Jai Courtney On 'Semper Fi' And His Humbling Hollywood Journey [Interview]

We all know the name Jai Courtney. The Australian actor first broke out on the Starz series Spartacus and later landed roles in a string of high-profile movies like Suicide Squad, Terminator: Genisys and Jack Reacher. Between those movies, he's gravitated towards more grounded roles in dramas like Felony, The Water Diviner, and Unbroken. He himself says it's the intimate dramas that are more to his taste.

Movies like director Henry Alex Rubin's Semper Fi are right up his alley. It's a family drama that deals with the military, PTSD, and brotherhood, with a third act turn towards a prison break thriller. It's a movie going for naturalism, not spectacle, and it's another look at what Courtney is capable of given a strong role.

Recently, we spoke to the actor about what attracts him to certain roles, drama school in Australia, and what kept him going when he first moved to Los Angeles.

Just from what I've read from your interviews, this seems more like your kind of movie.

Yeah. I think it probably does lean into the stuff I like to gravitate towards as an audience member a little bit, so it was nice. I like things that are little grittier, a little more paired back. Yeah, I really sort of enjoyed the scale of this film, examining relationships as the sort of hero. Sometimes it's refreshing to not have a lot of toys to play with, and really just make it about the drama between the characters. That's exciting to me.

With some of the movies you've made in the past, were there parts of the character that were familiar to you?

Obviously, I've put uniforms on a few times and I had the fortune of meeting individuals that are these guys for real in life. It's always very interesting. I think we always owe to the men and women who wear badges or are in uniform in the Armed Forces to sort of portray things as accurately and authentically as possible. It's not always easy, and it obviously, it does invite criticism as well, which isn't totally unfair. I guess it's just, there's always a duty or responsibility to find something that you believe to be true in that. So, leaning on the folks that live those lives is an essential part of that and finding kind of parallels with both. It's always important to get that research done right and I always enjoy engaging with individuals, who kind of lead similar lives to the people I'm portraying on screen.

Are you one of those actors where the research and the homework you get to do, that's one of your favorite parts of the job?

Yeah, it's definitely a big part of it. I don't know, I love practically shooting so much. The process of filming, to me, is a really exciting one. It's kind of when it all comes together, I guess that's the cool part. Getting your research down and building that character in your mind, building that performance, kind of going through and scoring your script and working up to all that stuff feels... It's sort of full of anticipation. But then being able to execute it, I don't know, it's where I feel like that really comes alive.

What kind of pace are you working at on a movie like this? I imagine there's not a lot of time.

It was quick. It was kind of, it was very quick. Henry and his guys, they kind of did it very documentary in style. They would shoot almost from one set up sometimes, with two or three cameras and use a lot of zoom lens and Henry and his DP, David Devlin, would communicate through headsets and they were often kind of shooting the angle. So, there was never any resting off or thinking you were out of shot or they're on my back or this or that. Sometimes you see that, with actors sometimes are a bit like, it's my turn to rest in a way.

That wasn't the case in the nature of filming this at all. It was always very alive, every frame. So, obviously, that pulled something out of us that felt really real. It also meant we didn't really beat things to death either, which can often be the trappings of having too much time on your hands. It just kind of creating immediacy to it, but it was really exciting. Also, it gives the performance a very special kind of perspective and look, which I really enjoyed.

Actors have different ways of dealing with downtime on set. What do you do when you're just waiting around?

Ah man, just chill out. Yeah, it's often the case. I mean, set life can be a bit like that, grab a book. I don't smoke cigarettes anymore but I used to.

Good for you.

That was always a handy way to kill 10 minutes for sure. You can get through a few in a day of filming on a big movie, that's for sure. I mean look, that's kind of one of the fun things about, working on stuff that's smaller is that, it never feels like you'd get kind of in between and it can energetically, it can be kind of tough sometimes, on films with these long setups or a huge reset that takes 40 minutes. I mean, that's just part of the nature of it. I never complained about those things. It's just, it is what it is. It's not really a problem, but I do love it sometimes when there's not so much to work with and the days feel shorter because you're just going nonstop.

