Read our interview with ‘True Blood’s Ryan Kwanten, who is starring as Shane Cooper in the new Australian thriller ‘Red Hill.’ The movie follows Shane as he moves his pregnant wife Alice, played by Claire van der Boom, to the small town of Red Hill to start their family. On the day they arrive, convicted murderer Jimmy Conway, portrayed by Tom E. Lewis, escapes from prison, and returns to Red Hill to seek revenge. The police force is sent into a panic. Kwanten discusses, among other things, what it was like filming in his native Australia again, and how shooting the movie was different from filming the hit HBO series.
Question (Q): The movie is a western, and it’s also a thriller.
Ryan Kwanten (RK): It was also supernatural.
Q: So how was it like mixing all of those genres?
RK: At its core, it’s like a stew. The meat of it is definitely the western. Then there’s also horror, supernatural. I don’t really think of that when I’m in the moment. I don’t think, maybe I should have done it more western-like. I just try to stay true to the words. But that’s what made it interesting, it wasn’t just a western.
Q: How did you prepare, in terms of getting into character?
RK: It was the first time I worked in Australia and played an Australian in eight years.
Q: How did that feel?
RK: Surprisingly bizarre, because I’m so used to hearing “Action!” and putting on a version of the American accent. So I really had to turn off that filter in my head. We had just finished shooting season one (of ‘True Blood’) in Louisiana. So I was on a plane, and then drove for seven hours to this really remote area in Australia. Then I met the director (Patrick Hughes) for the first time and shook his hand, put on the jacket for the character. They put on the heating machine because it was sub-zero. I’m not a method actor, but that’s a good method for this film, because there’s no other way to survive.
Q: Did you do any research on the character beforehand?
RK: The ignorance Shane had, I didn’t want to know much. One of my friends was on the police force, so I followed him around, to the point where she said “Enough already!” I’ve done several films where I’m riding a horse. It’s ironic, because the first time we see Shane he’s learning how to ride a horse. I remember the first time I was doing that, I had the reins up high. I said to the director, Patrick, that it would be interesting the first time we see Shane he’s riding a horse like he’s riding a police car. He’s trying to take control of the horse, and I had my fee up way too high. It was an ego check, because on that particular day, we had all the stunt guys on-set. They were all looking at me, thinking “Here’s Mr. Hollywood, he’s supposed to be the hero detective in this film, and he’s riding a horse like that?”
Q: The film takes place over a short period of time, day and night. Did that pose any challenges as a character?
RK: I think for a character, the sense of isolation and the sense of time, as the film progresses, you can feel that sense of claustrophobia. You feel the walls closing in, and that sense of isolation, where nothing from the outside world can penetrate in. We shot things out of order. I’m very much a masochist at heart, so this part fits.
Q: What did filming in a remote part of Australia surprise you?
RK: Definite parallels to the American western. We had our version of the gold rush days, of the Wild West. This town we shot in was very much the epitome of a small town. But it was once a gold rush town. So we were the most exciting thing to happen to this town in over 100 years. In fact, there were certain shots that if you panned the camera slightly to the left, you’d see 100 of the local townsfolk, watching the scene take place. They got so comfortable being there, they said, “Maybe you can try it like this.”
Q: Did that surprise you, working in that art of Australia?
RK: Yeah, it’s a part of Australia that I’m not familiar with. But I guarantee that at least 60 percent of Australians don’t know of that area. It’s never been captured on film before. Being in that area, it’s unforgiveningly rugged. You really feel like a man. I stayed in a hotel called Sung As A Bug. Like I said, in sub-zero temperatures, I only had on one layer of thermals. But I fell in love with shooting this film. It’s like every guy’s fantasy to save the town. It’s one of the things that drew me to the project. But one of the things that hold me to the project are some of the things that I thought were going to be negative. Like we didn’t have the time or the money, I thought we were going to be rushed. They’re the things that I now love. Thinking about it in retrospect, if we had more money, we would have made a different film. You have to be happy with the decisions you make in that moment. That toughness is now shown on the screen.
Q: There seemed to be a lot of physical scenes. Did you do the stunts? Were there any injuries?
RK: Yeah. I broke a couple of knuckles. a window was supposed to implode, instead of explode. When I was done with the scene, I was covered in little shards of glass. It looked a bit worse than it actually was. Patrick pushed through the crew, and grabbed me by the wrists. I was brought to this little hospital, and the doctor there looked like had a couple of beers! He stitched me up, and I was on my way. I just came from ‘True Blood,’ where I had 30 stitches in my arm. I punched my arm through a plate-glass window.
RK: Just in rehearsal, they forgot to switch the glass from real glass to what they call set glass, which is made with plastic.
Q: Were you okay?
RK: Yeah just scars on the outside and inside!
Q: Did you sign onto the movie before or after you were on ‘True Blood?’
RK: Oh, after.
Q: How was shooting the movie different from shooting the show?
RK: On the movie, we shot in four weeks. You had to solve things creatively. Like money or the shots. Say that crane shot, you have to analyze it, and say “What’s the best way to do it?”
Q: Were there compromises on this movie?
