A reserved personality means Oliver Ackland is letting his acting do the talking.

Oliver’s armoury

13:55:PM 03/03/2011
Peter Wilmoth

Talent pool: Oliver Ackland is the star of a new Australian film, Wasted on the Young, set in Sydney. He is pictured by the pool at the Olsen Hotel in South Yarra.
Talent pool: Oliver Ackland is the star of a new Australian film, Wasted on the Young, set in Sydney. He is pictured by the pool at the Olsen Hotel in South Yarra.
It’s been a while since I’ve encountered shy and reserved. Nothing wrong with it, of course, I’m just not that used to it and it’s almost confronting when you see it. Every week I am privileged to have strong opinions delivered to me from colourful people on an array of topics. I’ve come to expect it – go ahead, let’s talk, let’s challenge, let’s peel away some layers.

So Oliver Ackland had me on the back foot. Ackland is an up-and-coming actor who last year was the inaugural recipient of the Australian in Film Heath Ledger $10,000 Scholarship, created to honour the late actor. He’s now starring in an edgy new film called Wasted on the Young. And it’s media time, in a hotel room at The Olsen in South Yarra, wearing a little make-up for the TV cameras, and being wheeled in and out of rooms to meet journalists.

The power-ego interview is a walk in the park, really, all lights, camera, action, the crowded lives and minds of huge personalities. Ackland’s different. We’ve got 20 minutes, you’d think he’d crack into it. But no, it’s a slow burn, thought-out, hesitant; he seems even a little uneasy about the attention. There are fractured sentences and half-expressed thoughts. Given the time constraints that you often have with actors and directors at times I wanted to yell “Faster!” but I knew the story was that this guy is different.

It’s so not showbizzy that I thought he might have been very young, say 25, but no, he’s 31. In the age where everyone is, to a greater or lesser degree, a celebrity, to meet someone as modest and quiet as Ackland is a refreshing new development.

And it’s not a huge surprise when he talks about the actors he has been influenced by and the films they’ve been in, such as Michael Pitt, who played Kurt Cobain, the benighted Nirvana lead singer, in Gus Van Sant’s Last Days, one of Ackland’s favourite films. He admires the work of Welsh actor Christian Bale (Batman in The Dark Knight) and Puerto Rican Benicio del Toro, who played in 21 Grams, The Usual Suspects and Che, winning an Oscar for his performance in Traffic. “I remember watching films like The Basketball Diaries (with Leonardo DiCaprio) and Dead Man (starring Johnny Depp) and they really inspired me,” Ackland says. “I loved films that had that element of the surreal but I also loved things entrenched in realism, performances that were so breathtaking, you can’t fault them, it’s like there’s not a camera in front of them.”

Ackland has always been fascinated by Kurt Cobain, who shot himself in 1994. He is also inspired by Nick Cave, once Melbourne’s Prince of Darkness, and the late American actor River Phoenix, who died in 1993 of a drug overdose. It’s certainly an edgy lot there. Ackland is obviously drawn to outsiders. “Yeah. I always have been,” he says.

He got into the ’90s grungy Nirvana music after the fact. “I was going through a phase of being into electronic music (at the time),” he says. “For this one (Wasted on the Young) I was listening to a lot of Nirvana on the set, but that was part of my research into Darren, that he was this guy who lived by his own ideals no matter how withdrawn he was, despite what was going on around him. I watched a lot of interviews (with Cobain), over and over.”

He wasn’t the only cast member channelling a bit of grunge. Adelaide Clemens (who plays Xandrie) listened to a lot of Joy Division on the set, the gloomy Manchester band whose lead singer Ian Curtis hanged himself in 1980. The mood the actors were trying to set, then, seems clear.

Wasted on the Young is a highly stylised and quite violent film about disaffected, hedonistic teenagers in their final year at an elite Sydney private school. In their world, social media and the digital world are huge – there are lots of text messages, websites and mobile phones. Social media was a used as a deliberate element in the script. But aside from the slick use of technology as way of telling the film’s story, Wasted on the Young is a brutal film with its bullying and threats and intimations of rape, assault and murder.

It’s no star vehicle. The casting team looked across Australia, at auditions in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, for unknown actors who would lend authenticity to the characters. Several of the cast came from the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, where Hugh Jackman studied. “There was a little bit of pressure to attach a name to the film,” admits writer/director Ben C. Lucas. “Producers were looking at it from a budget point of view but I wasn’t. I wanted the story to be the star.”

The film revolves around Zack, the captain of the swimming team and the school enforcer, and a girl, Xandrie, who is being stalked by one of the swimming team’s jocks. Obscene pictures are posted online for the rest of the student body to ridicule. Ackland plays Darren, an introspective loner who survives the rigid school hierarchy by choosing to remove himself and “exist in his own little bubble”, he says. It’s an intense and impressive performance.

