Jai Courtney is a young leading man bouncing between blockbusters and smaller, character-driven films, perpetually on the edge of superstardom for years.
He got his start acting in his native Australia before bursting onto the international scene as the charismatic gladiator “Varros” in the hit cable television show SPARTACUS: BLOOD AND SAND. He then went on to square off with Tom Cruise in the acclaimed action thriller JACK REACHER.
He followed those parts up with appearances in the DIVERGENT series and leading roles opposite screen legends Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger in continuations of the popular DIE HARD and TERMINATOR franchises. He did all of this while also appearing in the critically acclaimed Australian crime drama FELONY, and the all-star period dramas THE WATER DIVINER and UNBROKEN.
In 2016, Courtney turned in one of his most memorable, and well-regarded, performances as the villainous, yet fun-loving, “Captain Boomerang” for the film adaptation of the DC comic book series SUICIDE SQUAD. The sequel just began principle photography and is set for release in 2021. As that massive production ramps up, a smaller film featuring Courtney is being released in to theaters and VOD. SEMPER FI, from Academy Award-nominated director Henry Alex-Rubin, features Courtney as a marine reservist and small-town police officer caught between his loyalty to his family and his job. Courtney gives a stellar performance, in the lead role, that shows why he has maintained a career full of high-profile projects.
I recently had the pleasure to sit down with Jai Courtney to talk about accents, filming SEMPER FI in New Orleans, a little bit about the upcoming SUICIDE SQUAD sequel, and a variety of other topics.
What drew you to the lead role of “Cal” in SEMPER FI?
Well, I read the script, and I saw what was at the center of it. I saw that it was really about the relationship these guys – two brothers, and also this group of friends who have known each other for so long, and have built so much love and respect for each other… I think… my experience with working with men and women, who’ve come through the armed services and are veterans or active duty even… I sort of saw that echoed in [the script], that unparalleled sense of unity and loyalty. I wanted to tackle something that really puts that on screen, in an authentic manner. I could relate to these guys because my oldest friends in the world are dudes I’ve known for 20 plus years, and they’re really my best mates still.
There’s such a history, a love, and a trust that’s built up over the years between all of us. It was something that just felt very close to my heart. I don’t know, I think this movie really challenges that idea of loyalty and sort of has these guys questioning what they’re loyal to, and what that all actually means… I just was intrigued by it. There was something that felt familiar to me in those relationships, but also something that I sort of saw as a challenge, and wanted to take that on.
Speaking of the idea of familiarity, what’s the key to constructing that vibe in a cast of actors you don’t know well, but the script calls for it to feel like you are old friends?
That feeling is incredibly important. Henry [Alex Rubin] and I had grand plans to set up some kind of boot camp. Maybe we’d get the guys together for a month, before the film, and kind of go out on the road… build some trust and love. It all ended up condensing down to about three days, where we had, virtually, no time at all. We made this movie on a budget, so there wasn’t really a lot of time and toys to play with, or a lot of freedom, in that sense. We ended up meeting on a Saturday, and we had to film on the following Tuesday. It was kind of crazy in that sense. Because, I mean, I’ll be honest, I was nervous that having those restrictions would kind of bottleneck things into a place, where we were just kind of faking it, and it would feel like bullshit.
But we got lucky, Matt, because they are such a great group of guys. Honestly we went out. We had a couple of drinks and broke the ice. We really hit it off. In a way, we didn’t have to work for it at all, because it all just actually felt really organic. It was one of the most important things about getting this film right, capturing that relationship between the characters.
Look, let’s be honest, it could’ve gone either way, but we were really fortunate to have each other. I think we pulled some great work out of each other. There was no ego, no bullshit. We were all there to make the best film we could. I feel lucky that I was surrounded by some incredibly talented actors. I don’t know, Matt. I mean it was one of those things… we hit it off, and got lucky. Fortunately that, I think, comes across in the movie.
I agree. Continuing on the idea of performance, I wanted to ask about your acting process. When you’re working with a director, what sort of direction do you respond best to?
It’s tough say. I mean, directorially, everyone’s energy and approach is very different. Sometimes things can be really descriptive, and that works for the project you’re on. Sometimes it has to be really freestyle. Henry isn’t someone that is incredibly intrusive with his direction. It’s not like, “I want it done this way.” He just wants things to feel real. Maybe that’s his background in documentary… maybe it’s just the kind of projects he likes to tackle. But I think that the key really is casting and then handing over the reins, in a way. The challenge I’ve found with [the character of] Cal, that was sort of a tough thing for us to kind of get right and set the temperature, was how he fits into the group. There was some challenging stuff, because it feels organic with those guys. It all felt very natural. I had a tendency to be a little more playful with Cal than I think serves his role within that group. He’s sort of the moral compass, in a way. He’s a little straighter. He’s also wearing a badge for a living.
