Actor Jai Courtney, the latest Australian to make headway in Hollywood, returns to the theatre to give MTC’s Macbeth his muscle. By Peter Craven.

Jai Courtney and his formidable Macbeth

Jai Courtney
Jai Courtney

Macbeth of all things, the play with the curse, the one they call “the Scottish tragedy” in the hope that death or disaster won’t follow. It’s the title role of Shakespeare’s murderous thane that Jai Courtney, the 31-year-old Australian boy who has become a film star, is having a bash at in a current production for the Melbourne Theatre Company by its former artistic director, Simon Phillips.

Jai was in Russell Crowe’s The Water Diviner, he did Jack Reacher with Tom Cruise and he was one of the supervillains looking and sounding a bit like a monster Ned Kelly in Suicide Squad.

So now this big bloke who went from outer suburban Sydney to train at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) must be one of the youngest Macbeths in the history of the world: Laurence Olivier and Ian McKellen, two of the standouts, were 48 and 39 respectively. Youth, though, seems no obstacle to Courtney, who comes across in black jeans and black T-shirt not as a stripling but a battleaxe. Might he be the youngest of the pack?

“It’s quite possible, yeah... but it was a no-brainer for me. I’d been hanging out to do some theatre,” Courtney says. “I’ve been wrapping my head around this since November and haven’t done anything else. Knowing full well the magnitude of the task at hand and wanting to kind of hopefully deliver. That’s the plan.”

I mention Olivier sending a postcard to Richard Burton when he was making Cleopatra in the first blaze of his romance with Elizabeth Taylor and becoming the most famous male film star in the world: “Dear Boy, do you want to be a great actor or a household word?” How does Courtney think about the dichotomy, if it is a dichotomy, between being a star and an actor’s actor?

“I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive,” he says. “And I don’t think they are necessarily a matter of choice. To be an actor – if it lies in your ability to fulfil that role, if that is within someone’s grasp – that’s something you make the choice to do. But I don’t know that becoming a star is something you can avoid.”

Courtney seems, courtesy of Simon Phillips, to have seen the role of Macbeth as his dagger in the air, except that in this case he just had to clutch it in order to prove what he was.

“We all fancy ourselves as actors, too,” Courtney says of his film peers. “It would take a pretty honest person to admit that they’re limited in ability but have this kind of star power. There are obviously individuals out there who know how to exploit that and build empires upon it. But I don’t think that’s anything to be ashamed of either. For me, I found myself working in projects that were leaning into the possibility of trying to track a sort of star trajectory but not necessarily fulfilling me artistically. So it was about challenging myself and going deep with something, and I wanted to wait until a project came along that fulfilled that. And then Macbeth popped up. It was this weird kind of universal answer to that question so I just went, ‘Well there’s no way I can call myself courageous as an actor and walk away from this opportunity.’ So I was in.

“It’s already demanding of me much more than any film I’ve worked on or any other character I’ve kind of dived into.”

The conversation shifts to the sheer difficulty of the role, the way Peter O’Toole, arguably the greatest actor of his generation, reduced his audience to tears of laughter as Macbeth. Phillips, black-shirted and alert from rehearsal, steps in. “Things never let up for Macbeth,” he says. “He just spends so much of the play in a state of trauma about what he’s about to do, what he’s just done, what he hasn’t been able to achieve – it’s extraordinary.”

So isn’t it, I ask Jai, that you risk either coming across as a thug and wooden or you come across as a screaming drama queen? How does he negotiate that?

“I definitely go for the latter,” he says, poker-faced.

Well, Macbeth has to look like a natural king among men, he has to have an effortless masculinity and yet, as Germaine Greer says, the play’s about a man who tries to kill his soul but can’t. After all, this is a tragic hero who says, “O full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife.”

“That madder side is the challenge for me,” Courtney says before adding with some charm, “I think the effortless masculinity I have in spades.”

Phillips chips in. “It was part of my casting for this, too. It was like, ‘Oh great, the soldier is not in dispute. Jai brings that on.’ Macbeth has no time to declare his soldierliness – that has to come on with him, and with Jai that’s never in question, so then you focus on the soul and the unravelling.”

In the Phillips production Lady Macbeth is played by Geraldine Hakewill, who was a year behind Courtney at WAAPA. “The relationship the Macbeths have,” Courtney says, “is one of complete devotion, and what they’ve been through together has brought them so close. She’s the one who can bring him comfort and he can trust in what she’s telling him and knows that if it’s okay with her, it’ll be alright.”

Except it ceases to be okay with her.

Phillips is, of course, right to say that the play is bookended by battles and the sense of the supernatural, but the heart of the play is here: “The relationship between the two brilliantly conceived characters and how they bounce off each other – the emotional ties they have with each other.”

The conversation shifts to Heath Ledger, the boy from Western Australia who would have loved to have repeated his high school Hamlet on the Australian stage but, despite his heroic equipment, never got the chance. He was a hero to Courtney.

“I must have seen Two Hands about 400 times,” he says. “I just sort of watched his rise right around the time that I was starting to develop some ambition as an actor.” He also talks with admiration of Joel Edgerton. “He’s awesome,” he says, singling out The Gift, the film Edgerton did with Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall. He has no desire, though, to follow in Edgerton’s footsteps and play Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire, which the latter did, famously, in Sydney and New York to Cate Blanchett’s Blanche.

