Actor Theodore Bouloukos is every inch a New Yorker: erudite, meticulously cultured, and almost famous within an avant-garde career. So quintessentially Manhattan is this sharp-dressed man that he was profiled in New York magazine for a series called The Locals (his locale was Carnegie Hill).
Yet Bouloukos is actually an Albanian. Born in the capital city and educated at Albany Academy for Boys, he began his first career here, as an arts journalist, and in 1986, he launched his own literary magazine, The Albany Review. But feeling that his artistic sophistication was getting the cold shoulder from the area—the Review ended in 1990—Bouloukos relocated to New York and made it his adoptive home. He earned a degree in art history from Columbia, did book reviews for People magazine, wrote an article on art auctions for The Wall Street Journal, and was a contributor to ultra-cosmopolitan Index magazine.
And then, he says in a voice inflected with the barest hint of martini-dry drollery, he became “a movie star.”
With more than 70 short and feature films to his resume, he’s certainly a success, albeit on the edgiest fringe of filmdom. “I’m just happy to be a working actor,” he says. “I’m happy to be working with the best people. I don’t necessarily want to be famous.”
He has several films currently making the festival rounds, and in his milieu, where films often premiere at MoMA and other temples of postmodernism rather than at cinema art houses, those rounds are global, with the Sarasota Film Festival in Florida—this year’s entry with Bouloukos is the improvisational Soft in the Head—being just as important as Sundance. But even those who don’t frequent the Buenos Aeries Festival of Independent Film have probably seen Bouloukos onscreen. Among his commercial work is a long-running Nyquil ad, and he also stars, with his fashion-designer brother, Stratton, in a video ad campaign for BMW called One Origin, Two Originals.
Later this winter, Bouloukos can be seen locally in Hobo Heyseus, a philosophical comedy from Albany director Jon Cring and Troy screenwriter Joshua Owens. Bouloukos plays Pastor Ron, the story’s “ecclesiastical compass,” and a parish leader who comes into conflict with Heyseus, a messianic hobo (played by another New York indie actor, Raymond Turturro). The film was shot in Schodack and Kinderhook in May.
“I liked the idea of the film,” says Bouloukos. “I like that Jon is ambitious, that he’s as worthy as any New York filmmaker.” Through Bouloukos, Hobo and its scenic locations came to the attention of cinematographer Nathaniel Kramer, formerly an acclaimed fashion photographer (Vogue, Elle) known for his Gap ads. Bouloukos and Kramer had worked together before, and Kramer volunteered to shoot Hobo Heyseus, spending two weeks upstate with the cast and crew.
“When Nat picks up a camera, his eye is incredible,” says Bouloukos. “I knew that he would provide the film with the aesthetic quality it deserves.” Along with the opportunity to capture pastoral Rensselaer County, Kramer mentions Bouloukos’ appreciation of his satirical outlook as one of the perks that attracted him to the job. Having a self-admitted “twisted sense of humor” also put Kramer in good company with Cring, whose previous feature is Creeping Crawling, a black comedy about “sex, bugs, and rock-n-roll.”
Bouloukos met Cring at his casting call in New York City, though the actor and director were already aware of each other’s work. “Jon is a real actors’ director,” Bouloukos says. “Some directors, their interest is the frame. They’ve storyboarded their film and that’s it. But Jon is interested in telling a story, he’s interested in performance. I learned a lot from him in terms of line interpretation.
“I’ve made a career from cherry-picking the kinds of roles I take, but also by cherry-picking the directors I want to work for,” Bouloukos continues. “I look at their influences, their previous work.” Also in postproduction is Moreau, an atmospheric rendering of the H.G. Wells’ sci-fi meditation with Bouloukos as the title mad scientist, and KOMPLEX, a minimalist farce based on Gogol’s The Inspector General, with Bouloukos as the inspector. The director is James English Leary, a seminal figure in New York’s alt-art scene.
Bouloukos also has a startling array of “monsters” to his credit, including homicidal doctors, pedophiles, fetishists, and a “wizardly, time-traveling chemist who makes drugs” for which he donned a long blond wig.
Sometimes referred to as an “underground” actor, he is happiest with roles that intersect art and film and bring him into contact with nonconformists. “I don’t take every job,” he says. “Commercially, sure, that’s different. Have I done Harley Davidson? Yes. Lamisil jock-itch cream? Sure. But what I want my oeuvre to reflect is a wide range of characters, all of whom are interesting, challenging, provocative, and somehow out-of-the-main.”
“He brings tremendous soul and humanity to the character of Pastor Ron,” says Cring. “We saw his reel a couple of years ago and we’ve been looking for a role for him every since. He had edge, versatility, and was totally committed to every character.”
Before Bouloukos was an in-demand indie actor, he was an art-video star, a serendipitous career swerve from his art journalism, which he plied for Index. “It was the hippest magazine in New York in the ’90s,” he explains. “It really began the coalescing of the art world, fashion world, and film worlds. I really loved the art world, and a number of artists were starting to work with this new medium of video.
“The galleries didn’t want to show it, they didn’t know how to show it—it wasn’t collectible,” he continues. “So people were showing it in alternative spaces, and I just started to appear in some them, and was very comfortable in front of the camera.”
His distinctive screen presence, at once ethnic (he’s Greek) and exceptionally malleable, has captivated artistes in almost every medium, from painters to photographers. Unabashedly rotund and hirsute, Bouloukos also defied the Madison Avenue Adonis stereotype for models and muses. And, he soon realized, “I had always wanted to be in movies, but I didn’t know how. I went to Columbia, not Julliard. Then I realized, ‘I’m a Grandma Moses!’ I play from the gut. I work from intuition.”
Bouloukos’ breakthrough into feature films was Take-Out, a critically lauded low-budget indie about a day in the life of an illegal Chinese immigrant. Bouloukos had a line or two, and his dog, Otis, also made the final cut. The protean actor found his background as a writer (which included artist profiles for Metroland) to be as valuable as any formal training could’ve been. “As a reporter, I studied human nature,” he says. “And because I wrote dialogue, I knew how to read dialogue. I can read narratively.”
In fact, Bouloukos has not forgotten his late and lamented literary endeavor, The Albany Review. “Albany just didn’t seem to recognize that it deserved to be better,” he says of his last years in town. “Who would not want a magazine that reflected a different demographic, that endeavored to support a network of galleries and cafes, to create a Friday night stroll?” he asks. Among other manifestoes that were apparently ahead of their time, he mentions how “Sheridan [Hollow] could’ve been like Bushwick. And there’s still no waterfront.”
“I have to admire Jon Cring for plowing into the muddy waters of a community that is resistant to the cultural, where people only want pedestrian public films,” he continues. Yet the consummate Manhattanite also expresses his hope for the rising tide of a vibrant local indie-film community “that doesn’t need to decamp to Brooklyn for sustenance.
“I don’t mean to knock Albany,” he adds. “But I couldn’t make a living there.”
So after Hobo wrapped, he must’ve been mighty glad to see the region in his rear-view mirror, right? After an uncharacteristic pause, Bouloukos answers, “No. I missed it.”