Most Americans who recognize Ryan Kwanten probably know him as Jason Stackhouse, the gleefully clueless, frequently shirtless womanizer from the hit series “True Blood.” But moviegoers who turn up for the gritty, western-tinged thriller “Red Hill,” which opens Friday in limited release, will not only see a very different side of the actor than the one he displays on the raunchy vampire soap opera, they’ll hear one too.
To give voice to the character of Shane Cooper, a young city cop who relocates to a small town with his pregnant wife after being shot in the line of duty, Kwanten speaks with his native Australian accent rather than Jason’s convincing Louisiana drawl.
“Americans in general are very surprised,” Kwanten says of the reactions to his real voice. “I’m amazed that they forever think I’m putting on this accent now, that I’m preparing for a role right now, with this voice. It’s a huge compliment, but at some point when they still leave the conversation with me thinking, ‘Oh, he’s got to be putting it on, we know he’s from the South. It’s funny.”
Kwanten’s facility with Bayou-speak might suggest he spent years studying his craft, but the 33-year-old from Sydney with the boy-next-door good looks has no formal training — he fell into the profession after accompanying one of his two younger brothers to an audition and inadvertently landing agency representation. He’s spent much of the last decade building a career in American features and television, playing, among other roles, a surfer on the WB drama “Summerland” opposite teen heartthrobs Jesse McCartney and Zac Efron. Then came HBO’s Emmy-nominated “True Blood,” where he’s become a fan favorite as Jason, big brother to Anna Paquin’s telepathic cocktail waitress in the fictional town of Bon Temps.
“Red Hill” marks the first time Kwanten has been home to Australia to work in eight years, and over a midmorning café mocha in Culver City, the actor said he was excited to play Cooper — a part that director Patrick Hughes wrote for him — because the character is the “moral compass of the film” and so different from the heroes that usually populate big-screen adventures.
“He’s a fallible guy,” Kwanten said of the character in “Red Hill,” which is Hughes’ first feature film. “He’s not a superman-type character where you feel that no matter what force is put up against him, he’s this impenetrable being that can handle it all. He’s a guy who has a really tortured back story. He’s a cop who can’t fire a gun. It’s a huge kind of irony.”
The film, which explores what happens after a murderer (Tom E. Lewis) escapes from prison and comes back to Red Hill to exact revenge, was shot over the course of about five weeks in Omeo, a historic mining spot with a tiny population in the Gippsland area of Victoria. Kwanten, who headed directly to the location from the “True Blood” set, said that the production was something clearly out of the ordinary for the residents, and that the locals would regularly turn up at the pub to watch the cast and crew as they worked.
“If you were to pan the camera in certain shots just slightly to the left, you would see 50 guys all standing there with their beers commenting on the shot,” Kwanten recalled. “As I’d run by in between takes, they’d be like, ‘Maybe you could try it this way this time?’ I had to appease them all.”
Even if he had wanted to heed the advice of the peanut gallery, Kwanten frequently had just one take to nail a scene because of the low-budget project’s breakneck shooting schedule. But the self-described masochist said he found the challenge to be artistically satisfying — he was grateful to be starring in a project that he sees as a return to the smart, nuanced moviemaking of the 1970s.
“I’ve been working so hard to get myself to a point where I can choose films based purely on how much my creative juices are going to be tapped,” said Kwanten, who also recently lent his vocal talents to Zack Snyder’s animated film “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole” and will appear in the independent horror comedy “Knights of Badassdom.” “I don’t want to choose something because it’s easy. There’s no achievement in that. The harder you have to work for me to get into that character and to do the role, the more of an accomplishment it is.”
– Gina McIntyre
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