his more recent work as an actor that has garnered him two Leo Award nominations, a Jessie nomination, and a legion of die-hard fans around the globe.

They love him for his work on Arctic Air, where he recurred as Jim McAllister, the big-hearted burly best bud to Adam Beach’s Bobby, and for scene-stealing roles in Battlestar Galactica, Sanctuary, Mortal Kombat: Legacy, and This Means War.

“I can’t change this frame,” he says over coffee at Delaney’s, a few blocks from his beach-facing home in the West End. “I’m a big guy, but I find the humanity within the roles that I play, so typecasting doesn’t matter to me.”

Paunovic will soon be seen inhabiting a type of role he hasn’t attempted before: that of a dad in Disney’s Zapped. The kid-centric comedy — directed by Peter DeLuise and starring teen singing sensation Zendaya — premieres on the Family Channel on June 27.

“I don’t think I’ve been clean-shaven in a long time,” he laughs. “To just be normal, to be a dad and be goofy, that was super fun.”

Paunovic was playing with his band in Winnipeg when he caught the eye of a casting director (who approached him to audition for HBO’s Heads — a job he subsequently landed). Soon he was booking acting and stunt work, and learning as much he could about the craft and the business.

Fast-forward a few years to 2001, when he touched down in the 604 to crack the Vancouver acting scene. His first big job was 2002’s I Spy, in which he played Bob, a federal agent on Owen Wilson’s team.

Paunovic didn’t box in I Spy (somewhat shocking considering his background and the film’s boxing-heavy storyline), but he did on CBC’s hugely popular — but ultimately cancelled — Arctic Air. The episode — in which Paunovic’s character returns to the ring to settle a score — materialized when Paunovic and Arctic Air creator Ian Weir discovered their mutual love of boxing.

“[Weir] knew all these fighters from the 80s and 90s, and all these fights, even the rounds, and I’m all about that,” Paunovic says. “All of a sudden I was told that there was this boxing episode for me, and I was just over the moon.”

It’s his favourite of his numerous Arctic Air appearances, and it probably never would have happened if he hadn’t taken up boxing as a way to connect with his immigrant father.

“I came from three generations of boxers,” says Paunovic. “My dad and I weren’t really that close, and there was a moment where I felt like, ‘boxing is the only way I can get close to him.’”

Despite the profound connection he ultimately forged with his father, Paunovic is a proud mama’s boy. His eyes gleam as he describes his mother hauling him and his brother along to the office buildings she cleaned because she couldn’t afford a babysitter. “She wanted more than that,” he says, smiling widely. “She took English classes. She always wanted to be a travel agent, and she did it.”

This year, he’ll wield his mother’s work ethic in an array of roles, including Badge of Honor with Martin Sheen and Mena Suvari, and Feed the Gods, a horror film that he took on as a tip of the hat to his friend Sxully Essex, who had a horror film in development when he died in 2013.  

“I love the energy of telling a story,” he says. “That’s why I started. My brother is a doctor and deals with life and death all day. As a kid, he was always very serious, and I loved making him laugh. So for me, it’s getting people that have the tough jobs to sit down on a couch and make them feel something that they wouldn’t have otherwise felt that day.”

Watch Aleks in Zapped on the Family Channel at 8pm on June 27. Follow Aleks on Twitter at @alekspaun.



QUOTABLE QUOTES

On what his dad thinks of his acting career: “My dad’s thing is, if I didn’t play a cowboy in a movie, then I’m not an actor. I’ll say, ‘Pop, I did this really cool thing in a movie with Eddie Murphy.’ ‘You play cowboy?’ ‘No.’ ‘Okay.’ That’s it. Old country.”

On his girlfriend of six years, Rookie Blue actress Aliyah O’Brien: “She’s probably one of the most grounding people I’ve ever been around. She’s showing me what being happy is about. I get in my head. I get into wanting more, which automatically gets you comparing yourself with other people. No matter where you are in your career, there’s always someone else who’s at a higher level than where you aspire to be at, so you beat yourself up because you’re not there — or you’re just happy with the journey. She really shows me the journey, which is great.”

On his Arctic Air character, Jim: “I honestly loved being able to pop into Arctic Air as Jim. They were just about to start a love story with Carmen Moore’s character; in the last episode we hooked up and that literally was going to bleed into the next season.”

On Hostage, the film he produced with his best friend, actor Tahmoh Penikett: “If you see it, we could have easily played the other characters. We wanted to flip the script a little bit and because of the Hostage, I got more gigs to show the broken, emotional guy, and he got more gigs to be the villain because he never got to play the villain in stuff.”

On being directed by actor-director Peter DeLuise in Disney’s Zapped: “Peter’s next level. He gets the best performances out of everyone. He would make the set extremely fun and drop the anxiety. It would just happen because he was there with you. You felt like he was in the trenches there with you, which is great.”

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