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Jai Courtney Exclusive: \'People Confuse Being An Aussie Bloke With Being A Dickhead\'
Photo: Matthew Brookes for GQ Australia/ Styling: Trevor Stones
GQ has a man-to-man chat with actor Jai Courtney over a few tins of VB. In the outback, naturally.
The unashamed Aussie larrikin likes footy, pool and the odd crazy punt – cue an inked reminder of Margot Robbie. But he’s also a complex, driven and sensitive soul as in touch with his emotions as he is at ease dissecting shakespeare’s darker moments.
The Lyceum Hotel, Longreach. Point a car north-west of Brisbane for 13 hours and you’ll find the place. It’s where Australian passenger flight furst took off – a Qantas museum the beacon that lures enthusiasts and a steady queue of grey nomads on retirement runs – and the kind of dusty, outback town where cars park down the middle of the main street. It’s a place where people know each other, and if they don’t, they know of each other.
As for the pubs, The Lyceum’s been billed as the locals’ joint that’s not the RSL or The Birdcage. Come Thursdays, it holds a reputation as a bit of a fight club.
It’s Thursday. Jai Courtney’s out front rolling a cigarette in one hand while chatting to a lump of a lad, James, all boyish features on an oversized body. Beneath his faded blue Bonds singlet poke various tattoos.
Courtney enquires about his want for American metal outfit Korn to be permanently written large across his chest.
Cigarette done, we wander back inside to a game of pool against a mostly edentulous Kiwi shearer, Johnny, who’s outing himself as a shark now that drinks rest on the result.
Courtney’s acutely competitive, but Johnny’s a player. And play he does.
“Make mine a Bundy ’n coke, Hollywood.”
Photo: Matthew Brookes for GQ Australia. Styling: Trevor Stones. Grooming: Jenny Kim.
Our reception in Longreach has been warm – a few residents aware that one of Australia’s most promising actors was to settle in for a few days. Breakfast at the local bakery’s seen a daily order of toasties (ham, cheese, tomato, white bread) served with a side of selfies for teen girls who present at just that time. Still, it’s not that the 30-year- old’s capital letter FAMOUS. Not yet.
Prior to The Lyceum, we rolled some balls at The Birdcage. The barmaid’s knees bent on each order, on recognising the thickset film star with the cheeky, crooked smile, while some confident 12-year-olds hit him up about being
s Captain Boomerang, specifically: “How hot’s Margot Robbie?”
Yet the men playing darts in the main bar kept a collective lock on the bullseye, not swayed by the notable blow-in.
Not that any dose of fame – the same he’s witnessed in working opposite Tom Cruise, Bruce Willis, Will Smith, Jared Leto, Arnold Schwarzenegger – would change this Sydney boy. It’s not what he covets, swatting it away as a dubious bi-product of playing in a very public profession.
And because, well, he’s just Jai – an honest larrikin and charmer. He’s unabashedly a bloke. He’s unashamedly Australian.
He’ll drop the odd “yeah-nah” and stuffs sentences with an amount of fucks that’d leave a porn star spent.
But there’s more. There are layers. Lift them – he doesn’t pull away – and you come to appreciate the depth. Though Jai Courtney can be brutish and blokey, he’s also sensitive. He thinks. He worries. He loves.
“Another game?” barks the actor. Johnny smiles. All gums.
Girt. It’s a stupid word – surely the most obscure to land in a national anthem. The Brits sing of a poetic love of their Queen, the Americans their flag and the French, well, they have the most rousing of all – even if it’s a brutal and bloody war cry.
That’s been the chat since grabbing a table at the back of the Longreach RSL the day after the night that was. TV’s sparked the conversation – ‘Advance Australia Fair’ straining from numerous speakers as Nine’s cricket commentators attempt to talk-up what is a dead Adelaide Test against South Africa.
Courtney’s index finger hovers over the laminated menu of chicken parma and burgers before settling on Thai beef salad.
“For me, it’s a struggle to stay lean and kind of be as average as I can,” he offers. “Versatility’s something you want more than anything. If you’re little then you’re never going to be big, so there’s opportunities you won’t get – but that works the other way, too.”
He goes on to discuss being told to shed weight to get a look in at certain roles.
“It doesn’t make it fun to hear but it’s part of what we do and you can approach that stuff healthily. Unfortunately, though, there are personalities in this business who have no tact when it comes to suggesting things like that.” Courtney grew up suburban, banging about Cherrybrook in north-western Sydney, then a new area nudging bushland.
“We were one of the first houses out there and there was tonnes of land, which was cool growing up – loads of places to play and piss off on your bike.”
His parents were grafters – mum was a primary school teacher and his dad an electrician who worked on the grid.