There’s a certain responsibility to that. Sometimes… because we really became great friends, when we kind of were kicking around and [having fun], Henry had to kind of reign me in a little, because he didn’t want him to feel like the kind of loud, rambunctious idiot that I can be.
It was good, but it was a tough thing too, because keeping it so organic and real and kind of immediate, sometimes led me into a place… where I was letting the character get a little too loose. It was interesting to find the right balance there and just adjust the temperature, when necessary.
Your American accent, in the film, is very convincing. What’s the secret to nailing a really good American accent? Because you’ve done it in a lot of films.
That’s kind of you to say. I appreciate that a lot because it’s something that I do… well, as an audience member, I really appreciate it when I’m convinced by someone’s dialect transformation. It’s really important to me, Matt. I mean, look, I was gifted in having really great voice training, when I went through drama school, which was a million years ago now. But I had an amazing teacher, Lisa McPherson. I’ve worked with great dialect teachers in the business before. I didn’t prepare with someone, specifically, for SEMPER FI, but it’s just down to preparation.
I stay in it, when I’m doing an American accent, I will stay in it all day on set, and that can get a little bit exhausting, literally from a muscular point of view. You have to shift, what we call, placement, and the way your vowels sound. It’s a different kind of set of muscles. It kind of can be a little hard, but I find it much more challenging, jumping in and out of it. So, I like to just kind of stay there, and it helps it feel a little more conversational. I still slip up, from time to time, man. I mean, there’d be times… Henry would call me out for going a little too regional. He’d be like, “Yeah, you sound like an Italian guy from New York.”
I’d be like, “What am I doing? Why am I… How did I switch into this zone all of a sudden?” You know what I mean? Shit happens like that every now and then, but it’s part of the fun. I think it’s just that preparation, man, and having a good ear. Accents can be a struggle sometimes. It’s not easy, but it helps, if you get it right. I think that’s something I always strive to do.
What was it like shooting in Louisiana for SEMPER FI?
Oh, it was interesting. It wasn’t the most obvious location, when you’re talking about doing something set in Upstate New York. But it was just the nature of the beast, man. I mean, that’s how it goes in independent cinema. They didn’t have that location locked down until quite late. I remember, I’d been on the movie, signed on for a while. Henry and I were meeting quite frequently in LA. He was out there doing some work, actually, with the Marine Corps, shooting a huge commercial and doing some stuff. We got to hang out a bit through that. We didn’t know where the movie was going to take place. They were looking at locations.
It was kind of bizarre that New Orleans became the one. I’ve shot three movies there, and I love it. I love that town. The people are so hospitable. The food’s great and, obviously, there’s a lot of fun to be had, if you feel like going out and finding it. I hope to go back soon, man. I mean, it was a crazy place for five guys that needed to build a lot of history, to be hanging out. Because we certainly had our downtime, as well. We’re all pretty good at doing that. It was great to be in a town that appreciated recreation as much as we did. [Laughs]
Can you share anything about the projects you have coming up?
I just wrapped a movie called JOLT, which I’m pumped about. It’s got a great cast, Laverne Cox, Kate Beckinsale, Bobbie Cannavale, Stanley Tucci. It’s kind of an action thriller. I’ve got a film coming out Liam Neeson called HONEST THIEF, which is going to be awesome. I just wrapped production on a mini-series in Australia called STATELESS, which tackles and unpacks some of the issues surrounding the refugee crisis and how these systems and infrastructure are failing these individuals, globally. It was a really interesting but tough subject matter to tackle. I think it’s a really important issue that I’m looking forward to sharing with audiences.
I have got to ask, can you share anything about THE SUICIDE SQUAD [aka SUICIDE SQUAD]
Everyone wants to know things about THE SUICIDE SQUAD and we can’t say shit! [laughs] That’s the reality. Obviously, I can’t really get into it. There’s a whole bunch of new characters. Clearly, under James’ deft touch it’ll be a different experience and a different world all together. It’s great to be back in the saddle and have some familiar faces around. I’m excited to mix it up with a whole bunch of new people, as well. I’m just pumped. Fans are going to have to wait a little to get some more details. But that’s half the fun, right? I think people will really enjoy it. It’s a great script, and I’m excited to get into it.
Thanks for humoring me. You know, I would catch a lot of grief if I didn’t at least try to ask you about the sequel. It’s been a real pleasure, Jai.
Thank you, bud, I really appreciate it.
SEMPER FI is currently in select theaters, on demand and digital from Lionsgate.