A-list celebrities and their entourages. Champagne-guzzling guests emboldened by 4 a.m. extended licenses. Paparazzi who will do and say anything for the perfect photo. These are just some of the things Rob Nikiforuk, Director of Security for Uniq Lifestyle Entertainment (the guys who own the likes of Brant House, Cobra, and The Ballroom), has to juggle during film fest season. The job takes a lot more than just standing by a velvet rope and looking intimidating. Nikiforuk’s role more resembles that of a secret service agent–he plans travel routes, shuttles celebs through secret entrances, and is loath to name drop. “Just so you know, we don’t really like the term ‘bouncer.’ It’s outdated,” he tells me. After hearing about all the behind-the-scenes planning he does, I can’t really blame the guy. Read my interview with Nikiforuk to learn more about what exactly goes into making TIFF a safe and fun experience for celebs and partygoers alike… and what not to say when you’re trying to get into VIP.
I assume TIFF is a really busy time of year for you, so can you tell me about the preparation that goes into that?
It’s obviously extremely busy, tons of preparation prior to any celebs coming in. We’re pretty diligent on marking out their routes and what they have to do. When they come into Toronto it’s a media blast for them. So they’ll start at 6 a.m. and do media junkets all day, they’ll have interviews with different TV shows that we have to take them around to, and then they’ll do a dinner, a red carpet appearance, a screening, the after party, and maybe another after party after that, and then they’re in bed and up again really early the next morning.
So it’s our job to make sure that all the entrances and exits and our routes are all secure, you have to monitor traffic in the city at that time, road closures–one of the most important things aside from watching them in the venues is getting them from place to place in a very quick, safe, efficient manner.
So I didn’t realize that you’re actually responsible for security throughout the entire day…
Usually that’s what happens, so I’ll pick them up from the airport and I’m with them until I drop them off at the airport.
You also have celebrities come in other times of the year. Do you find there are more problems during TIFF? Do you need heavier security?
It’s actually safer during TIFF because we spend a lot of time making sure that where they’re going to be is safe and secure. There’s a lot of planning that goes into that. So it’s actually safer and easier for them. When we have a random celebrity show up at our door, we have to react right away as opposed to all the pre-planning that goes into hosting celebrities during TIFF.
What sort of security measures do you put into place at a club?
It’s all about locking it down. No matter what time of the year it is, we lock down the venue to make sure that it’s the right people in the right place. There are different checkpoints to make sure only certain people get through. So we do that all year round–with TIFF it’s the same thing, just bigger. There are more points of contact for people to get through.
How does the extended 4 a.m. license affect your job? Can Torontonians hold their liquor?
It’s just longer days. My team is usually up in the morning at 6 a.m. with them and, again, going through that whole day, and then the after party makes it just a lot longer of a day. When we first started getting [the extended licenses], there was a little bit of a learning curve, but I think Torontonians can handle it. They’re good; everybody’s well behaved for the most part. During TIFF people put on their best outfits and their best appearance, so it’s a good crowd.
Can you share the names of some of the celebrities you’ve been responsible for in the past?
Can you tell me any that you expect this year?
Have you had any celebs that really interact with partygoers at the clubs, or do they tend to just stay cordoned off in their VIP areas?
I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some great people, and all of them are very gracious of the fans and will stop and take the time, and shake hands, and do what they can. And when they need a little break, they head to the roped areas and take their break.
One of our earlier parties, I can probably say his name because it was ten years ago… actually, no, I won’t say his name.
Can you give me a clue?
Well, he was in a movie playing a blind singer and, for that particular party, he was amazing. He got up on a grand piano and sang acapella to the crowd and it was unbelievable. Anybody who was at that party will never forget it.
I can imagine.
And, so, you know who I’m talking about. I’ll give you a little more of a leak. Kevin Spacey joined Jamie Foxx and they sung a duet acapella on the piano, which was super cool. I figure that was a long time ago, so maybe I can get away with saying that.
Even if you can’t tell me specific celebrity names, are there any other stories that stood out to you over the years?
I’m fascinated with most of them because I see how stringent their work really is. Most people don’t see what they do throughout the day. But, one particular gentleman — he runs marathons — and what he’d do is, he’d go to Kenya and he’d train with the tribes in Kenya to prepare for the marathon. So he wanted to fly some of them over to run the marathon with him, but, over there, what they do is they find abandoned rubber tires on the road and bind them to their feet… and that’s what they use as running shoes. So one day we went shopping for running shoes for these guys to send over so that they could get used to wearing a running shoe for when they came over here. I thought that was a really cool story.
