The Hollywood Invasion: Foreign Actors in Australian Films

By Zachariah, Lee | Metro Magazine, Autumn 2015 | Go to article overview

The Hollywood Invasion: Foreign Actors in Australian Films


Zachariah, Lee, Metro Magazine


Is it in Australia's best interests to let big-name Hollywood stars headline local productions? Producers argue that it is, while the MEAA contends that it's not--though both believe they're fighting to protect Australian actors' jobs. Lee Zachariah surveys the debate and considers whether our film industry should open the floodgates to foreign actors.

Much is made of the fact that Hollywood is forever under invasion by Australian actors. In 1997, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce and Simon Baker 'stole' pivotal roles in Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential. The forthcoming blockbuster Terminator: Genisys (Alan Taylor) stars our very own Jason Clarke and Jai Courtney, and even superheroes aren't safe, with the likes of Wolverine, Hulk and Thor having been played by Hugh Jackman, Eric Bana and Chris Hemsworth, respectively. But this invasion is almost exclusively one-way. Australian cinema is less likely to see international stars flocking Down Under in pursuit of fame and fortune. When big actors head this way, it's usually as part of a big Hollywood production--Keanu Reeves for The Matrix (The Wachowskis, 1999) and Tom Cruise for Mission: Impossible II (John Woo, 2000), for instance. Otherwise, it's a mid-level actor enjoying a rare starring role in an Australian film (for example, Johnathon Schaech in Stephan Elliott's 1997 Welcome to Woop Woop).

This, believe it or not, is the source of much controversy. Local filmmakers and executives, including 52 Tuesdays (2013) director Sophie Hyde, The Infinite Man (Hugh Sullivan, 2014) producer Kate Croser, and Bran Nue Dae (Rachel Perkins, 2009) producer Robyn Kershaw, agree with the argument that bringing in an international actor helps raise the profile of Australian titles. (1) There are more big stars to choose from when you cast your net over the entire world, and that brings both money and attention to the production --two things the local industry desperately needs. But actors' unions--the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) foremost among them--argue that Australian productions should not have to go looking overseas for talent when Australia is brimming with actors desperate for the work. (2) Particularly when you consider that the film industry is government-subsidised to ensure that Australia has a thriving (albeit not particularly commercialised) local screen industry, why would such a venture not accommodate our own actors?

Much of the argument hinges on the fact that our industry is completely different from that which most people, including Australians, are familiar with: Hollywood. The US screen industry is a slick, well-oiled machine, and knows how to bring in audiences. Australia not only has just one-tenth of the population of the US, but is also inundated with glossy Hollywood products. With those factors under consideration, it seems the unions are justified in arguing that there's no room for competition where Australian jobs are concerned. But, on the world stage, the issue is actually much bigger and multifaceted than it appears.

Looking back

To make sense of the regular tussles between producers and unions over the employment of foreign actors in Australian productions, we need to go back over half a century to a time when roles in big-ticket Australian films were filled almost entirely by overseas actors.

Fred Zinnemann's 1960 film The Sundowners, based on the Jon Cleary novel about an Australian family struggling to find work in the outback, stars Scottish-born Deborah Kerr, American-born Robert Mitchum, English-born Peter Ustinov, South African-born Welsh actor Glynis Johns, and American-born Dina Merrill. It's not until you get down to the sixth credited actor that you see an Australian: Chips Rafferty. The film was released only a year after Leslie Norman's Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, a film about Australian sugarcane cutters that stars Ernest Borgnine, Anne Baxter, John Mills and Angela Lansbury, four notable actors who had also been shipped in from overseas. …

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