Damien Puckler tries to get his foothold in a land of action heroes
The man in the backyard carries the tattoos and scars of a fighter. He spins and kicks. Dust flies, a punching bag shimmies on a rusted clothesline. Sweat drips around blue eyes and seeps through a thin beard. The lines on the face show, but barely. He’s handsome in the taut way this city craves. But that is never enough.
Damien Puckler has fans. Not a lot. But Facebook and Instagram have taken notice and at least one Tumblr texter fantasizes about him. His recurring character in NBC’s “Grimm” series is a rebel martial arts master. Puckler doesn’t know what’s in store next season, but he trains every day, lifting weights, perfecting roundhouse kicks and suppressing the aches and doubts of a 42-year-old actor who rides a chopper and lives with his manager-brother and dog in a small house with an orange tree in Van Nuys.
“The show can kill me off any time they want to. It’s nerve-racking,” said Puckler, who plays the German-accented Martin Meisner in the dark fairy tale of cops and talismans. “I’m the last person to say I want to be the next Sean Penn. I’m not that deep. I just want to entertain people.”
Rejections are many, but Puckler, who five years ago lived in a car, believes that if you keep showing up, someone will notice. He weaves frustrations into anecdotes. He said that his former agent sent him on a “casting call for midgets” and that he was later turned down at the last minute to play a pilot with one line in “Spy Game,” starring Brad Pitt and Robert Redford. “They told me I looked too much like Redford and Pitt and you couldn’t have three guys like that in a helicopter. But they tell you all kinds of things; who knows why they cut me?”
Puckler figures he’s got a few years left to climb at least part way up the Alpha dog ladder topped by action stars such as Jason Statham and Vin Diesel. He choreographs his own stunts and has the tight, packed body of a younger man. He’s honing his acting skills — he understudied Brendan Fraser in a 2001 production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” in London’s West End — but knows he is one of thousands: a long shot seeking a few frames in a Hollywood of X-Men, Avengers and torsos lifted from myth.
“It’s hard,” he said. “I have a friend who looks just like Thor. He said to me the other day, ‘Dude, I’m the best-looking guy in my hometown, but I come out here and everybody looks like me.’ He’s going back home.”
Hollywood’s marketing-driven prism of beauty has become more refined and technologically tweaked since the days of “Conan the Barbarian” and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s raw masculine swagger. Stalwart stars such as Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson are still players, but over the years, performance-enhancing drugs, high-protein diets and special effects have created templates of men with half-moon biceps and abs in tidy rows. Skin and muscle have merged with titanium sheens, form-fitting shells and, in the case of the film “300,” monochromatic warriors seemingly cut from Spartan stone.
“The action films with guys like Stallone and Schwarzenegger died a little in the 1990s when the metrosexuals came in,” said Puckler, a former world champion in muay Thai kickboxing. “But the whole action guy is back. Chris Hemsworth is huge. The new thing now is you have to be a good actor and be in great shape.... My friend, a girl, told me that the new ‘300' film is lousy, but ‘Thank God the man is back.’”
Puckler wants to be counted in that tribe. He plays a shadowy resistance leader in “Grimm,” a police procedural with witches, detectives, monsters, an evil Santa and a venomous baron scheming beneath the misty skies of Portland, Ore. His fight scene in one episode this season was an impressive blur of compressed kicks, punches and twirls that downed two bad guys and left Puckler looking modestly heroic before the camera shifted elsewhere.
“He got the part. He carried it. He did such a good job,” Jim Kouf, “Grimm’s” co-creator said of Puckler. Kouf added that Puckler’s character was envisioned as a short-timer: an assassin who would appear in one episode and likely vanish. “But we kept going with his character... [Puckler] has physicality. He can act. He’s subtle on-screen. Both males and females like him.”
With such praise and a few B-movies to his credit, including “Camel Spiders” and “Death Factory,” Puckler is making a bit of noise. But he can’t find a new agent — they want rising, twentysomething talent or established stars — and the roles he’d be good for are being parceled out in an industry that relishes fame, buzz, whispers and contacts. When he works on “Grimm,” he earns up to nearly $8,000 per episode. He brings in extra income as a freelance trainer; his pecs, lats and triceps need constant tending, and at dusk, his backyard echoes with the roll and scrape of barbells.
