The gritty and powerful crime-don’t-pay multicultural drama Cedar Boys (now playing in cinemas) will go down as one of the most explosive Australian films of ’09, which is continuing to be a mighty good stars-are-aligned year for local cinema. The film is the feature debut of writer/director Serhat Caradee and follows a trio of Australian-Lebanese men who steal thousands of ecstasy pills and get themselves sucked into a vortex of crime and violence (read my review here). It features a head-turning nailed it! performance from rising star Les Chantery, in his first lead role. Chantery’s credits including Hollywood sci-fi pic Pitch Black and Ridley Scott’s upcoming Kingdom Come. Shortly before Cedar Boys’ national release I sat down for a yak with the young actor, who, me thinks, you’ll be seeing a lot more of in the future.
Well done on Cedar Boys! You must be feeling pretty chuffed about your role in this film?
Definitely. I’ve had some dodgy roles in my past and I’ve had to go “yeah, it’s great.” But not this one.
Are you talking about Pitch Black?
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Actually can I say I’m quite proud of Pitch Black. It was my first film and getting to run away from aliens and stuff was fun. Apparently it’s got a bit of a cult following.
Maybe that’s because of Vin Diesel’s spectacular scalp. It’s a hell of a noggin.
Vin wasn’t Vin back then. He’d done Saving Private Ryan and that was it. After he did a short film Spielberg called him up and said come to London and be in Saving Private Ryan. He did that then came to Australia to do Pitch Black, which actually was a vehicle for Radha Mitchell, not for him. They wanted to make her like Sigourney Weaver in Aliens. But he was good. I’m a big Vin fan. So much charisma.
How did you first become involved in Cedar Boys?
I graduated at NIDA in 2003 and I got a call from this guy saying my name is Serhat Caradee, I’m a writer, director and actor and I’ve got a script here that I want to send you to read. My acting teacher at NIDA, Kevin Jackson, gave Serhat my details and I said OK, send the script over. I was just a few weeks out of drama school and I was very arrogant, very like “I’m just gonna wait for my big career on the STC (Sydney Theatre Company) stage.”
So initially you didn’t want the role?
I didn’t want to fall into the typecast thing of just being seen as an ethnic actor playing ethnic-specific roles. I just graduated from drama school where I was really challenged because I was taught that unless I expanded my range, these were the kinds of roles I was gonna play. So I worked really hard on changing my voice and my mannerisms so that I could be more flexible and get away from that Wog Boy persona. For me NIDA was a very privileged environment. I came from the western suburbs in Sydney and I didn’t want to go back to the western suburbs as a character. Originally at the table read I read the character of Sam, the drug dealer, who is obviously a very different character.
But I came back (to Serhat) with my tale between my legs…We developed a really great camaraderie because we workshopped the film over three or four years and when Serhat had to shoot a scene to show the funding bodies we acted in those roles and when it came time to audition – actually audition to show Mushroom and Screen Australia and get their approval – I was in LA so I had to put my stuff on tape and send it over. Serhat’s a very specific, very very specific director, so without his direction I basically sent him three tapes of each scene, saying I can do it like that or like that or like that. He wrote back an email saying “no, no, yes!”
Serhat is also an actor and he plays a small part in the film. What would you say are the benefits of working with a director who also acts?
Serhat started off as an actor so he understands acting vocab really well. All that wanky stuff like motivation, objective, themes and stuff – he understands it really really well so he can talk to you in that language. At the same time, when I say he’s specific, he’s a big fan of European actors and the minimalism that goes with it. In a conversation if someone was gesticulating too much or starting to over-animate he would pull it right back and say “just talk to the person.” Sometimes he comes and says he notices you’re moving your head too much when you speak, that you need to strip it all back. He has got the most amazing bullshit detector I have ever come across. If he wasn’t convinced with the take it was usually because I was bullshitting and he would pull it out. Amazing – stuff like you can do an entire scene and there can be one word and he’ll say “nup, didn’t buy that, you became self-conscious” or whatever and he’d cut the scene.
The characters all feel very authentic. Cedar Boys has got a slice of life feel about it but it’s also got the thrust of an entertaining narrative. What was the rehearsal and preparation process like?
We rehearsed for a month at Serhat’s house before the shoot. We knew we were going to be moving at television speed: 26 days, 31 locations, moving really fast. We rehearsed a lot at Serhat’s house. We want to Oxford street as well – clubbing for research! Also Serhat would have these screenings at his house of films I’d never heard of. We did film history at drama school but there were films he’d just pull out and say “watch this actor.”
I think it’s foremost a director’s job to get everybody into the same world, so that there’s not somebody in the corner doing Fat Pizza acting and there’s somebody else over here doing realism. We all have different techniques with acting but Serhat was able to get us all on the same page.
The acting certainly feels very realistic. It helps that you’ve got strong dialogue.
Somebody said at a Q & A the other day that the dialogue is very authentic. They said you’re writing dialogue for a minority group without alienating an audience. I think if there were any more bros or cousins or Habibs in the film than you would be playing a caricature.
The characters are complex and they’re each layered. One thing I love when I watch the film, particularly with the guy I play, Tarek, is that on the page he is a Lebanese drug dealer. I’ve had audiences coming up to me crying at the end of the film or really moved by it and I think that’s because Serhat knew about the complexities of the character and wanted to create an honest, decent, hard-working, vulnerable, naive boy who makes a really bad decision because of the circumstances he’s in. And as an audience member that’s more complex then just having a rough drug dealer who makes a bad choice. They say I get it, it’s formulaic, he deserved it.