“You think about having a big weekend and you’re like, ‘Fuck, I’ve had four hours sleep since Thursday.’ Well, my old man’s been running on weeks like that for 35 years. And I often think that’s amazing, especially as he’d come off night shift and then coach sport.”
Young Courtney dabbled in athletics and swimming alongside rugby league and cricket. He still keeps an eye on the footy, though follows no specific team – not since his beloved North Sydney Bears were benched from the top-flight NRL.
“I’m a footy fringe dweller. I like the [South Sydney] Rabbits and I was on the [reigning premiers, Cronulla] Sharks all last year. I just love a good underdog – as long as they’re not from Queensland.”
It’s a soft jab – signalling the state he famously had inked on his left wrist after losing a bet to Margot Robbie, herself a staunch Maroon.
The space of childhood also allowed imagination to run and Courtney, beyond throwing balls and swinging bats, followed his sister into extracurricular drama classes.
“I remember being young and being into dressing up and playing characters and drawing moustaches on my face and letting my sister plat my hair,” he says. “I was always involved in playing with my figurines and I had an imagination for that stuff.
And it turned into something where [acting] became play time, you know, that’s still what I get out of it in a lot of ways, that same feeling, those same goosebumps of rolling around the living room floor making gun noises and getting stabbed by invisible people and shit like that. You’re in the moment, you believe in that world and that’s the greatest sense of abandon where you’re completely uninhibited.”
Teenage years were “probably my most deviant”, knocking about with some older kids, causing a ruckus, “smoking weed, drinking a bit and skating a lot, thinking we were cool enough to tag buildings and do a bit of petty theft – you know, suburban boredom.”
His parents trusted him. Courtney also trusted himself. “In a lot of ways I was able to do whatever I wanted, but that wasn’t through neglect, it was through trust. By 14 or 15 there wasn’t an area of myself that I didn’t share with my folks – they knew I smoked a bit of weed and they always knew when I’d fucked up because I’d discuss it. Also, I wasn’t too stupid, you know.
Me and my mates, we were smart enough to never let things get off the rails. We never made decisions stupid enough to put us in harm’s way. But there was a lot of shit happening with this group of guys I looked up to, and then I realised that’s not where I wanted to be in five years – I worked out being a savage on the footy field was more glorious than smashing up shops. I never wanted to get into any major strife.”
Bored by school – “I had more potential than I was willing to reach” – he found excitement in drama and sport and expected to graduate to a trade.
“I asked Dad who makes the most and he told me plumbers. ‘Cool, I’ll be a plumber.’ And he was like, ‘You’re going to dig holes for 10 years? Have a think mate and get your shit into gear.’ So I got a job at a warehouse and that taught me everything – it taught me there was no way I could fucking get through life making a wage that just let me have a bit of fun and drink every weekend.”
He auditioned for Sydney’s National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) and The Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), scoring a place in Perth. “I got there and thought I’d made a terrible mistake. I felt like a total fish out of water, surrounded by people I endowed to have it all together and who were already ‘actors’. And then you get sent home with Shakespeare and it’s like, ‘What the fuck have I done?’”
WAAPA’s head of performance, Andrew Smith, recalls those initial days.
“He was rough around the edges, but what he had was something interesting and dynamic,” he explains. “It was something we noticed even in his audition. He’s physically present, he’s always been strong and built like an ox, and around him he has this presence and boyish charm.”
Smith also noticed Courtney railing against personal projections about acting. “The first year can be a bit of shock for all of them, but particularly for Jai, this larrikin Sydney guy wondering what it’s all about and trying to find his way,” adds Smith. “But by the end of that year, students often pop and that was the case with him. I mean, we talk about him being rough, but he’s also incredibly bright and he could handle text and I think once he realised that, by the end of second year, well, we just thought, ‘You can put this guy in a lot of things and he can play a lot of different roles.’”
For Courtney, it was about coming to own what he perceived as his differences. “Being a guy who’d come up around sport and hung out with guys of that nature, and with my behavioural inclinations, I genuinely thought it was all playing against my ability to get into theatre and study this stuff. I thought I was the wrong type of person, but then you realise not fitting a stereotype can be an advantage.
I looked at other Aussie actors at that time, people I could relate to such as Hugh Jackman, who was the biggest international success to come out of WAAPA. He was a bit of a hero along with Russell Crowe and Sam Worthington. And I found it comforting to look at them and see that you could be a bloke, and it could fucking work for you. Once I was all right with that, then it felt like I wasn’t an imposter trying to fake being someone else.”
Courtney\'s calling for a towel after diving, clothed, into a remote dam at Camden Park Station, on the outskirts of Longreach. He’s been before the
lense for much of the day, avoiding the more extreme hours when the temperature nudged 40 degrees. It’s meant a variety of set-up shots across the expansive, dusty property and a chance to burn about on an old dirt bike.
