Interview: Xavier Samuel (Drift)

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By Simon Miraudo
May 1, 2013

Xavier Samuel is that rare breed of Australian actor; the kind who regularly returns to Oz despite a burgeoning film career abroad. He won an MTV Movie Award for his villainous performance in The Twilight Saga: Eclipsebut in 2012 he came back to our shores for local productions Bait 3D and A Few Best MenHe now lends his talents to Morgan O’Neill and Ben Nott‘s surf flick Driftin which he and producer Myles Pollard play the Kelly brothers; star surfers who launch an equipment business from their shed. The duo is joined by Sam Worthington, as a roaming photographer – sort of a bearded beach Yoda- who dispenses all kinds of bodacious advice. Ahead of the picture’s release in cinemas, I spoke with Xavier about his surfing lessons – which he describes as being like a “drunk seventeen year-old in high heels” – as well as the box office expectations of Australian features, and particularly the financial failures of his horror film The Loved Ones. We also discussed his upcoming flick Two Mothers – wherein he sparks an affair with his mother’s (Naomi Watts) best friend (Robin Wright) – one of the most notorious movies to screen at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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SM: This isn’t your first surfing movie.

XS: No, I did another one called Newcastle.

SM: I’m curious, personally, are you much of a surfer? Do you follow the sport? Or is this just coincidence?

XS: I grew up in Adelaide, so I never really got out amongst it. One of the things I learnt on that film was if you turn your back on the ocean, it would smash you. So I knew enough about it. Basically, as soon as I found out about Drift, I surfed every day and was introduced to a bunch of crazy, eccentric dudes who surfed in the ’70s, and kind of got a feel for that world.

SM: So you had to do a bit of prep then?

XS: Yeah. Largely, it was learning how to tow-surf, because it’s not as economical to paddle for every wave, because you just get too tired, and they can only shoot it three or four times. I don’t know if you know much about it – I didn’t either – but tow-surfing is like you’re water skiing, and it takes you to the perfect point of the wave, and you just let go and coast down it like that. That process is kind of tricky to learn, because you have to stand on a surfboard in still water, before the jet ski takes off. At the time that I was learning, I looked like a newborn calf, or a drunk seventeen-year-old in high-heels. That process was awesome, and I took to it relatively quickly, and was out there swimming and stuff straight away. The thing that you can’t really learn is the stamina. You have to just get it, and that’s when you feel safer. It was different for me, because I had three jet skis that grabbed me and would take me off again; get dumped and go off again. It’s a different experience to just going out with mates.

SM: Going back to casting, did you audition, or was an offer put out to you?

XS: I didn’t know this, but Myles – who also produced the film – was saying I was on a list, because they’ve been thinking about this for seven years, and my name had popped up as far back as then. A lot of films happened in between then, and it just so happens that I was free at the time. I spoke with Morgan O’Neill, who’s an actor, director, and great writer, and he said – and I hope it’s what a lot of people understand – “the surf is secondary to the story and this is a dramatic film about two brothers.” I’ve got a younger brother, and our relationship sort of mirrors the one in the film, except I’m more the ‘Andy’ character and he’s more the ‘Jimmy’ character; off the rails and passionate. Not to say I’m not passionate, but he’s kind of got that natural charisma and is a bit more ready to take things off. He’s kind of like a garden hose on full pelt.

SM: Have you told your brother that he’s partly an inspiration for the performance?

XS: I think he can see that. He was there when I was shooting, as well. He’s an actor too, and I was going to him for a lot of advice, and talking about it as much as possible.

SM: You mentioned all the time you had to spend in the water. Obviously, there are bad days on every set, let alone when you’re waist deep in water the whole time.

XS: Indeed, or deeper.

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SM: Exactly, yeah. Were there any particularly tough days, particularly tough shots; a moment, or even a dramatic moment?

XS: The dramatic stuff is always challenging, and it should be. It should be like dragging a suitcase up the stairs in your head. That’s the way it kind of always should be. The surf stuff; there were a few hairy days. It usually happens when you get comfortable. “This isn’t so bad.” Then you turn around and there’s a giant wave eclipsing the sun. “Oh, dear.” It’s kind of counter-intuitive, because you have to paddle towards this gigantic sum of water. There were a couple of times where I got buried, and held under; dragged along. You get told to relax and hold your breath, obviously. I was down for quite a while thinking, “Oh yeah, this might be it. Wow I’m not coming up.”  And then I kind of got washed up on this reef, and cut up my feet and hands. The guy on the jet ski trashed his jet ski on the rocks to get me out of there.

SM: So there are bad days. That’s a fair call.

XS: Having said that, it feels like a therapy session.

SM: You can lie down on the couch if you’d feel better.