Ackland saw some echoes of this in his own experience at the elite Cranbrook School in Sydney’s Bellevue Hill, the alma mater, as it happens, for James Packer, Channel Nine CEO David Gyngell and Jodee Rich (infamously of One.Tel).

Hear this: A still from Wasted on the Young.
Hear this: A still from Wasted on the Young.
The film revolves around the power structure and the response to it by a group of students in the last year of school. “It’s every school that has that,” Ackland says of this hierarchy. “I think I had a pretty good experience at school, but I could definitely relate to Darren in feeling like it was hard to connect with other people. I struggled with that. You kind of withdraw into yourself as a result. I went to an all-boys school and there’s that hierarchy in place. People are battling it out to keep up their end of the bargain, people fighting to keep some kind of place in this pecking order. It meant absolutely nothing to me so I didn’t invest in that.”

He says he was bullied at school. “Yeah, I was a small kid so I was an easy target. It was a combination of weedy kid and pretty sporty as well.” (Ackland played soccer and was a middle-distance runner).

Ben C. Lucas saw an intensity in Ackland during casting. “He’s a very distinct personality; bohemian, a laid-back attitude. He’s a pretty deep guy.” Lucas noted Ackland’s interest in darker, outsider figures such as Kurt Cobain and Nick Cave. “What he was looking for was not so much the poet or the artist but people who lived by their own standards and own terms,” he said. “People whose ideals don’t gel with the mainstream.”

Ackland grew up in Sydney’s Rushcutters Bay and Randwick. “We lived next to a horse stable. Memories of horses wandering down the lane we lived on, and shitting, and moving on.”

He first considered acting in high school. “It was kind of daunting, it kind of scared me, the idea of it,” Ackland says of the craft. “I wanted to get to the bottom of it, to learn more about it. I felt there was a real power in it, the power of transformation. It really intrigued me. Luckily, we had a couple of really good drama teachers at school.”

He did some children’s TV including Pirate Island, a series shot in Melbourne and in Port Douglas. He played Steven Ross in Home and Away for a while and Matt Payne in Always Greener. He was starting to get noticed by casting agents and directors. After receiving the Heath Ledger Scholarship, director Gregor Jordon (Ned Kelly), one of the award’s judges, was excited by Ackland’s potential as a major leading man. “He’s got (a sort of) Jude Law look. Maybe he’s an Aussie Jude Law, who knows?”

Ackland was cast in The Proposition, set in outback Australia in the 1880s, directed by John Hillcoat and written by Nick Cave. The film starred Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Noah Taylor and David Wenham. Ackland was able to join this strong cast, playing the son of a family that was attacked at the beginning of the film.

Unfortunately his work never made the screen. “The connection wasn’t made that he was the son of this family,” he says. “It seemed like there was this odd kid wandering around town kind of crying randomly, so for the benefit of the film they chopped it out.”

He was surprised to see in a London shop a photo of himself on the back of the DVD case. He says he wasn’t annoyed at being cut out. “It was a learning curve and such a great experience, shooting scenes with Emily Watson and Guy Pearce and Ray Winstone that I find it hard to feel completely disillusioned because I did learn a lot.” He found Winstone, famous for playing villains, a “father figure” to the other actors. And he was, as many others were, impressed by Cave’s capacity to sing, play and write a film. There’s the sense Ackland is smart enough to notice and use the talents he comes across.

Ackland has just finished shooting The Slap, from the book by Christos Tsiolkas, in Melbourne and had a role in Cloudstreet (from Tim Winton’s book) in Perth. In The Slap, Ackland plays a soap star who plays in a band. “We shot it really fast and loose and it’s so true to day-to-day existence that it’s hard to hide.” The role wasn’t entirely unfamiliar to him – outside acting, his passion is to “bash around with music”, playing guitar.

Ackland lives in Los Angeles, where he enjoys a strong community of actors. “It’s great. It feels like people are open to new ideas and people there. It’s such a transient community that people are open and enthusiastic. It feels like home away from home there are so many Australians there. When you’re away from home, people do tend to kind of lend a hand or lend an ear or help each other out whether they know each other from back home or not.”

Ackland’s time may be soon. And then the comparisons might stop. “For a guy who’s got a very particular look it’s amazing how many references he gets to other actors,” says Lucas. “He gets the references Toby Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal. Hopefully soon he’ll get the Oliver Ackland thing.”

» www.facebook.com/wastedontheyoung

Wasted on the Young opened across Australia on March 3.

2011 Heath Ledger Scholarship

This year’s winner will be announced mid-to-late March.

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