Go west, young man
ON THE ARID RED PLAINS OF WESTERN QUEENSLAND, A N EW outback thriller unfolds.
Rising star Alex Russell kicks up dust in the Queensland outback
Stars far brighter than any in Hollywood flickered high in an outback sky the night Los Angeles-based actor Alex Russell had his epiphany. He’d spent the day pretending to be a policeman hunting bad guys in the desert and was now relaxing by a campfire outside an isolated homestead in western Queensland where the film crew was staying. Sitting next to him was one of the stalwarts of Australian television and film, the man Russell calls “an intoxicating life force”, Aaron Pedersen.
They talked; the up-and-coming, classically handsome 27-year-old Queenslander who moved to Hollywood four years ago to chase the dream, and the 44-year-old Aboriginal man with a killer smile who has made a celebrated career at home. Actor angst was the topic. Russell told Pedersen about his fears, about the nagging voice in his head that says he’s not good enough, that he squandered that take, that maybe he should give the acting game away.
“For years I’ve punished myself,” says Russell, retelling the story in a ramshackle miner’s hut on a vast, dusty plain near Middleton, 1500km northwest of Brisbane, where he filmed intense scenes with Pedersen for the $3 million thriller Goldstone. “I’m a perfectionist … I would put all this pressure on myself, which is the dumbest thing in the world to do. Sometimes I don’t doubt myself, sometimes I do, but it can be a delicate, vulnerable state of being.”
All this poured out of Russell as the actors sat watching the fire and the stars. It was not as though Russell was a no-chance wannabe. Since moving to the US after his first Australian film, Wasted on the Young, released in 2011, he’s been cast as the nasty Billy Nolan in the remake of Carrie, been directed by Angelina Jolie in Unbroken, and shared a hug with actor/comedian Russell Brand at Chateau Marmont, the famed Sunset Boulevard hotel. His star was rising.
The problem was he could be “too cerebral” about acting and lacked Pedersen’s knack for being relaxed on set, a “big, bright light that keeps everybody in a state of joy and enthusiasm and great zeal”. Perhaps, mused Russell, who has directed a short film and co-formed production company Rockpool Films, he’d be better off directing. Maybe he wasn’t suited to being an actor.
Pedersen listened. He told Russell he was a good actor. Then he laid down some wisdom. “He gave me the energy and attitude that I need to feel so confident and feel like I can do it, and that’s going to give me permission to just enjoy it for the rest of my life,” says Russell.
He’s coy about what the actual words were, saying to take them out of context would be to do his mentor’s advice an injustice. But the essence of the chat was about embracing joy. You can choose to be dogged by doubt, or not. Switch off “that thing” in your head and give over to the moment. It was as much a modus operandi for life as it was for acting, says Russell. “The choice to switch that off is also the choice not to worry about it when you’re taking a shower. And that way you enjoy it, you enjoy acting.
“When you cross over, it’s … as he says, it’s easy. But to switch that thing off in your head, just to let yourself just be there and just going, just being connected to it, can be a hard thing. I feel so grateful to him, to actually enjoy what I’m doing rather than torturing myself over it. I’m just so frickin’ grateful. I’m forever indebted to him because I really feel like I’m finally cured.”
Sounds like an impressive pep talk. Maybe the setting, the otherworldly beauty of the Outback, played a role? “Cured in the Outback,” he agrees, flashing a matinee idol smile. “Ready to go back to LA, calm as a Hindu cow.”
THERE’S NO CHATEAU MARMONT HOTEL IN
Middleton but there is a Hilton. It’s not the usual glass and marble extravaganza; just a few wooden posts rammed into the red earth, a roof of mismatched materials and some slapdash signs spruiking “no aircon, no TV, no pool, no charge”. Lester Cain, the wild-haired publican of the quaint Middleton Hotel across the road, stands on his pub’s verandah, scratches his chin and starts bullshitting. “That’s Paris’s show,” he says, as dry as you like. “You know Paris Hilton? She runs the opposition.”
