Interview with Alex Thompson from Beneath Hill 60
AT: Beneath Hill 60 is a true story about Capt Woodward who was a miner in Townsville. He trained in Charter's Towers which is basically a mine up in Townsville. He went over to Armentieres to basically mine under the German lines and it was considered a cowardice attack to mine under the enemy lines and blow them up from underneath. It was a silent and secret little war and he had a group of soldiers and one of the soldiers in his company was Walter Sneddon, who was an 18yr old boy who group up in Wallsend up in Newcastle and he signed up for the war because recruiters came round to his town and basically promised all the young guys an adventure and everyone believed the war would be over before Christmas so Walter signed up, went back home and told his mum and dad he had signed up for the war. The next day his dad went and signed up too, went back home and told his wife. Her response was "how can you sign up after my only boy has signed up?". He said "well I have been looking after my boy for the past 18yrs so i'm not stopping now?". So it was nice to play a character who actually existed. You have a history, a lot of research to look back on and a huge amount of responsibility that lies on your shoulders to do this person justice. So he was part of Woodward's company and they went over to Belgium, looked after 500 tonnes of amonal mines underneath enemy lines and on June 7th Woodward and his company made history.
JK: So are there any photos of your character?
AT: No, that's the funny thing, we haven't been able to find any photos of Walter or Jim Sneddon. I did research when I got the role, which was probably about......my character was actually the last cast. They spent a lot of time looking for a Walter, they needed a big build guy who looked young.
JK: They knew he was a big build guy?
AT: Yeah, that was in the script. He was a big build guy with a baby face and he also needed to look very similar to his dad (Alan Dukes) who was already cast. It actually worked out perfectly that we looked quite alike. So when I got the role it was only three weeks until boot camp, so I only had three weeks to research the role and I was asked to bulk up. So in that time I only found Jim Sneddon's death certificate and Walter and Jim's enlistment papers. So that's all I have been able to find. I have been trying, even up to now, to find the Sneddon's up in Wallsend. Apparently even Ray Martin and the Executive Producer (Ross Thomas) and everyone has been trying to locate information on them, documents, photographs and no-one has been able to find them so far.
JK: What mining or military training did you have to do to prepare for the role? And also what mental preparations did you do for the role?
AT: Well as I said, I only had three weeks prep prior to boot camp from when I was cast and when I had my second audition, my callback, when I first met Jeremy (Simms) he did say to me can you try and bulk up a bit and do some weights for the next couple of weeks to give some idea that you have been mining for a little while. I had a bit of a regiment eating steak and veggies every day and I did about three weight sessions a day. I couldn't do any cardio because I wasn't allowed to lose any weight. So I literally just worked on my upper body. (JK note: Alex is quite slim in real life so he managed a lot in 3 weeks). So I had to do that and we got up to Townsville and spent 5 days doing military boot camp with one of the actors, Warwick Young, who plays Percy Marsden, he had military experience (was in the army) so he actually came on as technical advisor and they took us out to Lavarack Barracks and we learned how to march, army movements, ranks and we were issued with our rifles and did a bit of firing training with our blanks and then they put us in the trenches for two days, they put us in there overnight. There were ten of us in the trenches and we were given our rations, a can of Bully Beef and packet of biscuits and water bottle and told "off you go". We had no idea what to expect and we had no idea what was going on, the only person who did was Warwick (Young) who was organising the whole thing and he would tell Steve Le Marquand (Sergeant Bill Fraser) who was our Corporal. So these whole five days of boot camp we referred to each other in our character's names, so it wasn't only a five day boot camp to learn how you work as a military operation it was also an improvisation for us so we could get to know each other as our characters so I was referred to as Walt and I would call Alan Dukes "Dad" throughout the five days. In the trenches they had organised for the Special FX guys, who needed to do their tests, to set off all their explosion tests with us in the trenches, so it was really a funny experience but also very shocking because you would be sitting down enjoying a cigarette, because we were only allowed Rollies for authenticity, so you would just roll a cigarette and be sitting there because we were tired because we had been digging a little outpost for three hours after having done all this movement training and you put a little bit of rum in there, so you are just absolutely buggered after ten hours of hard work, and mind you we are actors, so you sit down to have your cigarette with a nice little cup of tea and all of a sudden BOOM an explosion goes off and you are just showered in mud and then all of a sudden Steve (Le Marquand) would come and yell us to get up on the parapet and jump up there and there are explosions going off and they got extras to run along in front of us in German costume and we had to fire our blanks at them and they were firing back at us. So actually, the first time that happened I nearly shat my pants as it was really a scary little experience. It was amazing and we learnt a lot and then we spent one day getting mining experience and how we used all the mining tools and operated as a unit under enemy lines as you have to be silent in these tunnels and you couldn't just have a shovel and the freedom of just digging away as you are in such a confined space so you had top learn how to use these little instruments. So we really learnt a lot but we did get to know each other quite well and we became quite close just in these five days and the cameras weren't even rolling.
