Maksim Chmerkovskiy has danced with the stars, but as Sloth on The Masked Dancer, he wanted the celebrity treatment.
"When I decided to do the show, I said, 'I'll do it under one condition: that I'm not responsible for myself. I get to experience the journey as close to the celebrity that comes on Dancing with the Stars,'" season 1's runner-up Chmerkovskiy, 41, tells PEOPLE. "Because I was the pro to that celebrity so many times, I know that they're having a blast and we're having the crazy time. So I wanted to experience that."
The former Dancing with the Stars pro enjoyed taking a step back and getting to work with close friends throughout the process, like his choreographer Kiki Nyemchek and partner Koine Iwasaki, who have both appeared on So You Think You Can Dance.
"Kiki Nyemchek was my student since he was 7 years old. And my partner Koko, who was second on So You Think, is Kiki's girlfriend. And my wife's one of her best friends," Chmerkovskiy says of Peta Murgatroyd. "These people are eating with us probably the night before for dinner and the next day, I walk in and I take my ski mask off, and they both just died [laughing]."
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The Ukraine native performed a different dance style each week, including doing a ribbon dance that led to the judges guessing Chmerkovskiy as Will Ferrell and Jack Black. The likeness to Ferrell, 53, "made my professional life," Chmerkovskiy quips.
Below, the dad of 4-year-old son Shai shares why he didn't tell anyone when he got injured on the show, whether Murgatroyd, 34, critiqued his performances, and about his initial hesitance to be the Sloth.
As someone who is known for how they move, why did you pick the Sloth costume?
We're having this Zoom meeting and they're like, "Okay, so this is what we're going to present you with the idea for your character." I was very excited. And it's a two-dimensional digital sketch of Sloth. That was the first moment that I was like, "Maybe this is not the right thing to do." I was at the crossroads of where I would start with a question like, "Well, why Sloth?" And then maybe even try to direct it somewhere else. And the other path that would be, "Sure. Let's do it." That's the one I chose because I wanted to be not involved in the process. And they're looking at me like, "Well, you don't want to comment on the colors and stuff?" I'm like, "No, I just want to let you guys do your thing. And I'm going to do my thing."
How did you get into character?
The first thing I did after that was go home and look at mascot videos. I just literally YouTubed mascots. And I kept looking at what they're doing and their mannerisms and their movements and all that stuff. Because I figured that maybe this was similar.
Has your son Shai enjoyed watching you as Sloth? Does he understand that you're under the costume?
No, he has no idea. I'm strict, like all the other parents of a 4-year-old, but his TV interaction is not that big. And when it is, it's cartoons. Also, it's tough to focus a 4-year-old on things that have commercials in them. I think that we will have to revisit all the dances again as Sloth as thinking about that's papa.
Did anyone besides your wife and son know you were on The Masked Dancer?
As by nature of my family, we don't have any secrets. Well, we're just bad at keeping them, really. So it was an impossible task. I wanted to point, and be, "That's me. Look, it's me. Hey, Instagram world! Hey, social media!" Where all we do nowadays is tell everybody about what we do. I don't get to do that. So I've been ready for the reveal.
Did Peta, as a Dancing with the Stars pro herself, have any feedback on your performances?
She was on Dancing with the Stars at the same time as I was filming The Masked Dancer and so we would come home in the completely opposite moods. I come home elated with the biggest smile on my face because of my experience. She comes home neurotic with a crazy look in her eyes like the rest of us pros on Dancing with the Stars. That job is severely underrated in how difficult it is. It's a very hard gig. So we had very different experiences in that period of time.
Did you enjoy being on the other side this time around?
This was probably the best production I've ever been a part of, from the executive producing all the way through. My day would start: My driver would pick me up. I couldn't drive myself. I couldn't park and walk out. The car drops me off, and I'm greeted by my producer, who is a close friend from a long time ago that worked on Dancing. My choreographers, Kiki Nyemchek, who was fourth on So You Think You Can Dance a couple of years ago, is one of the biggest figures in commercial dance world in town. It was a beautiful, organic process that I never had anywhere else.
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You have decades of dance experience, but how did moving in the costume change the experience?
It was very, very restricting. And I tried to make it look easy. I feel like that's the thing that we're supposed to do. At the very least, this was the way I always approach my art. It has to be effortless. But this was very, very hard. There was limitation in moving. And I would have loved to do some more spins, turn, things of that nature. It wasn't working because the mask, the way it was built, it's built on a bicycle helmet. This was the best way that you could build the costume, but it wasn't the best way to dance in one. I pulled my shoulder during the ribbon dance, the second number that we did, where I was told that I'm Will Ferrell.
: Peta Murgatroyd Says She Had to 'Run to Therapy' After DWTS Routine Following Neck Injury
How did you deal with that injury?
I didn't even tell anybody. I was embarrassed. I was like, "Bro, you're basically not doing anything. And you look like a giant pillow. Don't talk about your injuries."
After such a wide range of guesses, were you surprised judge Paula Abdul eventually landed on you?
I don't think anybody expected it to be me. Forget me and [my brother] Val, but there's also a bunch of dudes that were on our show [Dancing with the Stars] that move that way. No one was calling me. No one had spoken to me about the show.
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