The truth is, it’s just Lester, 72, wife Val, 73, and son and helicopter contractor Stoney who live out here on the remote Kennedy Developmental Road, wedged between Boulia, about 200km to the southwest, and Winton, 164km to the east. Stoney’s away when we visit, so the population is two. In the early 1900s, Middleton was a busy Cobb and Co change station, with a store, market garden, school, hall and police station. Most of the time nowadays, the only other locals are the brolgas that come to dance in the afternoon at the Hilton, beyond which the rich red plains of the Outback go on and on.
Unless a film crew comes to town. Once the Goldstone team of about 50 moved into the disused homestead five minutes’ drive away and started making the film in and around the pub, the Cains’ days took on an unreal tinge. “There was a shop over there this morning,” says Val, dipping her head towards the decaying hall across the road, the only structure other than the pub and the Hilton (in reality, a free camping site) in this flyspeck of a town. “Yeah,” says Lester as he organises some beers. “They fillumed it.”
Val: “All they filmed was a woman walking out with a box of noodles.” Lester: “Were they your noodles?” Val: “No, but they gave them to me. It’s supposed to be that they’ve got these sex slaves, so I guess that’s what she was going to feed them.”
The road worker in the hi-vis shirt eating his corned meat sandwich – “no pickles!” – at the end of the bar pipes up. “Are they still over there?”
“You behave,” says Lester, throwing him a grin. “There’s a little sheila out of Asia they’re looking after. They had to keep her in Winton for a couple of days, acclimatise her.”
Val: “Yeah, she was in the ‘Crouching Dragon’ thing. She’s got this big caravan with all her clothes and makeup in, hairdresser even. I went in and they showed me all the dresses and I said, ‘I’ll have this one and that one’. Didn’t give me any, though.”
Cheng Pei-pei, 68, one of China’s revered actors, the “Queen of Martial Arts” and dart-throwing villain in 2000 Oscar-winning film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has arrived in Middleton. From what the Cains have picked up about Goldstone, Cheng plays the boss of sex slaves shipped in to offer their services to men working at a mine. There’s something wrong with the mine; corruption is involved. And the coppers – played by Pedersen and Russell – are trying to get to the bottom of the skulduggery. It’s a spin-off from 2013 film Mystery Road by the same director, Brisbane-based Ivan Sen, which starred Pedersen as Jay Swan, an indigenous detective. Winton Shire is pushing its region’s stark beauty as a perfect film set and Sen, an Aboriginal man, is a devotee.
While Cheng is an interesting diversion, it was Australian movie royalty who really animated the Cains. “We had that big actor in, what’s her name?” asks Lester of Val. “Jacki,” says Val. “Jacki Weaver.”
“That’s her,” says Lester. The Oscar-winner’s name might escape him but, like any good publican, he remembers her preferred tipple. “Gin,” he says in his gravelly voice. “Gin and tonic. Yeah, she was alright. And the old Aboriginal bloke, he was here, what’s his name?”
“Gulpilil,” I venture. “That’s him,” says Lester. “He’s a good bloke, didn’t have a beer, though.” The ethereal David Gulpilil remains a teetotaller after his battle with the booze following his rise to fame in the ’70s and ’80s. Val continues: “Oh, he’s
“So I gave this bloke the fish, he stuffed ’ em full of foam, sewed’ em up, Put ’ em under water and let’ em go, and they all popped up like dead fish. Funny the things they do, hey. ” val cain
a funny fella,” she says. “He came in the other day, after some filming, and he says, ‘Well, they hung me this morning. And they’re up there having me funeral now. So I thought I’d come to the pub.’ God, I laughed.”
The smoke and mirrors “magic” of movies has kept the Cains amused, too. A scene called for fish. Lester takes up the story: “So the bloke’s fishin’, see, things are going bad and he’s fishin’ and the next minute the fish are floating past dead. In the fillum. So they needed these fish to float, see? And I said, ‘I don’t think you’ll get fish out of Winton, not whole fish’. Anyhow, they went to Winton. Couldn’t get fish out of Winton so they come back down here, panicking.”
Luckily, the Cains had some yellowbelly – the much-loved fish of the inland, found in billabongs and backwaters – in the deep freeze. Val takes over: “So I gave this bloke the fish, he thawed ’em out, stuffed ’em full of foam, sewed ’em up and put nylon thread on [each one]. Put ’em under water and let ’em go and they all popped up like dead fish. Funny the things they do, hey.”