He clearly relishes the opportunity – the abandon, the space, the adventure.
“I love bikes [he rides a chopper in LA], I love my footy and I like getting on the piss and having fun – I’m very much an Aussie bloke. And you know what, there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m in touch with that. But sometimes that can be confused with being a dickhead; sometimes people have this fear of being innately alpha or masculine, and that’s bullshit.
A bloke who loves theatre and I’m also a sensitive guy. I can see that this may sometimes be an arm wrestle for others to get their head around, but it all makes sense to me.”
Sitting above the dam, squinting towards a blistering, brilliant sunset, Courtney opens another can of VB. “I fucking love this – it’s amazing out here. And I love that feeling you get of being out here and being small. It’s a feeling I’ve had many times on this earth – be it in the ocean or in the desert, and it’s wonderful, wonderful to feel tiny. And I just swam in water that’s coming from a source kilometres underground, from a lake bed that was here a million years ago – that’s just fucking amazing.”
“I love being out in the world and taking in the sky and feeling something – feeling a power that’s far greater than us. I’m not someone who’s ever subscribed to organised religion, but it’s amazing when you feel a sense of creation and being in a wide- open space tends to do that.”
Courtney’s career ascension came quickly. From school – he graduated WAAPA in 2007 – he avoided the sands of Summer Bay and the suburban set-up of Ramsay Street with guest roles in
opened the door to the States, and required him to forget his shirt most days, a look accentuated by a curious curly blond mop. And then he landed with a thump: Tom Cruise’s nemesis in
; the villainous teen heartthrob (you can tell he’s a villain, because of the neck tatts) in the
series opposite Kate Winslet and Theo James’s eyebrows.
Despite the heady run, Courtney points to periods of downtime and hardship. “There was a good two years of going back and forth to LA and not getting work. That grind is essential and I wouldn’t have changed that because the flogging you get doing pilot season, doing three appointments a day and having constant rejection, there’s something bene cial about that. It’s a taste of reality and prepares you for when things ebb and flow later.”
– see Robbie, Leto, Smith et al – came and went, drawing a tepid critical response at best. “Fuck it, there are always people who hate and the critics spanked us. But it’s a comic book movie for the fans and I have enormous respect for [director] David [Ayer] and I’d work for him again in a heartbeat.
And I don’t read that much press – I learned early on that if you buy into it then it can damage your opinion of the work. With Squad, I know how I feel about it and my memories around it are only fond. It was fucking fulfilling, a great creative experience and I’m not going to let some bullshit disrupt that.”
Beyond the blockbusters, he’s also made a point of attempting to maintain a local creative connection, working on Australian productions and internationals filmed here.
It’s meant time with Joel Edgerton (
“Our first interaction came at a fundraiser in Beverly Hills,” says Courtney of the Gladiator star he calls Rusty. “My head was already on a swivel because everyone’s there and it’s a bit of thrill. I saw Rusty and I’m like, ‘Fuck it, I’ll introduce myself.’
“‘G’day Russell, just wanted to say hi, I’m a big fan and have a soft spot for the Bunnies as well.’
“He’s like, ‘What’s your name?’ “I go, ‘Jai’.
“And then he starts giving me stick for some of the movies I’ve been doing.
“‘Um, well, I’m trying my best here, man.’
“I guess this was about the time he was starting to think about
he’d come across me on the web – it was just serendipitous timing.”
Crowe doesn’t recall his exact phrasing that night, though he remembers the pair speaking in a stairwell, amongst a “coterie of bad kids” that included Amy Poehler and Seth Rogen.
“Maybe I said he’d made some shit films – or maybe he was just thinking it himself,” Crowe tells
, going on to say that what first struck him about Courtney was a strong sense of kindness.
“I saw that among all the bullshit. And it’s my belief that people in my business who do things, you know, the ones who actually get things done and who, when the lights go down, take you into another world... well, at the centre of that is kindness. It’s not about the camera ‘loving you’ and all that bullshit, it’s about inherent kindness.”
Crowe and Courtney next met in at the Oscar-winner’s Sydney office.
“He had this natural and laconic Aussie ability to just have a chat, you know, and not worry about every word coming out.
“And then I said to him, ‘can you ride a horse?’
“And he’s like, ‘Yeah I can ride a horse.’
“‘Look, here’s the deal, Jai, promise me that’s the last time you lie to me – and you’re in the fucking movie.’”
Courtney says he found acute inspiration in working for, and opposite, Crowe – who acted as both director and star of the touching ANZAC war story that delivered a very different take on the well- worn tales of Gallipoli.
