As well as enjoying success as one of the Balkan’s foremost young actors with lead roles in acclaimed Serbian films including Circles/Krugovi (2013), Skinning/Šišanje (2010) and The Man Who Defended Gavrilo Princip/Branio sam Mladu Bosnu (2014), Nikola has attracted international interest.
In recent months, cinema audiences have seen this actor from central Serbia extend his repertoire with his first English-language role in Travelator (2014) from director Dušan Milić.
Dutch director brings NATO bombing of RTS to cinemas
Set in Belgrade in 1999, the film features three lead characters, Ana, Sloba and Bojan, who work in or near the RTS television building. As the NATO bombing campaign intensifies, they each construct their own normality to overcome their anxieties and retain some form of normality.
Nikola plays 23-year-old Bojan who escapes the harsh realities of life by immersing himself in the clubbing world of sex, drugs and house music.
In an innovative move, the film was simultaneously screened at cinemas across Europe, followed by an online Q&A with lead cast at the Rotterdam festival.
Nikola is already a favourite on the international festival circuit, with his films regularly featuring in official selection and often receiving awards.
Nikola Rakocevic named as one of Europe’s finest young actors
Major acclaim came for Nikola in 2014 when he was recognised as one of the ten best young actors in Europe, winning the Shooting Stars Award for exceptional international talent at the prestigious Berlinale International Film Festival.
Judges praised his “exceptionally vivid performance” in Circles and commented on how his “consistent energy and charisma reveal an impressive range of acting registers – indicating a versatile stealth weapon with great casting potential.”
“It was a really great honour and a big thing for me to win this award,’ said Nikola. “It is something that can seriously affect my career. I hope it will improve the quality of my future projects, but I am the same actor as before.
“I have been lucky to work with some really great people who have inspired me and made me think about acting, think about life in a good way.”
Actors are weak and insecure
While he appreciates the impact that such an award could make to his career and the scripts that land on his desk, Nikola sees even greater value from such industry recognition.
“I have more self confidence since winning the award,’ he said. “That is an important thing for an actor: when you stand in front of the camera, to have a sense of confidence and security. That can seriously affect your career. It has given me the courage to try something that I wouldn’t have dared try if I did not get that award.
“Actors are weak and we must admit it. We should be strong without any award but, you know, it helps. We are searching for a lot in life, for acceptance. That is the main reason we are in acting.”
Stevan Filipovic, who directed Nikola in his feature debut Sheitan’s Warrior (2005) and then cast him as the young lead in his acclaimed but controversial Skinning/Sisanje, remains a good friend and supporter of Nikola’s work.
“That was in 2004. Nikola certainly didn’t look very aggressive or intimidating on the outside, but he had a kind of internal fire that was very interesting to me for that particular role.
“I remember is him getting in a brawl with one of my acquaintances at an infamous Pimps and Tarts costume party, organised by my editor and producer, Nataša.
“That didn’t seem like a very promising start to the decade-long friendship that later ensued.
“But I guess I saw some aggressive potential there, which was otherwise hard to notice, so I’m kind of thankful that it happened.
“He got the part in Shaitan’s Warrior and he played it so brilliantly that, some years later, I decided to build a whole other movie around that character, sort of Novica’s origin story – and that’s how Skinning came to be.”
Having given Nikola a significant leg-up at the start of his career, Stevan can take some credit for recognising his talent and bringing it to screen.
“I am very proud of his achievements, especially the Berlin Shooting Stars Award,’ said Stevan. “I always believed in him, so I’m not completely surprised. I would have thought it crazy if his career went any other way.
“But knowing how hard it is in Serbia for talented young people to get a chance, no matter how good they are, I am amazed at how far he has come.
“I am really happy that the focus is on him now, with theatre, TV, movies, and international success. All of this has enabled Nikola to further develop his talent, and he has grown into a thoughtful and creative actor, while still remaining a modest, kind person, which is a thing I truly value.”