The bar goes quiet for a second or two as everyone considers fake floating fish. Then Val offers, “Me bacon and eggs are in there, too.” Val says she didn’t ask to be an extra in the film – “me bacon and eggs, me fish, me car are in it, they’ll do” – but she reckons she could have managed the “bacon and eggs scene” that took all morning to get right. “The policeman [Russell] was sitting there eating breakfast, so that’s me bacon and eggs,” she says, laughing. “And Jacki comes in with a big apple pie and the barmaid says, ‘The usual’. She says ‘Yes’. She sits down, the barmaid walks out with a coffee pot and pours it and walks back. I said to them afterwards, ‘I could have done that’.”
As if to show her style, she collects our steak sandwich plates and heads towards the kitchen, as a member of the crew walks in, looking sheepish. “You know that box of noodles I gave you?” he says. Returns Val: “You gotta take ’em?” “Yeah, I gave them to you too early.”
She laughs and heads off to get the noodles, which are bound for a scene at the brothel. We tell her we’re heading there soon to see the bacon and eggs cop, Alex Russell. She’s mildly interested but more taken by the brothel. “Oh, it’s fantastic up there. Everything’s red and gold. Beautiful. I told them, ‘I won’t worry about the pub, I’ll just move up there’.”
For a few weeks, Goldstone has added a touch of the exotic to Middleton, and Val has had a ball.
“I’m going to miss ’em,” she says.
BEAUTIFUL ASIAN WOMEN ARE LINED UP
in front of a red felt-topped pool table inside the “brothel” called The Ranch. Val’s right, this demountable building which served as the film’s police station earlier in the day boasts a lot of red and gold, with oriental umbrellas and lanterns dotted about the walls. Behind a bar is a man in a floral shirt and in front of him, sitting on a stool, is Alex Russell. It seems his character, police officer Josh, is choosing a woman. He says nothing, just allows his eyes to drift over each woman as the camera concentrates on his face.
We’ll have to wait for the movie to come out next year to learn what the law-enforcer was doing at The Ranch because Russell’s not telling. “I shouldn’t say anything, story-wise,” he says as he poses for shots after a long day’s filming. The sun is sinking behind the mesas in the distance, radiating a yellow light across the flat, bare plain.
Russell has left The Ranch to come to the miner’s hut, a stunningly realistic set built by the film crew in the middle of nowhere. With him is the film’s armourer, Jeff Gribble, an old-style Aussie
joker who’s prepared the left-hander for gun battle scenes. “He gets whacked, he gets shot but he’s got a bulletproof vest on, so he’s a hero. But we’ve got baddies dying hell west and crooked.”
He lists the accoutrements hanging off Russell’s belt. “We’ve got a police badge, a set of handcuffs, a Glock 9mm,” says Gribble, “and an ‘I’ve got a small penis’ belt buckle.” Russell overhears, and doubles over laughing, clutching at the oversized buckle. “Hey, enough of that.” Gribble giggles and whispers, “He’s a lovely bloke, really genuine bloke.”
The sentiment is echoed by producer David Jowsey of Bunya Productions who says Russell is “a friendly, lovely sort of dude. No big raps on himself. And I think he’s really going to make it.” Shooting for the film – which also features David Wenham and Tom E. Lewis, best known for his title role in ’70s classic The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith – is one day from finishing when we visit the set, and the vibe is relaxed. Jowsey reckons they’ve got a pretty good movie in the bag and Russell “is going to shine”.
He’s shining a megawatt smile as the shoot ends and he settles down inside the shack to chat. It’s here, in this place of rustic disrepair with beer bottles scattered about the floor and cigarette butts in an ashtray, where the police officers played by Pedersen and Russell argue out their differences. It’s part of the creative tension of the film – the two don’t get on but must overcome their dislike to fight the bad guys.
Russell says he was hooked on doing the film as soon as he started reading the script, written by Sen. “I just ripped into it … best script I’ve read in a really, really long time. It’s so rare. When you look at the script, structurally and in terms of its colour and its life, it’s like looking at this big tapestry, this big thing that is just perfect. It sits just right and the shape is just there.” He believes Sen, 43, is going “to blow the world away”. “I genuinely think he’s a creative genius. I got real lucky getting on this.”
