It was the longest I’ve ever traveled for a single audition . . . At that point, I had decided that I would get the part, because otherwise it would have been
a monumental waste of my weekend. JAI COURTNEY
If you had to choose one man to save the world, who would it be? For the collective directors of Hollywood, the answer has increasingly become Jai Courtney. In A Good Day to Die Hard (2013), the fifth installment of the smash-’em-up series, Courtney plays a CIA agent and son of Bruce Willis’s John McClane, who, with his pop in tow, thwarts an evil Ruskie plot and blows up an awful lot of buildings. And now, after roles in both rhyming Shailene Woodley teen dystopian epics, Insurgent and Divergent, in Angelina Jolie‘s survivor story Unbroken, and in Russell Crowe’s historical drama The Water Diviner, Courtney returns to save humanity from the bots in this summer’s Terminator Genisys—a reboot of the cyborg series—alongside its original star, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
It’s been a quick leap to leading-man status for the 29-year-old actor from Sydney, but one he says he always saw coming. In early May, during a break from shooting David Ayer’s comic book supergroup thriller Suicide Squad, in which he plays Captain Boomerang, Courtney says he just decided it was all going to work out. As he tells his pal, writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, who helped to break Courtney by giving him a part as the villain across from Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher (2012), he didn’t have a dream to be on the stage—the stage was always wherever he happened to be standing.
CHRISTOPHER McQUARRIE: Mr. Courtney, how are you, my friend?
JAI COURTNEY: All the better for hearing your sweet tone.
McQUARRIE: Where are you?
COURTNEY: I’m doing Suicide Squad in Toronto. We’re here till the end of August. The character I’m playing is a straight piece of shit, so I’ve just been channeling that.
McQUARRIE: [laughs] You always seem to take a particularly perverse delight out of playing miscreant characters.
COURTNEY: [laughs] Yeah, well, I just like to stretch myself.
McQUARRIE: Have you seen Terminator yet?
COURTNEY: No. But I’ve heard good things. And I have high hopes.
McQUARRIE: Well, because of our mutual associations, I have some insider information, and, off the record, I’m hearing it’s great. And on the record, I’m glad I’m not coming out anywhere near your movie.
COURTNEY: [laughs] What’s going on with yours?
McQUARRIE: We finished the director’s cut at five and a half weeks, because that’s how we roll. The movie comes out July 31. [Tom] Cruise was just here—he says hello, by the way. Sends his love.
COURTNEY: Oh, send him my love.
McQUARRIE: I will. He watched the film, gave me two notes, got on a plane, and left.
COURTNEY: And you’re pumped about it?
McQUARRIE: I’m extremely cautious in my optimism, and I’m actually pretty excited about the movie. I don’t quite understand how it all came together, but it really did. So we’ll see what happens.
COURTNEY: I’m sure it will be dope, man.
McQUARRIE: Well, thank you, my friend. I’m seeing you in absolutely everything. My daughters, by the way, are, like, the biggest Divergent series fans in the entire world.
COURTNEY: That’s why I took that job, man—for the McQuarrie girls.
McQUARRIE: Which was very generous of you. Also Unbroken was fantastic. And now you’re doing Suicide Squad and Terminator. And when do I see Felony?
COURTNEY: Felony is out there. I don’t know who to blame for its vanishing act, but it came and went and was on about three fucking screens in the States. It deserved to be seen for Joel [Edgerton]’s writing efforts, and his performance is phenomenal. I was proud of my work. I think the tone of the piece is really cool, and it was one of the best scripts I ever read, so it was a shame that it didn’t get the attention that I think it deserved. But you can find it on iTunes.
McQUARRIE: I’ll go on iTunes right after I hang up the phone. In fact, I’m going to hang up now. Lets just wrap this up. [laughs] What’s next for you?
COURTNEY: Well, at the end of this year, I go home and do some theater, which I’m pumped about and haven’t done for some time. I’ve been chatting with a friend of mine, Mel Cantwell, for years about mounting a production of Of Mice and Men with her theater company. We knew each other when I studied at drama school, and we talked about it back then—in, like, ’05, ’06. I was focusing my energy and time on getting a film career happening, but I made the choice last year to set the time aside to do it. It will be a total change of pace and a real departure from this craziness. And then, we’ll see, man. We’ll see how Terminator goes. The talk is that next year we’ll go back-to-back on the next two. If that happens, there’s not really a lot of time to look at stuff.