So you’ve told me a lot of good stuff. But I’ve worked with celebrities before and I know that, sometimes, they can be big pains in the ass. Have you ever had to deal with very demanding stars?
I’ve been very fortunate, and a lot of time there isn’t that much tension between me and them… it’s coming from their handler or their press people pushing them
So I had to cover a celeb appearance at a club in the Entertainment District a few months ago. It wasn’t even anyone big… some C-list guy who’s married to someone more famous than he is. But the girls went CRAZY. They were literally jumping over the barriers and forcing the bouncers to carry them away. Do you see a lot of that? How do you deal with it?
We handle that like anything else. I’ve witnessed that myself. There was one younger gentleman that we had and young girls, five feet away, were just bawling and clawing at the air… it was just the weirdest and most surreal thing for me to see. But it happens, and we move on.
What are the common excuses you hear when someone wants to get into the VIP area?
It’s always the standard line: “Do you know who I am?” We get that every night we’re open.
Really? People still use that?
All the time. And, sometimes, I don’t know who they are and they are somebody, so I have to listen carefully and hear what the explanation is and check it with some other people.
Has anyone ever made you google them?
No, but I’ve radioed for someone to google who people are.
Has anyone ever done anything really crazy while trying to get in?
This is funny, but the craziest thing I’ve ever had to deal with was when an older A-lister… a lot of times these people come to Toronto and they walk around the streets without being bothered, some of them live here when they’re filming movies, so they get used to that. But TIFF is a completely different animal. So this one gentleman wanted to go to a fellow celebrity’s party half a block away and just started walking out on the street. And I was like “Woah! Hold up, let me get the car,” and he was like “No, no, it’s OK.” And, of course, we walk outside and the whole street kind of collapses on us, the police rush over to barricade us, we get him and everything’s fine and we get right to the door and an elderly lady reaches out and touches him in the face! It was just past my head, and then the police grabbed her and kind of dragged her away.
That’s the only kind of weird thing that I’ve had happen. Like I said, for the most part, everything’s securely locked down unless something strange like that happens.
So, we’ve talked about girls going crazy for the male celebs. Do guys go as nuts for the female celebs?
There’ll be your typical catcalls and stuff, but, for the most part, they keep their distance. I think it’d be a little creepy if they were fawning over a female celebrity–it’d draw her attention and you’d be spoken to or even asked to leave.
What crosses the line during TIFF? What gets someone removed from a club?
We run like a normal operation, we adhere to our normal protocols when we’re running any venue… so intoxication, rowdy behaviour, all that sort of stuff. With direct regards to our celebrity guests, anybody who’s a little rude or offensive, and people can get like that, they’ll be asked to leave because, obviously, we want to take care of our guests.
Do you have to remove people often?
Very rarely, and if it does happen, eight times out of ten it’s a paparazzi or people that sell the signatures. Those people are very harassing by nature. I’ve experienced a lot of that. Airports are always tricky because, during TIFF, the paparazzi just camp out and everyone knows who’s coming, so you have a little window to get them from the airport to the car. And, a lot of the times, the paparazzi can be pretty rude. They say rude things to try and get a reaction, and that’s the most annoying part because there’s not much we can do. You’d be surprised at some of the stuff people say.
Do you have second or ‘secret’ entrances at any of your venues to bring celebs through to avoid paparazzi?
We always have that option should they want it.
Do many take it?
Yes and no. A lot of times it’s in their contractual agreement to do the red carpet and so that’s part of their job. And then you have those that are coming to party or meet some of their friends and don’t necessarily want to steal the thunder or even be seen, so we’ll sneak them in.
Have you ever had any issues with someone on your team selling a story or photo to the tabloids?
It hasn’t come up, but we’re pretty diligent about saying ahead of time “Hey, you know, this isn’t the time or place. I don’t care if it’s your favourite person, we don’t operate that way.” We’re professional, we put our best foot forward, and that’s the way we do business.
Sabrina Maddeaux is Toronto Standard’s managing editor. Follow her on Twitter at @sabrinamaddeaux.