September 2011

Arts & Letters

The kid grows up

By Peter Robb
Meeting Alex dimitriades

Nearing 40, a man’s body begins to die. The body knows this. So does the mind, though it can take a long time before the mind knows what it knows about the body, and longer still to become reconciled to mortality. Between first intimation and final acceptance come anguish and uncertainty – a sense of entrapment and anger. Foolish decisions are likely to follow.

Alex Dimitriades is knocking 38 and heading into the male storm latitude. When you have been in youth one of the most beautiful creatures walking the continent, the rest of your life is not going to be easy. Not for you, not for other people.

Early in 1993, walking down King Street in Sydney’s Newtown, I saw rows of giant posters of a dark-eyed, black-haired adolescent. I walked on and found Enmore Road fluttering with flyers showing the same face. I picked one up. It advertised The Heartbreak Kid and the face was the Kid’s, or Alex Dimitriades’. It was a face that 15 years earlier – when Newtown belonged to migrants and students and was substantially Greek and Balkan, before it became boho and gay – one saw in real life.

The Dimitriades family – Alex, his brother, sister and mother – lived a little further west in battlers’ Sydney. His father had left seven years before and was driving a taxi around the city. Dimitriades’ memory of high school isn’t happy: he wouldn’t tell me its name, saying he didn’t want them to get any credit.

Was he thinking of his last and uncompleted year when they suspended him for sexual harassment of a female teacher on a bus? He’d been one of a group singing ‘I’m Too Sexy’ and miming what the school principal called “inappropriate gestures” on the way to a sports event.

Dimitriades talks now about being picked on and “held down” by teachers at school. The same people who applauded his talent and energy in English and drama classes, he says, had him lined up outside the principal’s office day after day on disciplinary matters. He still burns with the indignity and injustice of it all, as if it happened 20 days ago, and not nearly 20 years.

After a humiliating re-admission to take his exams – he had to apologise to the teacher and sign a promise to behave well – Dimitriades was hanging out with some similarly disaffected friends when they heard about the nationwide search for a Greek–Australian teen-male movie lead. Local auditions were being held at their very school. Dimitriades and his friends rocked up for interviews and screen tests and out of thousands of hopefuls it was Dimitriades who got the part.

For a film that was both earnestly multicultural and calculatingly mass-market, The Heartbreak Kid was surprisingly good, made so by the very young Claudia Karvan as the teacher and the even younger Dimitriades as her student and lover and eventually her mentor. It was massively publicised and became a hit. Straightaway a spin-off TV series was created and Dimitriades was soon at work on the first 38 episodes of Heartbreak High. After the unrealities of school he loved the real life of film and TV work, the respect he earned and the seriousness of those around him about what they were doing now money was at stake. In 1995 he played a drug dealer killed by police in the ABC’s striking docu-drama Blue Murder.

After ten episodes of Neighbours in 1996 he went on to the cop show Wildside and three years later had made 43 episodes. Like Heartbreak High before it, Wildside was a European hit. In 2002 he followed up with 22 episodes of Young Lions, another cop show. The high-school heart-throb was now a crime-series hard-man. In 2008 he played a killer in half-a-dozen episodes of Underbelly.

After Blue Murder Dimitriades went through what he now calls, a bit obscurely, “a couple of dark years”, restless and unsettled, sleeping on the floor at friends’ places and other random shelter, losing himself in music. Yet that same time, in late 1996 and early 1997, he was performing The Wogboys comedy stage shows with Nick Giannopoulos and Vince Colosimo.

He did eight shows a week, week after week after week on the road all round the country for nearly a year and a total of 300 shows. Dimitriades is a relaxed, athletic and fluently physical actor, and his life and his sense of fun express themselves more easily in movement than in words. Doing Wogboys let him hone his spontaneity into an art of timing and improvisation. It was his real-life substitute for NIDA, the theatre training he never had, and he found he loved working in live theatre most of all.

