OUT IN THE AFL

Ac­tor, tradie and real-life foot­baller, Ethan Panizza plays Rusty on TV’s Play­ing For Keeps. He may be fic­tional, but Rusty is our first out gay AFL pro!

DNA Magazine - - CONTENT - By Matt My­ers

Ac­tor, tradie and real-life foot­baller, Ethan Panizza plays Rusty on TV’s Play­ing For Keeps. He may be fic­tional, but Rusty is our first out gay AFL pro!

If you be­lieved the pro­mos, you’d think Net­work Ten’s drama Play­ing For Keeps cen­tered on a sala­cious group of foot­baller’s WAGs (Wives And Girl­friends). But it’s more than just Mean Girls in an AFL cor­po­rate box. In fact, this new Aussie pro­duc­tion has legs – and hairy, mus­cu­lar ones at that.

Granted, the WAGs at the fic­ti­tious South­ern Jets Footy Club play a piv­otal role in the drama, but so do their hunky HABs (Hus­bands And Boyfriends – a term we’ve just in­vented).

A ma­jor plot­line in­volves the sur­prise com­ing-out of Rusty O’Reilly, played by Ethan Panizza. The back-flanker is ac­cused of hav­ing an af­fair with an­other player’s wife, but the af­fair, it turns out, is with her hus­band Jack, played by James Ma­son. That Jack has also mys­te­ri­ously drowned dur­ing a train­ing camp adds to the drama.

For Ethan Panizza, play­ing Rusty was not only chal­leng­ing but also eye-open­ing for the straight ac­tor/ath­lete.

“When I au­di­tioned for the role I didn’t know Rusty was gay,” says Ethan. “But when they told me, I thought, ‘What an in­cred­i­ble op­por­tu­nity and priv­i­lege to play this char­ac­ter.’

“I’ve got a close group of gay friends, so I talked to them about the role and took my re­search se­ri­ously, watch­ing YouTube videos of peo­ple com­ing out, and speak­ing to a lot of LGBTIQ com­mu­nity mem­bers.

“But, as much as I try, I’ll never be able to fully un­der­stand what it must feel like for Rusty, and peo­ple in his shoes who are forced to come out. I got the vibe that a solid sup­port net­work means ev­ery­thing, and I’m so happy that in our story the char­ac­ter is backed up by his club, friends, fam­ily, and even the me­dia.”

Ethan says he felt pas­sion­ately about last year’s mar­riage equal­ity de­bate and sup­ported the Yes cam­paign. “That was huge,” he says. “Love is love, and ev­ery­one should be able to love who­ever they want! It’s cer­tainly never been a prob­lem for me. When the Yes vote came through, and I saw how happy and over­joyed peo­ple were, well, it was just an amaz­ing mo­ment. To see peo­ple fi­nally able to marry who they love was just fan­tas­tic.”

Hav­ing played for the Clare­mont Tigers in Western Aus­tralia, Ethan brings au­then­tic Aussie Rules spirit to the show, even guid­ing the other ac­tors.

“The ca­ma­raderie is the big­gest thing,” he says. “At a foot­ball club, you can walk in and no mat­ter what you’re go­ing through, you’ll al­ways feel wel­come. Your team is like your fam­ily, and that’s what they wanted with this group of ac­tors. So we hung out a lot and I con­nected with all the boys, par­tic­u­larly Jack­son Gal­lagher, who plays our cap­tain.

“When it comes to footy, I reckon I had the ball in my hand be­fore I could breast­feed! Foot­ball was where my dad [also an AFL foot­baller] and I re­ally con­nected. I thought that would make him proud, but there comes a time when you re­alise you can’t just do things for other peo­ple, and you need to take on your own per­sona. I hon­estly thought play­ing foot­ball would be my life, but then the act­ing bug caught me. I was do­ing plays in and out of school and dis­cov­ered a love for en­ter­tain­ing peo­ple.”

As for play­ing Rusty, Ethan un­der­stands the re­spon­si­bil­ity that comes with such a unique and piv­otal role, es­pe­cially when rep­re­sen­ta­tion is im­por­tant to the LGBTIQ com­mu­nity.

“I’m hop­ing Rusty’s sto­ry­line could be a bit of a blue­print if an AFL player ever chooses to come out,” he says. “I think one of the best parts of this role is the amount of lay­ers to Rusty’s char­ac­ter. He’s a hard-as-nails footy player and fiercely loyal, who just hap­pens to be gay. His sex­u­al­ity isn’t his only defin­ing qual­ity, which is re­ally true of ev­ery­body. It’s good to see him as his own per­son, and not put into a mould.”

As for his own defin­ing qual­i­ties, Ethan is as su­per­sti­tious as most ath­letes. “I’m very su­per­sti­tious when it comes to play­ing footy,” he ad­mits. “I never let my jersey touch the ground; I al­ways hang it up and speak to it be­fore a game. I tie up my right boot, but not my left be­cause that’s my kick­ing boot, so I wait un­til I go out on the grounds.

“As for au­di­tions, I al­ways carry a foot­ball pre­mier­ship medal that my dad won back in 1991. That seems to do the trick!”

The best part of this role are the of lay­ers to Rusty’s char­ac­ter. He’s a hard-as-nails footy player who just hap­pens to be gay.

Ethan: “I’m hop­ing Rusty’s sto­ry­line could be a blue­print if an AFL player ever chooses to come out.”

Rusty’s Play­ing For Keeps story.

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