The first word that comes to mind when describing 24-year-old actor and model Niko Pepaj is charismatic. The natural energy he brings to set is impossible to teach. A few years ago, we first met Niko in Los Angeles at a photo shoot featuring five male models, but he quickly stole the show. He not only exuded sex appeal, but also fully committed to the role in which we cast him. The Shkoder, Albania native didn’t let the facts that he was shorter and wasn’t as seasoned as some of the other models deter him from giving his all. Instead, these facts fueled his yearning to excel even more. This fire, desire, and adaptability is how Niko has been able to successfully—and seamlessly—transition from fashion model to Hollywood actor. Growing up, however, things weren’t as easy. Niko lived the majority of his life thus far behind a facade because he was an illegal immigrant in the United States. Now, he uses the extremely difficult experience and lifelong lessons learned therein to excel in careers that focus on portraying different characters. Most recently, he played a gay man on ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder, and regarding the preparation for what became a controversial heated sex scene, he says “I don’t think there is a way to prepare for a sex scene; you just have to go in and do what you gotta do.” In terms of the role, “It hasn’t been held against me,” Niko says, “but I have noticed since I did that role I have received a lot of scripts in which I would play the gay character.” We caught up with Niko while in L.A. to learn more about his struggle and how he stayed afloat.
Written by The BASTARD Child
Niko, tell us a bit about your self.
I was born in Shkoder, Albania where I lived until I was six-and-a-half years old. My family was very strict but very loving. Communication is a very big part of my family. We were raised to respect one another and always stay true to ourselves. We had a hard time in Albania due to the Civil War. I witnessed many tragedies and because of this I thought about death often. By the blessings of God, my parents were able to get a visa to come to America. My sister and I stayed in Albania until my parents hired someone to pretend to be our father so that we could come to America. My father got a job as a chef and that afforded us the opportunity to stay in Detroit.
“We were scared that if we told anyone who we really were someone would tell on us and we would get deported.”
What was it like being an illegal immigrant living in Detroit, Michigan?
The hardest part was not being able to be honest with people I grew to care about. We were scared that if we told anyone who we really were someone would tell on us and we would get deported. We actually had to leave Detroit because people started ratting each other out to save themselves. My family and I had a deportation order out on us, so we moved to San Diego to try and escape it. In San Diego I was heavily into basketball. Since I had to hide my true identity from everyone, I would express myself on the court. I became captain of my varsity high school team and was an all-academic athlete. My parents were eventually arrested and, after spending six months in jail, deported. My sister was detained for six weeks even though she was married to an American citizen. Once my parents got arrested I had to flee. I had no place to go, so I lived out of my car.
What was it like living in your car?
It had to be the lowest time of my life. I was alone and afraid. I didn’t even have a license or an ID. That experience gave me the desire to want to succeed. Since I was already at the bottom, the only place I believed I could go was up. Eventually I started modeling and booked a few jobs. I was able to finally save some money to get an apartment. I knew that I was the only thing my family had to fall back on; I had to make it for everybody.
Why did you get into acting?
The only thing I was able to do was act and model. They were the only fields I could manipulate my way into as an illegal immigrant. When acting, I can be myself in another person’s shoes. I was able to pull from the emotion of the hard times I went through to embody the characters I portray. It is a blessing that I was able to model and then become an actor. A lot of illegal immigrants aren’t as fortunate as I am. Since I had booked a few big acting jobs, I was able to get my green card even though I was facing a deportation order.
Have you ever been discriminated against because of your background?
Yes. People used to make remarks about me being a “terrorist.” They used to speak Arabic to me not realizing that I am European. Most of my friends were African American because they would never judge me.
“The only thing that kept me going was the fact that my family needed me more than ever.”
What are some of the biggest struggles you have faced in the industry? Have you ever wanted to give up on the dream?
The rejection is constant but it’s also normal. There are different looks casting directors go for and sometimes you’re just not it. Getting my family taken away from me and being alone here has helped me become the person I am today. It’s a blessing in disguise. I wanted to give up many times. The only thing that kept me going was the fact that my family needed me more than ever.
What was your first acting role that made you feel like a professional? How did the opportunity come about and what was the experience like?
I booked the role of Grant in the MTV movie My Super Psycho Sweet 16 Part III. During the film, the director and producers noticed how comfortable I was on and off camera that they literally changed the character’s name from “Grant” to “Niko.” It was the second job I booked and it was a lead in a movie. My confidence skyrocketed after that. That’s when I knew I loved acting and it became my passion. I went on an audition, went for a call back, had a producer session, and the rest was history. The experience was amazing.
What is the role that has gained you the most attention?
I would say there are two roles that have given me a lot of attention. The first one is the role of Sergio on MTV’s Awkward. That role has helped me gain fans and also gave me the credits to audition for How To Get Away With Murder on ABC. On HTGAWM, I had a controversial sex scene that made E! News, Access Hollywood, Entertainment Weekly, CNN.com, and many more reputable websites.
Despite your fearlessness, is there a role that you will not play or a scene you would not act out?
If the project is good, there is nothing that I wouldn’t do—except porn. I enjoy playing roles in which the character has a tortured soul, whether it’s a fighter, a drug addict, or in a movie as great as Broke Back Mountain. I don’t judge.
What does it feel like now to have so many fans not only because of your talent but also your looks?
It’s a blessing. I can’t take credit for my looks but I can take credit for all the hard work I have put into my craft. What is your motto in life? My motto in life is “light a fire up under your ass boy and GO!” because that helps me not over analyze and second-guess myself. Your mind is your weakness, but your instincts will never let you down. That motto, for some reason, puts me in that mentality.
“Now, I am able to support my family and share my testimony with others who may have experienced something similar or are going through it now.”
What drives you to succeed?
My family drives me to succeed. I try to work a lot and stay busy because when I have too much time on my hands I start to miss my family. Now, I am able to support my family and share my testimony with others who may have experienced something similar or are going through it now.
What is one thing you wish more people knew or realized about you?
I wear my heart on my sleeve. I have nothing but absolute love for everyone around me.
Niko Pepaj is Being Accomplished at Selfless Tasks And Righteous Deeds by donating the proceeds raised from the sale of this fanzine to the St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, a pediatric treatment and research facility focused on children’s catastrophic diseases. In addition to volunteering at St. Jude’s and spending time with the children, Niko also helps to feed the homeless in downtown Los Angeles—be it by volunteering at a shelter or buying 30 cheeseburgers and handing them out as he drives. “It makes me feel good when I help others in need because we have all been there at one point in our lives.”