Aussie hunk Jai Courtney is reaching for the stars
Sydney's Jai Courtney could just be the next big thing in Hollywood, writes Neala Johnson
Long before he was trading punches with Tom Cruise and wisecracks with Bruce Willis, Jai Courtney was just another aimless high school graduate with a dead-end job.
"I didn't see the point of trying to go to uni to study something I wasn't really interested in," says the Sydneysider, now 26.
"Although I didn't feel incredibly lost at the time, I just didn't really know what I'd do. It wasn't important; it was all about going out with your mates. I've got friends who that is still their No.1 priority!"
Courtney's priorities changed when, a year out of high school, he was accepted into the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. He met his long-time girlfriend, fellow actor Gemma Pranita there, but perhaps more importantly fell in love with acting.
"That's where it really became a passion for me,” he says. “When I first arrived there I thought I'd made a huge mistake, I felt out of my depth, but I grew to love it."
After that, he says, came a "pretty natural evolution to want to succeed".
"I was always realistic about the fact I wanted to be involved with big films and little films. I just wanted to work."
But the work didn't come easily. Courtney recalls auditioning for TV guest roles and commercials in Sydney "that I just had no shot of getting - I had mates who were more suited to the 'intellectual' type".
When the brief for US TV series Spartacus - shot in New Zealand - came through to his agent, Courtney finally felt he was the right type.
"I was like, 'Cool, a job that's actually looking for guys who are bigger and kind of burly'."
Courtney got the gig; and fans bemoan the fact his character, Varro, was killed off after only 10 episodes. Still, it afforded him the opportunity to go to LA, where bigger, burlier Aussies - think Worthington, Hemsworth, Edgerton - are in high demand.
"I didn't really think, 'My inner action hero will blossom in LA given the opportunity'," says Courtney. "It was just that it felt like a natural progression.
"It's just busier in LA than it is back here. It's a great thing for actors to be in a place where it feels like things are happening _ even when people in Hollywood are saying nothing is happening, there's a vibe, there's a momentum. Unfortunately back here it just feels a bit dry sometimes."
While his is ultimately a tale of triumph, it took a couple of years of flying back and forth to LA for auditions before Courtney finally put a crack in the dam wall.
"At times you lose sight of that whole process and start to think it's impossible to actually get a gig through doing that," he says.
By the time the action thriller Jack Reacher came his way, he was just as relieved as he was excited: "It had been so long between drinks."
There is no big story to how Courtney got the job of No.1 bad guy in the movie, about an ex-military cop (Cruise), called in to investigate a seemingly random sniper shooting. The actor just put an audition on tape.
Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie (writer of The Usual Suspects and Valkyrie) was in Pittsburgh prepping the film when his casting director sent him a link to Courtney's audition.
"I watched Jai do a cold reading," the director recalls. "He played this scene with such relish, he so clearly enjoyed being the bad guy, but at the same time he wasn't a moustache-twisting psycho.
"What's so interesting is how well he emodies such a despicable villain for somebody who has such a good soul. I mean, Jai really is a truly unaffected and genuine person."
McQuarrie sent the audition to Cruise, who along with playing the titular character was also the film's producer.
"Five minutes later Tom emailed me back and just said, 'Cast him'," McQuarrie says. "It was so evident that we'd struck gold with this guy, there was no question."
Courtney found out the role was his when McQuarrie asked for a chat over Skype.
"Chris jumped on and said, 'Pick a number between one and 10'. Huh, what's this guy getting at? I was like, 'Seven?' He said, 'Close enough. You've got the job. Get your a--- to Pittsburgh'."
Next thing he knew, Courtney was on set with Cruise pointing a gun at him.
While Courtney admits "the little boy within me was just pumped" to play an action baddie, his reaction to being in Cruise's presence is far more reserved.
"You certainly have those moments when you're working with people whose careers you've admired or you've just seen in hundreds of films .th.th. It's always a bit crazy to step outside yourself for a minute and think, 'This is surreal'.
"But I try not to get too bogged down in that. I mean, look, these people are colleagues, it's about getting down to business and trying to support each other and do the best job you can.
"I'm probably desensitized to it now. I don't get too worried about the celebrity thing."
Courtney's first appearance on screen as Charlie in Jack Reacher is bad-ass cool, but soon turns chilling as he aims his rifle at five innocent citizens.
"Oh come on, cut him some slack," Courtney laughs. "Everyone says, 'This guy's just so nasty, he's ice cold'. I like to think that at the core of it there's some softness there. Maybe. Probably not."
The film builds inevitably towards a confrontation between Charlie and Reacher. They first lock eyes through their car windows during a high-speed chase.
"There's one particular part where we're slamming cars into each other and that's actually Tom and I (doing the driving)," Courtney enthuses. "It's always a little crazy when someone hands you the keys and you get to do things that you weren't supposed to do with your dad's car."
Then the pair finally face off in the pouring rain in a scene that was shot over two nights. And that is where Courtney did worry, just a little, about his leading man.
"Obviously I was really concerned about doing a good job and keeping things safe - you don't want to throw a punch that wasn't supposed to happen at that particular moment and land it on his chin, that's for sure."But fortunately nothing like that happened. We just had a ball. He was really cool to do that stuff with."
Shot in late 2011, Jack Reacher set Courtney on a roll. "Actors obviously become more attractive once they're attractive to someone else," he says with a humble shrug.
From Pittsburgh he returned to Australia to shoot I, Frankenstein with Stuart Beattie. As soon as he wrapped in Melbourne he was on a plane to Eastern Europe to start blowing things up with Bruce Willis in A Good Day to Die Hard.
Courtney plays Jack, long-lost son to Willis's iconic cop John McClane, in the fifth Die Hard film. Murmurs of "handing over the franchise" to the younger actor (Willis is now 57) weren't just internet gossip, Courtney admits: "There was talk around that through the casting process but it's not something I've thought too much about. We'll see what happens."
The "we'll see" approach to his career is pretty much all Courtney can commit himself to at the moment. While he's now put his physicality to good use in three big films (as well as shooting Felony with Joel Edgerton in Sydney just before Christmas), he isn't convinced action is his niche.
"Look, some of that will be up to me and some of that will be up to the industry. Of course I want to explore different roles and different styles of filmmaking and shake it up a bit. But if there are particular strengths you play to, well, you've gotta honour that.
"There's always a reason certain actors become popular in certain genres .th.th. Maybe I'll figure that out."
Besides, Courtney adds, this roll he's been on for the past 14 months could change direction once people actually see the films he's been making.
A Good Day to Die Hard releases in March, while I, Frankenstein doesn't land until September.
"Maybe I'll suck in everything and it's actually the end of my career," he says.
"We shall see."
Jack Reacher (M) opens in cinemas nationwide today.
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Struck gold: Jai Courtney is on a roll after starring as the villain in Jack Reacher opposite Tom Cruise.