RK: There are times when you think you’re taking away from the true nature of the story. But it’s those decisions you have to trust.
Q: Are there examples?
RK: There was one time, when I said to Patrick, “I can’t believe we have 10 minute to shoot the scene.” It’s when my character comes home and confronts his wife. That whole sequence was just one shot. We had 10 minutes to shoot it. I became quite agitated by the end of that. Patrick said “It’s great, we loved it!” I went walking outside, thinking “He can’t be right. He must have missed something. I look back at the scene now, and I’m impressed. That goes back to trust. I had to trust Patrick is getting the coverage and performance that he wants.
Q: How is ‘True Blood’ different?
RK: Well, ‘True Blood’ changed my life. I fell lucky and fortunate to be a part of it. ‘True Blood’ has provided me with many opportunities. Because of the main-stream of it, I can choose high-quality films.
Q: How did you break into Hollywood?
RK: That was never a conscience decision. I had a five day ticket eight years ago, three days in New York, two in L.A. I was doing another film. It’s a high school Texas football film. I play one of the football players. All of the money I had was in those five days. At the end of the five days, I was packing my bags. I got a call from the executive producer, saying “You might want to stay in town. We have a great response to the film.” I said I would love to, but I don’t have any money. She said, “You might want to think about it.” I said, “Well, I don’t really have a choice,” and that’s where we left it. I was sitting on the edge of the bed with my bags packed. It was one of those moments where you think, “What can I do to change the circumstance?” I went downstairs, and I talked to the manager of the hotel, and I said, “Can I speak to the owner, please?” He said sure, and within an hour, he came in. I said, “Can I speak to you in private?” He took me into a room, and I said “Look, I don’t have any money. I can’t afford to stay at your hotel. But if you let me stay in your hotel, I don’t care if you put me in the store room,” which he did. “If you let me stay here for three months, I’ll pay you back, with charge. I’ll pay you back every last cent, plus anything else you want.” Without a hesitation, he said yes, and that was my home base.
Q: What do you think of the scripts of ‘True Blood,’ and the notoriety you get?
RK: I look at the scripts, and think, Wow, this is amazing. But then I think, I actually have to do this. There are mind-blowing things that Jason does that when I watch the show, I can’t believe I actually did that. It’s almost like its Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that takes over when I do it. He’s so unlike me. It’s a real liberation to play this role. He has no real power or no real thought process. Most people have a choice to be happy or sad. Quite often you have an abundance of choice. But this guy has no choice. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do in the next second or the next day.
Q: Do you watch the show when it airs, or do you get advance episodes?
RK: I have this Sunday night dinner crew that gets together and cooks. The unfortunate thing for me is when the show’s on, I’m not actually shooting the show. So I’m usually in some other state, shooting. I don’t really get to see it with my friends. But when I do see it with them, I’m removed from them, sitting back.
Q: Do you know anything that’s going to happen next season?
RK: I have yet to receive a script. But expect the unexpected. It continues to push the boundaries. I think there’s going to be more blood, more sex.
Q: In season three, Jason wants to be a cop. Did you use that in any way for the film?
RK: Not really. Shane is far more cerebral, whereas Jason truly tries to wean himself onto the cop force. It’s kind of hilarious to me that out of all people who should not be a cop, in a position of power, it’s Jason. I had so much fun playing against Chris Bauer, who plays Andy. Those two characters could not be more polar opposite.
Q: Talking about characters, can you talk about the dynamic between Shane and Old Bill?
RK: What was different about this film was that there wasn’t a whole abundance of talk beforehand, because we didn’t have the luxury of that time. But what that afforded us was a different kind of freedom. Steve (Bisley), who plays Old Bill, has a huge legacy in Australia. That played really well into it. It provided a change for my character, because he was making a change from the city to the country.
Q: You said you never really saw yourself as Jason, so how did you identify with Shane? What part of yourself did you put into the character?
RK: I left home at a very young age, 15-and-a-half. i felt that ever since I moved away from home, I’ve become closer to my family. They say separation makes the heart grow fonder. That’s definitely the case with me. Right now, I’m sort of making up for lost time. I have a long way to go, but I feel like I’m giving that.
Q: Yous said before that ‘True Blood’ has provided you with many opportunities. What’s next for you?
RK: I just finished a film (‘The Knights of Badassdom’), it’s a horror/comedy, like ‘Shaun of the Dead’ kind of thing. I’m playing the straight man against Steve Zahn and Peter Dinklage. That was a hilarious piece, we shot it in Washington. I’ve signed to act and produce a film called ‘The Family,’ which is about the Charles Manson murders, I’ll be Charles Manson.
Q: Who’s going to direct that?
RK: Scott Kosar, the guy who wrote ‘The Machinist.’ I’m also going to be in a romantic comedy. At the end of Act One, my character finds out he has testicular cancer. So he starts calling all his ex-girlfriends, saying “Would you help me in creating this baby?”
Q: You also played an owl.
RK: Yes, I did. I loved playing Jason, it’s given me many opportunities. But nothing can be more uninspiring for me in my time off than to go and play a character that was exactly like him. No great achievement was every going to result from something that was easy.
