Interview: Ryan Kwanten

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Ryan Kwanten as Jack in Loveland.

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“What a lovely guy.”

Those were the first words I said to myself as I ended my Zoom call with Ryan Kwanten.

The Australian-born, internationally adored actor has an air of hippy about him – His beard is long, and his hair is scruffy. He’s incredibly polite and well-mannered, and he complements Cinema Australia and the work we do to support the local film industry.

“You guys do so much, and I love your logo. It’s perfect,” the True Blood and Home and Away star says about Cinema Australia’s Kookaburra icon. He’s completely charming, and I’m drawn in by his pleasantness instantly.

During our pre-chat, Kwanten mentions his dislike for social media and the damage it does to society, and how he wants to reconnect with the real world. All of this of course plays into his new movie, Ivan Sen’s Loveland, in which he plays Jack, a hardened assassin who falls for April, a nightclub singer played expertly by newcomer Jillian Nguyen.

The neon-noir plays out in Hong Kong where the film was shot. As well as being a love story first and foremost, Loveland leans heavily into our obsession with technology, and how it’s muting our senses and turning humans into robots.

Loveland is the second time Kwanten has worked with pioneering indigenous Australian filmmaker Sen, following their last collaboration on Mystery Road back in 2013. 

Here, Kwanten discusses his admiration for Sen, the beginning of his career on Australian TV, shooting in Hong Kong, his love of the Australian film industry, and more.

“I really enjoy standing behind independent storytellers. I really love helping them create their vision. There’s nothing that appeals to me more than being on set surrounded by like-minded people who are all working towards this one goal of trying to make art.”

Interview by Matthew Eeles

For Australian actors of a certain generation it was almost a rite of passage to appear on TV shows like A Country PracticeGP and Water Rats
[Laughs]. Oh no. You’ve done your research. This is great.

Anyone who reads Cinema Australia regularly will know how much I love bringing up these shows with every opportunity I get, because they’re the shows I grew up with, and I love hearing of different experiences with them. How important was it for you to get onto shows like these as a young actor at the time?
I mean, looking back on those early days, even before the Home and Away days, the smaller guest roles on things, they’re fundamentally important because you’re getting the chance to see a work ethic. You’re getting the chance to see what it takes to make a long-running show successful. So you get to work with these older stalwarts and if you’re smart enough, you’re able to pick their brains to find out what do I need to do in my career to go further? What should I avoid? Don’t piss it all up against the wall type thing. I’ve got some great sage advice from older stalwarts in this business in Australia that have definitely guided me in the right direction.

It’s a shame that we don’t have those long-running shows in Australia anymore, where young actors can find their feet. We’ve lost Neighbours. Could Home and Away be next?
I think that’s just the nature of the time, right? There’s so much noise. There’s so much stuff that’s constantly getting thrown at us and to really live and breathe with a show… I think those shows became very much a part of the culture, whereas these days it’s more about what’s the flavour of the month.

You were lucky enough to play Vinnie on Home and Away for five seasons. Are you conscious to the fact that as an actor you may not get that longevity anymore with a TV gig?
Very much so, and I’m feeling that as a viewer and as a liver of life. Yeah, that it’s become a little bit more noisy. It really has. So you have to work that little bit harder to find the gems, the pearls. But they’re out there, man. They’re out there. There are some wonderful stories that are getting told and some fucking incredible filmmakers, Ivan being one of them, that need to be watched.

Your filmography reads like a genre lover’s wet dream. You’ve done everything from horror, action and comedy. You’ve done kids animation. You did a superhero film and of course a Western with Red Hill. Are you drawn to genre films as an actor in general?
I think I am. I love the worlds they create. I love the people that are also attracted to them. I think they’re looking for something outside of the ordinary. Yeah, very much so. I hadn’t really thought about it, but as you’re naming them off, it’s something that definitely appeals to me. I think it’s also, it’s unpredictable. You’re a little bit more attuned to living in the mysterious, and that to me is the most fascinating.

I heard an interview with you not long ago where you said that you want to continue to surprise audiences with the roles that you take on.
I’ve drifted further away from social media and further into mystery. For me, I guess the kind of characters I’ve at least been attracted to in the last ten years have been darker characters. So for me, the quicker I can melt into those characters and the quicker I can get audiences to melt with me, as opposed to recognise me and then go down that road, it just makes it an easier transition. And for my own happiness, I’m better coming at these roles from a point of not recognising myself or anything like that. I want to be malleable and chameleon-like?