A bonus was he got to come home for a while. The Rockhampton Grammar School graduate swung by the family home for a week either side of the film to see Dad, Andrew, a general surgeon with expertise in obesity surgery, and Mum, Frances, an interior designer. He also caught up with his siblings: Dominic, who has ditched a journalism degree and is pursuing an acting career, and school student Georgiana, who was blitzing her way through the local eisteddfod as big brother was communing with the Outback.
Until Goldstone, the most he’d had to do with life on the land was a few visits to a mate’s farm during school holidays. After flying in from the mayhem of LA, Russell was struck by the haunting beauty and harshness of the place – the sunsets, the flies, the wind – which, he says, was as much a character in the film as any actor. “The land’s power out here filters into the script in a spiritual way,” he says. “You couldn’t film this anywhere else. It has to be here. Being connected to the real thing and to a place I would never normally visit is such a unique experience.”
As is living in LA. This kid from Rocky, the boy who was fat and bullied in primary school, is now at home rolling along the spaghetti freeways of the City of Angels on the way to auditions. He’s all grown up now, knows his way around – “Even found my place in LA where I can get an Australian standard, good flat white” – but the sight of the Seven Dwarfs propping up Disney HQ at Burbank has the power to turn him into a child again.
“I believe in the magic of it,” he says. “Anyone who has gone on that journey over there will find times when it can get you down, and there’s a way of thinking that’s sceptical. There are parts of it that aren’t pure, but I still see the magic.”
He’s even shared some of that fairy dust with his brother, Dominic. Russell tells of being at a party thrown by United Talent Agency, his representatives in Hollywood. Its clients include bit players such as Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, Susan Sarandon and Harrison Ford. At this party, Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston, the leads in cult television hit Breaking Bad, were the “it” actors of the moment, and Russell was not too shy to have a chat and get a photo with Paul.
“I knew my brother would flip out, so I wanted to take a photo so I could show him and make him jealous,” says Russell. He filled Paul in on his plan. Told Dominic was in Australia, Paul said, “Let’s call him.” So they did. Of course, aspiring actor Dominic thought it was a gee-up for a while. “Fortunately Dom didn’t say anything offensive,” says Russell, laughing. “I think that ten or 15 seconds in it clicked that it wasn’t just one of my mates with an American accent tricking him. He could not believe it. They’re on the phone for several minutes; that’s a long time to talk to someone you’ve never met. And then, Aaron gives the phone to Bryan Cranston. Then Cranston chats to him for a little bit.”
Russell is wide-eyed as he relays the story. Such a selfless thing to do, he says. “It’s so refreshing to see people who are absolutely annihilating it in their careers but are still clearly so down-to-earth and aware and considerate enough to recognise a moment where they can really make someone feel special and make them have a really nice day. That’s the kind of thing that keeps your heart invested in a place like Hollywood,” he says.
“There’s all that fake stuff, you know, there’s fake stuff until the cows come home but if you get caught up in feeling negative, you’re going to miss those little moments. I believe in the goodness of people. People can be shit, but you’ve just got to keep your eye out for those good things.”
Like sharing a masterclass in acting under the stars with Aaron Pedersen; or hugging Russell Brand at the Chateau Marmont; or, perhaps, getting rave reviews for Goldstone, if the little Aussie indie film catapults him into international stardom. When the big break comes, will he extend the same “special” feeling to some young actor’s kid brother?
“Nah, I’ll ignore him,” Russell says, leaning back on his rickety chair, folding his arms and adopting a big important man posture. “I’ll be sitting in the clouds
special.”. somewhere.” Then he flashes that smile. “Absolutely, of course I will. I think it’s the most beautiful thing when you can make someone feel
“You couldn’t film this anywhere else. It has to be here. Being connected to the real thing and to a place I would never normally visit is such a unique experience . ” alex russell, actor ( ABOVE)
DRINKS, YARNS DISPENSED … VAL AND LESTER CAIN, WHO RUN THE MIDDLETON HOTEL, GOT INVOLVED IN THE MAKING OF GOLDSTONE.
CODE RED … DIRECTOR IVAN SEN ( BEHIND CAMERA) SUPERVISES A SCENE SHOT INSIDE ‘THE RANCH’, A DEMOUNTABLE SET UP AS THE LOCAL BROTHEL.