Yosef Kasnetzkov talks about how he went from being a professional tennis player to being a professional actor and then to putting his acting career on hold in order to train full-time at the Terry Knickerbocker Studio, to which he was referred by Boyd Holbrook, his fellow cast member on “Justified: City Primeval.”
TKS: You played professional tennis for eight years until you were 22 years old. How did you come to turn pro at 14?
Yosef: I grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii, and began playing tennis early. I was coached there by a Bulgarian, who ended up returning to Bulgaria, so at the age of 12 I moved to Bulgaria to continue my training with him. Within two years, I was on the pro circuit, playing under the name of Joseph Kasnetz. I earned an ATP ranking, but over time it became clear that tennis would not be my career. In the process, however, I learned to speak six languages – Russian, Bulgarian, Macedonian, German, Spanish, and Hebrew – which became a major asset when I turned my attention to acting.
TKS: How did you pivot from tennis to acting?
Yosef: When I returned to Honolulu, my neighbor there was an actor and acting coach named Wayne Ward. When he learned of the six languages, in addition to English, that I spoke, he suggested that I audition for guest parts on “Hawaii Five-0,” which always seemed to be in need of actors who could play Eastern European “bad guys.” I took his advice and soon had a guest part on “Hawaii Five-0.” But, even so, I decided that it was time to go to college. I enrolled at the University of Miami, where I couldn’t play on the tennis team because I had already turned pro, so I continued to pursue my interest in acting by studying at a local acting studio.
Florida soon withdrew its tax incentives for filmmaking, and the movie industry moved to Georgia, so I went back and forth to Atlanta auditioning and later began auditioning in New York City. I won more parts, typically Eastern European heavies, and appeared in guest roles on such popular television shows as “MacGyver,” “Magnum, P.I.”, “The Blacklist,” “FBI,” and “Law and Order: Organized Crime.”
TKS: Why did you then decide to put your acting career on hold to train at the Terry Knickerbocker Studio?
Yosef: I made that decision, ironically, after earning my first recurring guest-star role – as Besnik Darke on FX’s “Justified: City Primeval,” which premiered in the summer of 2023. During the last couple of days of filming I was spending 15 hours a day with Boyd Holbrook, who plays Clement Mansell, the lead antagonist to Timothy Olyphant’s Marshall Raylan Givens. At one point we were given a rewrite of a scene, and I saw Boyd go off by himself to do a very precise technique of breaking down the lines and doing vocal and breathing exercises. Later, on the shuttle bus back to our hotel after the shoot, I asked him what he had been doing. He described the technique that he had learned from Terry Knickerbocker and then asked me how I had prepared for the rewrite. I had nothing to say.
Here was an actor with far more acting experience and tools than I had, and he was preparing with a technique that I knew nothing about. With the help of some occasional acting classes in Miami, I had risen to the level of a recurring guest star – and to the rank of an Albanian General in “Justified: City Primeval.” Now I wondered how far I could go – and if I could break out of the typecasting of Eastern European heavy – if I had intensive sophisticated training and the kind of technique that Boyd prized.
When I asked Boyd what I should do, he said: “Terry Knickerbocker Studio. You can use me as a reference.” I was absolutely thrilled. Not only had Boyd Holbrook recommended a specific acting school to me; he had urged me to use his name with Terry Knickerbocker. When I emailed Boyd later and said that I was thinking of doing the summer intensive, he said, “Just go. Do it.”
When the summer intensive started, I was blown away by the fact that the work was so transformative. I was also surprised and pleased to find that Boyd’s wife, the extremely talented actress Tatiana Pajkovic, had enrolled in the summer intensive as well. The experience that I gained from the summer intensive convinced me that I needed more training. That’s when I decided to put my career on hold at age 32 and enroll in the two-year conservatory.
TKS: What did you find was so compelling about the training at the Terry Knickerbocker Studio?
Yosef: I’ve found in both tennis and acting that, when you start working at higher levels, you realize that the highest level is the best of the best of the best. In athletics, to make it to the Olympics, you have to train like an Olympian. I had never before had a coach who was at an Olympic level like Terry Knickerbocker. Training with Terry is on a whole other level. My work with him and with the other faculty members at the Terry Knickerbocker Studio has caused my imposter feeling to fade away. I realized for the first time that I could keep up with the Olympians. I still have a lot more training to do, but I can now see that I can play beyond the typecasting that has both sustained and restrained me.
TKS: What’s it like returning to school mid-career?
Yosef: It’s exhilarating, because it’s opening so many doors that had been closed to me, some of which I had closed myself. The classes at the Terry Knickerbocker Studio offer a wonderfully diverse mix of beautiful human beings, whose experience ranges from aspiring actors to actors who have had roles that I can only dream of playing. Once the training begins, it doesn’t matter whether you were a series regular on a hit show or are just getting started. I love that.