Born in Kragujevac, central Serbia
Born in Kragujevac, Serbia, in 1983, Nikola was encouraged to act by his grandfather, who would ask Nikola to perform characters from his favourite TV show, and by improvising scenes with his grandmother. “My grandfather was my first agent and my grandmother was my first acting teacher,” said Nikola.
He attended the local after-school acting club and, years later, enrolled at the University of Dramatic Arts in Belgrade, graduating in 2005.
Critics have noted a magnetic intensity in Nikola’s performances, carrying a scene with a focus and expression. Indeed, many of his strongest scenes to date are without dialogue, and can be all the more powerful for it.
“When I was in my second year of studies at the Academy I collaborated with some really inspiring guys from the directing department,’ Nikola explained. “We shot some short movies for their exams and we had great energy.
“I realised in that one moment the power that can be captured in a shot. If you can express all your feelings, emotions and frustrations in a shot, you will be rewarded for that. You will feel some kind of relief as a human being. That realisation was the main moment in my career.
“I try to understand people in my real life, so when I get a role I try to understand that person, too, get some connection with that character,’ said Nikola.
This intensity shines through in Nikola’s first English-language role, Travelator, which is a film with a minimum of dialogue.
The film, written and directed by Dusan Milic, was shot three years ago in Belgrade and Las Vegas, but only recently released in cinemas.
Nikola plays Slav, a refugee living in a camp outside of Belgrade. An impressive online gamer, Slav is targeted by the Serbian mob, who commission him to fly to Las Vegas to carry out a hit on a snitch under witness protection.
In 2013, Nikola received his most acclaimed role to date, when he was cast in Circles/Krugovi by Srdjan Golubovic, which won awards at the Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals, and was Serbia’s Oscar official entry as Best Foreign Language Film.
“It was really a huge responsibility to play Srdjan Aleksic,’ said Nikola. “He was a representative of humanity and Circles is a monument to a man who did a noble thing.
“Many people share that opinion, and not just from ex-Yugoslavia. I am very proud of that movie.”
Understanding the motives of Gavrilo Princip
“I play Rudolf Cistler who was picked to defend those assassins,’ said Nikola, who was quite affected by this story of the men chosen to defend the young members of Mlada Bosna, who killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
“It was a really important role for me because I had searched a lot about Mlada Bosna and I really connected with Rudolf. Through him I tried to connect with those guys, to understand them.
“I tried to know what they wanted with the assassination, what they were trying to achieve.
“It was brutal murder but, you know, it was also important for me how you can see one action, even a murder, from a different angle. You need to give yourself chance to understand that, at least.”
Respect marks Nikola Rakocevic as a director’s favourite
That respect for the role and the power of character contributes to making Nikola a favourite of filmmakers. “Nikola is easy to work with,’ said Stevan Filipovic.
“By now we perfectly understand each other, but it was challenging in the beginning, while we were discovering this mutual language’.
“But when you go through an ordeal together, like we did with the making of Skinning, which was shot during a three-year period, that is like surviving a war.
“People really bond and develop unique respect for each other in situations like that, especially directors and lead actors. It was an important formative process for both of us.”
Nikola speaks very highly of Stevan, too. “We became great friends long ago,’ he said. “We put a lot of energy into Skinning. It was a long process. Because we didn’t have enough money and the budget was really low we had many breaks and time to talk about the script, the scenes, the characters, the meaning and all that stuff.
Possible future directing cartoons
“I always believe that when a director has a strong idea, when he knows what he wants, you must trust in that. At that moment, you must believe in the director and do your job as an actor. Stevan and I were so much involved with each other that we realised we were on the same side. We recognised something in each other.”
So, does Nikola see a career for himself as a director? “Maybe, but probably not,’ he said. “I have some ideas but mostly they are about cartoons rather than feature films.
“But I am not a graphic artist – that is the big problem I need to overcome. I have the script and ideas for shots – but I guess that is what directors do anyway, isn’t it? Maybe I will try to direct short cartoons, first. In fact, I am sure of that.”