Portrait

Alex Dimitriades is back to school and straight to the principal’s office. By Maxine Beneba Clarke.

Alex Dimitriades is ‘The Principal’

Alex Dimitriades in ‘The Principal’
Credit: SUPPLIED

Matt Bashir walks through the front gate of Boxdale Boys High, past the school crest that some Texta-wielding smart-arse has changed to Cocksdale Boys High. Straight-backed and suited-up, Bashir walks slowly and deliberately down the wide, locker-lined hallways: jaw set in determination under bushy jet-black beard, a disturbing intensity in his dark eyes.

It’s an epic high-school homecoming, not just for Principal Bashir, who’s returned to help tame the tough halls and dangerous yards of his old school stomping ground, but for the man beneath the mask: Greek Australian actor Alex Dimitriades. It’s a take-stock moment, too, for those viewers who grew up watching Dimitriades as outspoken, impulsive Nick Poulos in the popular mid-’90s television series Heartbreak High.

“I’m pretty busy…” the actor warns at the start of our chat. “I’ve seriously got so much on my mind.” It’s Nick Poulos. Seated at the back of the classroom. Rocking on two chair legs. Arms crossed. Sneakers on desk. Gelled hair falling on forehead. I’m bored. Seriously Miss, I don’t have time for this bullshit.

The Heartbreak Kid was the first M-rated movie I ever saw,” I say, mentioning the film that spawned the television series. “I snuck in at Parramatta movies. My mum was so pissed off when she found out.” “Really?” Dimitriades is genuinely shocked. “That was M-rated back then?” Far out Nick. Like, are you for real? You had full-on sex with the teacher. In her car and on the desk and everything. “Yeah,” I say. “It was definitely M-rated.”

The violence and social dysfunction of Boxdale Boys High, in the new SBS series The Principal, is a long way from Heartbreak High. Local drug gangs. Fierce classroom brawls. Complex ethnic rifts. Blood feuds. Resident youth-cops. Frequent locker searches. Kids whose families have fled war-torn countries; kids who’ve seen it all, and whose psyches still bear the bloodied imprint. In the centre of the storm, Dimitriades’ Bashir stands rock-steady. There is always an intense and powerful presence Dimitriades brings to his characters. Even when they’re broken. Even at their most vulnerable. Even as they fall. In the past he’s been the young gay man Ari in the acclaimed film Head On, the smooth-talking Mihali in Wog Boy 2, an Underbelly assassin. Principal Matt Bashir is no different. He is stubborn, strong, idealistic. He is haunted, repressed, troubled.

“My body is designing things without even knowing,” Dimitriades confesses. “For The Principal, we shot at Cronulla High School… I went to hang out with the principal for a day and get a sense of what goes on, ask a few questions. I probably walked away with a lot from that day, the way that he held himself, carried himself, communicated… It was really valuable. I just observed and listened and that thing in my body just found its way on its own.”

I ask about the theatrical transformation – more than 20 years in the metamorphosis – from student to principal. “I’m a bit intimidated by being surrounded by kids in that environment as an adult… in terms of being in that position where you’re going to control them.”

The bell’s gone, but Miss is screaming at us to sit back down. Says we’re not going anywhere ’til she gives back our assignments. Deadset. Nick Poulos stands up, and yells at her to get stuffed. Miss says the way he’s going he should just join the dole queue, so the dickhead walks out – takes his soccer ball and his bag and racks off. Miss freaks out.

“They were respectful,” Dimitriades says about his young acting colleagues, laughing. “When I was that age, we were shitheads.” His voice suddenly becomes serious, when he talks about the diversity of the cast. “They represent a certain community demographic that’s not so commonly seen. Even within the industry they’ve probably broken a few stereotypes.”

Dimitriades throws off a distinctly adolescent energy. It’s curious, challenging, refreshing. He enters the conversation half-heartedly, then swings the pendulum from apathetic to invested, to excited, within minutes. Has playing the principal expelled Nick Poulos from his system? “The values and beliefs that the principal embodied and stood for were certainly things that resonated with me. It’s a very hopeful story, out of seemingly hopeless circumstances. And it’s all due to the resilience of one person who I guess could be looked at as crazy. That’s what people thought of him when he first arrived. It’s the pioneers. The daring people of our community, who seem absurd at first, to conservatives… they attract followers and people realise what they’re worth. That aspect of him will stay with me.”

There’s also a but: “It’s a very short series. When you’re in a longer-term engagement with a character, sometimes the repetition of it can be a little harder to kick… You know, sometimes the role is finished … and you’re still holding on to a little bit of baggage. It’s like the end of any relationship, you know. You don’t just forget the other person.”

I finish talking to Dimitriades and spend the rest of the afternoon watching decades-old episodes of Heartbreak High. With the wogs and the skips and the goths and the westies. With the punks and the revheads and the surfers and the nerds. Eating Chiko Rolls, and dribbling soccer balls, and flunking out with the spunky, loud-mouthed, who-cares Greek-boy who grew up, got real and eventually became The Principal.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 3, 2015 as "Learnt lessons". Subscribe here.

Maxine Beneba Clarke
is the author of The Hate Race and Foreign Soil.

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