McQUARRIE: No. Your life is no longer your own. And what about Divergent?
COURTNEY: I’m done. I died in the second one. Spoiler alert! But I’ve died in a film of yours before, and I’m still under the assumption that that wasn’t necessarily the end for that character. You’re making another one of them, right?
McQUARRIE: The problem is it’s Reacher; if you come back, you’re just going to get killed again. He’s going to break your head open in some other way. Making another one, it’s always a conversation. We talk about it with every movie I’ve ever worked on with Cruise. Except Valkyrie . I don’t really see a sequel for Valkyrie.
COURTNEY: [laughs] I don’t really think you can have one of those.
McQUARRIE: No. But how did this all come to be for you? Where did you first fall into the Terminator universe?
I was a show-off as a kid and loved to dress up. I was constantly in costume, drawing mustaches on with eyeliner and letting my sister plait my hair and all that. JAI COURTNEY
COURTNEY: I actually heard it was happening, and my agent told me there wasn’t a role for me. And I was like, “What?” I think I’d read about some other guys in my age group who were testing, and I was like, “How did we miss this one?” I was a bit miffed about it, to be honest. I got a chance to read the script, and was actually home in Australia working on Unbroken when I got a call saying, “They’re going to test you. You’ve got to fly to L.A. this weekend.” It was the longest I’ve ever traveled for a single audition. I got on a plane on a Saturday morning, flew to L.A., got off the plane the same Saturday morning, because the Earth moves in directions, went to the audition, got back on a plane that afternoon, flew back to Australia, and showed up for work on a Monday. At that point, I had decided that I would get the part, because otherwise it would have been a monumental waste of my weekend.
McQUARRIE: You decided you’d get the part.
COURTNEY: I decided. And I did. And then began this pretty crazy prep. I was first told I was too heavy and had to drop a bunch of weight. Which, for someone who likes food and still smokes cigarettes, is going to fucking suck. So I lived on a treadmill for about six weeks. It was parked at the end of my bed, literally. And then, training and intense gun stuff. Emilia [Clarke] and I worked most of those days. That might not sound too extreme—people carry films all the time—but it was a 95-day shoot or something, and we shot six-day weeks the entire run. It was fucking taxing. There was a lot of nude work, so the pressure to stay in shape and get rest and do all that stuff mounted. It’s tough when you’re rebooting or sequeling or prequeling or tapping into something that has this inbuilt audience. I mean, it’s fun to think that people really want to see that movie, but what’s apparent in the internet age is the skepticism. People sit there with their arms folded, ready to fucking hate it. But you’re trying to create something that’s really fucking clever and cool, so not only do we win those people over, but get a whole new generation talking about it. I’m sure you can relate to that. If you’re going to keep going with something, then you want to raise the bar every time.
McQUARRIE: With Terminator, it seems to me you make the movie with Arnold and you say, “I dare you not to come.” How was that for Emilia? Because Emilia is someone who’s huge in her own right, coming from Game of Thrones, but I have to imagine that this was a remarkably different workload.
COURTNEY: It was, totally. All those guys are working incredibly hard on that show. It’s like making a huge movie every year. But this was a big jump for her as well. She hadn’t done the running-and-gunning thing before. It’s not easy. The line between actor and athlete these days in action films is pretty fine.
McQUARRIE: I went to the Avengers: Age of Ultron last night and I’m like, “These guys are Olympians now.” There’s no place for a Walter Matthau in a movie anymore. But where did it really all start for you? What was the moment where you said, “I want to be an actor”?