A year or so after Blue Murder, director Ana Kokkinos was planning to make Head On, a film adapted from Christos Tsiolkas’ short novel Loaded about being young, Greek, actively gay and doing drugs in contemporary Melbourne. The only worry when she chose Alex Dimitriades for the lead – and it was not a small worry – was whether the 24-year-old might have found the role of a fiercely promiscuous drugged-up gay man too hard an ask for his inner self and for his outer self’s image and reputation. Kokkinos and Dimitriades met and talked about the film. He hesitated for a moment, but only for a moment.

“What did I have to lose?” he says now. This is a remark Dimitriades makes quite often about moments in his life and choices he’s made. At first it sounds dashing and carefree, a risk-taker’s jauntiness. A few more times and it sounds almost desperate. In Dimitriades’ best moments – and Head On is one of them – there’s a sense that restlessness has led to an impetuous choice that actorly intelligence and resolve have transformed into triumph.

So he walked out of the Wogboy shows and went to make Head On, leaving behind some bitterness among the comedy team at the suddenness of his departure. In a new medium and a darker register, he played another version of himself – a young Greek–Australian trying to make a life in a society he didn’t feel all that comfortable in.

Christos Tsiolkas met him in Sydney shortly before filming began. When they walked through Kings Cross together the working girls called out across the road: “We’ll do you for free, Alex.” Tsiolkas saw in Dimitriades “an astonishing presence and energy. You could see people responding to it as he walked by them, women and men … a grace as well, a dimension beyond the character that I had created.”

The film screened at Cannes during Directors’ Fortnight and for ten days Dimitriades felt the buzz of Cannes, the buzz of glamour and the buzz of film as art. ‘Buzz’ is a word Dimitriades uses quite often, and it takes a while to realise quite how much it covers of those inchoate stirrings and excitements that bring him to life, like facing an audience in live theatre. On Cannes he goes further and talks of the “wow factor”.

Later he went to London for Head On’s British release and found himself cast on the wilder shores of British gay life. Doing a photo shoot for a gay review, he was trapped in a little North London studio with a hysterical German queen wearing a kind of uniform – a “super-camp weirdo Gestapo freak” – who dressed and undressed Dimitriades in preposterous gear and splattered his face with fake sperm for the close-ups. He was glad to get home.

I first met Alex Dimitriades in 1999. He was famous and in a slump, a star and out of work. Interest from the movie powers in Cannes and Hollywood after Head On had evaporated. It would be three years after Cannes before Dimitriades made another film, a modest Australian comedy, and four years before he made another TV series.

He did a workshop production at the Wharf for the Sydney Theatre Company. Apart from a pantomime role as Aladdin and the Wogboy shows, he’d never been a stage actor before. Alex Dimitriades was a natural. Soon after that he did another workshop at the Wharf, playing an almost solo turn as Roberto Zucco, the psycho killer in the play by Bernard-Marie Koltès, and it was a performance, before a handful of people, of smouldering power.

On a freezing night we sat on a Kings Cross rooftop and drank sparkling shiraz and talked. We ate a few meals in different parts of Sydney. There were intensities lurking in Alex Dimitriades that nobody had known how to draw on. I thought he had a tragic depth. Was it in his ancient genes? Or was it in his black, black eyes? Like everyone else I was dazzled. Dimitriades was not one of those screen actors who were peculiarly favoured by the camera. He was more stunning in real life.

We drove in his black Lexus. The windscreen had been pierced by what seemed a bullet hole, but he said it had been made by a shoe’s stiletto heel. One night we drove to the darkened garden of a house where a temporarily alienated girlfriend lived with her family – not to seek rapprochement but to pat her dog among the garden bushes. Talking long after about the years of parties and openings and sponsored events and photographs as part of a glamour couple, he blurted, “I spawned a monster.”

I wrote a screenplay for him. When it was ready, Dimitriades was getting work again and about to go off to Western Australia to film Let’s Get Skase.

A transsexual waitperson served us a mid-afternoon cocktail at the top of the Gazebo Hotel tower. I handed over the screenplay. He promised to read it on location but I knew it was falling into a deep, deep hole. We didn’t linger. He had a plane to catch. Later, a renegade partner from his agency got in touch about making a film from my script. But not with Dimitriades. He was “too old for the part now”. Then the renegade partner vanished. Somebody saw him in LA doing reality TV.

