Local actor Aleksandar Filimonovic found comfort and stability in American pop culture after his family left Yugoslavia shortly before the Yugoslav Wars started in 1991.
Filimonovic had to make friends and leave them behind every couple of years while his family moved around Europe. The one constant in his life was American movies, and Eddie Murphy made some of his favorites: Beverly Hills Cop, Trading Places, Coming to America. Filimonovic ended up becoming an actor himself, working for several years in Serbia before moving to Santa Monica in 2015.
Last year, he landed his first breakthrough American role in an Eddie Murphy movie called Dolemite Is My Name. The film, which was released last week, marks Murphy’s first acting role in three years and his return to critical acclaim.
Dolemite follows comedian Rudy Ray Moore in the early 1970s as he becomes an iconic blaxploitation filmmaker. Filimonovic was offered the role of Joseph Bihari, a Hungarian-American music executive who markets Moore’s first comedy album.
“Eddie was one of my idols growing up,” Filimonovic said. “When my agent called me to tell me I got the role, I started screaming in my car and really freaked out the elderly lady driving next to me.”
Filimonovic said he was surprised he wasn’t asked to play a Russian bad guy — a role he had frequently been asked to play since he started working in Hollywood.
“People in Hollywood look at me and think, “hey, Eastern and Southeastern Europe are the same thing, let’s cast him as a baddie with a Russian accent”,” he said. “When I got the role of Joseph Bihari, I was so happy that I finally had a chance to play someone born in the states.”
For Filimonovic, getting a larger role in an American film has been a long time coming. He first moved to the United States to attend the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute in New York, leaving behind a bachelor’s degree in computer science and a budding career as a soccer player.
Filimonovic completed his studies in 2008 while going through a breakup and was going to move to Los Angeles one month later. But his mother encouraged him to visit Los Angeles before moving — both to get out of his head and to get a feel for the city — and on a whim, he bought a same-day plane ticket.
He landed at LAX and didn’t know anyone in Los Angeles, so he got in a cab and asked to go to the Santa Monica Pier.
“When I saw Santa Monica, I felt I was going to live here,” he said. “For me, it’s a vision of the American dream.”
But after a short stint in Hollywood, Filimonovic was unable to secure a visa to remain in the United States and moved back to Serbia, where he acted in TV shows, got his black belt in karate and qualified as a lifeguard, working in rescue missions during catastrophic floods in the Balkans in 2014.
“I didn’t want to get married for papers — I’m too romantic for that,” he said. “I thought I’d go back to a smaller market and build my resume.”
Still, he dreamed of returning to the United States and resuming his career.
“I grew up all over Europe and I’ve traveled all over the world. People’s souls are the same everywhere, and any kind of art connects people across borders,” he said. “When I was in Serbia, I felt like I was only reaching a small part of the world.”
Four years ago, Filimonovic decided to make the leap to Los Angeles and managed to secure a green card based on his profile as an actor in Serbia. He spent a few years taking roles that he felt were typecast — armed guards, mainly — and worked briefly as an assistant to Tom Petty after he helped a woman with a broken arm, who turned out to be Petty’s wife.
Filimonovic said his parents have been supportive of his choice to leave behind his careers in computer science and soccer to pursue acting. But he felt they couldn’t put their full trust in his career until he landed the role in Dolemite, which he said has opened up new opportunities in his career.
“Being able to invite them to a Hollywood set and introduce them to Eddie Murphy made it feel like this big gamble was worth it,” he said.