Zac Efron is the latest international superstar to be plonked in outback Australia and left to fry in the sun – cinematically speaking. The Hollywood heartthrob, best-known for starring in the High School Musical franchise, plays the protagonist of Gold, a new dystopian survival drama about a man who finds a huge nugget of the good stuff in the middle of Woop Woop, and guards it while attempting to tolerate extremely challenging conditions.
Efron is far from the first big-name celebrity to boost the appeal of a locally produced film; for decades A-list actors have been airlifted into Australian productions. Since the birth of the Australian New Wave in the 1970s, which rejuvenated the local film industry after a long period in which it was virtually dead in the water, many international stars have popped in to say “g’day”, giving Aussie titles increased international appeal.
Below is a crash course on international stars who have done precisely that since the 1970s, and the productions they starred in. There’s a lot of them, so this guide cannot include every one – needless to say, you will have a lot of movie viewing homework by the end of it. Excluded from the list are films with superstar Australian actors (such as Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman) and films starring so-called “honorary Australians”, such as Russell Crowe. Take a deep breath, because there’s a lot to get through…
The ’70s and ’80s
It’s tempting to describe Mick Jagger’s starring turn in 1970’s Ned Kelly as the beginning of the modern era of superstar international celebrities in Australian cinema. Firstly, because 1970 is a nice round number, and secondly, because the Rolling Stone depicting the country’s most infamous bushranger is an irresistible stroke of WTF? casting. Sadly, Jagger isn’t a great actor – with little of the gravitas he radiates on stage – and the film is patchy, with a drifting narrative and a tone that opts for lyrical but feels frustratingly light.
A far more explosively entertaining performance as a true blue bushranger arrived six years later when the legendarily bolshie and boozle-added Dennis Hopper played the rootin’-tootin’ protagonist of Mad Dog Morgan, bringing the titular character to life with manic intensity. Hopper gave the cast and crew a lot more method acting than they were used to, many stories emerging from the set reflecting on the actor’s wild behaviour: Director Philippe Mora for instance later recalled that Hopper, drunk as a skunk, was arrested and deported the day after filming wrapped, “with a blood-alcohol reading that said he should have been clinically dead.”
Our national cinema entered the 1980s with one of the most Hitchcockian Australian thrillers of all time: 1981’s Road Games, directed by Hitchcock devotee Richard Franklin. Jamie Lee Curtis, in hot demand following the success of 1978’s slasher classic Halloween, plays a hitchhiker picked up by the protagonist: a truck driver (Stacy Keach) who believes another driver on the road may be a killer. Curtis turns what could have been a “damsel in distress” supporting character into an intellectual equal to the hero.
Continuing the trend of hard-bitten bush people, Kirk Douglas played a sensational role in another classic meat pie western: 1982’s The Man from Snowy River. In fact the Hollywood royalty – father of Michael, and star of many classics including Spartacus – played two roles: a crotchety farm owner and his scruffy-looking peg-legged twin brother, who cooks the titular protagonist wallaby stew and inspires him with pearls of wisdom such as “there’s more to life than death.”
In 1983, Alan Arkin and Christopher Lee starred as the hero and villain respectively of one of the strangest superhero movies of all time: the completely bonkers The Return of Captain Invincible, an action-comedy-musical about a caped crusader (Arkin) who quits superheroism and escapes to Australia, becoming a jaded alcoholic. In 1988 a titanic performance arrived from the great Meryl Streep, playing Lindy Chamberlain in Evil Angels (released outside Australia as A Cry in the Dark). Chamberlain became the centre of a media spectacle after being suspected, then convicted (though that was later quashed) of murdering her daughter Azaria, who in fact was taken and killed by a dingo. Streep nailed the notoriously difficult Australian accent, bringing unnerving authenticity to a line that became very famous: “the dingo took my baby!”
