Die Hard Jai
By Clare BlumerApril 23, 2012
On the cusp of stardom, Sydney boy Jai Courtney talks about life on the way to becoming Bruce Willis’s son — that is, John McClane Jr in the new Die Hard movie.
“Overnight success” is the enduring cliché applied to any actor who, when not already instantly recognisable, stars in a big-budget Hollywood film. Consider instead labouring at a dream in relative anonymity for seven years; you go to drama school, do a couple of TV roles, save dollars for the unemployed months ahead. There is bartending money, too, all spent flying between Australia and Los Angeles, where you audition and sleep in your manager's guest bedroom — until the money runs out and you fly home, once again with no role to tell your mother about.
After hundreds of auditions and as many rejections, the big break happens: you get your first big film. Then another. Then a third. You're cast at last — cast in three big-budget Hollywood films, all coming out within weeks of each other.
This is the situation right now of Jai Courtney, a 26-year-old actor from the Sydney suburb of Cherrybrook.
"It scares the shit out of me," he says.
One of those films is the next in the Die Hard franchise. Courtney will be starring alongside Bruce Willis, cast as his son, John McClane Jr. Already there is speculation Courtney might replace Willis when the 57-year-old retires from the franchise.
A Good Day to Die Hard is undoubtedly a Willis star vehicle. As the quick-witted everyman John McClane, Willis has built a large audience internationally over the 25 years since the original film in 1988. Starring alongside him is a difficult enough proposition; he would be undeniably a hard act to follow. Indeed, half the comments in online fan forums have been scathing about the studio's attempt at passing on the franchise.
"It's always a case of the douchebag producers trying to recapture the "Lighting In A Bottle" magic of the original character…Die Hard will end when Bruce Willis realizes he's finally too damn old for this shit," writes 'Paul'. Another sceptic says: "This better not be a handing of the baton bullshit idea. John McClane is Bruce Willis, he is Die Hard, period, nuff said."
Despite all the cynicism, it's likely millions of people will turn out to see A Good Day to Die Hard, and Jai Courtney is about to be one of the biggest action heroes in the world.
A muscular man, Courtney stands taller than six feet. If you were to Google him, the first images to appear would show him topless and filthy, bedecked in leather and with a mop of blonde curly hair. The blonde is unnaturally yellow, bleached to play the character Varro, best friend to Andy Whitfield's title character in Spartacus: Blood and Sand.
Courtney has a physically dominating presence, best described by Chris Edmund:
"He could obviously beat the living shit out of me.
"That's very useful at drama school," says Edmund, the head of acting at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), who first met Courtney when the young hopeful auditioned for the academy at 18.
"You often hope you get 'men' in terms of casting — a bit of weight and gravitas. Because of his physical size and maleness he was valuable in that way, and that's actually held him in great stead in his career to date."
Courtney was born and raised in north-western Sydney. He had a standard suburban upbringing, as he explains it; his father, Chris, worked for a state-owned electricity company, and mother, Karen, taught at the primary school Jai attended.
Karen says Jai was always performing as a kid, making up characters and putting on costumes at every possible opportunity. From early on he attended a drama ensemble in his area organised by the state education department. Paul Viles coordinated the ensemble and met Courtney when the actor was 10.
"He had that lovely Aussie laconic humour," says Viles, who remains a friend.
"He could probably do anything you asked him to do," he says. "He's fearless."
Courtney auditioned for the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) at the end of high school. But didn't get in, and he spent the next year doing odd jobs and drinking with friends most nights of the week — until he realised that was not the life he wanted.
"It just occurred to me [then], let's give drama school a real crack this year," Courtney says. And with that, he joined the 2004 intake at the prestigious Perth drama school WAAPA, most famous for training Hugh Jackman.
Alongside Courtney in the final stages of the Sydney WAAPA audition that year was 18-year-old Gemma Pranita Xumsai (who now uses her first two names as her stage name). Australian audiences know her as Jade Mitchell on the popular soap Neighbours.
Courtney made a good impression on both WAAPA and Pranita. Half-way through their first year at WAAPA they started dating and have been together for the nearly seven years since. These days Courtney has two small tattoos, on the inside of each arm, close to his wrists; one tattoo is a simple line drawing of a house, which he says is to remind him of home, the other is the Scrabble tile "X" for 'Xum' — the nickname he gave Pranita at drama school.
Courtney's dedication to acting didn't make his transition across the continent to Perth any easier.
"I remember showing up at WAAPA and thinking, what the fuck have I got myself into?" Courtney says.
"It wasn't that I had some attitude about it — if anything I felt out of my depth.… I really wasn't prepared for [it]."
On day one, acting teacher Gillian Jones handed the class a copy of William Shakespeare's As You Like It to read that night.
"And I was like, 'Read — the whole thing? You want us to read it tonight?' There were a few people that had their shit sorted out, or had been the drama kid. We'd all come from different places, parts of the world and times in our lives and for me it was like, a bit of a gamble at that point."
Yet by his second year, Courtney was cast as Leontes, the Sicilian king, in the WAAPA production of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale.