Alex vanished too. I read he was going to the United States. He would commute across the Pacific and divide his time. He stayed big on the Sydney social pages. Horror films followed the local comedies – Ghost Ship in 2002 and a year later Subterano, about some people trapped in an underground car park. An industry website indicates key elements as “eye-gouging, electrocution, decapitation, evil toy, video game”. More comedy: Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo (2005), Bang-Bang Wedding (2008), The Kings of Mykonos: Wog Boy 2 (2010). Last year it was Summer Coda. The male romantic lead was now 37 and thickening a bit around the waist.

I rang Alex this year and woke him in the early afternoon. How had I got his number? “You gave it to me, Alex.” He eluded me until his publicist “advised Alex to make himself available”. I invited him to dinner, promising a whole snapper baked in a crust of salt. He dismissed the offer. Fish baked in salt was so ten years ago. Who wasn’t doing it now?

Alex turned up at his agent’s in a black baseball cap, big black sunnies, a strangely orange facial tan under strangely trimmed stubble and cloud of rather Levantine cologne. He was having girlfriend trouble again. He was trying to learn from the past and be discreet, and her family complained he never mentioned her in interviews. The publicist had mentioned “personal and professional issues”.

We climbed up into his black SUV. The publicist told him to come straight back. She wanted to talk to him. We went to the Beresford Hotel in Surry Hills. It was 1.30 pm, but Dimitriades refused food. He’d just had breakfast. A large breakfast. Then he changed his mind and ordered fried calamari rings on arugula to go with the beer. He asked sharply what was in the bag I was carrying that wet day. “Rainwear, Alex. Not a bomb and not a hidden recorder.”

I asked about the US. He stiffened and snapped, “I don’t want to talk about America.” We talked about his early years and the buzz of live theatre. Nothing between you and the audience, and different every time. He said television acting felt like factory work. We skirted the American years and the recent films.

He leant forward and said, “Couldn’t we work on something together?” The eyes again. What are you talking about, Alex? I thought. I wrote a film for you and you didn’t even read the script. He took another fried calamari ring from the plate between us, slumped back and sighed, “The trouble is, I’ve never had any ambition.” We chewed and reflected. “So what’s new in food?” he asked.

In April Alex finished the eight-part miniseries The Slap (premiering on ABC1 in October), made from Christos Tsiolkas’ 2008 novel. Tsiolkas had made a tiny incident at a suburban barbecue the occasion of a vast fictional exploration of Australian society, and the illusions and limits of its tolerant inclusiveness. The Slap’s social panorama of intimate details excited Australians because it took a reality everyone recognised and claimed it for art. The novel’s domestic detail and its sequential focus on each of its eight protagonists translated effortlessly to TV.

Dimitriades plays Harry, the now-wealthy son of Greek migrants, the man who slaps the child. He’s an adoring father, a loving and unfaithful husband, and boiling underneath with confusion, anger and insecurity. At the start of the third episode, he comes strutting into his Sopranos-like house from the pool in flapping robe and black Speedos, heroically overweight.

In the space of 50 minutes or so a man’s life and identity are fractured. Dimitriades goes from complacent to arrogant to angry to enraged to vengeful to baffled to humbled to frightened to mutely suffering, and he takes the viewer with him. There’s a lifetime’s knowledge in Harry’s every twitch and gesture, every tension and relaxation. The intelligent camera knows when to show Dimitriades in movement, when to close in on his face. It’s an overwhelming performance.

In Melbourne, Christos Tsiolkas said: “Alex has the courage to portray the conflicts of masculinity without resorting to sentimentality or winking at the audience … In his best performances that bravery is electric: I’m thinking of Head On, Blue Murder, The Slap … it was there in part in the first film, The Heartbreak Kid.”

Tsiolkas thinks maybe Alex Dimitriades himself is “unaware of how strong a presence he can be … in a bad role, in a weak role, you can sense that he is trapped. His nakedness and bravery can be frightening and there aren’t enough film-makers who can match his bravery.”

Peter Robb
Peter Robb is the author of Midnight in Sicily, which won the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for non-fiction and was named a New York Times Notable Book. His other books include A Death in Brazil (the Age Non-Fiction Book of the Year in 2004) and Street Fight in Naples.

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