COURTNEY: Some people have this really clear memory of making that decision, and I don’t. My earliest memories of being involved with drama or acting were in elementary school. My sister and I got dropped off at an after-school improvisation class, you know, a time-killer for kids while parents were doing the groceries. I’m 6 years old, and I remember running amok and playing these games. I was a show-off as a kid and loved to dress up. I was constantly in costume, drawing mustaches on with eyeliner and letting my sister plait my hair and all that. I was always trying to perform, but never with some dream to be on the stage. The stage was wherever I was standing at the time. I was lucky that the department of education in Sydney had a program where you could try out for these ensembles—kind of like extra-curricular sports, but for little drama kids. I got into that system, and it took me right through high school. And as you got older, the training became more developed and precise. We did plays, we had voice classes with great dialect coaches. But I was never into it on a school level; it was this kind of private little thing I did. At school I was a rugby guy. I was causing trouble with my mates and skating and tagging buildings, and smoking bongs. Then I had this alter ego where I would go to the theater with mom. I wasn’t embarrassed by it; it was separate for me. And then I got out of school and was kind of scratching my head. A few of my friends went off to university and were studying things. But I didn’t want to be in school any longer. I didn’t want to hand in any more fucking essays and show up for classes. So I got a shitty job out of the paper working for this warehouse and lasted about six months before I wanted to neck myself. I had passion, I realized, but I had to focus it somewhere. And the thing that was kind of itching at me was the acting thing. I didn’t have pushy stage parents; it was never their desire that I become an actor. My mom had seen the credit roll on a TV show in Australia and saw a casting agent’s name, and she was like, “Why don’t you call them and see how you could get on one of those shows?” So I did. It’s really funny and embarrassing now. But I remember cold calling this casting agent being like, “Hey, I want to be an actor.” [laughs]
McQUARRIE: And how did that work out?
COURTNEY: They were really lovely. It turned out you needed representation. I didn’t know what the fuck that meant. They were sweet enough to mail me a list of theatrical agents in Sydney. I cold-called a few of them, and they all gave me the same spiel about their books being closed right now. I totally get it now. I can’t imagine taking a risk with some dude that rings up. So I gave up for a sec. It all sounded too intimidating to me. A couple more months went by and I still wanted to get back in the theater. So I tried out for a bunch of the great drama schools in Australia. They’re all classical theater institutions. And I was fortunate enough to get into one, the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. So I moved cross-country to Perth at 18. I got there and was fucking terrified. I thought I’d made a huge mistake because I felt like this kind of brute, this blokey suburban dude who didn’t really know what the fuck it all meant. And the first few months there were more about figuring out that that was okay. I could be honest with myself and not try to fit the mold for something else, and that I actually had something to offer. And once I got comfortable with the fact that I was training to be an actor, I loved it. I’ve always been clear about the fact that I was going to make it happen. It’s funny, because in Australia we’re not necessarily taught to have that attitude. And in the acting world, it’s tough everywhere. Something like 80 percent of us are unemployed. You get out of drama school and it’s really fucking hard to get work. The best thing you can hope for is a commercial or a guest role on some TV stuff. I just decided, “No, I want to go to L.A. somehow and be in movies and make money and have a career.” That was the only fucking choice.
McQUARRIE: And then Spartacus: Blood and Sand [on Starz] was a big deal for you.
COURTNEY: I’d been out, like, a year, and after drama school I still didn’t know how the L.A. thing happened. I was waiting for a sign or some stepping-stones. And Spartacus was that. It really changed shit. I met people who obviously had been back and forth from L.A., Americans, people who lived over there. I became very close with Andy Whitfield, who was the lead on the show at the time.
McQUARRIE: He was a very important figure for you.
COURTNEY: He really was. We only worked together for nine months on that show, but we became like brothers. He was in his mid-thirties at the time and had done pilot seasons year after year, and gotten close on these big things. He knew that sense of anticipation, and also the immense disappointment that comes with this film world. He had been the next big thing for a second, and he kind of prepared me for it, told me about how you get out there—who you need to meet, how you spend that time. That next year happened super fast, and I got used to the L.A. thing and was coming back and forth. And Andy got really sick, and it was fucked up because his dream hadn’t been fully realized at that point. He got the show, which he was a lead on, but then it was about taking it to the next level. We’re never satisfied, and he was gearing up for the second season and looking at film roles. And then it was all put in jeopardy so rapidly. The last time I spoke to him was the day you offered me the job on Jack Reacher. I called him, because he’s my best mate and he’s an actor, and I said, “Man, I got a movie.” And he was thrilled, he was laughing, but he was literally hobbling around the fucking kitchen, because at that point he couldn’t walk. He died in the time between that phone call and me getting out to shoot. Fucking crazy. And I didn’t make his funeral because I was in Pittsburg with you.
