You’re speaking at the GQ Man of the Year Legacy Award along with Heath Ledger’s father, Kim. You yourself are a beneficiary of the Heath Ledger Scholarship – how did it affect your career?
It affected me drastically, both on a practical business level and on a spiritual level and also a financial level – everything.
To be honest with you, I always thought that with my name it would be complicated for me to break into this industry, and the films I grew up watching and really loving primarily were American films. So I kind of went over to America pretty young and tried to focus on cracking into the industry there. I was lucky enough to book a film [The Bronx Bull] that sponsored my visa but didn’t get much traction.
I became a Heath Ledger finalist a couple of times and had some people advocate for me but never won, and the year that I won, to have all those Oscar-winning judges go out there, like Emile Sherman [producer of Lion] and Bruna [Papandrea, producer of Big Little Lies] and people like Gary Oldman and Naomi Watts, and Ryan Murphy go out there to set meetings with you… you are who you surround yourself with, and I was able to sign with agents and managers I think love and understand me. It really changed everything for me.
You talked about being influenced by American films, but you are an Australian actor. How do you think Australian actors and filmmakers represent themselves on the world stage?
I feel like Australian culture is primarily multicultural culture. There are some great Australian films, there are some amazing Australian filmmakers – I grew up loving Chopper, and there’s the great Australian director Justin Kurzel [Snowtown], and we have a great up and coming director in Ben Young [Hounds of Love] and so on and so forth. People like Claire McCarthy [Ophelia] and all these other people that I admire. People like Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe have really set a great identity and reputation for Australians and I’m very grateful for it, but for the most part, if you look at our careers, we are mostly playing Americans.
Given the size of their industry, is it vital for Australian actors to crack the American market?
You know, America has a reputation of being able to attract the best of the best in their fields – the best costume designers, the best cinematographers, the best directors. There are some great ones here and some ones that aren’t in America, but the sky is not even the limit in America in terms of how far you can take your career, and the influence you can have as an actor and a producer and a writer and a director and so forth. I always thought it was vital and all the artists I grew up admiring did.
You’ve got the SBS miniseries Dead Lucky with Rachel Griffith coming up soon – tell us about that.
What attracted me to Dead Lucky is that it’s very, very multicultural. It’s this classic, female-driven cop thriller but it has this international student world that we’ve never really seen and I’ve never really read about. I grew up in Sydney, born and raised, and I’m always blown away by all these international students – who are they? How do they live? And then to learn more about it and how much they’re taken advantage of, and how much they revere Australia and what they go through is something that’s really interesting. When I read the scripts, I was, like, I have to come do this. I love the project.
Tell us about your character.
My character is an international student from Iran who has come to Australia with Green & Gold in his eyes and unfortunately, he meets some people who are not as open to him as he is open to them. He kind of has to face the fact that he left a war-torn country to come to a country that isn’t all daisies, and he’s forced to see that Sydney has a dark underbelly. He goes through his own moral code, which is different to a classic Australian code, and it really takes everything for him to realise what Australia is – I’m trying not to give too much away!
How was the shoot?
I was shooting for nine weeks. I share a lot of scenes with Rachel Griffith. We had some terrific actors on this miniseries – Sara West, and some new ones, Xana Tang and Yoson An. Xana and I have a lot of scenes together and we really collaborated – I have beautiful chemistry for her, for the artist she is. Rachel and I also really connected. I love being in her presence – she’s a professional.
When I came to set I was fully immersed in my job. I loved telling the story so much, but we were telling the story very quickly. Ellie [Beaumont] and Drew [Proffitt], our writer/producers, really facilitated making a space for me to do my best work, and I’m very grateful.
How would you compare working on the series with working on a film?
I, on a personal note, watch much more films, and I like to go to the movie theatre three or four times a week. I’m a film fanatic, and sometimes I’ll go to the theatres, if I’m free, to see two or three films a day. I’m that guy. But recently I’ve been reading some terrific television series, especially limited series, which I’m really interested in. As an actor, everything starts with the writer. When everything is written out and you have this beautiful execution, it doesn’t matter the platform he’s telling it in, it’s all about the story. So limited series are something that really excite me.
Apart from that the canvas is smaller with television – you understand that people are primarily going to watch it at home, and that sometimes happens with film too, and you want to make sure you keep people gripped for the next episode and things like that. But in film I take every moment as a dramatic, life or death moment. It’s hard for me to articulate the difference – each story has its own unique challenges in how I have to approach it.
What else have you been working on lately?
I have a short film on the short list for the Academy Awards. I got asked to do this short film called “The Suitcase”. I’d heard a lot about this director, Abi Damaris Corbin, she’d done this one very strange film with James Franco and Eric Roberts [Actors Anonymous]. She’d seen my work and had sought me out. When I worked with her I found her mindblowing. I think sometimes as an artist you’re always looking for people who have more experience and these kind of things, but sometimes you meet them and you realise that they’re not what you’d expect. I found someone so young, hungry and dynamic in this director, who is a force to reckoned with.
It’s a true, unclassified story about a Boston-bred baggage handler who steals out of suitcases at Boston airport. During 9/11 he steals out of a suitcase and after the attacks he realises he stole out of what he thinks is one of the terrorist’s bags and he wants to disclose that information, and he’s caught in this kind of crossroad because of the economic state he’s in: he will lose his job, he doesn’t have much.
Even though it’s only a short film, and short films don’t necessarily get the exposure that a feature does or a show does, it’s actually something that’s done the most for my career. We premiered at Tribeca Film Festival, we were awarded many things, and now the director has many many offers from great producers, and I have a great collaboration with. This Academy race is very interesting to me.
What was it like being at Tribeca?
When I was at Tribeca I was able to go to this dinner with Coppola, Pacino, De Niro, Duval, Caan, and DiCaprio and James Franco. It was this very private dinner with only 25 people and it was an unbelievable experience to be in that room with those energies. I don’t think I actually ate – it was after watching Godfather 1 and 2 at Radio City Music Hall, the most famous theatre in New York, and then I go to this dinner and I’m just staring at Coppola, just staring at him. I read everything about what he went through to make Apocalypse Now, and The Godfather and The Conversation… I just find him so fascinating. And Pacino was so charming and full of energy, and De Niro so grounded.
I’ve been very privileged to be in the rooms that I’ve been in.
Dead Lucky will screen on SBS in 2018. To learn more about the Heath Ledger Scholarship, click through here.