XS: Thanks very much. Cheers, I appreciate it. I think my naiveté about the whole thing was helpful, because if I had known how full on it got out there, I might have thought twice about it. When everyone’s so enthusiastic about it and pumped up, you want to launch yourself into those experiences.

SM: It’s a bit like when toddlers fall over, they don’t brace themselves, because they’re not afraid, so they don’t hurt themselves.

XS: If someone had sat me down and gone, “You could die out there mate, be careful,” I would have gone, “F***ing hell.” Everyone was like, “Nah mate, you’ll be right!”

SM: Did the directors send you and Myles and Sam on any bonding excursions? Did you get any time before hand together?

XS: Well, Sam’s character is kind of the nomad. He kind of drifts in and out. So, it’s nice if he has an enigmatic mystique going on. Whereas Myles and I have to have a real close, tight-knit banter and the whole brother thing. Most of the rehearsal was just out beyond the break; chatting and just getting to know one another. And then, it’s also in the writing. You don’t have to do too much work. It’s all there.

SM: You were in A Few Best Men last year, which was one of the biggest films at the box office, locally. You were also in The Loved Ones a couple years ago, which unfortunately didn’t quite find the audience in cinemas.

XS: Too much piracy.

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SM: Thankfully, it did find it on DVD, and that film’s got a great cult following now. There is such a spotlight on the box office of Australian films; it’s a pitfall of our funding structure here. When you’re on set, does that pressure loom over a production? Do you try to put it out of your mind?

XS: It’s an interesting question. I don’t think I’ve ever thought about it. I don’t think it’s ever once occurred to me that there’s pressure on this film to make money. Maybe that’s because there’s an assumption that Australian films won’t make money anyway. I just don’t think about that at all. My focus is on being available in the moment, and doing the best job I can do. Turning up on time and being prepared. If you thought about the box office when you’re making a film, you’re probably not in the right business. I think Australian audiences got burnt a little bit by films that got made in a particular period of time. I don’t know what your perspective is. It became that thing where people would look in the newspaper and say, “Should we see a comedy, should we see a western, or a thriller, or an Australian film?” It had kind of become a genre on its own, and that’s not right. It ought to be viewed as a part of that whole mix.

SM: You’re right. There can be Australian comedies and dramas and action movies. The Loved Ones just came out in the US, last year, after playing the festival circuit a number of years ago. Has it been heartening to see it get the audience it deserves, slowly, but to actually have that cult following? Or do you not feel it’s got the following it deserves?

XS: It’s a classy, well made film. It’s intelligently dealt with and spooky and eerie, and the whole thing is like looking into this grotesque doll’s house. I always knew that [director] Sean Byrne was a great filmmaker and clever. It is a shame to see it not reach the audience it deserves. I’m not surprised it’s got that cult following. But it was kind of cursed in a lot of ways. There were a lot of opportunities for it to cut through and work; for more people to see it. Those kind of fell through.

SM: The release was pushed a few times, wasn’t it?

XS: Yeah, there was the release. I don’t deal with any of that side of things, so I don’t really know. Perhaps it could have gone out into cinemas earlier than it did. Who knows with these things?

SM: You took Two Mothers to Sundance earlier this year. How was that experience? Was that your first time at Sundance?

XS: Yeah, Sundance is amazing. It’s basically one street and you get a real sense of community. Something like Margaret River. Everyone’s enthusiastic about film and it’s not a dressy, fashion-y festival because it’s so cold. It was an interesting response. It was a fascinating response, because the material – the film’s subject matter – is controversial in some ways. It was kind of met with uncomfortable laughter and people don’t know how to deal with it. Maybe it was just that particular audience. I was totally fascinated by its response, so it bodes well.

SM: It’ll be interesting to see it when it comes out. It will have people talking, so you’re probably eager.

XS: Yeah, I’ll be interested to know how an Australian audience processes that.

SM: Yeah, for sure. We might be a bit more open minded, hopefully.

XS: “Oh mate, that kind of s*** happens all the time.”

SM: “Down at the old mate’s place.” You’ve balanced international features with Australian stuff, and are still doing Australian features. Bigger scale productions like Eclipse and Anonymous. Do you have a preference? Is it novel to be part of a big machine, or do you feel you might get lost in the mix in those bigger ones?

XS: I’m not too focused on being the centre of attention. It really comes down to the material and the people you’re working with. It’s great fun being on a set like Anonymous; the costumes are amazing and they recreated the Rose Theatre. Also, the major difference is you’ve got more time to experiment with things. Often, but not always, in Australian film, a second take is a luxury. You’ve got to be [snaps fingers] first time, every time. It’s nice to be able to experiment and try different things in a scene. I suppose that happens in really low budget stuff because people are interested in collaborating and trying something different, so I don’t have a particular preference between the two, but they both have their own pros and cons. Not too many cons though.

Drift arrives in Australian cinemas May 2, 2013.

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