How Dmitrious Bistrevsky, a Ukrainian refugee who grew up in Spokane, became Darth Vader

click to enlarge How Dmitrious Bistrevsky, a Ukrainian refugee who grew up in Spokane, became Darth Vader
LucasFilm LTd. photo
Dmitrious Bistrevsky is the man behind Vader's foreboding black ensemble in Disney+'s Obi-Wan Kenobi.

They say that the boy who would become Darth Vader grew up a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

But search your feelings, you know it to be untrue. Pure Imperial propaganda.

In reality, the boy who would become Darth Vader grew up in Spokane in the 1990s. And the winding path to becoming one of the most iconic villains in pop culture history features just about as many twists and turns as Anakin Skywalker's path in the Star Wars saga.

Born in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, before the fall of the Soviet Union, Dmitrious Bistrevsky's family defected and fled to the U.S. as Christian refugees when he was just 1 year old, ending up in the Tacoma area and relocating to Spokane when he was 6. Bistrevsky's youth and struggles in the Inland Northwest led him to breakdancing, circus work, stunt performing, creature acting and, eventually, donning the legendary black helmet and armor of the Sith Lord for 2022's Disney+ series Obi-Wan Kenobi.

This week the towering, 6-foot-7-inch Bistrevsky returns home as a special guest at Lilac City Comic, which takes place at the Spokane Convention Center on June 1 and 2. It should be a homecoming high on fanfare and, thankfully, much less sandy than a Vader return to Tatooine.

Childhood in Spokane wasn't always a breeze for Bistrevsky. Growing up in a family that was heavily involved in the conservative Slavic church, he always felt like an outsider trying to rebel. He wanted to be more American, but with Russian as his first language, and Cold War-era xenophobia still common, the Ukrainian expat struggled to fit in with his peers.

"Kids would throw rocks at us and say, 'Go back to Russia!'" Bistrevsky recalls. "So I've always had this deep-seated rebellion inside of me."

click to enlarge How Dmitrious Bistrevsky, a Ukrainian refugee who grew up in Spokane, became Darth Vader (2)
Dmitrious Bistrevsky

It also didn't help that he was a super tall, lanky, awkward, poor immigrant in secondhand clothes trying to integrate. Bistrevsky's middle school growth spurt was so intense he couldn't do sports or P.E. for two years due to knee and back issues. Once his body somewhat stabilized, basketball and football coaches came calling.

"At the time, out of rebellion, I did the exact opposite," he says. "I wanted to breakdance because I thought it looked cool."

After being a self-proclaimed "very, very bad" breakdancer for a couple years, he turned his attention to acting. Bistrevsky began auditioning and was cast as the titular monster in a Spokane Community College production of Frankenstein. After freezing up at an audition, though, he vowed to audition for everything, even if he wasn't a fit, just to overcome his fear. This led to a fellow breakdancer and co-worker at Spokane Gymnastics convincing Bistrevsky to audition for So You Think You Can Dance.

After a few weeks of crash-course prep, Bistrevsky actually made it past the first and second audition cuts. He knew he wasn't good, but he thought maybe judges were intrigued by his height and determination. But it turned out that the show only advanced him so the judges could rip him apart for viewers' entertainment. One judge, Mia Michaels, told him he'd never be good, which lit a fire in Bistrevsky, leading him to form his own breakdance group in Spokane, Paper Cutout Crew, to prove her wrong.

After improving his coordination, he moved to LA to pursue stunt work with the ultimate goal of acting. But within three weeks in SoCal, he met multiple people who convinced him to literally join the circus.

"I realized that everything I was looking for, I found in circus," Bistrevsky says. "Because for me, it was the storytelling of theater, the movement of breakdancing, the structure of gymnastics, and the self-expression of breakdancing all wrapped into one. It felt like home."

