The great leap Ford

Aus­tralia’s new­est star has taken a fast route to promi­nence, writes Michael Bodey

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

THE suc­cess sto­ries are cel­e­brated vis­i­bly. The many more Aus­tralian ac­tors who don’t make it in Hol­ly­wood usu­ally fade meekly into the back­ground. A bol­shie few re­turn home, declar­ing they won’t sell their soul to Hol­ly­wood or whin­ing that Los An­ge­les is a hell­hole not worth in­hab­it­ing.

Oth­ers are wise enough to keep their first au­di­tions for US stu­dios quiet; they can re­turn home just as qui­etly and pick up work again in do­mes­tic film, tele­vi­sion or the­atre.

The path to Hol­ly­wood em­ploy­ment by our young ac­tors is al­most blandly pre­scrip­tive: once cast in an Aus­tralian movie or TV drama, they then sign up for US TV’s an­nual cat­tle call, the pi­lot sea­son.

While Aus­tralian ac­tors are in­creas­ingly mak­ing it to Hol­ly­wood in this way — Jesse Spencer ( House), Anna Torv ( Fringe) and Yvonne Stra­hovski ( Chuck) are among the lat­est, with reg­u­lar US TV roles — the ca­reer tra­jec­to­ries of the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion were wildly vary­ing and of­ten baf­fling.

Hugh Jack­man, An­thony LaPaglia, Naomi Watts, Rus­sell Crowe, Eric Bana and Si­mon Baker, for ex­am­ple, shared some sort of plan for suc­cess. But per­sis­tence and am­bi­tion can be short- cir­cuited or boosted by cir­cum­stance.

Two young Aus­tralian ac­tors are dis­cov­er­ing that for them­selves. Luke Ford was cast as Bren­dan Fraser’s son in the Hol­ly­wood block­buster The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Em­peror be­fore he was even known at home.

And Sam Wor­thing­ton is on the cusp of some­thing spe­cial next year with the release of re­newed sci- fi fran­chise, Ter­mi­na­tor Sal­va­tion, op­po­site Chris­tian Bale, and James Cameron’s bal­ly­hooed 3- D, tech­no­log­i­cally ad­vanced, fu­tur­is­tic thriller, Avatar.

Wor­thing­ton has been on Hol­ly­wood’s radar since his role in Boot­men in 2000. He de­lib­er­ately re­jected Hol­ly­wood’s over­tures un­til, as he told me some time ago, he was con­fi­dent in his act­ing and range. His plan was to make a half dozen Aus­tralian films be­fore even at­tempt­ing lead­ing- man roles over­seas. Now he is the lead­ing man in two of 2009’ s most an­tic­i­pated block­busters. This is where serendip­ity kicks in. Those films may or may not do him jus­tice.

Ford leapt into his role in the suc­cess­ful Mummy fran­chise and, it is fair to say, has been ar­gu­ing with him­self about it since. He didn’t just take a lead role; he is con­tracted to con­tinue in the fran­chise as Alex, son of Fraser’s Rick O’Con­nell. Serendip­ity has yet to em­brace Ford. The con­tin­u­ing threat of an ac­tors strike in the US has slowed pro­duc­tion and cooled any mo­men­tum he picked up by be­ing cast in The Mummy 3. And the film — in which Fraser, Ford and Maria Bello bat­tle the spirit of an an­cient Chi­nese Han em­peror and his res­ur­rected ter­ra­cotta war­riors — isn’t the great­est act­ing show­case for a kid on the make.

Ford lives in two garages — a friend’s and his mum’s — wait­ing for his next step af­ter hav­ing just com­pleted film­ing the ABC tele­movie Blood in the Sand for Rowan Woods. ‘‘ Re­ally, my ca­reer is up in the air, which is why I did Blood in the Sand, so I could just get back to be­ing an ac­tor and not worry about the busi­ness side of it all,’’ Ford says.