JK: And anything to mentally prepare for the role?
AT: It's a pretty tough story and as I said before there's a lot of responsibility resting on your shoulders, you really have to do these boys proud because no-one has really heard what they have done. The real diggers were responsible for one of the greatest victories in the war and they came back to Australia after staying in Belgium for a year or two after the war had ended to help rebuild bridges and roads so by the time they came back here to Australia there were no ticker-tape parades, no medals and they were unsung heroes. So hearing all that and knowing all that there is a huge amount of responsibility so you really have top do it properly. It's not like you can walk into the film going I am playing a character, let's have some fun you have to do them justice.
JK: Maybe someone will go and watch it and realise "that's my grandfather"
AT: Yeah, that would be amazing
JK: Where was the film made and how were your living arrangements? I.e. Were they better than your living arrangements in the film?
AT: We film it up in Townsville and the town was great, they really loved the idea of a film being made there and they had such an attachment to the film as the lead character, Woodward came from there. They really helped the film out and we had great accommodation staying in furnished apartments.
JK: You got to come home at the end of the day and shower after all that mud
AT: Yes we did, couldn't do that in boot camp but we did get to do that after each day of shooting, and I was sharing an apartment with two of the guys, Mark Coles Smith (Billy Bacon aka Streaky - who YAY commented on the Salty Popcorn review of Beneath Hill 60 yesterday and made my day) and Mart Thomas (Ginger) so we all had fun. Because we got so close not only doing boot camp but filming each day we'd go back and all enjoy a cheeky little beer after a hard day's work. It was good that we all really got along so well. And it was such a great place to work, beautiful sunny Townsville, we'd take a trek over to Magnetic Island if we had a weekend off and we'd go to the beach.
JK: How long was the shoot?
AT: We shot for two months.
JK: What is your favourite memory from on set?
AT: The funny thing is that my favourite memory is actually boot camp. It wasn't even when the cameras were rolling, it was boys with toys. It was about discovery and a new experience. Being handed a rifle and told to go out and play soldier for a week was a cool experience. Funnily enough, one of my best memories, from an actor's point of view, was a scene I had with Chris Haywood, who played Colonel Rutledge, and I don't think the scene actually made the film, which was a shame, but it was an amazing experience, I remember he came onto set and he was going through his actor's process and we didn't really talk about anything because you give each other a bit of space and freedom. Jeremy came in and called action and he gave this amazing performance and I didn't have a line but I remember being so effected by his performance by him that I forgot I was acting and it was a real moment as an actor that you realise "I'm not acting" this person is just drawing a performance out of you and I'm not even aware I am doing it. It was an amazing experience to take out of that as an actor to actually feel that and forget the cameras were rolling.
AT: It was all pretty surreal, I literally got a phone call from my agent on a Friday afternoon saying "Hey you've got an audition on Monday morning for Beneath Hill 60", so I went home and that weekend spent Saturday and Sunday all day researching everything I could about the film itself, who was involved and the story. I rocked up on Monday morning, did my audition and walked out like most actors going "M'eh, I don't know how I went". You just don't know and you can never tell. I always get the call from mum asking how I went and always responding "I don't know". So Tuesday you stress out wondering if you are going to get a phone call soon and then Wednesday morning I get the phone call telling me they want to fly me up to Townsville tomorrow (Thurs) to meet the casting director and director, so I hopped on a plane Thursday morning, met Jeremy, met Kirsty (the casting director) and they said "You've got the role" and it was then three weeks up until filming and we had a rehearsal in Sydney and I met the cast and from boot camp we all became really close. But you walk into the rehearsal room and go "WOW" and there's Gyton and there's Anthony Hays and you see these guys and I have watched them and I remember Brendon from years and years ago on Life Support and thinking "Man, this guy's so funny" and here he is sitting across from me and you get a bit star struck but then you realise they are ordinary blokes who want to have a beer with you and their doing their job and so are you.
