Tampa actor Justin Kucsulain of 'The Walking Dead' talks life on set and living every fan's dream
By the end of his day on set of The Walking Dead, Justin Kucsulain was covered in dirt, sticky fake blood and had wood chips in his beard and long, blonde hair.
He had just shot a pivotal scene with Andrew Lincoln (Rick Grimes) and Xander Berkeley (Gregory) in the show's new Hilltop colony in Senoia, Ga.
Last week Kucsulain sat down with the Times to chat about his career before and after Dead, and to share a delicious breakfast of "all the glutens" at his go-to Tampa diner, Nicki's Omelette & Grill.
Kucsulain's character, Ethan, had just come back from dropping a load of supplies to the Saviors, who deemed the load too light. Ethan had a message for Gregory, leader of the Hilltop: a knife in the stomach.
A loud, violent tussle landed Rick flat on the ground with Ethan holding a knife to his throat. Unfortunately, Rick quickly stabbed Ethan in the neck and basically coated himself in his blood.
"I was so nervous shooting this scene," Kucsulain said. "But I got a lot of support and guidance from the cast and crew."
When Kucsulain left the set later that day in October, he went back to his hotel to take three baths and two showers just to get the muck off himself.
Playing Ethan was only his second major acting gig.
Kucsulain, 31, originally from Michigan, moved to Lakeland in 2006 before moving to the Rocky Point area in Tampa.
Pursuing a career in mixed martial arts, Kucsulain earned a black belt in American Jiu Jitsu and a purple belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
He caught the attention of acting scouts through his modeling photos on social media.
His first gig was as a guard in Iron Man 3, but most of the scenes he shot were taken out post-production.
"I was still new to the industry so I was thinking ‘I'm gonna be a movie star,'" he said with a hint of disappointment when he saw his scenes were cut.
After he experienced the excitement of a movie set — and was mistaken for Thor — Kucsulain knew he wanted to pursue acting.
Fast forward to October and he found himself on the set of one of the top shows on television, playing an important comic book character and working alongside the likes of Lincoln, Norman Reedus and Steven Yeun.
During the fight scene with Lincoln, he said "one of those punches actually connected."
He didn't break character, Lincoln later apologized for punching him and signed one of Kucsulain's The Walking Dead comics: "It was a pleasure to stab you today, sincerest apologies for the punch."
It's every Dead fan's dream come true.
"I was starstruck having lunch with Steven Yeun, Michael Cudlitz and Norman Reedus," Kucsulain said. "I couldn't even eat my beautiful plate of food."
Kucsulain said he brought a few of his comics to show the cast scenes they were shooting, which all of them excitedly signed for him.
He doesn't smoke, but Kucsulain ended up bumming cigarettes from Lincoln and Reedus to spend more time with them.
"I bought some so I could continue to hang out with them," he said.
When he's not living out the fangirl dream, Kucsulain works as a bartender for The Ritz Ybor in Tampa and Yard of Ale in St. Petersburg.
The night his episode aired (episode 11, ‘Knots Untie,' which aired February 28) Kucsulain had a watch party with friends and family at Yard of Ale. Friendly, neighborhood comic book store Emerald City Comics also joined in on the festivities to congratulate him on his part.
"I couldn't tell anyone about my role until that night, and we shot in October," he said. "They only knew I was a character from the comics."
When he has time, Kucsulain continues to train in mixed martial arts. He believes his skills greatly helped in the fight scene with Lincoln.
Besides Dead, he also starred in a few episodes of Bloodline, Chicago P.D. and Finding Carter.
"I'm looking forward to perfecting my craft, learning more and just becoming a well-rounded actor," Kucsulain said.
When asked what types of roles he'd like to pursue next, Kucsulain said, "I want a Marvel film. Bad. Like, I'm itching for it."
Contact Chelsea Tatham at [email protected] Follow @chelseatatham.