"It's an incredibly complex role for a young man," says Edmund. "For Jai to make a good fist of that at the age of 20… I think it was a very bold attempt at actually one of the most difficult of Shakespeare's roles."
Edmund also recalls a peculiar mask workshop, one he calls "an exercise where you come up with another personality, where a full person comes out in a really bizarre away". He says Courtney was one of the first to volunteer to do the exercise, which is when Edmund felt Courtney had begun to take acting seriously.
"He was anxious to go into different areas than those that were safe," says Edmund. "Some people won't go into the murky areas of the human psyche."
WHEN The Global Mail caught up with Courtney in Melbourne, he was about to wrap filming on the gothic thriller I, Frankenstein, starring American actor Aaron Eckhart and Miranda Otto. Courtney plays a gargoyle. He signed on for this film directly after shooting One Shot in Pittsburgh, playing the villain to Tom Cruise's hero.
Okay, I asked: What's it like to work with the likes of Tom Cruise? Courtney is cagey; it takes a fair bit of prompting to get him to respond at all.
"I'm very drawn to the stunt guys. They're really talented and good at what they do," he says.
The most he proffers is that he was in awe of Cruise's energy and dedication, describing days on One Shot where Cruise would finish shooting with one camera unit, then film with another. "He would work for 24 hours a day sometimes."
Courtney's reticence to talk about the stars that now surround him seems to be about protecting their privacy. "I probably once upon a time used to think that famous people were famous — they can handle a bit of photography and, whatever, it's just the price you pay," he says.
"But having worked with a few people now who no longer live normal lives…it's kind of sad seeing people who had to give it up or trade it for the gift of being able to do what they really love and enjoy the amazing things that come along with that. That's the price, I guess."
And how would he feel if the paparazzi start chasing him?
"I haven't really thought about it. Should I?" he asks.
His girlfriend, Pranita, says, "It's kind of terrifying actually. You know what? Sometimes we joke about coming across as the most boring couple in the world so people aren't interested in us."
In Australia, Pranita is the more famous of the two, because of her role on Neighbours.
"We go out to dinner and if I get recognized I instantly recoil and I suddenly become aware of my gestures and what I'm doing and I try not to draw attention to myself — and that's not normal life," she says. "He lets me sit facing him so I won't be recognized…I don't know what's going to happen now."
Kate Revz, a close friend to Pranita and Courtney and an associate with them of the theatre company Cry Havoc, says, "They're not in it for the celebrity, they really want to be working actors."
Revz recalls a time when Courtney's work ethic became evident to her. He had come back from a stint auditioning in Hollywood to see Cry Havoc's production of Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters.
When the lead male dropped out mid-season, Courtney took on a Chekhov role in less than a day.
"We had 24 hours to get him ready for the stage," says Revz.
Courtney spent the day drilling lines. "We sat in Revz's backyard and smashed it 'til we got it right," he says.
"It was literally the actor's nightmare. I was on stage in front of the audience, thinking to myself, 'I don't know what's about to come out of my mouth.'"
As Revz tells it: "He went on stage and he didn't drop one line in a three-hour Chekhov."
Another WAAPA graduate who lives in Los Angeles, Kai Tier, also vouches for Courtney's "tenacity". Tier has had Courtney on his couch for many weekend stays in LA, along with many other graduates who turn up to try their luck in Hollywood.
"If you walk in as an unknown with any sort of expectation of an easy ride, you're going to be demoralised pretty quickly," says Tier.
"In Jai's case, he already had some work under his belt and a manager, but it still took a half-dozen trips out here before he landed his first film role… coming over and auditioning again and again and again.
"He was always sure, though, that it would happen."
Courtney says he wasn't star-struck during his one-hour audition with Bruce Willis — perhaps because he'd just spent three months shooting One Shot with Tom Cruise.
When the Aussie landed the role in Die Hard, he was about to begin shooting I, Frankenstein in Melbourne. Conflict between the two production houses, purportedly over scheduling, meant that he nearly lost the role of John McClane Jr in the week after he was given it.
He acknowledges things are changing for him. "I'll have a good year [financially], better than I ever have. But I'm certainly not in a position to buy a house. I'm not making millions of dollars, despite what some people may imagine.
"I saved seriously on Spartacus and it pretty much funded going back to the States for the next two years. I did buy a vintage motorcycle thanks to a tax return, but that was before this all happened… It's not like the Twilight kids."
As this is published, he is already over in Eastern Europe, preparing for the shoot of A Good Day to Die Hard. He has been taking Russian language classes (the film is set in Russia), and undergoing more fight training. Pranita, who can't join him until she finishes shooting on Neighbours, says she is philosophical about what this possible stardom will mean for the couple.
"I mean how can you know? A lot of people are worried about you changing. I actually noticed more change in the people around us, and their attitudes towards him," says Pranita.
"People that have just met him — they're scared that he's going to change. I don't think he ever will. And I will never let him. He just doesn't have it in him."
The writer, Clare Blumer also attended WAAPA with Jai Courtney and Gemma Pranita.