Discovery: Alex Russell

By
Photography George Byrne

Published October 1, 2014

ABOVE: ALEX RUSSELL. PHOTO COURTESY OF GEORGE BYRNE.

“I’ve never been in Home and Away or Neighbours,” laughs Australian actor Alex Russell. “I feel ripped off.” Circumventing his nation’s two favorite soap operas—a stepping stone used by everyone from Kylie Minogue, Guy Pearce, and Russell Crowe to Heath Ledger, Chris Hemsworth, and Isla Fisher—certainly hasn’t hindered Russell’s career. Since landing his first professional job four years ago, the drama school grad as appeared in eight films, including Chronicle (2012) opposite Michael B. Jordan and Dane DeHaan; Carrie (2013) with Julianne Moore, Chloë Grace Moretz, and Ansel Elgort; and one movie about a great white shark trapped in a supermarket with Xavier Samuel (2012). Earlier this month, Cut Snake, a brutal Australian indie, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. On Friday, Believe Me, a comedy about a faux-Christian band with Nick Offerman, came out in limited release. In December, Russell will star as Pete Zamperini, the older brother of the Olympic runner and war hero Louis Zamperini, in Angelina Jolie‘s Unbroken. While Russell and Jack O’Connell, who plays Louis, don’t bear a striking resemblance, Russell assures us that, “You dye two people’s hair black and bada-bing, bada-boom.”

Cut Snake, however, is probably Russell’s most exacting role to date. Set in the ’70s and loosely inspired by real events, Cut Snake begins when Pommie, a gruff, twitchy convict, appears at the home of a young couple, Paula (Jessica De Gouw) and Merv (Russell). Pommie (Sullivan Stapleton) claims to be an old friend of Merv’s, whom he calls Sparra. Merv has never mentioned Pommie and doesn’t seem too eager to see him, but he doesn’t turn him away. “[Cut Snake] isn’t as bloody as Carrie, but I find it a lot more violent,” explains Russell. “It’s a lot more disturbing—like [the scene with] Sully in the brothel,” he continues. “There were times when it was hard not to be in the moment, because Sully was so intimidating and overbearing. I didn’t have to act.”

AGE: 26

HOMETOWN: Rockhampton, Queensland. The beef capital of Australia. My parents and my sisters still live there, so I still go back all the time.

CURRENT LOCATION: Los Angeles, California

CHILDHOOD AMBITION: When I was a kid, I didn’t really have many interests other than video games. I was very indoors-y. I wasn’t the most socially adept young lad. I got picked on quite a bit. When I found acting at a young age, I think my parents were excited because I found something that made me feel happy and gave me confidence and that I felt I was good at that I didn’t have previously.

The cliché thing is that I’ve always wanted to be an actor. The reasons have just changed over the years. When I was a little kid, I wanted to be like Jean-Claude Van Damme in Street Fighter (1994). When I got a bit older, in those awkward teen years, it gave me confidence. Years later again, it’s more of a deeper love for the craft and storytelling.

FIRST AUDITION: My first audition was for a TV show in Australia. I was still at drama school; I was in my final year. They started letting us do auditions and I really buggered it up. I was not prepared. I walked out of there and I was like, “I will never, ever do that again.” Of course subsequently I have, many times. I have ruined many auditions by not being prepared enough. But within a week, I had an audition for Wasted on the Young (2010). I’m pretty sure it was the first film I ever auditioned for, and that was the first gig I got after drama school. It went to TIFF four years ago.

FAMILY: My parents have always been amazingly supportive: financially, emotionally, spiritually. I have always been able to rely on them. I owe them absolutely everything, to be honest. Do they watch all my films? They do. Some films probably aren’t their cup of tea. Some movies they probably wouldn’t watch if I wasn’t in them because they might be too intense. Cut Snake is pretty intense—not really a movie that you watch on a Friday night with pizza and beer. But I think probably their range in the films they watch has been broadened a bit because I’m in all these really intense, graphic films. [laughs]

COMMITTING TO CUT SNAKE: Reading the script for the first time, I was hooked in from the beginning. But there’s a massive twist halfway through the film that really knocked the wind out of me. That what made me go, “I must play this role.” The role also terrified me a little bit. I actually auditioned for it back in 2011. I put down a self-tape and the director [Tony Ayres] really liked it, but thought that I was too young. Then, as at goes with Australian films, by the time they’d actually got the finances together, I was of the right age. So we just Skyped last year and he and I talked about the character and they reviewed the tape from two years prior and that was it.

GETTING INTO CHARACTER: I just start to feel my way back to the ’70s, culturally. I listened to a lot of ’70s music. Having a massive, crazy ’70s haircut certainly helps. I don’t often do a character biography, but in this case I did. I went through everything in detail that I thought was important, from the time Sparra was a young kid through his jail time up to where the film starts. And that made me feel a bit more confident going into it.

THE MOOD: We were joking around most of the time. Sullivan Stapleton who, one would argue, carried the most tense, scary, negative energy in his character, was probably the most outlandish, fun, excitable person on set. I think you need to have the fun in between the takes—otherwise it would just be too stressful and depressing.

I dealt with it slightly differently than how I would deal with it now. If I had the role [now], I’d probably allow myself to relax a little more in between takes in the really intense scenes. But at the time, in really difficult scenes—I can think of a couple in particular, where it required a lot of vulnerability—I stayed in it in between. But that was only for a few scenes. The rest of the time we had a laugh in between.

THE SETTING: It could take place today, but a few things would have to be changed. The twist would be great, but the way things are dealt with would have to be different. There’s a different mindset in the ’70s to what there is now. Plus it’s nice because it’s loosely based on a true story about the [1973] fire bombing at the Whiskey Au Go Go in Brisbane.

 A COINCIDENCE: I was born in Brisbane and I’ve grown up going a lot to see family and stuff. My dad is a surgeon. When he was a lot younger and he was a registrar, he operated on or assisted an operation on one of the guys that these two crooks were based on. My dad put it together when I was telling him about [the film].

UNBROKEN: I was given the opportunity to audition when I was in L.A. My agent sent me the script and sent me the sides for Louis and I went in and read for Louis. Then Ange—Angelina [Jolie]—reviewed my tape and they felt that I wasn’t right for Louis, but that I fit in somewhere. I waited for quite a while and then they had me come in and read for Pete. And then Angelina reviewed the tape and I didn’t hear anything for quite a while again. I can’t actually remember where I was when I found out that I got the part, which is rare for me. Usually I remember very specifically. But I think that that’s because it was a slow process—it wasn’t one phone call. The film clashed with Cut Snake, so I didn’t know if I was able to do it or do to both. I didn’t get to go to the Cut Snake after party. I literally got on a plane the very first day after we finished shooting Cut Snake.

MS. JOLIE: She makes it easy to get past [her fame]. I was, obviously, a little starstruck, which for the most part, doesn’t happen to me anymore. She’s also extraordinarily beautiful, so there’s that. But she gets rid of that by being so open and considerate and collaborative, and by being so intent on her desire to tell the story as best as possible. I think that Louis was an idol to her—telling his story meant the world to her. And you could feel that everyday on set. Any sort of star element went out the door pretty quickly.

BELIEVE ME IS OUT NOW IN LIMITED RELEASE AND ON VOD. UNBROKEN COMES OUT DECEMBER 25.