Out in the backblocks of New Mexico, Alex Russell is enjoying a well-earned day off.
It’s the Fourth of July holiday weekend and the in-demand Australian actor is cooling off after another taxing week on the set of Granite Mountain.
It’s a Hollywood drama about a group of firefighters caught up in a deadly wildfire that is directed by Tron: Legacy‘s Joseph Kosinski and co-stars Jeff Bridges, Josh Brolin and Taylor Kitsch.
“The last shot yesterday we had was a plane flying overhead, dumping slurry and water near us with a real backburn lit,” Russell says. “The heat coming off it was tremendous – it was only a few feet high, but it was three times hotter than a normal fire because movie fires use diesel for a slow burn. We were really feeling it.”
The 28-year-old has been feeling for it for a while now. Prior to starting Granite Mountain, he starred alongside Daniel Radcliffe in the forthcoming Jungle, which was shot in Queensland’s tropical north. Before that he spent six weeks in the state’s desert outback, making Goldstone, an Australian crime thriller from the writer-director Ivan Sen.
“I need to play a businessman in an air-conditioned office sipping a latte where the only continuity required is refilling that latte for every take,” says the affable Russell. “I’d really like that.”
Goldstone brings back Jay Swan, the laconic Indigenous police detective played by Aaron Pedersen, who was at the centre of Sen’s acclaimed Mystery Road in 2014.
Assigned a missing person’s case in a remote town, the troubled lawman has to work with Russell’s Josh, the sole local police officer and someone who’s either ignored the corruption Jay uncovers or shepherded it.
“I thought it was the best Australian script I’d ever read,” Russell says. “I was so impressed with, on one hand, the heart of it, the authenticity, and the beautiful voice. Then, on the other hand, how great the structure was. As an artist you check things off and it had this grounded integrity, but it was still going to be super entertaining.”
Amidst Sen’s evocatively sparse filmmaking, and a supporting cast that includes Jacki Weaver and David Wenham, Russell’s performance is increasingly tightly wound, showing how the “she’ll be right” mentality can take you to the very cusp of breaking bad.
“You realise that Josh is a guy who’s chosen the easy way, as so many of us, including me, do all the time. And they’re never the moments you’re proud of, because growth comes with the tougher route,” he says. “He needs someone like Jay to come along and challenge his integrity.”
The son of a surgeon father and nurse mother who grew up in Rockhampton and graduated from NIDA, Russell has been on cinema screens for all of six years.
He had his first Hollywood hit in 2012 with the teen superpowers thriller Chronicle, and since then has alternated roles in blockbusters such as Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken with Australian smaller productions such as Cut Snake and now Goldstone.
“I love being a part of great stories and I love being at home in my own country,” Russell says. “The fact that we make some awesome films and that sometimes I get to be a part of them makes me really happy. I’ll always, always do that.”
Russell is also part of Five Lip Films, a collective of young Australian creatives divided between Sydney and Los Angeles. He’s been involved in the writing and directing of three short films, with a fourth on the way and a feature film, Sons of Salt, in development through Screen Australia.
It helps balance out the commercial demands of Hollywood, although Russell believes in the creative worth of the movie industry’s epicentre.
“People with great talent and a great deal behind them are always ready to sit down and give you advice on your script or the cut of your short film,” Russell says. “There’s definitely an icky element in Hollywood, but there’s also something special about driving around the back lots of famous studios where some of the greatest films of all time were created. I truly believe in the magic of it all.”