The ’90s and naughts
Anthony Hopkins, like Meryl Streep, is as acclaimed an actor as they come, with too many bona fides and statuettes to name. In 1991’s Spotswood, the revered thesp plays a corporate consultant in charge of assessing redundancies for a car manufacturer in the titular Melbourne suburb. The sort of numbers man who, as Oscar Wilde put it, understands the price of everything and the value of nothing, he comes to learn that people are more than numbers on a ledger. This decent, albeit unexceptional, film avoids the kind of overt sentimentality its synopsis perhaps implies, and includes a fun scene with Hopkins racing slot cars.
A couple of years later, Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin arrived on a beach in fancy dresses in Jane Campion’s 1993 masterpiece The Piano, which won 11 Australian Film Institute awards as well as three Oscars and Cannes’ prestigious Palme d’Or. This erotically-charged period drama ignited debate about exactly what constitutes an Australian film, with our Kiwi pals across the Tasman (where the film was shot) inevitably, and not unfairly, claiming ownership. Other star-studded Australia/international co-productions that arrived in the ’90s include 1994’s Sirens (with Hugh Grant and Portia de Rossi), 1995’s Babe (with James Cromwell), 1997’s Oscar and Lucinda (with Ralph Fiennes) and 1998’s Dark City (with Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland and Jennifer Connelly).
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The early years of the 21st century saw the beloved John Goodman appear in the ’60s-set comedy Dirty Deeds and old mate Mad Dog Morgan himself returning to Australian cinema in 2003’s The Night We Called it A Day, to play another legend: Frank Sinatra. The film is not great but quite fun, capturing that strange period in showbiz history when Sinatra was effectively trapped in an Australian hotel, then-powerful unions banning its workers from assisting him in any way after Ol’ Blue Eyes made offensive comments about female Australian journalists.
To deliver a memorable performance actors don’t need to appear on screen, as anyone who’s seen a well-voiced animation will know. British comedy stalwart John Cleese lent his vocal strings to 2000’s The Magic Pudding, playing a ridiculous looking pudding with thin little legs and a crotchety demeanour.
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But the great Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was widely considered one of the finest actors of his generation until his death in 2014, truly shone as a gravelly-voiced social recluse in Oscar-winning director Adam Elliot’s 2009 stop-motion animation Mary and Max. It’s an amazing, emotionally rich, distinctly stylised film, telling a sad semi-autobiographical story of a young Australian girl (voiced by Bethany Whitmore as a child and Toni Collette as an adult) becoming pen pals with Hoffman’s older, more fragile character.
From 2010 till now
Over the last decade and a bit, Australian cinemas has experienced a particularly strong turnout from A-list British men. Those popping in to turbo-charge local productions include Robert Pattinson (dystopian drama The Rover), Daniel Radcliffe (survival thriller Jungle), Martin Freeman (zombie movie Cargo), Ewan McGregor (crime thriller Son of a Gun), Dev Patel (intense action flick Hotel Mumbai), Bill Nighy (family drama Buckley’s Chance) and Tom Hardy (the instantly iconic Mad Max: Fury Road).
Playing a new incarnation of the legendarily cranky road warrior Max Rockatansky, Hardy had big shoes to fill but was sensationally good.Yet he was in many ways eclipsed by co-star Charlize Theron, who stole the movie from under his feet as the one-armed Imperator Furiosa. Another explosively good performance from a female superstar arrived the same year, with Kate Winslet raising hell as a bad arse seamstress in Jocelyn Moorhouse’s period revenge movie The Dressmaker. Elisabeth Moss was also brilliant in Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, a US/Australia co-production from 2020 that repurposed a schlocky old franchise into a chilling contemporary story of domestic abuse.
And now Zac Efron joins the ever-expanding club of A-list imports, getting dirt on his photogenic face in the aforementioned survival thriller Gold. Like English actor Gary Bond in 1971’s Wake in Fright, and American actor Johnathon Schaech in 1997’s Welcome to Woop Woop, Efron is plonked in the middle of nowhere and sent through the wringer, confronting the difficult question of what is worse: the ferocious outback sun or the country’s rough-as-guts locals. Nobody ever said living Down Under was easy. Welcome to ’straya, mate!
Gold is out in theatres now, and streams on Stan from January 26