Interview: Jai Courtney a reluctant action hero

Jai Courtney, right, as Lt-Col Cyril Hughes in The Water Diviner
Jai Courtney, right, as Lt-Col Cyril Hughes in The Water Diviner
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Jai Courtney keeps on landing parts in high-octane Hollywood movies, but he’d rather you didn’t typecast him just yet, says Claire Black

WHEN your breakout role is playing a man who is trying to kill Tom Cruise and then you go on to be Bruce Willis’ son and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s sworn enemy, it seems fairly reasonable that people will assume you are in line to assume the prized mantel of Hollywood Action Hero. In fact, for Jai Courtney, the unassuming Aussie, graduate of the same drama school as Hugh Jackman, alumni of daytime soaps, starring in a series of action flicks prompted a bit of a wobble.

“After A Good Day to Die Hard, I had a bit of an identity crisis as far as where I wanted to place myself in the business,” he says. “When it’s all new and fresh, there is a lot of pressure to know what you represent and I didn’t really get that.”

Courtney grew up in Sydney before studying at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, from where he graduated in 2007. He made his way to Hollywood via a telly series, Spartacus: War of the Damned. Then it was straight into the role opposite Cruise in Chris McQuarrie’s Jack Reacher. He appeared as a villain in last year’s blockbuster Divergent alongside Shailene Woodley – he has reprised his role as Eric, a sadistic faction leader, in Insurgent, which has recently been released, and will do the same in the two-part conclusion to the trilogy which will begin shooting this summer. When you throw in A Good Day to Die Hard and Terminator: Genisys, you can see why people started to talk about him as “the action guy”. It’s just that that hadn’t really been Courtney’s plan.

“If there’s any strategy at the minute, and it often feels like there isn’t, it’s to hang on to the idea of keeping changing it up,” he says. “I do love doing action, but if I can balance the scale by doing other kinds of films that satisfy my creative ambitions, that feels really important.”

The Water Diviner ticks just this box. The directorial debut of Russell Crowe, the film, inspired by a true story, is set four years after the battle of Gallipoli. It is the story of Joshua Connor, a man whose sons left home to fight for their country and who never returned. Connor’s task is to find them, or their remains, and take them back to Australia and their grieving mother. The role of Lieutenant Colonel Cyril Hughes, a member of the Imperial War Graves Unit and a man who played a key role in bringing some kind of order to the destruction of Gallipoli in the immediate years following the war, is not one that landed in Courtney’s lap – he chased it.

“I read somewhere that Russell was going to direct a film,” he says. “That immediately piqued my interest, so I dug around to find out what it was about.” When he found out, he sent the information to his agent, making it clear he wanted to do everything he could to land a part. His reasons were two-fold. “I’ve always been a fan of Russell’s as a performer and I’ve also respected the projects he’s chosen to work on,” he says. “I’m an Australian so having that connection and then knowing about the story, the history of Gallipoli, made me want to be involved.”

Strangely enough, Courtney met Crowe not long after he’d had the conversation with his agent about putting him forward, but he didn’t tell the actor he wanted to be involved. “I didn’t mention it to him,” he says with a small laugh. “It would have felt like a professional faux pas.” There may not have been a discussion about The Water Diviner during that chance encounter, but Crowe told him later that he’d learned about Courtney around the same time but chose not to mention it either. A few months later, Courtney was sitting in Crowe’s Sydney office having a conversation about the movie. “It was a bit of an intimidating first meeting,” he says. “He looked me in the eyes and said, ‘Can you ride a horse?’ So, like any actor would, I said yes. He saw right through me and said, ‘Don’t bullshit me’.” He laughs. “The great thing about Russell is he demands the same from himself as he does from everyone else around him. He’s an incredibly hard worker and a real stickler for authenticity. I knew it was going to be a tough job but he was just wonderful.”

They did a kind of boot camp before shooting began. Horse riding was definitely part of the curriculum, but there were history lessons too to ensure the cast understood what it was they were trying to represent. “We got ourselves in deep,” says Courtney. “We really immersed ourselves in that world. I think that’s something Russell sees great value in as an actor and we did too. It’s rare to get to work with a director that early on and really prep as an ensemble.”

The transition from performing to directing isn’t a simple one. With Crowe, it’s even more interesting than usual because he is probably best known for creating formidable, muscular characters. Think of Maximus in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, or Detective Bud White in LA Confidential and, of course, his breakout role, Hando in Romper Stomper. So how does an actor who creates performances such as that, inspire those he’s trying to direct?