Ford gave a won­der­ful per­for­mance in last year’s high­est gross­ing Aus­tralian film ( al­beit with $ 2.2 mil­lion), The Black Bal­loon, al­though he ques­tions whether any­thing will come of it.

‘‘ As an ac­tor, when you first start in your ca­reer, you know there is some sort of ( your own) in­volve­ment in mak­ing it, but you know it largely comes from a break in a big film or a crit­i­cal break in a film,’’ he says.

‘‘ In some ways I had a bit of both this year; crit­i­cally there was good talk of my per­for­mance in Black Bal­loon; The Mummy was the com­plete freakin’ op­po­site, so there was a learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence there.’’

Ford is a thought­ful young man who throws him­self into roles with al­most method- like mad­ness. It took weeks, he says, to fully emerge from play­ing an autis­tic char­ac­ter, Char­lie, in The Black Bal­loon.

The Mummy 3 was an­other mat­ter. It’s all chases, ex­plo­sions and spe­cial ef­fects. Ford was lost in the mael­strom, ques­tion­ing what he was do­ing there. He ac­cepts that pop­corn movies are es­sen­tial com­po­nents of a money- mak­ing busi­ness, but it was ‘‘ a dif­fer­ent an­gle to where I’d come from in the Aus­tralian sen­si­bil­ity’’.

Fraser ap­pre­ci­ates Ford’s angst. He came to promi­nence in the se­ries and has par­layed that into a broad ca­reer across drama and com­edy in cheesy com­mer­cial fare and crit­i­cally ac­claimed art- house films. He says a young ac­tor can’t be taught how to deal with block­buster film­mak­ing at film school or be taught the courage to com­mit to such films.

‘‘ You have to want it, have to want to be there, want to do the job,’’ Fraser says. ‘‘ I’ve walked in his shoes — well, maybe not his be­cause he’s size 13 and a hulk­ing great guy — but I’ve had that nail- bit­ing feel­ing of the first week of dailies ( early footage) com­ing back and think­ing, ‘ Am I good enough?’

‘‘ Just be­cause you’ve got the job doesn’t mean you’re go­ing to make it to the screen. All you’ve got to do is have courage,’’ Fraser adds.

‘‘ I’m im­pressed with him. And on top of that I feel proud, do­ing a pic­ture for an ac­tor like him, know­ing that I gave a guy a leg up.

‘‘ They’re suc­cess­ful films whether you love them or hate them and they give you op­por­tu­ni­ties. I wouldn’t have been able to do The Quiet Amer­i­can, they couldn’t have bankrolled that just off Michael Caine at the time. My role in The Mummy helped get that film made.’’

Ford was for­tu­nate to be­gin in Hol­ly­wood be­side a more ex­pe­ri­enced hand such as Fraser, but he says he is a dif­fer­ent sort of ac­tor.

‘‘ I’m not a genre ac­tor, I’m more of a char­ac­ter ac­tor. And in this film you’ve got to smile, be charm­ing, be healthy and charis­matic. They’re the lines and you don’t fall from those lines and you don’t try ( to) ex­tend those lines, you just do that.’’

Ford ac­cepts he needed to be ed­u­cated in Hol­ly­wood ways but prob­a­bly wishes it wasn’t so pub­lic. ‘‘ It was an in­trigu­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. I can’t say I didn’t en­joy it. I en­joyed it, but it has a dif­fer­ent form of en­joy­ment to Black Bal­loon.

‘‘ It’s great jump­ing off build­ings and blow­ing things up and jump­ing through ex­plo­sions and fight­ing Jet Li. That’s fun. But when you come home at the end of the day, why are you do­ing that?’’ Ford asks. ‘‘ If you can find your rea­son, you can keep do­ing the film. And I found my rea­son: it’s a kid’s film.’’ Re­view of

Em­peror

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon

— Page 22

Pic­ture: Amos Aik­man

Child’s play: Luke Ford, star of The Mummy 3, de­scribes his break­through ve­hi­cle as a kid’s movie’

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