Go west, young man



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.”


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.


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)



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