Valentine Pelka was attempting to flee North America when I caught up with him this month. "I have to go shoot in half an hour, then I'm getting on a plane for London," he said, explaining that his wife was about to give birth (his son was born October 13th). Though he played one of the most evil men in the history of the world on Highlander and returns as a new, power-hungry Immortal in the sequel series Highlander: The Raven, Pelka is himself affable and self-effacing. When asked why he thinks he keeps getting cast as larger-than-life villains, he laughed, "I honestly don't know. It could be something as basic as, I'm dark and not blonde."
Pelka's alter ego Kronos spent centuries trying to control the world and defeat Duncan MacLeod. When he was asked to appear on "Highlander: The Raven," the actor assumed he would be playing Kronos again, and was surprised to be given a script for an entirely different character: Andre Korda. "While I was at a Highlander convention ten days ago in Scotland, I got a call from my agent saying Highlander wanted me to come back," related Pelka. "I thought, great, I'm going to be playing Kronos again. I got back to London, and you can imagine my surprise when I discovered it was a completely new Immortal. I'm not quite sure what the thinking was behind my casting, having only appeared eleven episodes ago, but I'm grateful, because he's quite an interesting character - quite different from Kronos."
Korda is "heavily into world domination too," but he lacks Kronos' theatrically heavy-handed approach, Pelka explained, using martial arts and gaming analogies. "The way I've tried to look at it, because I've had to make the characters as different as I could, is that Kronos is to karate as Korda is to aikido. If you know the difference, aikido's no resistance whatsoever - you wait for the other person to make a mistake, you catch them when they're off-balance," whereas Kronos simply breaks anyone in his way with a combination of skill and strength. "It's a far more brutal, barbaric approach to life. Korda plays mind games, he likes chess; I'm sure Kronos wouldn't have the patience for chess, he'd just sweep the pieces off the board."
Korda first encounters Amanda, the Immortal woman from the original series who is the focus of Highlander: The Raven, in the South China Seas at the turn of the century. "They are very definitely adversaries, although she has to be careful to play his game," summarized the British performer. "He happens upon Amanda and tries to prove his dominance by using her aggression against her. She escapes him, and he appears later on to her in modern day. He's a pretty dangerous character."
Pelka refused to speculate on whether Korda is likely to be a recurring character since that might reveal whether or not he loses his head (literally - on Highlander that's the only way to kill an Immortal). He pointed out that Kronos wasn't likely to be a recurring character given his relatively early death, yet he kept coming back: "I really do believe that as long as you're not a pain in the butt to work with, anything's possible." Pelka had already auditioned twice for Highlander when he was cast as Kronos, "for parts which were by comparison completely nondescript - I wasn't au fait with the series at all, so I wouldn't have known an Immortal from a greengrocer, to be honest with you."
He was fascinated by Kronos from the script, but when he read that the character would die soon afterwards, he was sanguine about it. "It wasn't until I came to do 'Revelation 6.8,' we were six days into filming, and [head writer] David Abramowitz said, 'How do you fancy coming back? My reply was, 'I'm sorry to be obtuse, but aren't I dead?'" Abramowitz pointed out that they could do thousands of years of flashbacks. "I thanked Patrick Duffy for setting the precedent," Pelka joked. "Once I got an inkling that they wanted him back, I asked myself why, and I think they wanted him back because for all this evil - I think Highlander does evil very well, because the evil is balanced out by the lead character. That's very important."
Does the classically-trained Pelka think Kronos is as evil as he seems - as bad as, say, Shakespeare's Richard III? "It's interesting you mention Richard III, because whether he's evil or not, he can't think he is - he'd never have wooed Anne over the coffin of her husband," Pelka said. "Characters who are evil think they're the greatest thing since sliced bread. I remember thinking that when one of the dangers of playing Kronos would be making him a cardboard cut-out evil character; it's one of the great pitfalls that you can fall into. I remember mulling over, what am I going to do to make him three-dimensional?" The actor credits Abramowitz and producer Ken Gord with helping to create the character. "Ken created the look of the character with me - we sat down, we chose things like, does somebody wear pointy shoes or blunt shoes? You are the person you are and the things you wear reflect that. It became clear that he's a very, very sharp character."