JK: I heard a rumour you got caught on the wring side of some pyrotechnic explosions. Can you clarify this?
AT: (Chuckling) We were doing a night shoot, and we had to jump off a truck and run across the battlefield, no man's land and there were explosions going off in the background and then later on I think this was the scene where us three young boys (Sneddon, Bacon and Tiffin) get split up and take the wrong turn. It was as we get off the truck, we jump off and Woodward says go this way. Now the ground was wet because all the effects and props people had hoses and were wetting the ground to give it a nice little look and we had these boots on that just had no grip whatsoever and they timed the explosions so they would go off as we go past because we were in this line as were running out past the camera. We started running and I slipped, the timing went off a bit, and the pyrotechnic explosion went off and, you know, hit me in the face. And I wear contact lenses and unfortunately lost one of my contacts and this was the start of the night. I was just thinking to keep going, with my hand over the eye but someone saw I was hurt, yelled cut and got a nurse. Then this stopped all the shoot asking if I needed to lie down or what I wanted to happen. I was "no no no, i'm cool, how did it look". I filmed the rest of the night with only one contact lens.
JK: Did they use that scene?
AT: I think they used the scene but not that shot.
JK: How has your making of this film helped you gain a better understanding and appreciation of the real life characters and events?
AT: You do boot camp, you see the living conditions they lived in but at the end of the day we had an air-conditioned trailer, we had make up, we had hair designers but these guys had it very different. You get a tiny glimpse of what they went through but at the end of the day we can go home. These guys lived through horrific conditions and we were only there for two months and we got to go home and have a shower every day. These guys were there for four years in these conditions where literally bodies were just piling up into the trenches and literally becoming part of the wall so I don't think I fully understand it or could fully get my head around what they went through but I definitely appreciate what they did, especially being miners and digging these tunnels underneath these trenches and knowing that at any second there could be cave ins or the Germans could come through from any direction, it was extremely tense.
JK: One scene from you particularly impressed me with you, I won't explain details for fear of giving it away, but it was a scene of great sadness and loss. In that scene I saw you dig really deep for the emotional effect this had on you. Was there somewhere you went internally to obtain the required life shattering grief?
AT: I don't really like to draw back on past experiences that have hurt me because I like to be in the moment, I like to know what's going on and not take my mind elsewhere. I remember turning up to set that day and going ok this is the scene where I am really going to have to know what I am doing and concentrate and I got on the set and I think it was the first scene that we were filming that day and for some reason it got pushed back to after lunch so my little process that I had was to literally not talk to anyone and listen to really sad music so I sat under a tent for about four hours and then we finally get on set after i've been in this horrible state and I wasn't even sure if could do it but it's one of those things where you just have to and, of course, it was really nice to be able to see the other actors and be able to work off them. You take one look at them and you see what their feeling and that helps you. I think the best thing you can do is to not draw back on previous experiences, like my dog getting hit by a car or anything, just work with the other actors. It was interesting though, I remember Jeremy not really telling me anything after we had completed the scene and then at the end of the night after we done another scene afterwards that required us to be happy and laughing and everything. Jeremy was leaving and got in his car and turned to me and said "Beautiful scene today Alex" and to me that was kind of the tick approval and it was really nice to hear Jeremy say that.
JK: Now finally, with some feature film exposure, how is this helping your standing in the industry ? Have you had new doors open for you and what are your future projects?
AT: (Laughing), Ummmm, nothing. At the moment it's all Hill 60 and I am hoping because I am an unknown actor that hasn't done much before, fingers crossed, touch wood, people will see this and hopefully more work will come. I am kind of just riding the wave at the moment and taking it as it comes and attempting to remain grounded and in terms of industry it's been cool, going to a whole lot of events, I went to Tropfest and it was the first time I had actually been able to go into the VIP tent. It was really nice meeting a whole lot of people who knew about Hill 60 and who were interested in hearing about my experiences and I have seen all these people's work. So I have made a lot of friends and contacts just through having a foot in the industry now.
JK: This is one of the best Australian films I have seen from a commercial aspect in a long time. Is there an international release schedule for this film and if so what kind of impact would you like this film to have on the world?