“No. That’s a role I think I’d walk into wearing too much pressure around me.” Does he think he’d be typecast? “It’s not that so much. I just think going into something like that…” The ghost of Brando, Phillips suggests, is always there. Courtney agrees. “Macbeth,” he says, “is a classic. I don’t feel coming into a role like this that it’s going to be received against a Macbeth that we know.”

He was recently in the film The Exception in which he played an SS officer, and a great classical actor, Christopher Plummer, who played Macbeth to Glenda Jackson’s Lady Macbeth under Zoe Caldwell’s direction, was the Kaiser. What was Plummer like? “He’s so good to work with. It’s awesome because at that age the conservation of energy is something to be taken seriously.” He laughs, and adds, “It’s true of all of us. But Christopher just delivers a subtle and beautiful performance that was great to watch and be around.”

The thought of Caldwell reminds me that the great Australian classical actress had played Lady Macbeth herself to a man who played Macbeth almost as young as Courtney – Sean Connery – and he said it taught him to play James Bond.

Connery was always much more of a saturnine and supervillain Bond than his light-as-air successor, Roger Moore, who died a week after this conversation. God knows what either of them, populists of the actor’s art though they were – Connery with his latent Shakespearian brutalism and Moore with his Noël Coward-like nonchalance – would have made of a film such as Suicide Squad in which the very talented David Ayer came to lay grotesquerie on grotesquerie and brutality on brutality. Isn’t it all for the benefit of a few million 15-year-old boys?

“It’s just part of the business,” Courtney says. “That’s what you get when you take on a comic book franchise. The people seeing those films are pretty much holding up the film industry so it’s not to be taken lightly. But... it’s not really for me to comment on it. We had a ball making it, and it had a tonne of promise, and I’m hoping to do a bunch more of them. And, look, it’s popcorn – it’s not making any mistakes about that, I think.”

You get a sense with Jai Courtney that he’s watchful, that he’s constantly learning from his elders. On the one hand the classical technique of Plummer; on the other, Tom Cruise. Of Cruise, and doing Jack Reacher, he says, “He’s great. He’s pretty intense but he’s the hardest worker I’ve been around as far as actors go. He doesn’t stop. He shows up ready to work and he’s like six steps out of his trailer and we’re on and you’d better all be on, too, because he’s not waiting for you.

“That’s the environment he sets up around himself, and he means it: it’s not about posing or acting like a huge star. He couldn’t care less about that shit, he doesn’t have time for it. He wants to make the best film he can and he’s acutely aware of the product he represents ... For me on my first big feature film to go and play opposite a guy like that was really inspirational. He took care of me on that. It was cool. He knew I was pretty green and I would hang around that set when I wasn’t working and just watch the film get made and it was awesome.”

Is Courtney hyperconscious of the differences between stage and screen? “I wouldn’t say hyperconscious,” he says. “There are distinctions obviously in the way you deliver... Theatre is my roots, this is where I cut my teeth. I think it’s been interesting to be aware of how to refine some of that and put it into an 85-millimetre lens and make sure that you’re not doing too much ... There’s a technical aspect to everything and you have to find the truth in it all as well.”

So where is the truth – when does he feel he’s hit the truth? “I don’t know. I guess when you believe what you’re saying. I guess when you buy into it yourself. And by honouring the text. You can’t run away from it.”

Accent comes into all this. Will he do Macbeth in the kind of high Australian – only an inch away from standard English – that Mel Gibson used in his film of Hamlet with Zeffirelli?

“In a weird way I think that’s subconscious – my voice changes but I wouldn’t describe it as putting an accent on. I think there is a trap sometimes with Aussie actors to lean too much into a British thing, which I’m probably more aware of trying to avoid than not. But I don’t think the answer to that is keeping it super broad ... There’s definitely an Australian standard theatre speech which is a little more refined than my natural accent.”

On the sidelines, Phillips says the Gibson thing, not broad Australian, is where he thinks it will end up. Courtney, who you can tell is intensely interested in every aspect of his art, adds: “You have to go all over the place with Macbeth, don’t you? It’s like a vocal steeplechase.”

It’s funny to think of this buffed Hollywood actor taking to the boards in Shakespeare’s hell-driven hallucination of a play with its radiance and its spilt blood and its sense of a headlong piteous evil in the DNA of the world.

One of the things about Courtney that’s so obvious it’s not likely to be remarked on is that, like the post-World War II generation of actors, the Brandos and Connerys and O’Tooles, he comes across as a man, not a boy. He has in both the abstract sense and the most obvious one what in acting circles is called weight. Will he have danger? Will he have madness?

Time, which anticipates our dread exploits, will tell. It’s interesting, though, that a few minutes later on the street I meet Robert Menzies, who 30 years ago was a tenorish rather Hamlet-like Macbeth for Jean-Pierre Mignon, his command of the verse flawless even as the mask distorted. He’s doubling as Duncan and the Porter in the MTC production. A moment later, I meet Jane Montgomery Griffiths, a woman with more classical technique and as much satanic majesty as you could poke a stick at, who will be brooding and bubbling in the witches’ scenes.

She has a voice that cuts the air like Diana Rigg’s and she likes what Courtney is doing with his voice and his demeanour generally. “He has a lot of gravitas,” she says.

It’s always been funny how the Australian acting profession has tended to lack leading men and yet we can produce them like iron ore for Hollywood. Often, too, they’re warrior princes. So perhaps there’s more than black magic afoot in Phillips’ idea to cast a supervillain as Shakespeare’s tragic slaughterman.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 17, 2017 as "Lay on your buff".

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