Pelka said he had no role model and did no research for Kronos. "I suppose what I like about Kronos is the theatricality of the character; he's sort of playing to a gallery which is composed of people exactly like him, and he can see them all in the audience, and he's saying, see, this is really how bad I can be sometimes. With characters like that, if it says something to you immediately, then you've got to allow your imagination free rein and work from that point of view. So that's what I did." Because Kronos had a historic relationship with Methos, played by Peter Wingfield, "It was essential that Peter and I get on very well, which we have done, we've become very strong friends, but also that we came to some sort of agreement as to what that historic thing was."
Though Pelka has an academic background - he studied English at university and then got an acting degree from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts - he said that the amount of what he calls "costume stuff" on his resume has more to do with his training in stage combat and horses than with his yen to do research. "If I had as conscious a choice as people think in the matter, then I would do modern, costume, modern, costume, alternating every single job," insisted the actor. "The first major film I got was King David, which was a costume thing. As a result of that, casting directors said, oh, you can ride a horse, you can use a sword."
His introduction to Highlander came about because of Bob Anderson, who had done the fight choreography for First Knight, in which Pelka appeared as Sir Patrise; Anderson was doing Highlander at the time of Pelka's first audition, and recommended him. "Having done Ivanhoe plus Highlander plus lots of other costume stuff, people are saying, oh, you're on a horse this time, and there's a danger there I've got to address. Last year I made a conscious decision that I was going to play modern stuff, and I did. That culminated with doing a film with Parker Posey which is coming out early next year."
In that film, What Rats Won't Do, Pelka plays Graham, the mousy fiance of a lawyer who is one of the subjects of the joke on which the title is based. "'What's the difference between a lawyer and a rat? There are some things a rat won't do.' It's a Robin Williams joke apparently," Pelka explained with a laugh. Asked what Graham is like, the actor demanded, "Can I ask you a question? How would you sum up Kronos? Pick three adjectives out of the air." Dark, mysterious, powerful? "Well, Graham is the antithesis of every single one of those. He's an open book, he's not even remotely powerful, the character he's in competition with who's trying to take his fiance away from him drives a Mercedes SL. Graham drives a 10-year-old Volvo Estate because it's the safest car on the road. He's a very, very safe character. Whereas Kronos - you would never worry about Kronos having to walk the streets because he might get mugged - Graham's got 'Mug me' on the back of his jacket. He's a very sweet, lovable guy who looks like he's going to get desperately hurt, and then something happens."
In the film, Pelka explained, Parker Posey's character is perceived as a go-getting, young, beautiful American opportunist who spies a man nearing 90 and gets him to change his will in favor of herself a week before his death, cutting his son out completely. The son brings a court case to overturn the will, claiming she coerced the old man. Graham is engaged to the attorney representing the son in the case, while James Frayn plays the barrister that she falls in lust/love with. "That's how it appears that Graham is going to get very hurt, but people do grow up!" the actor said. "It's a really neatly written film, and in the bits I've seen, Parker Posey gives a really wonderful performance; she is fantastic." The film will be released early next year.
In choosing parts, Pelka said the most important thing he looks for is good writing. "It makes it easy to learn - bad lines are difficult to learn. What you're looking for in a role is some sort of psychological complexity, conflict, three dimensions as opposed to just being some sort of cipher. You're looking for something that's going to maintain an interest not only for the audience but for you too." Explaining that he enjoys period drama because "it does appeal to the boy in one, getting onto a horse prancing around with armor and a sword," he emphasized that the writing must match it: "Ivanhoe was wonderful, I can't think of a job I've enjoyed as much as that apart from Highlander. I was very lucky."
Recently the actor has attended several conventions, which left him very pleased if somewhat bemused. "For a British actor, this whole fan thing is a completely alien experience. It was very sweet, people were very kind, and I met some very interesting people. The one thing I made a conscious decision about was to just be myself; I can't be anybody else, it's difficult enough creating characters that have been written for you, I can't go around pretending to be somebody else because that way madness lies. I was given Kronos' jacket which I wore to the first couple of conventions, but in fact I don't bother doing it now. When we have the Q&As, we seem to talk about Kronos for about ten minutes and then we start talking about other things, some of them not even television-related. My wife is about to give birth, and the number of presents and cards we've had from people, I've even had a set of baby clothes in my soccer team colors, I've had nothing but a positive experience with it."