Bistrevsky was accepted into a top circus school in Canada. But once he arrived, visa issues prevented him from completing training. In a stroke of luck, one of the school's coaches was Russian circus grandmaster Alexander Arnautov. When he heard of Bistrevsky's plight, Arnautov decided to take him under his wing and train Bistrevsky for free... in part because he just wanted someone to speak with in Russian.

"He trained me Rocky-style, and it was one of the most bizarre, profound experiences of my life," Bistrevsky says. "He is the one person that was a turning point, that changed the trajectory of my life."

The grandmaster pushed his pupil to audition for Cirque du Soleil, and Bistrevsky landed a role with the company one week before he was set to run out of money. He moved into the Cirque dormitories, trained and returned to LA as a backup in one of their shows while also diving back into Hollywood's stunt and acting world.

It was then that Bistrevsky met Doug Jones, the famed creature suit actor best known for his co-starring role as the amphibian man in The Shape of Water.

"When he saw me, he said, 'You should consider creature acting. Because you're good with movement. You're large. There's four stereotypical body types for suit acting, and you fit the largest type, which is like the ogres, aliens, the trolls, werewolves, you know, any anything of that sort,'" Bistrevsky recalls.

A chronic knee dislocation steered him away from stunt work, but Bistrevsky started playing monsters, robots and creatures, landing small roles in film and TV, including a spot as a doomed alien in the first episode of Disney's The Mandalorian.

Before it was widely known that Disney would make Obi-Wan Kenobi and bring back Darth Vader, people in Bistrevsky's life were already imagining him in the Sith's jet-black attire.

"I heard through the grapevine that there was a big project happening in the works: It's an iconic character; it takes place in space; wears a suit of armor and fights with a sword," he says. "A few industry people had reached out to me and said, 'Hey, you'd be kind of perfect for this. So be on the lookout.'"

While his pop-culture-averse upbringing meant that Bistrevsky didn't see Star Wars until he was 17, he was instantly drawn to Vader. Ever the grinder, he started sword training on his own, simply on the chance.

"For me, I have this idea of manifestation. Like if I put in the work and set the intention out, then something will magically happen... the Force," says Bistrevsky. "I believe in the Force."

Eventually he did get the call and after five rounds of auditions, Bistrevsky landed the role as the body actor for Darth Vader.

After initially feeling disconnected with the character — feeling like everything he was doing "looked like cosplay" — a deep dive into Anakin Skywalker unlocked everything.

"I had a moment of clarity, and I realized that it's not that I didn't understand Darth Vader, it's that I didn't understand Anakin," he says. "And then once I started studying Anakin... that's when I saw all the parallels between myself and Anakin. He was a slave, I was an immigrant. I grew up super poor, he grew up with nothing. Always needing to prove something, his rebellious spirit, his determination is defiance to everything... And then I understood the fall, and then I understood Darth Vader. And then I understood that I was Darth Vader."

The process of becoming Vader has somewhat slowed Bistrevsky's on-screen exploits, as he says spending nine months in the dark mental space to become the character really wore on him. But he's delighted to meet fans who appreciate his work, and he's staying busy in other ways. In addition to Lilac City Comicon, he'll host a handstand workshop at Spokane Gymnastics on June 5. He's also created a card game called Fitchain to game-ify sports conditioning, which he's been shopping around.

While Bistrevsky's Star Wars journey may be aligned with the dark side of the Force, it's hard not to recall a pearl of Jedi wisdom that defines his unwavering determination.

"Do or do not, there is no try."

Lilac City Comicon • Sat, June 1 from 10 am-6 pm and Sun, June 2 from 10 am-4 pm • $13-$18; $5 ages 5-12 • Spokane Convention Center • 334 W. Spokane Falls Blvd •

Broken Mic @ Neato Burrito

Wednesdays, 6:30 p.m.
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Seth Sommerfeld

Seth Sommerfeld is the Music Editor for The Inlander, and an alumnus of Gonzaga University and Syracuse University. He has written for The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Fox Sports, SPIN, Collider, and many other outlets. He also hosts the podcast, Everyone is Wrong...