‘IF YOU’RE a passionate storyteller, that helps,” says Courtney. “That jump isn’t one every performer can make; I don’t think it’s a natural progression. I don’t know that it’s something I’d ever be able to do. It sounds like a romantic idea, but it really is a very different task – it doesn’t just take an understanding of performance; there’s so much more to it than that. Russell had probably been thinking about directing for about ten years and was just waiting for the right story to come along. That’s a sensitive thing too – it needs to be done right.”

Courtney is worth listening to on this because it’s not just Crowe that he’s basing his opinions on. Courtney was also in Unbroken, directed by Angelina Jolie. Despite plenty of naysaying before it was released, the film garnered positive reviews. “Working on that was just a coincidence,” he says. “It was just the way that the timing worked out. I had auditioned for a load of parts and it just so happened they were both shooting in Australia around Christmas in 2013. Scheduling was a bit of a nightmare but I was really lucky to get to play a part in both films.”

As to the reason why some actors want to turn their hand to directing, although he’s clear that there’s always a risk – no matter how fine an actor you are, or how big a star, there is no guarantee you’ll be able to direct a good film (just ask Ryan Gosling about Lost River) – Courtney can understand what prompts them to give it a shot.

“We don’t always get to tell the stories that we’re attracted to as actors,” he says. “You can be selective and, of course, you do your best to choose wisely, working on certain types of projects or with certain people, but both Russell and Angelina can get films made. It comes from wanting to make art and to be in creative control of that.” He pauses. “If you’ve got the balls, then why not take that leap?”

Courtney may have so far made his name in big-budget, big-explosion action flicks, but I believe him when he says he wants to “keep the scales balanced”. The film he chooses to mention as the one of which he’s most proud is Felony, a gritty crime drama he made in Australia. An independent production, it was written by Joel Edgerton. “That was a tiny little film, but it was perhaps my favourite professional experience to date,” he says. It wasn’t just that he enjoyed being back home, he says, the pleasure was in acting on a different scale. “It was great to be working on something that was a little more subdued and contained. For me as an actor, it was great to have to find the drama within me, rather than in huge set pieces where bridges blew up and we crashed 130 cars.”

TO BE fair to Courtney, even within the action genre, he has managed to mix things up. He’s been the villain rather than the hero, which usually makes things a little more interesting. And then there’s his decision to sign on to David Ayres’ (the man who wrote Fury, starring Brad Pitt) eagerly awaited Suicide Squad, a DC Comics spin-off about a secret government agency that recruits imprisoned supervillains to execute dangerous missions in return for clemency. Courtney plays George Harkness, aka Captain Boomerang, surely the only Australian comic book hero? The cast also includes Margot Robbie, Will Smith, Viola Davis and Jared Leto, making it a tantalising prospect. “We’re just getting into pre-production now and the world is unlike anything I’ve ever dabbled with,” he says. “To think it’s just another action movie would be a mistake. It really isn’t.”

There was a time, back when he was having that wobble, when Courtney “flirted” with trying to get away from action movies. But he’s not stupid. When the Terminator franchise comes knocking, could he really say no? He sighs. “It was kinda like, OK, let’s run around with guns and scratch things up again.” He sounds a bit sheepish, but, seriously, who can blame him? “Listen,” he says, “I’m just taking it one step at a time and I’m privileged to be able to do that in this industry.”

And yet, in amongst the car chases and explosions, Courtney is managing to carve out a different kind of niche. That talk about creative ambitions isn’t just bluster. He means it. On the big screen, it might be about muscles and guns, but he’s got other plans too. He has already signed up to a production of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men back in Australia (at the Heath Ledger Theatre in Perth) at the end of the year. “I cut my teeth in theatre and I haven’t done any for years. Mel Cantwell is directing that production and it’s something we’d been talking about for seven or eight years. It’s cool that it’s something we can now do.” He may have wisecracked with John McClane and gone toe-to-toe with Schwarzenegger, but I wonder how his anxiety levels are about being back on stage after a good few years? “Gently bubbling,” he says. “I’m sure it’ll be OK. It’s such a wonderful text.” He pauses. “I’m working on something now that will keep me busy until September and then I can get into full blown crisis mode.” He laughs.

• The Water Diviner (15) is in cinemas from Good Friday.