Q: Was Jason a dream job that you always wanted to play?
RK: Well, it’s a story I’ve told many times before, but I’ll tell it again. When I was 15, I was sort of a social-phoebe. You couldn’t get a word out of me. I would sit in silence. So I was 15 years old, I was very much into my swimming at that point. My mom was dropping me off, and my little brother, who was into dancing at the time, wanted to get into acting. He had an audition, and I waited in the car while he went up to do the audition at the agency. I had my goggles on my head and my towel around my waist, and I went up to the audition place, and said “Mom, I thought you were dropping me off. I’m missing swimming.” The lady came out of the audition and saw me there, and said, “Oh, are you here for the audition as well?” I said, “What?!?” She grabbed me by the wrist, and I said, “No, no, I’m going swimming.” I was so scared. To cut a long story short, I ended up getting the part. It was the right place, right time. It took about seven years to realize it was an art form and craft. The roles I was originally offered and I originally got didn’t have a lot of sub-text, to put it lightly.
Q: Was there anything you learned from making this film?
RK: I think my career is a lot like life. I think you should try to learn something. The nature of filmmaking is that you can never know at all. The more time you’re on-set, the more experience that you get, the better. I didn’t have any dialect or acting training. All my experiences I got on set, were life experiences. I like to think I can add an authenticity to a project. On the Manson project, he had so many faces, and he wasn’t so good with people. We try to humanize the victims.
Q: How do you pick the movies you’re going to be in?
RK: I liked the maturity and nature of that (‘Red Hill’s) script. I’m very harsh when I read a script. There was next to no needless expedition. I liked the feel of having the panther in there. What people have always ended up saying is “What does the panther mean?” I have my opinion on what the panther means, Patrick has his. It’s like looking at a work of art, everyone’s going to get something different out of it. I think it almost cheapens it for me to say “This is what I think the panther represents.” Some things are better left unsaid. This is the sort of film that sort of answers questions, but it also raises some. I hope you’re still thinking about it the next day, which is a rarity in this day and age with a film. Most times you forget it when the credits roll.
Q: You’ve been working for awhile now. Are you more selective in the projects you take on?
RK: Oh yes, I only take on projects I’m passionate about. Fortunately, I no longer have to take projects for monetary reasons. For the last three or four years now, I’ve made choices that really inspire me. It’s a rarity for an actor.
Q: You’ve done a lot of different projects over the years. How do you get inspired, even in just collaborating with other actors?
RK: It all depends on the character and the project. On ‘Red Hill,’ it was spontaneous, and all went back to the trust between us all. In the Manson gig, for instance, what I’m working on right now, there’s a sort of authenticity we want to capture, and you have to capture. So you have to have those conversations. You have hours and hours of conversation, asking what points we want to show. It all depends on the project.
Q: Some actors who play real-life people, especially if they’re still alive, want to find out everything about the person. How much do you want to know?
RK: I don’t want to know everything. I’ll make my own judgment. People give advice, but I choose what I think is going to be necessary. You have to take what’s useful for you.
Q: Which directors would you like to work with?
RK: I think the Martin Scorseses of the world, Chris Nolan. There’s certainly a lot of up-and-comings. I love to work with Guy Ritche, I love some of his early work. Then there’s some great Italian and French directors.
Q: This movie is kind of like the movies that were made 30, 40 years ago.
RK: It’s nothing against the studios. But if you keep making films that aren’t artistic, then creativity and imagination are going to suffer. I think it’s great that Chris Nolan can get through the politics, and can make a film like ‘Inception,’ and show that he can make a creative film, and a concept-driven film and a character-driven film, and it can make money. I think it can give hope to all filmmakers. I think this film (‘Red Hill’) was very much like shooting in the ’70s. We shot in a very small town, and at the end of every week, we would screen the dailies. Patrick would put up this temp score. We would all sit around this theater and watch these dailies. It’s like what they would do in the ’70s, they would all get together, cast and crew, and watch what they’ve done. It’s a real sense of pride and ownership that you have. As hard as it was that week, it motivates you for the next week. You don’t really get that this day and age.
Q: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned as an actor?
RK: Never, ever give up on your career.
Q: Do you see any similarities between swimming and acting?
RK: No. But what’s interesting is that coming from a very competitive upbringing, I try to bring a commitment to that project, to the artistic world. I think it really has worked. I think there are far more talented actors out there. You can’t be right for every single role. Even though as actors we tend to convince ourselves that we are. We want every single job that we go in for. You can’t be right for every role; it may be politics. If you don’t have the capabilities or the foresight to deal with that, it’s a tough industry to be a part of.
Q: How do you deal with your fame?
RK: I try to put all the drama from my life on-screen. That makes my life outside of that completely drama-free. I’m not one that the paparazzi always follows. There’s nothing controversial, or particularly exciting about the life that I lead. I’m not going out to crazy bars or stumbling around late at night.
Q: Do you answer fans’ e-mails?
RK: I don’t really have the time. When I do, it’s not really in the top five things I have to do, without being rude.
Written by: Karen Benardello