A fighter’s origins
The son of an accountant, Puckler grew up in Europe and the U.S. He attended boarding schools in New York, Arizona and Georgia. He was a poor student and was often bullied. “I never could fight back, so I got into karate and taekwondo,” he said. “I became a young black belt with all these stupid little trophies.”
At 15, with his father’s reluctant blessing, he and a friend traveled to Thailand to learn muay Thai, a brutal style of kickboxing. “You really have to earn your respect in Thailand,” said Puckler, who won a world championship in 1991 and counts among his many tattoos a tarantula and a bit of paraphrased Nietzschean wisdom: “If you look deep into the abyss, the abyss looks deep into you.”
A motorcycle accident smashed his hip and ended his competitive fighting days. He enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, then in Pasadena, and in 1994 was living with his actress-model-singer girlfriend in London, working as a security guard, trainer and stunt man. He couldn’t perfect a British accent. Acting work was scarce, but he landed parts in theatrical productions, including “A Doll’s House” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and a docudrama about Sept. 11. He and his girlfriend split and agent J. Michael Bloom persuaded him to move to Los Angeles. However, he arrived during the Hollywood writers’ strike of 2007-08; Bloom died about the same time, and the U.S. recession deepened.
Roles have slowly come his way; he is notches above a waiter, if still far from a star. The other day, on the advice of a friend, he attended a promotional event at Bar 210 at the Beverly Hilton, where minor celebrities had their pictures taken. A man with a shaved head and wearing a too big suit — he called himself Tony — handed Puckler a swag bag of nail polish, socks, underwear, beef jerky, scented oils and soaps.
Puckler smiled on cue. A camera flashed. Would he like a designer pillow for his pet? An eco-friendly belt? A man attempted to entice him with a VapeRev electronic cigarette. “I don’t smoke. I don’t do any of that stuff,” said Puckler, his etched profile softened by a smile. A blond in a black dress waved from the Transcend Organics table and the air was suddenly tinged with Lavender Bliss.
“I can go to Thailand and fight in a ring between cockfights, but I don’t know what I’m doing here,” he said. He looked around. It was 3:40 p.m. Dance music thumped, but the vibe, despite cleavage and vintage motorcycles, had the feel of a basement party without the cool kids. A man with the stained fingers of a mechanic stepped up and Puckler inquired if he was a motorcycle salesman. “I’m the tattoo man,” said the guy, who had a scrapbook of designs and slipped into the courtyard past a woman getting a facial. Another woman handed Puckler a kitten. Would he like to adopt from the shelter?
“This could end tomorrow, and I could be back living in my car,” said Puckler, whose brother Bjorn fears that his sibling’s guilelessness may be an endearing fault in a town of publicist-spun facades. Puckler glides along in kidlike self-reflection. “I’m an awesome fighter but not a great technician,” he said, noting that his acting too is driven more by passion than technique. “The plan is for me to move away from action roles into more serious acting. But can I do it?”
Puckler raced his chopper along La Brea, then up Outpost to Mulholland. He headed toward his old haunt at the edge of Runyon Canyon. He parked in front of the silver trailer he lived in for nearly three years after the recession forced him to sell his share of a Simi Valley gym to his partner. He stayed rent free, landscaping, cleaning a pool and tending horses and a three-legged goat named Delilah on an estate owned by a director whose biggest hit was in the 1970s. The toilet in the trailer backed up, rats gnawed on walls, and every morning the rich, famous and obscure jogged past, threading along trails in the heat.
“I didn’t have a career,” said Puckler. “I had lost my gym and I had started working as a freelance trainer for 25 to 30 clients, including an up-and-coming TV actor. I’d get up at 3 a.m. for a 4 a.m. client. I trained until about 1 p.m., come back here to work and then go back to training.... You get really tired, and sometimes you just crumble.”
