If you want to make television in Turkey – and well you might, Turkey is second only to the US as an exporter of TV drama worldwide – there are a few things that could make your life difficult.
On average, one episode of Turkish television drama lasts between 110 and 120 minutes. Shows run into dozens of episodes per season while shooting schedules are often 16 hour days, six days a week. Spectacular results, yes, if the process doesn’t kill you.
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But every so often, a new hero emerges. One who will challenge the existing order and bring change to the status quo. In this case, that hero is Çağatay Ulusoy, star of Netflix’s first Turkish television production, The Protector, and winner of Television Actor of the Year at the GQ Men of the Year awards.
Ulusoy is part of a movement that has seen Turkey on the brink of inventing a new genre of television all its own: “dizi” or ‘a genre in progress’.
“We’re playing by different rules,” he tells GQ, late one September evening while on a break from filming, in Istanbul.
“Now we have Netflix, the system is changing. It’s like a new game.” Indeed, after roles in Turkish remakes of The OC and the aforementioned Turkish TV drama, this new game sees Ulusoy stepping up to lead what could be a worldwide Turkish TV revolution – and he’s got a 4.1 million social media following ready to jump into the brink with him.
Playing the role of Hakan Demir, a shopkeeper whose adoptive father is murdered, Ulusoy discovers he is the descendent of an ancient order, charged with protecting Istanbul from The Immortal. A frenetic action-fantasy with a satisfying, heroic arc that puts Istanbul right at its heart, The Protector is brilliant popcorn TV. The sort of thing you dream of doing as a youngster.
“We’re introducing a new genre to a Turkish audience,” says Ulusoy excitedly. “It’s fantasy, historical and action and we’ve created a unique mixture by adding surprises like superheroes.”
One of the other highlights of the show is its framing of Istanbul. The Turkish capital feels like a character in its own right, and lends the show its mythical presence.
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“When you walk on the street you can feel the air is different. It’s very old and it has a heart,” says Ulusoy. “It’s not just a regular city. You can feel that blend of modern and historical aspects of the city and it’s one of the big promises of the show to the audience: to showcase the contrasts between both worlds. It’s been a humbling experience to introduce Turkey and Istanbul to a new audience through the show.”
Crucially, each episode is just 46 minutes long, with between seven and 10 episodes completing a series. Such a hit was The Protector’s first season that Netflix commissioned another in quick succession, followed by two more slated for release next year. But don’t think that means Ulusoy is taking it easy in the starring role.
“I prefer performing my own stunts instead of using a body double,” he says when we discuss the fast paced, Bourne-style action sequences in the show. “I work with a personal trainer for the fight scenes and other choreography.”
This hard working, body-on-the-line approach recalls the work ethic of Hollywood stars like Tom Cruise or Keanu Reeves. Was that his intention?
“They’re big names,” he chuckles bashfully. “I’m just trying to do my best actually, with my own passion and trying to give everything I’ve got.”
Born to a Bosnian mother and a Bulgarian father, Ulusoy originally studied garden design and landscaping, before winning Best Model of Turkey and then landing a role in Adini Feriha Koydum, a Turkish drama that lasted for three seasons. From there, Ulusoy’s hard work began paying off.
“Before Netflix had even planned to launch this show I had noted this as a goal for myself: to act in a Netflix show. I focussed on that goal.” It’s this passion and drive that meant he was an easy choice for GQ’s first-ever awards in the Middle East.
“I’m very happy and humbled to be part of this experience,” he says. “And I’m so excited to come to Abu Dhabi and see this great country.”
But first, more pressing matters: how will Turkey’s newest action hero tackle our No-Rules Eveningwear dress code? There is a pause....
“I didn’t prepare anything yet. Maybe a smoking jacket? It’s exciting…” He pauses again, before picking up the conversation, this time with a conspiratorial air. “Actually I hate that process, you know? This is a necessary evil that we have to do. I hate shopping and trying on clothes. It’s a really hard process for me.”
Slightly easier than the shopping is the speech, which Ulusoy says he’ll think up on the spot. “When you get on the stage, everything changes, you know? Whatever I feel at that moment, I’ll say that.”
Post-Men of The Year Awards, Ulusoy has some time on his hands. With the next two seasons of The Protector already in the bag, he is intent on doing even more to emulate Hollywood’s heaviest hitters, with plans to direct a screenplay he’s spent the last three years writing.
You really will be a triple threat then, we joke, and Ulusoy thinks for a second before responding.
“I want to split my soul actually.” Triple threat indeed. We push for more details but he’s said enough.
“I’ve never told anyone about this by the way. Just my close friends know I’m going to shoot a film as a director. You are the first to know. I’m so excited. Just dreaming every day about it. Every moment.” GQ Middle East exclusive it is, then.
It’s a lot to take in, but then screen time waits for no man. Passionate, talented and driven: In Çağatay Ulusoy, Turkish TV might just have got the hero it needs, as well as the one it deserves.
Photography: Stephanie Galea
Styling Keanoush Zargham
Location: Çırağan Palace Kempinski Istanbul. Visit: goturkey.com