Young Lions: articles

Boom and gloom

He was aiming head-on for stardom, but Alex Dimitriades somehow missed—badly, writes Sue Williams.

Everyone expected the movie Head On to be the making of Alex Dimitriades. At the Cannes Film Festival the audience rose to its feet to give a standing ovation to the film about a young Greek Australian going wild in a ferociously anarchic world of sex, drugs and music.

Dimitriades was compared to a young Marlon Brando and a youthful Robert de Niro. He won rave reviews across the world. The Hollywood scripts flooded in.

That was nearly three years ago but Dimitriades, sitting on a garden chair on the rooftop of a Kings Cross hotel, looks doleful. It wasn't just everyone else who expected his career to take off after that. He did too.

"But it just didn't happen," he says, gloomily. "Instead, I went through a period of not working for the longest time I've ever not worked. I'd never been out of work for that long before—or since."

For while he visited the US and UK and was signed up by eager agents, he didn't find any of the overseas roles he was offered challenging enough. Instead, he decided to come home and throw in his lot with the local industry.

And then, nothing.

"After such a good movie like Head On, I really felt like putting a lot more faith into the Australian industry," he says. "Projects like that make you feel you can do really good things here. You aren't just doing a job, you feel you're really creating something important.

"I wanted the world to be looking at us as much for our films as for our actors who make it abroad. But nothing happened. In a way, it was surprising after a film like Head On. I had no work. I feel kind of let down by it."

So Dimitriades, now 27, continued with the TV series Wildside, and came to terms with the prospect of long-running unemployment. For the young man considered to be one of Australia's brightest stars, it was a pretty dark time.

His agent, Mark Morrissey, could only watch from the sidelines.

"He was offered work overseas, but he's very specific about the kind of projects that excite him and he believes in," says Morrissey. "He was willing to hold out for those kind of roles. I know there were times he could have chosen to take on work purely for the money but he was determined not to.

"He's a very focused and disciplined young man. I really respect him for that."

It took a while before Dimitriades started to be offered the kind of unusual Australian movie roles he craved. There was the part of a bounty-hunter in Let's Get Skase, to be released in October. Then came the Esben Storm sci-fi thriller Subterano about 11 people trapped in an underground car park and attacked by remote-controlled toys. Dimitriades missed the whole of the Olympics last year, locked away in that city centre car park. And, finally, La Spagnola, premiering on September 20.

Filmed in yet another decidedly unglamorous setting, in the shadow of the Caltex oil refinery at Kurnell, it's the bittersweet half-comic, half-tragic tale of a Spanish migrant who's abandoned by her husband for an Australian woman and who then plots revenge with her daughter as the pair struggle to survive in a bleak industrial town.

Dimitriades plays the handsome young Greek man who briefly becomes the woman's lover but who then turns his attentions to her daughter. It's only a small part but Dimitriades burns the screen as the irresistible bastard of the piece.

"It was a bit of fun and I liked the script," says Dimitriades, a much slighter figure than he appears on screen, today dressed head to toe in black, his teeth startlingly white against a dark, fashionably unshaven chin. "My character is completely irresponsible in that he moves on from the mother to the daughter, not realising the vulnerability of these people."

La Spagnola director Steve Jacobs cast him, indeed, for that very sex appeal. "He's just got tremendous screen presence and we needed someone everyone would find attractive," Jacobs says, "and there aren't too many actors around with such sexual magnetism.

"He was great in the sex scenes. As a director, you can draw up the parameters but then you have to let the actors work out the rest for themselves. He was very good at that. He's a very instinctive, natural actor."

It's that natural charisma that marked out Dimitriades right from the beginning. His start in the business is legendary: discovered in the schoolyard by a casting agent holding auditions for the movie The Heartbreak Kid. He didn't actually attend any auditions but when the agent pointed him out to a teacher, she was warned off.

"The teacher said, 'Oh, he's a bit of a bad boy', which immediately sparked her interest," says Michael Jenkins, who went on to direct Dimitriades in that movie, in its spin-off TV series Heartbreak High, the landmark Blue Murder, in which he played drug dealer Warren Lanfranchi, and Wildside, the ABC's acclaimed police series.

"He proves that you don't have to go to NIDA to be a star," says Jenkins. "He has a quality that you don't get from institutionalised training. His instincts are very acute and he brings everything a bit of reality. I think he's just terrific; one of the best young actors we've produced for a long time.

"I think he's a star, but maybe that'll hit his career a little bit later than ideally he would have wanted.

"At what age did Russell Crowe have a degree of success overseas? He was into his 30s. That degree of maturity isn't a bad thing. It's hard for young actors to get the kind of roles that allow them to cut a swath out there and I think Alex is still looking around for strong things to establish his credentials."

Indeed, Jenkins is so keen to continue their association that he has now cast Dimitriades as one of the leads in a new drama he's making for Channel 9 about a group of young detectives and their interaction with the local community. As yet unnamed, but variously known as Young Lions and South West 101, it also stars SeaChange's Tom Long and is likely to air early next year.

As for that bad boy image, Dimitriades may have lived up to it at first but everyone who has worked with him recently insists he's grown out of it. He talks of it as an invention of the press. "Beyond my control," he says evenly, with a shrug.

Now, in any case, he's far too busy searching out those challenging roles that might, along the way, push him into the international big league all over again—this time permanently. He insists, however, that he's in no hurry.

"You never know in this game what's going to happen next," he says, smiling. "Even when you've finished something, you don't know what's going to happen to it. It's a constant gamble, which is fun but also a bit nerve-racking. I'm pretty happy with that."

Eventually, most agree, Dimitriades will join the Hollywood exodus. He isn't so sure.

"I just don't think I was ready before," he says. "I went and did the promotional stuff and had people looking after me there. But, really, it was a matter of spending more time there and biting the bullet. And it wasn't the right time for me."

He pauses, and looks out over the tops of the buildings jostling in on Kings Cross.

"I'm just scared, I think," he says softly. "I'm scared of losing touch, really. That's what it is. I like roots, that's a big thing for me, and Hollywood's such a crazy town. It can be insane.

"Besides, it's not really about other people and what they expect. That just creates pressures that build on you. It's more kind of when I'm ready. And I don't know when, or even if, that'll happen."

By Sue Williams
The Sun-Herald