Ten years since he last performed Shakespeare, Australian actor and Hollywood star Jai Courtney is returning to the stage, writes Philippa Hawker
Jai Courtney has been a gladiator, an Anzac officer, a member of a World War II bomber crew. He has played a resistance fighter in the Terminator franchise; he has attacked Tom Cruise, gone on a rampage in Russia with Bruce Willis and been drafted into DC Comics’ Suicide Squad. Yet he has never been keen to be tagged simply as an Aussie action star.
He also has been looking for work that explores a different kind of conflict. He has it now, in the most challenging terms: he is playing the title role in Macbeth, a Melbourne Theatre Company production directed by Simon Phillips that opens next month.
He has wanted this kind of experience for a while, Courtney says. He has been “scared as hell about what it was going to demand of me, but also just hungry for that chance to commit myself to something like this”.
For MTC, a Hollywood name is undoubtedly a box-office draw. For Phillips, there’s the appeal of an actor who can so readily embody a warrior, the Macbeth we see at the beginning of the play. For this production, Phillips says, “I was after someone who could really be it. Someone who could capture vividly the sense of beginning as that incredibly empowered person who’s given that temptation of being king when he’s flushed with success. He’s been as viscerally successful and triumphant as you can imagine.”
He was, of course, keen to be sure Courtney could tackle the text itself. MTC voice coach Leith McPherson turns out to have been the last person to have directed Courtney in a Shakespeare production, 10 years ago, when he was a student at the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts and she was doing A Winter’s Tale. Phillips asked her about Courtney and Shakespeare, he says, “and she was very quick to give that the thumbs up”.
So, on January 2 Courtney started work, reading and having Skype sessions with McPherson. Preparing before rehearsal started, he says, he always felt that immersing himself in the text was the primary research. “I familiarised myself with certain ideas, I did some reading on the occult, and some bits and pieces, other books, Antony Sher’s book about playing Richard III”, but it always came back to the text.
He embraced the idea that with Shakespeare “there’s no endgame, it requires constant exploration and you don’t ever work to a point where you’ve nailed it. Things will continue to evolve right until the end of the run, in some sense, and beyond, and probably six months after we finish I’ll figure out how to play it.”
Phillips likes to give his Shakespeare productions a contemporary context, and this Macbeth is no exception. It’s not about transposing the play into a new world — Macbeth as Tony Soprano, Scotland as the White House — more about finding fruitful images and parallels.
“The language is complex, and if the audience is seeing something they relate to, that can help,” Phillips says. “It’s a handhold inside the language.”
Courtney is fascinated by these possibilities, and curious about how they’ll play out. “In some ways those ideas make me nervous, but it doesn’t feel right in this day and age to put this on stage in Melbourne with a bunch of guys with long swords,” he says.
In many ways, Macbeth is a story of action. Courtney talks about the speed of his character’s transformation from triumph to ambition to the commission of an act “so terrible that it unhinges him … He gives himself over to the idea of chaos” to the point where all is meaningless, then, with his dying breath, “attempts to restore a sense of honour”.
Finding the right context for this dramatic shift, Phillips says, is tricky. “The first act is almost like a thriller, rushing along, and the last two acts are the same.” Yet in the middle of the play “there’s a completely different kind of intensity”, revolving around the intimate psychological drama of the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, his partner in ambition.
Finding the right Lady Macbeth was another piece of the puzzle, Phillips says. “Once I’d cast Jai, I knew what I was looking for, someone who could in some way match that energy.” Geraldine Hakewill, he says, “has a magnificence about her that works as the female to Jai’s male”.
On the surface, Courtney’s rise has been swift, although he doesn’t quite see it that way. After WAAPA and a couple of local TV gigs, his first significant break was in an American series, Spartacus: Blood and Sand, which was shot in New Zealand. Playing Varro, a Roman citizen turned gladiator to pay his gambling debts, “was a huge deal for me”, eight months’ work that meant leaving Australia and being part of a large-scale, well-resourced production.
He became close to the show’s star, Andy Whitfield, who died from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2011. He gave Courtney friendship and professional advice about what to do after his time on Spartacus was over. The experience of the show, Courtney says, gave him the impetus to go to Los Angeles and try his luck, as well as “something to talk about when I got there, and a little bit of money in my back pocket to stay alive while I was there”.
Michael Douglas caused a stir in 2015 when he suggested Australian and British actors were taking roles from American actors because they brought more to the screen. The British were better trained, and “with the Aussies”, Douglas said, “it’s the masculinity”. Courtney has heard this assertion about Australian performers many times, but he’s keen to point to other traits he thinks are just as important — what he describes as “a lack of fear in exploring vulnerability that isn’t the opposite of masculinity, that strengthens a character”.
In Los Angeles, he found representation and started to land roles. As well as the bad guy misguided enough to take on Cruise in action thriller Jack Reacher, he was Willis’s estranged son in A Good Day to Die Hard, the fifth movie in the Die Hard franchise. He was John Connor (the fourth actor to play the character) in Terminator Genisys; he was a member of a World War II aircrew in Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken; and he was a lieutenant-colonel trying to help identify the Anzac dead in Russell Crowe’s The Water Diviner.
He also appeared in a smaller film in Australia, Matthew Saville’s Felony, a police drama with a script by Joel Edgerton, who also stars in it. Courtney read the screenplay, he says, and pushed hard to be considered for a role, well before the project got off the ground: “I was desperate to come on board.” It’s a film full of moral ambiguity, in which characters make bad decisions for what they believe are good reasons. “At the centre of it you’ve got a man” — Edgerton’s character — “who’s done something really wrong,” Courtney says, “but somehow you want Jai Courtney is playing Macbeth for Melbourne Theatre Company; the actor in films, from top right, The Water Diviner (2014), Terminator Genisys Suicide Squad
THERE WAS A TOTAL ENERGY SHIFT FROM BEING IN THE SUBURBS AND BEING AROUND MY MATES AND PLAYING FOOTY … I DIDN’T FEEL LIKE AN ACTOR JAI COURTNEY