He walked over to a punching bag and pull-up bars he had screwed into a pine branch at the canyon’s rim. The terraced land below shone with swimming pools and villas and fanned toward the downtown skyline. He pointed toward the hills and remembered working out here, looking across the lights in the night, the howls of coyotes breaking the silence, prostitutes leading customers into the brush; a city of vagabonds, dreamers and fools.
“Making it in Hollywood is a long-distance run, not a hundred-yard dash,” he said. “Too many people come here, think they’re special and fade away quickly.”
The director came out and stood by a pool murky with algae. The caretaker who had replaced Puckler didn’t work out and was fired. Puckler showed the new guy, a young man from Colorado with a wary brow, the idiosyncrasies of the place, the dangers of the agave plant and getting the right Ph balance. “He has a tremendous work ethic,” the director, who asked not to be mentioned, said of Puckler. He added that the actor possesses an earnest innocence, “almost like Peter Sellers in ‘Being There.’”
Puckler started the bike and was off, descending canyon roads and hitting the freeway, the speedometer tipping 80. He had to hurry to an appointment to train a client in a regime his website calls “The Puckler Zone.” The chopper — a Suzuki — is his everyday bike. His prize, though, is a Ducati 916, Special Edition Tricolore. It’s parked at the brown-trimmed house where he lives with Bjorn and Roxy, a 9-year-old pharaoh hound mix who, along with Puckler, starred in a short film about a man whose dog saved him from suicide.
The rented house’s backyard was a suburban gladiator arena of bald dirt, weights, punching bags, a battering dummy and a clothesline wrapped in tape and rubber, where he and workout partner Carlo Angelo, an actor who has appeared in beer and credit card commercials, practiced high kicks. They arced like pinwheels. “Precision is everything on a film set,” said Puckler. “You can be the greatest martial-arts guy, but if you don’t have the right choreographed stunt, you’ll look like crap.”
Puckler and Angelo rehearsed a fight scene beneath an orange tree. The Doors played on the radio. Roxy slept in the shade. Bjorn, who wore a ponytail and rimless glasses, looked on. “We need to build a wider foundation for him as an actor, but right now, his action status is our leverage,” he said of his brother. “In one episode of ‘Grimm,’ he took his shirt off and there was chemistry with the woman character [Adalind]. The audience didn’t really notice him before, but after that, there was a lot of buzz on social media, especially in China and Brazil.”
“I think we in the ‘Grimm’ fandom need to start noticing one Martin Meisner,” one blogger wrote of Puckler’s character.
“Who knew Meisner was hiding all that hotness,” wrote another.
Life of an actor
Puckler took a break. He has to stay ahead of the soreness that comes with age, bruises, twisted ankles, sprained wrists, a repaired hernia, a shattered hip. “Everything is painful, but it works,” he said. A few days earlier, he had pointed to crow’s feet. Hollywood was not kind to age and diminishment, and Bjorn had planned to take fresh publicity pictures. Puckler and Angelo, who goes to casting calls three times a week, wiped away sweat.
“It’s demoralizing,” said Puckler.
“You want to do your craft,” said Angelo, a singer, dancer and a stunt man in a Chuck Norris film. “But 20 years later, you’re still going to an audition with 100 guys who look just like you.”
“Then you realize you’re not exactly what they want,” said Puckler.
“Could be the color of the eyes,” said Angelo.
“I was once literally cast as the top evil Nazi in a movie,” said Puckler. “But a few days before rehearsal, they said, ‘You’re too small and good-looking.’ They wanted a guy with pocked skin.”
“I once got a part in a TV show in Japan,” said Angelo. “I had a plane ticket. I was packed. Then they called and canceled.”
“You know when I know I really got the part?” said Puckler. “When the money’s deposited in the bank.”
The men laughed, but only the outer edge of it was funny. Puckler attacked the punching bag. It rattled and shimmied on the clothesline. He spun and kicked; the battering dummy danced backward. Skin echoed off leather, rubber and plastic. Weights gleamed in the sun, which was beginning its descent over the hills where the sky spread out hard and blue and traffic thickened on the main roads.
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