It must be tough not smoking on a set.

Yeah, you often thinking about grabbing one, but you've got to boot it, man. I mean, it's good. I'm glad I did.

I wanted to ask you about the Western Australia Academy of Performing Arts. What about your studies there has stuck with you? Any big lessons?

I don't really keep any lessons in mind, to be honest, if I'm really honest with you. I feel like it's one of those things that it's the foundational stuff that I learned at drama school, which was so good. I really loved that period and it really helped me become a much better actor and really shaped my sense of self and desire to really do this. But it's not something I'm aware of consciously anymore at all. I mean, I think, I always had great voice training and so, doing something in accent, I guess there's foundational stuff I learned within that, that I guess is kind of resides within me somewhere. But it's all become a little more subconscious, I think nowadays. I think it's just because it's one building block. I don't think drama school necessarily needs to become something that's... It's like fucking high school, how often do you think you're leaning on anything you learnt in approaching life? I mean, maybe if you'd gone into studies where, it kind of stems from that shit, then it kind of feels like maybe it's there, but yeah, I don't know. I'm not aware of it at all anymore. It's just, it was a really important sort of part of shaping me. At a younger age, but I don't know. Now it's just like, it's just the past.

You seemed to have a very confident attitude then of, "I'm going to make it," which I read you say isn't a typical attitude to have in Australia or drama school. Why is that?

We have this thing called Tall poppy syndrome, which is, it's an Australianism and we give it to people that appear to be too ambitious. It's just our Australian kind of, it's just a cultural nature thing, we kind of shoot each other down in a way, which is still supportive, but it's a way of managing our expectations of ourselves, I guess. I was never cocky about it, but I was okay with the fact that after my first year of drama school, I sort of decided it was something I really wanted to have a go at. I don't know, I just felt confident in that, that I could make it happen.

I didn't know how or what the steps would be to kind of get there. In a way, I'm still striving for that. I don't think I'll ever be, I don't think that exists in some real place, it's just an idea. But I do think that attitude helped me and it helped kind of keep me hungry and it just fueled some beliefs, which I don't think is an unhealthy thing at all. So yeah. I don't know, that's an interesting thing.

I used to joke, years ago, when I started getting started, it could all fall over any minute. Some part of me still feels like that's the case as well. But yeah, I don't know man. You can't fucking approach this industry with doubt really, can you? You can't sit around going, "It's probably not going to happen to me," because of course it never will. So, I think there's a sense of that, whether you vocalize it or not, that an actor needs to have.

Right. Few people here seem to have backup plans.

I don't know what else I'd be doing, to be honest. I'm really, really glad I don't have to think about that right now.

How did your transition go from Australia to Los Angeles?

It was tough. It was tough when I first got out to LA. It was hard, there was a couple, two and a half years there, where nothing was happening other than audition work. I don't know, I have these kind of memories of it, of first getting on the ground and walking to the rental car place. I used to rent these beaters, from this guy in West Hollywood. They were totally unroadworthy. The shit cars, but they were cheap and I was staying at a youth hostel on Fairfax there and going out to appointments. I used to have my maps because I didn't have a smart phone. Shit like this was so different back then. Even just like 10 years ago. But it was kind of rough, and I don't miss that constant rejection because that's the shit that is hard to find the hunger in sometimes. I mean, there were times that I was a coming out to LA to audition and I just really didn't want to because you start to get attached to the idea of it not working out, rather than it being something that you can just break through. It's still tough in a way, I still have to fight for the jobs that I really want and a lot of my mates still do that, are in that system of kind of coming out for a stint and going home and maybe you get a bit of work back in Oz, maybe you don't. Maybe you come out here for a... I mean, it's not easy for anyone. So yeah, my earliest memories are pretty tough, but I think it's a necessary part of. I don't regret that at all.

I'm sure it's humbling.

Yeah, it does humble you and it's a good thing, it teaches you to have your shit together and to prep and to keep that drive going. Because I think if you lose that too easily, that's when it kind of eats you up, and you're not going to last if that's the case. You've got to find that within yourself somewhere.


Semper Fi is now available to rent on VOD.