You’re right about your recent roles being quite dark. What is it that draws you to darker roles?
I think it’s the notion of finding right, even in the darkest of places, that really appeals to me. I think we’ve all got demons and darkness inside of us, no matter how much we choose to accept that or release it. Art and movie and TV-making for me is how I get those demons out. I didn’t realise just how much is in me, but it’s been wonderful. Loveland was definitely going deep within the emotional vessel to live and breathe this character for just over a month that we were shooting.

It’s safe to say that you’ve avoided being typecast for particular roles, which is fantastic for you. Is there an elusive genre or a role that you’d love to do, that you just haven’t been offered yet?
I really enjoy standing behind first-time filmmakers and independent filmmakers and independent storytellers. I really love helping them create their vision and more often than not, it’s their creative baby. How do we raise this baby and then get to a point, like we are now, where we’re giving it out to the world? How can we do that to the best of our abilities? I love that, man. There’s nothing that appeals to me more than being on set in, whether it’s Hong Kong on this film or some Podunk place in the middle of nowhere … it could be three am in the morning, but I’m surrounded by like-minded crazy people that are all working towards this one goal of trying to make art in the middle of all this madness. It’s amazing. I love it.

Ryan Kwanten as Jack in Loveland.

I love your passion. It really comes through.
I’m very passionate about independent filmmaker, and I will always support. So back to your original question about an elusive genre, for me it’s more about the people behind the film. Do I want to support them or not. And if I do, then I’m excited to help them bring their vision to life.

Your last two Australian films, 2067 and Loveland, have both been sci-fi films. You obviously enjoy making them, but was sci-fi something you enjoy watching as a general viewer?
Very much so. Yeah. I like the way that you could explore the character in a different way than you could to a drama. You really get to get beyond the general confines of how a character, or even a story, gets told. You look at some of the classics like a Blade Runner. I think in many ways this has I guess a more indigenous feel than a Blade Runner, but it’s very much like that in terms of tone. Ivan’s very sure and confident of his pacing and he doesn’t adhere to any sort of classical act structure or anything like that. When you watch Blade Runner, or other sci-fi films of that quality, you become immersed in this world. I think Ivan does a great job of immersing us in this world of Loveland.

Ivan first mentioned the idea for Loveland to me back in 2013, during press for Mystery Road. When did you first hear about his sci-fi action romance?
Yeah, when I was working with him on Mystery Road in 2013, and I first read the script in January 2014. So I guess almost eight years later now it’s coming to fruition. I was blown away at the time by the script. I call Ivan a cinematic poet but in this one he really has created his own language. I haven’t seen the film because I’m waiting for it to come out on the big screen. Because I know he wanted me to see it that way. But in preparing for these interviews today, I reread a bunch of our emails to each other, myself and Ivan, from like five years ago and even longer. And I actually reread the script. It was amazing to me just what a language he has created. I’m not sure how that traversed onto film. I can only imagine it did, but there’s so many things… like there was this great excerpt, which I hope you don’t mind if I read it to you.

Please do. 
So it’s when Jack (Kwanten) first meets April (Jillian Nguyen). She’s working at the nightclub. She’s a nightclub singer and he’s standing behind the glass watching her perform, and she’s coming towards the end of the song. This is Ivan’s words now: ‘Jack watches April. He slowly feels a chemical reaction within his body. April’s last words fade away. The music stops. Jack is silent.’
There’s those kind of passages where you can feel the breath in between the words. That to me is why I love working with this man. It’s the breath, the heart in between the words and the soul that he gives to his filmmaking, that really make his movies shine and make you think about your own mortality and what you are doing with your life?

Tell us about working with Ivan the man, and Ivan the director. You obviously have a lot of respect for him.
Yeah, mate. Look, this was our second project together. So we turned up to Hong Kong, very small. It’s an Aussie independent movie. We didn’t have the budget to lock down streets or anything like that. But Ivan said to us at the beginning, “Look, we’re small but we’re malleable. So we can move within this city in a way that a big movie can’t. No, we’re not going to shut down the city. We’re going to move with it. We’re going to move with the chi of the city and it’ll move with us. And therefore the city will be a part of this movie in a way that no other movie can. We did that and it really does show. That’s the kind of person Ivan is as both a person, and as a director. He’s extremely in tune with the world around him.

