November 2013

The Nation Reviewed

In the footsteps of Heath Ledger

By Jo Lennan
James Mackay is on the audition trail in LA

It is a recent sunny Monday in Los Angeles, and James Mackay is unwinding after an audition. In jeans, a black T-shirt and a borrowed BMW, the Sydney-based actor turns onto Riverside Drive in Burbank. “This place is great when you’ve got heat,” he says of the city, having flown in two days ago with a full schedule of auditions. “That’s when you’ve got some buzz, when people want to meet you. Without that, things can be grim.”

After nine trips here, Mackay, 29, is familiar with both versions of Los Angeles. So far he remains better known for his theatre roles; his screen credits have been relatively sparse (chief among them is Singularity, a forthcoming time-travel epic directed by Roland Joffé). Even so, Mackay has momentum. In June, he won the Heath Ledger Scholarship, an award that honours the late Perth-born star and backs young Australian talent. The prize, by itself, is no guarantee of parts, but it does help an actor get to auditions, with a $10,000 purse and a flight to Los Angeles.

“This is Warner Bros., where I was today,” Mackay says, pointing to the complex at which, an hour before, he tested for a role as the Flash in the television series Arrow. “Playing a superhero, it’s on the list, let’s be honest.” Driving along, Mackay describes the part, which comes with a likely spin-off for the character’s own series. The studio test that day was, says Mackay, “hands-down the most intense audition I’ve been in”. As one of the final three hopefuls, he read scenes for an audience of two dozen executives. As the adrenaline hit wore off, he was left feeling shaky, so he took to the road.

“You think of LA and you think smog and traffic – and that’s all true. But after a high-stakes appointment, it’s something I quite enjoy, the combination of focus and detachment you get from driving around.”

Next, on Bob Hope Drive, Mackay points out the Burbank Studios, where he spent the previous day. “That was a work session – basically a rehearsal.” After some doubling back, he crosses a concrete channel – “the Los Angeles River, loosely defined”. The next landmark is Walt Disney Animation Studios. Here Mackay, craning his neck, spots the oversized lilac wizard’s hat and recalls the “surreal moment” when he recognised it on his first work trip to the city, in 2009. He was full of excitement, having been flown in to test for a role he thought he’d win. He didn’t get the part, and the film was a record flop. Still, says Mackay, “You have to savour those moments.”

On West Alameda Avenue, the actor recounts further instances of dashed expectations. Last year, a television network flew him to LA to test for a new series. It happened at short notice; Mackay had been holidaying in the Blue Mountains. “I made it from Blackheath Railway Station to LAX in under 24 hours,” he says. As things turned out, the show was shelved. “They didn’t cast anyone. It was pretty demoralising.”

Some minutes later, in West Hollywood, Mackay pulls over to the left. He points out a hostel, the Banana Bungalow: “a familiar landing pad for many”. He stayed here for his first pilot season (when the new television year’s trial episodes are cast), sharing a room with fellow Australian actor Jai Courtney, whose car he is now driving; Courtney found success in the series Spartacus. While Mackay counts himself as lucky, he nonetheless points out: “I’m closing in on a hundred auditions since the last time I booked a job.”

The Ledger Scholarship, he says, has hardened his resolve. He describes attending the award night in June, which was held at a private home in the Hollywood Hills. Mackay, who hadn’t known Ledger, met many who had. He chatted with Ledger’s father, Kim. “He told this wonderful story about having all these keys come back when he finally sold Heath’s place, because Heath would just cut a key and say, ‘Stay as long as you want, take a car to your audition, whatever you need.’”

The next day, Mackay and Kim Ledger were interviewed for the Nine Network’s Today Show. Afterwards, says Mackay, “Our cars were brought around. Kim looked at this” – he gestures to the BMW – “and said, ‘Jesus, is that your car?’ I said, ‘No, it’s my mate’s.’ He just smiled and nodded and said, ‘Yeah, that’s the spirit.’ Because that’s what Heath would do.”

By now Mackay has been driving for almost two hours. The following day, Tuesday, he has his next screen test as the Flash. On Thursday, he learns he is in the final two. By the weekend, he will get word that the other actor will play the superhero.

“A not unfamiliar scenario,” Mackay tells me in a later text message. It brings to mind something he said while driving, a piece of advice he took to heart early in his career. “The auditions are your job, your main chance to play the part.” It’s not the end of his Los Angeles visit. As Mackay says, he plans to stay on a while.

Jo Lennan
Jo Lennan is a writer based in Sydney. She contributes to TIME, the Economist and Intelligent Life. @jolennan

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