May 21, 2019

‘Green Book’ Latest Stop on Marinov’s Unusual Journey

From Left: Dimiter D. Marinov, Viggo Mortensen (left) as Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga and Mahershala Ali as Don Shirley

Already winning rave reviews in advance of its release, the film “Green Book” is about a black pianist and the white driver/bodyguard he hires for a concert tour through the segregated South in 1962. Mahershala Ali as the worldly, wealthy Donald “Doc” Shirley and Viggo Mortensen as Bronx bouncer “Tony Lip” Vallelonga are mismatched, bickering travelers in a true story that holds up a mirror to the prejudices that still exist in America. The film’s title refers to a segregation-era road guide to “Colored Only” motels.

“This is a story of how two people who are complete opposites, even hate each other, reach across, listen and come together,” said Dimiter D. Marinov, who plays Oleg, the Don Shirley Trio’s cellist. Marinov had trained as a violinist and performed all over the world in his youth. He learned to play the cello for his “Green Book” audition in just five days. That kind of focus and determination has served him well throughout his life.

Marinov, 54, who grew up in Communist Bulgaria, spent 3 1/2 years as a political prisoner and defected to the United States in 1990. The son of an Orthodox Jewish father and a Christian mother who were not married, Marinov was given up for adoption. “I knew my mother but didn’t know she was my mother until much later,” he said. “I met my father when I was 21.”

Marinov began playing the violin at age 5 and joined a traveling youth symphony at 11. He studied at a prestigious music school and toured the world, performing with Leonard Bernstein in New York in 1979. He was recruited as a courier to carry letters from behind the Iron Curtain to the West, and although he didn’t know what was in them, he fell under suspicion. “In a Communist country, there are a lot of snitches,” he said. 

During his compulsory military service, Marinov spent time in military jail as a suspected spy. After completing his service, he stowed away with a friend on the Orient Express but was caught in Yugoslavia and jailed. Of his 3 1/2 years in prison, Marinov said it was “a nightmare. They broke all my fingers.” 

“This is a story of how two people who are complete opposites, even hate each other, reach across, listen and come together.” —Dimiter D. Marinov

Following his release, Marinov found work cleaning a theater, and a professor he met helped him get into Bulgaria’s national theater academy. He subsequently joined the touring group Mystery Voices with a goal in mind. “I needed to get out and find a new life,” he said. 

On the last stop of the group’s tour of the United States in Knoxville, Tenn., Marinov got in a taxi with his violin and $50 to his name and headed downtown. Through a series of fortuitous circumstances, a couple named Michael and Peggy Shirley helped him seek political asylum. Marinov stayed with the Shirleys for three years while learning English and working as an airbrush artist. He became a U.S. citizen in 1996. 

Marinov took a circuitous route back to acting and music, with jobs in San Diego as a handyman, barista and pizza delivery man before working with the San Diego Repertory Theatre. There also were stints establishing his own coffee shop, pizza parlor and catering business, and he spent some time in 2006 running a restaurant in Costa Rica.

Moving back to the States, Marinov decided to try his luck in Hollywood on the advice of a friend, and he aced his first two auditions: a Nikon commercial with Ashton Kutcher and the movie “Act of Valor.” It was the first in a long line of Russian bad guys he has played, most recently on the television shows “The Americans” and “Barry.” Being a polyglot — he speaks Russian, German, Spanish, Bulgarian and English — has served him well. 

“Of all the roles I’ve done, [‘Green Book’] is the most special to me because of the character, the story and the message,” Marinov said. “I hope it will take me to the next level.” 

Marinov has written a musical about his life that juxtaposes it with Marlene Dietrich’s, and he is awaiting the release of “Russian American,” based on the true story of a Jewish doctor who runs afoul of the Russian mob in Brooklyn.

While he is not a practicing Jew, Marinov said he feels a connection to the faith of his father, noting that he performed at the JCC in San Diego and spoke at a Museum of Tolerance event honoring Bulgaria’s efforts to save Jews during the Holocaust. 

Today, Marinov lives in Carlsbad with his wife and two sons, the youngest named Michael in honor of Michael Shirley, his Knoxville savior. 

“I never expected or asked for anything. I came here to do it myself,” Marinov said. “I worked for everything I had. Believe in yourself, work hard, stay focused. And if it’s meant to be, it will happen.”

“Green Book” opens in theaters on Nov. 16.