Obviously a lot has changed since shooting in Hong Kong and it may be a while before an Australian film crew can get over there to shoot again. Tell us about working in Hong Kong?
There was obviously civil unrest, which Ivan can speak to you about. He actually got his camera in the middle of a lot of it. I think he actually got pepper-sprayed in one particular instance. So that political unrest was not quite at loggerheads at this particular juncture, but it wasn’t far behind. It was actually on the Australian part of the journey where there was a lot more political unrest over there. But obviously this had something to say politically as much as it did intimately, and very much a calling card as to where we are headed as a species? Are we headed towards a more loveless technologically connected society? Or are we going to revert back to a more indigenous mindset where we sit down and we have conversations, we look each other in the eye and we’re not afraid to get deep? We’re not afraid to feel things again. I think this is Ivan’s way of warning us in a way as to where we’re headed.

We had a chat before this interview officially started where we discussed the effects of social media on society. Your body language then, and what you’ve said just now, says to me that stepping away from technology and moving forward without it is something you think about a lot.  
Very much so. Without a doubt. I’ve moved away from social media a lot, and I’m much happier.

What drew you to play Jack? Other than him being a character created by Ivan Sen.
[Laughs]. Jack sunk so deep into my marrow. I always love those broken men trying to put together the missing piece. And for me, it was fascinating trying to play a character that had never felt anything close to love. In fact, he’d been conditioned to not feel any of those higher, deeper emotions. So to come to that ironic point where he discovers that the one thing he truly feels most alive with, is the one thing that’s also killing him. I think that’s a poignant thing to say too about, again, where we’re at as a society. For me Jack was really easy to connect with. It was a hard place to sit in, I’m not going to lie. But that’s what I wanted. I wanted to be challenged. Even though this sits in the sci-fi world, it’s very much a psychological jam as well.

Jillian Nguyen as April in Loveland.

Tell us about working with Jillian Nguyen. She only has a handful of credits to her name, but she’s so captivating in this film. She’s a terrific actor. 
She’s electric. Real human electricity. Again, there’s such a raw connection that she has with this character. I know what an extraordinary job Ivan did of trying to find April and he was willing to walk away from the project had he not found her. And she is clearly April. Jillian has such a wonderful vessel of emotion that she was kind enough to give us all of on this. I’m glad to hear that shows in the performance because it was certainly felt on the day.

You spoke about the themes of love which this film explores and more specifically the pain that love can cause. Can you remember a time in your life when you first felt love?
I’ve got a horrible long-term memory but I have a fantastic short-term memory. [Laughs]. I can’t remember a specific moment, but the first two people that came to my mind were mum and dad. So I can’t remember a moment, but I dare say it was something they were doing. I think love can be expressed in so many different ways. I think this movie is a testament to that, but I’m thinking, you asked me to go to that place and I’m thinking of mum and dad. Even for me, it wasn’t necessarily when they were angry at me, it was when they told me they were disappointed in me. That’s what hit me the hardest. But in saying that, you can’t help but feel an enormous amount of love at the same time. They’re only saying something like that because they care.

One thing that I appreciate about you as an actor is that you’re always willing to come home and make these Australian films. How important is that for you to come home and continue to make homegrown movies?
I owe my career to Australia. So it’s an absolute honor to go back and work with such incredible storytellers like Seth Larney on 2067 and like Ivan Sen on my last two out there. Every time it’s just been a wonderful experience. I think they say that film sets are the same, no matter where you are around the world. I disagree. There’s nothing like making particularly an independent Australian movie, man. Oh, there’s just such a sense of comradery and a sense of working towards something. While the rest of the world is sleeping, we’re out there in the middle of nowhere trying to make fucking art, trying to do something.

I wonder if actors like Chris Hemsworth and Margot Robbie realise the benefit they could be to the local screen industry if they returned here every once in a while to make a movie. Not just another big superhero film in Queensland, but something small and independent.
Look, man, that’s the only way that my pulse gets risen, is on these ones where you’re doing more than acting. You’re putting on a lot of different roles, and that’s not for everyone, I get that. I really love everything about this business so whatever I have to do to get a project done, I’ll do it. Because when I sign onto something, it’s with that level of commitment. I want to be invested to the deepest level.

What can you tell us about your next Australia film, Devil Inside?
Unfortunately, Jonathan (auf der Heide, directer) hit a little bit of a roadblock there. COVID put a bit of a spanner in the works. Obviously that’s not the only production that has been hit it hard by it, but until the mist clears a little bit, that’s on the back burner for now.

Loveland is in cinemas March 17


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