In the future, Pelka said he'd like a second crack at Hamlet, as well as Leontes in The Winter's Tale and King Lear. "I'd like to play Richard III, Iago, Othello," he said, then discussed the current politics of white actors playing Othello, revisionist productions in which Lear is played by a woman, and the difficulty of finding the right age at which to play the major tragic heroes. "I've got an academic background and they talked about structure and that sort of stuff, but the one thing that nobody ever said, from a performance point of view, was that one has to remember that Shakespeare was not written to be read. To ignore the performance aspect of it is a glaring omission. The lead actor gets most of Act IV off - not because it's time for some comedy, which is what happens, but it's pure and simply because Lear or Leontes has been having a nervous breakdown for three acts and he needs time off to calm himself."
The son and nephew of performers, Pelka said he was never pushed into the profession and never really thought about pursuing his college hobby until a few months before finals. After a production of Middleton's The Changeling, famed English author Howard Jacobson "came up after the performance and said, 'Had you thought about going to drama school?' So I suddenly thought, hey, I do enjoy this. Why do a job just to earn money and not enjoy it? I felt I had some sort of vocation for it, I wanted to find out, so I went to drama school. And luckily for me it all clicked. There are actors who go into acting and find out they don't enjoy it, and they leave."
Pelka's sister Kazia is also an actress and appeared on the series Heartbeat, best known to genre fans because Kate Mulgrew of Star Trek Voyager played the principal doctor. Pelka appeared in one episode because, as he explained, "I was the only actor qualified to play the part - my sister played a district nurse, and they had a show where her brother was a protagonist. There's nobody else who's more qualified to play her brother! She always wanted to act, unlike me." The two have appeared together onstage as well as onscreen.
As for his name, "I was meant to be born on Valentine's Day, my due date was the 14th, but I was 9 days late. My father's Polish, and Valentine is a much more common name in Poland than it is in England. So I've had to carry it with me, and I like it now - I've gotten used to it. People called John and Fred were constantly saying, 'What sort of name is that for a boy?' These things forge you, I think, so I don't regret it now."
Pelka likens actors with a strong prejudice for theater over film to runners who won't try more than one distance, citing British track star Sebastian Coe, who was a champion at 800 meters, the mile, and 1500 meters. "Some people say they prefer theater because there is an audience - the performance is live," he noted. "But my feeling is that you do have an audience when the camera shoots you - it is composed of the crew, the director, the producer, et al. And when an actor gets it very right, it has not been unknown for a crew to applaud." He recalled that he saw such a reaction when he worked with Sir Alec Guinness.
"I did a film in '87 in Spain called Rowing With the Wind with Hugh Grant, and I very vividly remember my first day's filming. They had just broken for lunch prior to the first scene I was going to do in the film. I remember walking past the room, I wanted to see where the set was going to be, and there was this camera under wraps. I swear to you, my heart skipped a beat - I thought, 'My God, that's exciting. I love film.'"
The author would like to add screenwriting to his resume and is currently working on a script, but he would like his next big project to be "riding the trail." The lifelong British resident wants to take three months to travel by horseback, "either the Oregon Trail or maybe somewhere in Canada, going from East to West. When I went to Vancouver I managed to take four days off at the end of the shoot and get up to Jasper and Lake Louise. Sitting on top of Whistler looking across the Rockies is pretty mindblowing - it beats the Alps any day, and they're much bigger. It's so beautiful, especially on a day when there's a high wind and the clouds are really broken up, and they're just whitting across the sky. You just see shadows from the sun racing across the valley and then up the mountains."
Having been to Vancouver only once, Toronto once, and L.A. three times, the actor is eager to spend more time in North America - in part for practical reasons like finding an American agent and manager. But he also has personal artistic goals. "I sketch, so I'd like to draw things I see while traveling, and do a documentary about it." Of course, the new baby could postpone these plans, but Pelka said he intends to work on his art regardless: "I'll be going back to my painting." In fact, the actor's next major project is not a film or play but an exhibition, which will likely be in Los Angeles or in Santa Rosa where he has a contact with a gallery. "If I can tie it up when I'm there doing publicity for Rats, I can be there for the opening," he said. "But that depends on whether I get another five paintings done between now and then."
Though he's not sure, it seems unlikely that Highlander is done with Pelka yet. There will be more conventions, and in all likelihood more appearances by some Immortal or other, " It's extraordinary, isn't it, these little corners we turn in our lives, and something little turns into something big," he concluded, then rushed off to film his scenes before getting on a plane for the birth of his child.