All the rough, tough roles are going to Australians, as Hollywood struggles to find stars of its own.
Cameron Mackintosh added a typical blob of producer’s hyperbole to the announcement that Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman had committed to his forthcoming Les Miserables film, declaring his “dream cast… were born to play these roles vocally”. That the reigning Australian male stars are teaming up as a remorselessly adversarial pair of ballad-belting Frenchman in Tom Hooper’s adaptation surely proves that nothing is out of reach for our colonial cousins on the global film set – and that these are jolly good times to be an Australian actor, especially one with the XY chromosome combination.
This year, we have already watched Chris Hemsworth deliver hammer blows in Thor. Joel Edgerton is following up his drama about cage-fighting-brothers, Warrior, with a starring role opposite Leo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, to be followed by Kathryn Bigelow’s Osama bin Laden project. Sam Worthington is still shaping his post-Avatar world, as seen this week with his part as a taciturn Mossad agent in John Madden’s The Debt. And on they roll: Xavier Samuel, who bared fangs in The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, and will play the foppish Earl of Southampton in Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous; the younger Hemsworth, Liam, one of three leads in the new youth franchise The Hunger Games; and Ryan Kwanten, a small-screen star with cinematic potential, waiting for a producer smart enough to transfer his sexed-up charisma, as the lovably dim-witted Jason Stackhouse in True Blood, to the big screen.
All are following in the tracks laid by Mel Gibson and embedded by Crowe (and, to a lesser extent, by Guy Pearce, Heath Ledger and Jackman). It’s no coincidence that the nation continues to punch above its weight. For one thing, Hollywood casting directors, producers and studio execs generally subscribe to the belief that Australian actors come across as men’s men, with gruff, rhino-hide exteriors that conceal a sensitive core, making them appealing to both men and women. Call it the Crowe factor – he was the poster boy for this hard-edged, soft-boiled masculinity when he burst onto the scene. Eric Bana and Worthington sprang from the same mould.
Worthington’s former life as a brickie is a palpable part of his appeal. It’s a blue-collar, salt-of-the-earth quality that Americans can’t match. Tom Cruise might have grown up poor, but the homogenising nature of American culture means class divisions don’t leave a lasting impression. And many young American actors are second-generation industry kids, or have barely been weaned before they’re being groomed and moulded for the dream machine. In person, Worthington sounds like someone who has walked straight off a construction site. Repeating the story that he only auditioned for drama school because of a girl he had been following around Australia (he got in, she didn’t; they split up a week later), he says: “I was 19 and fearless – and that fearlessness is what the school liked.” It was an appeal that led Madden to seek out Worthington for The Debt, even before Avatar and Terminator Salvation had made him a fame monster. “It struck me that he had a very unusual quality – this powerful masculine presence with a hidden vulnerability,” the director says. “It’s not been hugely on display in the films he’s made, although it’s there in Avatar if you look for it.”
Emulating their British counterparts, Australian actors also tend to have a more focused level of craft. They train at drama schools (Gibson, Worthington and The Matrix’s Hugo Weaving studied at NIDA, to which some American agencies now make annual pilgrimages to scour the student showcases) and they hone their skills on stage before seeking out screen work. Having a steady diet of American and British dialects pumped into their living room from a tender age also makes them handier with accents than their American cousins. They get the lingo and nuances of American English long before they decide to be actors; RP, too, is on the menu at most Australian drama schools.
“I think English actors see themselves as artists – they’re better trained and they always want to be working, whereas American actors always say, ‘I’m a potential movie star,’” observes Emmerich, who worked with Gibson at the peak of his fame, and with Ledger, on The Patriot. “Australian actors are somewhere in between the two.”
Some also cite the quiet, ballsy confidence and easy charm Australian actors display when they rock up to casting meetings, combined with a willingness to – as one producer puts it – “work like dogs”. “They all call you ‘mate’,” Emmerich laughs. Arriving fresh off the plane, they are a raw, untapped resource for American casting directors and producers. “It’s that laconic thing of not taking yourself too seriously that makes those guys more appealing,” says Mark Gooder, CEO of Gibson’s company, Icon Productions, and a man who knows most of the current crop of wave-makers. “I don’t think you could say any of these new guys are the preening, ‘I’m going to be famous’ types, and that’s an energy that is established in Australia, where it’s egalitarian and you don’t grow up with the airs or the fantasy of becoming a star.”
“There seems to be a lack of men with a capital M coming from America these days,” echoes the producer Tripp Vinson, who cast Chris Hemsworth as the leading man in his reboot of the American-patriot-youth action movie Red Dawn. “We saw a lot of American actors, but Chris sucks the air out of a room when he walks in, so, frankly, it wasn’t even close.”
Is a Gibson- or Crowe-sized superstar going to emerge from the current bunch? Hemsworth would seem to be a contender, although he’s still a spectacular physical specimen in need of a few more credibility-boosting notches on his belt. “Leading men are few and far between – that’s why we don’t get a lot of them,” says Gooder, who is noticing a level of caution among the newcomers. They are willing to play a waiting game, not leaping at the first golden chalice Hollywood dangles in front of them. After all, Bana failed to pan out and has settled into the role of versatile character actor. Yet Hollywood is open to finding superstars in foreign ranks, as the legion of British faces pressed against the glass attests.
“Because of people like Russell Crowe and Mel Gibson, Hollywood take Australians seriously,” Emmerich says. “I would say it’s maybe even an advantage to be from Australia because so much great talent has come from there.”
The next film from Hollywood’s leading exponent of catastrophe and myth-peddling is Singularity, a medical action thriller set 40 years in the future, a time when humans and computers finally become one. “We just hired our casting director, and I have my first meeting with him in a few days. I think I’ll go in and say, ‘Any Australians?’”