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Ivanek gets to play a good guy ‘for a change’

By LUAINE LEE McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Publication: The Day

Published September 12. 2012 4:00AM

It was a long and winding road, but through performing actor Zeljko Ivanek finally found a home. He was born in Yugoslavia (now Slovenia) and first came to America while his father was finishing his doctorate in engineering at Stanford.

When he finished, the family returned to Yugoslavia for five years. "We moved back and forth (so) many times between California and Yugoslavia that my sense of belonging is a little wobbly," says the wiry Ivanek in a crowded hotel coffee bar here.

Acting brought him a sense of belonging. "You're always trying to set up these temporary families and trying to maintain that sense of being part of an ongoing community that is the theater community in New York and the film-TV community in L.A. It's very gratifying if you can feel you are part of something a little larger than just this job or the next job," he says.

"And especially if you're on a series or if you're working on something for a while, it's kind of creating that home all over again."

While most everybody knows his face - he's costarred in series like "24," "Homicide: Life in the Streets," "Damages," "True Blood" and "Heroes" - hardly anybody knows how to say his name. It's pronounced Zhel-ko Ee-van-ek and he's costarring in a new series, "Mob Doctor," premiering Sept. 17 on Fox.

"I was 10 years old when we moved back to California and we stayed put. I think it gave me a longing for continuity and a sense of belonging. Because when I started school in Yugoslavia I did the first three grades of school there," he recalls.

"We'd been to America and that was kind of a big deal for all the kids - we were the family that had been to America, and I did well in school. I was president of my class. I kind of started at the top because of all the circumstances," he says.

"And then we moved back to California, and I was suddenly the one whose English was a little shaky. And I didn't know anybody in my school, and it took me a while to make new friends. I think it was ever harder on my brother who was three years older. Theater was one of the first places where that jelled for me ... I was 13 or 14 when I started doing theater in junior high school ... and I kept up with that in and out of school for the rest of high school."

Moving so often forced him to constantly re-invent himself. "I think the biggest thing was the sense of continuity. You start to feel like you're one person in this place, and you move and you're like a whole different person there and another when you move again. And you're trying to figure out how do all those people string together?"

Ivanek strings those people together in the dizzying variety of roles he's played - everything from gleeful torturers to starchy district attorneys. "You just get to live through different people and different emotions and most of us - in our daily lives - don't go through the range of things that people do in dramas and comedies in movies and theater," he says.

"Part of it is just a wider emotional experience. And also I think what I love about the working experience is the collaborative aspect and in the last few years why I've wanted to do a series is - it's home."

In "Mob Doctor," Ivanek plays the mentor to a young female physician who finds her allegiances tested because of ties to the mob.

"I get to play a good guy for a change," he smiles. "But my hope is there will be some shadings in there that everybody is going to have to confront their ideas of themselves - what they're capable of and what they're willing to do."

In spite of his success and wall of awards, Ivanek admits he's still self-conscious. "I'm a little anal retentive, but not sure I'd change that because if you're anal retentive you like that," he chuckles.

"I don't drink and (am) not that comfortable in social situations. I dread parties. I dread small talk. That's one thing I wish I was not (is) so self-conscious as a person. I don't drink and don't smoke; I have no go-to safety valve."

He still turns down offers he feels are beyond his reach. "I'm flattered that someone thinks I can do that, but I don't know how to do that without feeling like I'm acting at something. And that's the worst feeling. It's part of the self-consciousness - it's my own sense of what feels real and true. When I watch most of my stuff, I'm still conscious of sounding the way I sound, doing what I do, seeing faces I've seen before, so my sense of the reality of something is easily violated."

Not married, Ivanek, 55, has a partner in New York, which he still calls home, though he lives six month of the year in L.A.

Because of his peripatetic life, he says, "I've worked very hard always at maintaining friendships from work situations, so a lot of my friends are people I've worked with along the way and that I've worked hard to keep in my life. It's one of the more gratifying things - 25, 30 years later - people you went to school with, had your first job with and they're still here. We're still here."

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