McQUARRIE: Reacher was a big blur.
COURTNEY: Well, I’m not sure if that’s because of the workload or the amount of alcohol we were consuming at the time. I still quote your weirdo sleep-pattern theory. We’d be drinking and I’d be like, “Okay, it’s time to turn in, we’ve got five hours.” And you’d be like, “No, we’ve got to wait until we’ve only got three hours. You can’t go to sleep at the five-hour point. It’s nine, seven, or three hours.”
McQUARRIE: You can’t. Your REM cycle goes in three-hour spans. So if you sleep for five hours, you’re actually waking up two-thirds of the way through your second REM cycle, or at least this is what I read, to rationalize what I was doing. It may or may not be true, but it definitely worked on Reacher, because we averaged about two hours of sleep a day and we did remarkably well.
COURTNEY: Whatever works for you, man.
McQUARRIE: So when I started this interview, I put it out to social media. I said I was interviewing you, and I would take one question. And the one that’s of interest to me is, “If you had the opportunity to spend a day with Werner Herzog, what activities would you do together?”
COURTNEY: Oh, man. If I had the chance to spend a day with Werner Herzog, I would want there to be a canoe involved. I want to be down in Patagonia or something, and kill some kind of wild beast and skin it and gut it and cook it. And then turn its fur into some kind of layer of warmth. And then trek through the hills.
McQUARRIE: Have you been in touch with Werner since we wrapped Reacher?
COURTNEY: Fuck no. I’m terrified—No, I’m not, Werner’s awesome. I have very fond memories. I only got to break it down with him one night. He was walking through the hotel lobby the same time I was coming home, and we brought him up to my hotel room and drank red wine, and he told us some of the craziest fucking stories, about how he was in Pittsburg one time and he’d fallen in love with twins, or something, and about growing up in the Bavarian Forest and learning to use a machine gun at the age of 4. That man is a wealth of entertaining tales.
McQUARRIE: Oh, there was never not a good story. And never one that you didn’t believe. The detail was too incredible. He told this story about having a fight with his brother—the whole family was starving, and they were fighting about food. And the mother said to them, “If I could tear the flesh from my side and feed you, I would.” Something to that effect. Werner telling you a story would shut down production. We’d all be sitting there listening to Werner tell stories.
McQUARRIE: Are Terminator sequels what you want? For some actors this is the ultimate job security.
COURTNEY: In part it is, for sure. It goes both ways. You’re certainly robbed of time and choice when you commit to something that’s going to keep going for that long. But this is why you want to keep making those experiences pleasurable. There are roles out there I want to play that I don’t know if I’ll ever get the chance to. But I’m not going to waste time waiting for those phone calls, passing up the chance to do these sorts of things. I’m more likely to go see a smaller, darker indie film, like Felony for instance, than I am to see an Avengers or perhaps even a Terminator. What I’m drawn to as an audience member is not necessarily the stuff that I’ve been working on. I guess my ultimate hope is that, through these bigger films, which I do love fucking being a part of, they give me the exposure to take creative control at a certain point, and go do those passion projects that aren’t about the money or the size of the thing or the franchise rights, but just the creative experience or the story you’re telling.
McQUARRIE: And what does it take to have the security to do that?
COURTNEY: I don’t know. I’m not there yet.
CHRISTOPHER McQUARRIE IS A SCREENWRITER AND DIRECTOR. HE WROTE THE USUAL SUSPECTS AND DIRECTED THE WAY OF THE GUN AND JACK REACHER. HIS LATEST WRITING AND DIRECTORIAL EFFORT, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE—ROGUE NATION, WILL BE OUT IN JULY.
For more from the new Hollywood Heavies, click here.