SOME­THING WICKED

Ten years since he last per­formed Shake­speare, Australian ac­tor and Hol­ly­wood star Jai Court­ney is re­turn­ing to the stage, writes Philippa Hawker

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

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

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