“Rusty’s someone I admired before I even really knew that this is what I wanted to do with my life,” says Courtney. “And it was awe-inspiring to see him in some scenes, where his character is totally falling apart over the death of his sons and then in between takes he’s up checking the monitors, making sure everything’s right. To see him do that and then another take and be right there emotionally was amazing – it’s testament to his talents and professionalism.”
Crowe is equally enthusiastic about his young charge.
] you’ve been making movies, but now you’re a movie star.’ And what I mean is, in that film Jai had to represent something big – at his core [ANZAC captain Lt-Col] Cyril Hughes represented mateship. And Jai represented this big thing, this big idea in such an understated and laconic way, and there’s something timeless about what he brought [to the role].”
As for the future, Crowe outs Courtney’s endless potential.
“His masculinity and physicality is great, but that’s got nothing to do with an intellectual or emotional capacity. It’s about seeing all of these things as individual traits and then finding the balance. And Jai has all of those things – his masculinity is a great asset, but it comes with emotional and intellectual balance and that, right there, is a rare commodity.
“And so the next ten years can be really amazing for him – but it’s about what he wants and what opens up for him. He’s committed, energetic and enthusiastic. What I like most about him, what I really like, is that he’s got to this position without ever pretending to be someone or something he’s not.”
Courtney admits things have been quiet since
– a planned 2016 film fell over for financial reasons and it left him taking stock.
“All of a sudden it’s like, ‘I need a gig’ and that quickly built into a sense of desperation. But I also caught myself and was like, ‘Hang on bro, there’s no desperation, you’ve been going hard for a while so why not use this time to reassess things. Because I had four years where I didn’t fucking stop working, so a minute to think was fine, as there’s always potential for growth in those scenarios.”
Ultimately, the downtown allowed him to touch on why he’s here, why he’s acting and what he wants from it.
“Well, I don’t give a fuck about the money, that’s for sure. For me it’s about trying to uphold a quality in the work and who I work with. I want to be great in the things I do and I want the things I do to be great.”
Alongside Crowe, he eyes the exclusive Hollywood backroom of top-billing men – Clooney, Pitt, DiCaprio, Downey Jnr, Hardy – and wouldn’t mind one day finding his own stool at the bar. But Jai Courtney’s also aware of the commitment, and luck, that’s led each there.
“Those immortals have had interesting careers but they also ground it out, had pitfalls and times where not a lot happened. And they’re there because they’re intelligent and fucking good at what they do. For me, I still have to fight for what I get, and sure, it’d be good to get to a place where there’s a ton of fruit on the tree, where the direction of where to go and what to do is more complicated only because of how much there is to choose from.
But I’m not losing sleep over the fact that’s not going to happen tomorrow – I know that, I’m aware of that, and I want to get there for my own reasons and have the respect of my peers for the choices I make and the work I do. And you can’t emulate anyone else’s journey because it’s a different set of circumstances. But I’m hungry.”
Courtney’s next move will strike some as curious – it’s certainly far removed from some of his more macho screen time. It’s also a role that’ll test him, returning to stage as the titular character in Melbourne Theatre Company’s season of
“I’ve been offered a few plays along the way – there were conversations with STC when Cate [Blanchett] and Andrew [Upton] were at the helm, but it never worked because of timing. And I’ve always wanted to come back and do some theatre – it’s been about seven years for me, 10 since I’ve done
, and I’m terrified but at the same time very excited.”
“It’s something you don’t turn down. The chance to work with director Simon Phillips and also to wrestle with a character who’s totally in the moment, tormented about what’s going on in his own head, paranoid. It’s a rare chance to be able to do that.”
In talking about a return to Australia from the house he owns in LA – far removed from the gloss of the Hills and expat environs of WeHo – his sensitive side again simmers to the surface. Because Courtney’s made the house a home with his girlfriend, former Australian film publicist, Mecki Dent.
and she was appointed to look after me,” he says with a smile. “I realise that shit sounds clichéd, like it must always go on – and maybe it does – but she was professional and had very little interest in exploring it further. But we had an encounter, all above board, and I left the country and I couldn’t get her out of my mind.”
The pair have been together nearly two years.
“I feel I’ve met the woman of my dreams and this is it, I hope. And I’m not afraid to say that because I’m a lover by nature. And I’m lucky to have found someone who supports what I do, but who also challenges it. We have a healthy, balanced household – it’s supportive but also fiery and passionate. We’re having a lot of fun and I see a bright future.
“And life for me, if you really want to get into it, is about that – about finding what it is you love, those people you love, and just running with it. The truth is, I have no idea where I’m going, who does, and if all this goes away tomorrow, I know I’ll be all right because at the centre of it all, I know what’s important to me, who’s important to me and that stretches far beyond work.
This article was originally publilshed in the March/April 2017 issue of GQ Australia. Available at all good newstands now. Subscribe here.
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