RESCUE Special Ops: articles

Les Hill

The acclaim heaped upon Les Hill for his work as Jason Moran in Underbelly helped him win a starring role in Nine's Rescue: Special Operations.

Underbelly, the gift that keeps giving

LES Hill isn’t sure he believes in second chances. Perhaps he should. He’s tasted fame twice as the star of two very different hit shows, Home and Away and Underbelly, with 15 years between them.

He’s following up his success in Underbelly, in which he played Melbourne underworld figure Jason Moran, with a more conventional heroic role, that of rescue worker Dean Gallagher in Nine’s new drama Rescue: Special Ops. With his square jaw and a striking intensity, he’s a natural fit for both roles. And there are times, when his guard is down, that you see flashes of the younger Hill, barely 17, when he was cast in Home and Away as rebellious teen Blake Dean.

Teenage soap stars are rarely cast against type, so it is no surprise to hear Hill was himself rebellious. "I was a pretty feisty kid and I was brought up to speak my mind, which wasn’t appreciated by some of the people around me, so I got a reputation for being a little outspoken,’’ Hill says. "If you’re 36 and you speak your mind, it’s OK; if you’re 18 and you speak your mind, you’re an upstart.’’

The fame of soap stardom burns with particular heat. It is personal and powerful, enticing young actors to surrender themselves to a publicity machine that pushes them onto magazine covers and into the lap of screaming fans. "I don’t think you can be ready for that at that age. I don’t think anybody can be ready for it. It’s a different world,’’ he says. "It’s very easy for people to get what they want out of a child and you can’t defend yourself so well against that.’’

Fame was easy but carving out a successful acting career was harder. "In Australia, it takes a little while to be considered a proper actor and yet if you go to America straight after Home and Away and you land a film, suddenly you’re a real player. I don’t know what that is. The way I see it, you’re either good at what you do or you’re not.’’

He admits to walking away from his acting career "maybe five times’’, working as a chef, a nightclub doorman, a landscape gardener, a pub manager and a soldier, though each time his former life caught up with him. "There are real life pressures. You see your friends around you have solid careers; they’re working, they have proper jobs, they’re moving up ladders. I wouldn’t change those things I did but I always seemed to get pulled back into acting.’’

Two years ago, Hills’ world was transformed by Underbelly. "That was the show that anyone who had seen me on Home and Away or the other bits and pieces went, ‘Hang on, there might be a little bit more to this guy’,’’ he says. "I think I’d been waiting a long time to show people what I could do and there was just no opportunity to do that. You can’t do it in 30-second commercials and you can’t do it in guest roles. Underbelly gave a lot of actors the chance to show people what they could do.’’

Jason Moran was a complex character for an actor to play, partly because he was a real person but mainly because, like many of the characters in Underbelly, he challenged perceptions of what was a hero and what was a villain. Hill says his approach was simple — he played him as a family guy.

"He was a loving family man, the loyal friend and brother. That’s all you can focus on. The world is a complicated place. You are where you are when you’re born and a lot of people don’t have a choice about where they’re going.’’

After Underbelly, many expected Hill to go to Los Angeles and join the growing pack of young Australian actors making their mark in the US. He doesn’t rule it out, though he describes LA as "an office’’ and says, "I could spend a few months there doing work but I don’t think I could spend a few months there drinking lattes’’.

He was persuaded to stay in Australia by the chance to play a quintessential hero, something he hadn’t done before. He was also drawn to the undercurrent of humour in Rescue: Special Ops.

"There is a dry edge to these people, which you have to have in this job. You can’t go to work and deal with life and death and be earnest about it or you’ll go insane.’’

Equally appealing was the physical side of the work: large-scale action sequences with climbing and abseiling. "If you can’t deal with that physical side of it, it’s going to take away from the truth of the story,’’ he says.

Rescue: Special Ops also stars Andrew Lees as Dean’s brother Chase; Gigi Edgley, Daniel Amalm and Katherine Hicks as Dean’s teammates; and Libby Tanner and Peter Phelps as the team’s leaders. Hill says the cast developed an easy camaraderie quickly. "Some personalities are going to gel, some are not. This cast, for whatever reason, gets on well. They’re a good bunch of people, there’s not been one temper tantrum, much to my dismay. I think it might be interesting to see one.’’

Though perhaps not from him. He’s not as "outspoken’’ as he used to be, he says. "I generally get what I want but a little bit more carefully these days.’’

By Michael Idato
August 6, 2009
The Age