AT: They're actually having a screening of the film today (day of interview) over in London and I know that Bill Lineback (Producer) took the film over to the Berlin Film Festival in hopes of it getting picked up. I heard it went down really well over there and they had a lot of interest (from what I have been told, I am not 100% on this) and so far all the feedback we have been getting on the film is all positive. We are now waiting on Cannes and we have had one of the official selectors come out and see the film for the first rounds but I am not exactly sure how the film is going in that respect but fingers crossed because it would be great if it screened at Cannes. In terms of it effecting people it's such an amazing story, it's a story that no-one's aware of. Australian soldiers and not only that, normal Australians, miners were responsible for the largest explosion the world had ever seen up until Hiroshima so it's a huge momentous victory for everyone involved in WW1. I think it will really appeal mainly to a lot of European audiences, especially for the fact we do have a lot of German scenes with German soldiers and they are not depicted in an evil, nasty way. It was just shot the way things were, no good guys or bad guys. People were given orders and they followed out those orders. So I think it may actually reach a good audience in Germany and Eurpoe and hopefully it will reach the States, but you can never actually tell how the States will react to an Aussie film, they will either love it or hate it.
JK: The Australian film industry is a rocky one, recently there have been a lot of films coming out that are brilliant plus a lot that are crap ones. Do you believe it is on the right track and do you believe there are any ways the industry can improve itself to garner more international attention?
AT: I actually believe we are releasing a lot of great films of late, Hill 60 being one, Animal Kingdom (we both agree this looks amazing and Alex is good friends with the lead actor who has been keeping him up to date on its progress) and I really cannot wait to see this one as he is such a great guy and it looks like he has done an amazing performance so you have these films coming out that are just well made films and I think this is one of the problems with the industry, it's not that we can't make great films, it's just that we don't (on a regular basis). I don't really know how to explain it, we have such amazing talent here in terms of film making and actors so I think maybe more funding would be a start but I don't really want to say anything that might get me into trouble but I know that a $9.6MIL budget for Hill 60 was really a kind of stretch and they really struggled to get that (JK NOTE: When you consider most US films have a budget of over $100MIL for things like comedies it is amazing what Australia can do with the money it has to use) and I recently heard that Screen Australia have capped their funding at $2.5MIL so how are you to make a film when our own Government are capping us at $2.5MIL. You can't make a decent comparable film.
JK: So people rely a lot on private investment?
AT: Our main private investors were miners, Ross Thomas, who was the one who found us the diary of Capt. Woodward, really got the ball rolling. He is not in the film industry himself. He was a miner and he just loved the story so much and invested money in it. So the majority of our mony to make Hill 60 came from the town and people of Townsville. You're right, it really is a rocky industry but I really do not completely understand. I have only really completed one film and it's talking to these other guys, Anthony Hays, who has done so many films. and it's really interesting to hear what he has to say because I don't have too much of an opinion at this stage as I don't really know enough about it.
JK: Who and what are your life influences in regards to acting and what are your top three films of all time?
AT: OOh, top three films, I don't even know..............Titanic would have to be up there.
JK: (Laughing) Did Sean (a mutual friend of ours) prep you on this? Titanic is my all time favourite film.
AT: NO, that's definitely up there, maybe Forrest Gump is up there, this is too hard, I have so many favourite films, too many for me to list the whole lot of them but if I had to pick a third I couldn't tell you. But influences..........I am not 100% sure about influences.
JK: Ok, who would you like to aspire to be like in regards to your acting?
AT: I really now look up the guys I have just worked with. I really look up to Anthony Hays and Brendon (Cowell). It's a bit more real for me, I could probably say the names of Tom Hanks or Leonardo DiCaprio because I do think of them as really amazing actors but I really respect these guys because I have actually worked with them. Warwick Young has really taken me under his wing and he's been....the same with Alan Dukes...I guess I aspire to be like them. I was talking to Warwick, because he has been helping me out in regards to the industry and he said he is helping me because someone did it for him and he hopes that one day I will be in a position to help a young actor so of course I aspire to be like that, people that help out young actors. There is no competition between them and nor should there be, everyone should be able to help each other out because it is such a rocky industry.
JK: Last question..................... it was suggested I asked you your favourite quote (in general) and what does this mean to you?
AT: An actor once asked Marlon Brando "How do you get to be a good actor?". Marlon Brando responded with two words "Stick around". It holds very true and reminds you to just keep at it.
With final words like that I think Australia might be seeing a bit more of Alex "Thommo" Thompson. Best of luck to you Thommo - I am looking forward to watching you scale the mountains of the Australian and world film industry. Beneath Hill 60 opens this Thursday 15th April at most cinemas in Australia. Kick butt Hill 60! Trailer is below.