Are you happy to have Cedar Boys described as a crime doesn’t pay drama? Is that what you think it is too?
It is, but without being preachy. It’s not like it’s this morality tale that bashes the audience over the head. I think ultimately – and I hope this came through for you when you watched it – is that it is essentially a story about outsiders. If you think you don’t fit in, no matter what the reasoning is – whether it’s to do with your race or your physical appearance, whatever it is – if you feel like you’ve slipped through the cracks and know what it feels to be an outsider, if you keep getting ostracised you can eventually get pushed to the edge where you have to make some bad decisions. Take a risk, whatever. Because we don’t show the Opera House it can essentially take place in any urban environment.
Much of the general public is wary of Australian films. Does that concern you?
Audiences are very unforgiving these days. I was once guilty of walking out saying “it was good for an Australian film.” We can make really good stories and as a film culture we absolutely need to continue the story of our Indigenous people and our iconic Australian identities but at the same time I think there also has to be space for these other films coming out that aren’t Wog Boy and aren’t Fat Pizza and aren’t parodies of our culture.
The Daily Telegraph called your role a breakthrough performance. Is that what you thought when you first saw the completed film? How were you feeling at the time?
Luke I was f**king petrified. You know, everyone is their own worst critic and ultimately I trusted Serhat completely. There were choices I’d made where Serhat came up to me and said don’t make him so tough, don’t make him so whatever. So half my performance, half that breakout is due to Serhat’s direction…actually make that 49%.
It’s definitely humbling to the ego but you know what – it doesn’t guarantee another job, it doesn’t guarantee anything… (but) it does look good on a showcase. I’ve never had a lead role before. This was my first.
From an actor’s point of view, what was the most difficult scene for you?
I knew the toughest scene in the film for me would be one of prison scenes, where Tarek goes to visit his brother Jamal in the prison and tells him he’s in trouble. I knew emotionally that was gonna be a tough scene and Serhat gave us a lot of time to shoot that scene, more than any other. As an actor my emotion was drying up. After three of four takes the tears stopped coming. I went into an improvisation and I didn’t know that Serhat kept the camera rolling. So part of that scene is actually me improvising to get into an emotional state.
Is that your favourite scene?
It is, yeah. As an actor I feel that he (Tarek) does most things primarily to get his brother out of jail. And also the sex scene with Rachel Taylor was alright too!
Plenty of audiences have responded very well to the film. Has anybody responded badly to it?
I’ve seen a couple of things online – like on Youtube – from people who haven’t seen the film going “here we go, another stereotypical film about Lebs, do we need this?” I’ve seen those kind of comments, and they haven’t even seen the film, which is unfortunate. Somebody even said “another typical aussie flop.” I was like a) you’re a great supporter of Aussie film man and b) see the film first.
At the opening of the Sydney Film Festival me and the two other boys wore Adidas jackets with Cedar Boys printed on the back. It was a very shameless promotion of the film when we walked that red carpet. We got a lot of…well, people were mortified.
Why? Because you wore Adidas jackets?
Yeah and also because we were promoting the film. It’s a film festival but I’m not exactly Leonardo DiCaprio attracting the photographers’ attention. It’s a film festival, we’re trying to promote a film. I dunno. I think perhaps with our film culture we can be a bit lazy, a bit perhaps self-defeatist. I think if you use the word ambition in the film culture here people kind of go– that guys a demanding a**hole!
What else was challenging about the shoot?
I didn’t know how to drive a manual before the shoot (laughing). I took lessons on how to drive a manual. The first time I had to drive it was with Rachel (Taylor) and I’ve been mates with Rachel for many years. I hopped in the car and I was stalling, bunny hopping. So then I arrived on set a couple of weeks into the shoot and they had hired a low rider – a big black trolley car with my car that I drive up on it, so I didn’t have to drive for the shoot. My whole masculinity was taken away. It was like, “he can’t drive a manual so let’s put him on a truck!”
You’re next gig is a Ridley Scot movie! Tell me about it.
I’ve got a part in a new film called Kingdom Come, which is shooting in New Zealand. It’s a big biblical period drama and I play Asa, a blind beggar who Jesus kind of finds and cures. I’m going from like boys in the hood to boys in the street – begging. But the finance for that is still being finalised so I will probably go back to LA. I’ve got a place in LA. I’ve just started reading scripts. I’ve just read the script for a new Zac Efron film.
Is it High School Musical 4?
The director Serhat Caradee, seated close by, hears this and starts guffawing uncontrollably.
No. It’s actually quite a…To be honest with you I’m looking forward to Kingdom Come but I’m trying to stay away from any drug dealers or crime or terrorists or anything like that! I went to LA to get away from that aspect of it here, the typecasting aspect.
It’s pretty hard though, isn’t it, to avoid being typecast and also to get steady work?
Yeah, someone once told me you have to have a career to break a career. When I go back to LA my ethnic background never came up. Even here I kind of fall between the cracks. People are kind of “you don’t look Lebanese and you don’t look…we don’t know what to do with you.”
Cedar Boys is currently playing in cinemas.