Alex Russell is apologising profusely for being a little late to our scheduled Zoom interview. He’s been trying to track down some medication for his partner, Diana, who’s suffering from back pain, perhaps brought on by the long-haul flight from LA the two took the day before. Thanks to the new Omicron COVID variant, they’re now holed up in an Airbnb apartment in Sydney’s Tamarama, where they’re isolating for three days.
As iso stints go, this one in a pretty beachside locale isn’t too bad, Russell says. The last time he was back here in June he had to do two weeks’ quarantine in a city hotel. “Some ocean breeze is a little nicer, a little more palatable,” he says, smiling.
Dressed in a black crew neck, with short hair, a hint of stubble and betraying the odd sniffle, Russell appears trim and angular.
His day job, playing wisecracking Jim Street on hit US TV show S.W.A.T., requires him to be in superior shape to absorb the action-packed drama’s gruelling physical demands. But Russell has ramped up his training in the last four months to prepare for the desert photo shoot that accompanies this story. So, in effect, he’s done something of a high-end transformation – taking his rig from good to great or from merely eyebrow-raising to jaw-dropping. We’ve caught him at his apex.
It’s a nice place to be, but Russell is wise enough to know his current physique isn’t one he can maintain for long. “I am innately a person of extremes and one of my life’s challenges is to seek more balance, to not go up and down as much,” he says. “I can’t live in the place that I was for these photos. I can’t live there. My body is not made to live in that place, but how close can I live to it while maintaining a healthy lifestyle and still enjoying myself? Trying to strike that balance . . . that’s the hard part.”
Anyone who’s strived to achieve an ambitious physical goal – say losing 5kg or training for an Ironman – knows the mental load involved in balancing sacrifice and indulgence, in managing the pendulum swings between restraint and reward. The tightrope you’re required to walk. The same balancing act applies to career goals. The intensity and discipline Russell can bring to his performances has helped him forge an IMDB profile most actors would kill for. But equally, he says, there have been occasions when he’s cared a little too much about the results of his labour. Like many of us, he’s been his own worst enemy.
“I used to put a lot of pressure on myself,” he says. “I used to be very result-driven to an unhealthy degree . . . to say the least. I was
very hard on myself, there wasn’t a lot of self-love going on. And I used to be obsessed with being great and being real and being all these things that, as an artist, are a recipe for disaster.”
Now, after a decade on the Hollywood highwire, Russell has managed to find that elusive balance. The sweet spot in which you strive without stressing so much and move forward without falling. How to stay there? That, as Russell acknowledges, is the hard part. Best you can do is keep looking ahead. And don’t look down.
Image: Leslie Alejandro.
SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS
Growing up in Rockhampton, the son of a doctor and a nurse, Russell doesn’t remember a time when he didn’t want to be an actor. Fortunately, he had a family who supported his ambition without question. If he’d told his parents he wished to be a quantity surveyor or a deep-sea diver, they would have backed him. They just had boundless confidence in his abilities, he says. In turn, so did he.
“I’ve always said that my parents almost brainwashed me into believing in myself, not in a weird dance mum’s way, where they want it for them. But ever since I said, ‘Oh, that’s what I want to do’, they’ve been so supportive,” he says. “I’ve always credited them with giving me an innate confidence to pursue something that’s highly volatile.”
In hindsight, having ambition and focus so young gave Russell a mental refuge he would need. A quiet and intuitive child, his school days were defined, he says, by merciless bullying. “I was an easy target because I was highly sensitive, so you could get a reaction out of me, which is just gold for a bully.”
One taunt he’s never forgotten, though he can see the funny side now, is “Tick-tick”. After being scolded by the school librarian, he shoved his chair into a table so hard it caused a clock to fall off the wall, before he stormed out of the room. Pretty soon kids were hitting him with “Tick-tick, Alex, tick-tick” wherever he went. “At the time that upset me so much,” he says. Now he just laughs.
Russell doesn’t hold any grudges towards his tormentors. He knows most kids were just trying to survive the Hunger Games-like environment of high school. “If I was in their position, I’d probably be doing the same thing,” he says. “I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.” He’s since had people come up to him in bars when he’s been home in Rockhampton and apologise for the way they treated him. “Someone will come up to me and say, ‘Hey man, I’m really sorry about that’. I say, ‘No, man. No worries’. Because that’s not them; it’s an environment and it’s hard.”
Not suprisingly, he came to view his school days as an ordeal to be endured before he could leave and become an actor. It was that vision that sustained him, his focus helping him block out the inevitable detractors. “So many people would tell you,
Image: Leslie Alejandro.
‘Oh, do you know how hard it is? It’s so hard’. And I had, almost on repeat, a phrase that I would say: ‘Yeah, yeah, I know it’s super hard but I just want to try my luck and know that I really gave it a go’.” Aspiring singer or social worker, it’s a useful phrase, that.
Russell’s other refuge was skateboarding. His proudest achievement, “ollieing down a nine-stair” (a flight of stairs with nine steps) behind the science block at his school. “I did it one time and I was so stoked with myself. I never did it again because it just wasn’t in me to be too daring.”
As much as he loved skating, though, the moment it threatened his acting dream was the moment he knew it was time to give it up. One day, after attempting to land a kickflip down a “7 stair”, his heels were so sore the next day that he could barely tap dance in the musical in which he was starring, Singin’ in the Rain. “I realised, okay, I’ve got to make a choice because if I keep skating, I could break something and what do I care more about?” His board was gathering dust in the garage soon after.
As with a lot of Aussie actors who make it in the US, you may not guess Russell’s origins when you first see him onscreen. That’s particularly so when, like Russell, an actor hasn’t come through the Home and Away/Neighbours finishing school and you have no prior awareness of them. Russell managed to blast out of film school at NIDA and land a part in Aussie indie film Wasted On the Young in 2010, ironically playing a bully. From there he left for Hollywood and it wasn’t long before he landed a role in another indie called Almost Kings. But it was the 2012 sci-fi film Chronicle, in which he starred alongside Michael B Jordan and Dane DeHaan, that launched him. Made for $12m and grossing $126m, the film would open doors for many of its young cast, including Russell.
“I’m super-proud of the movie and I’m eternally grateful for it because it afforded me other employment opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise,” he says. “I wouldn’t have S.W.A.T. if I hadn’t had Chronicle. I wouldn’t have had so many things.”
IF YOU’RE TRYING SO HARD TO BE GREAT, THERE’S NO ROOM FOR FAILURE
Indeed, alongside landing S.W.A.T. in 2017, Russell has managed to put together a formidable resume that includes blockbuster fare like Carrie, prestige films like Believe Me and Angelina Jolie’s Academy Award-nominated Unbroken, as well as Aussie indie films like Under My Skin, in which he played a straight-laced lawyer who falls for a woman who begins to question her gender identity. Having the big-budget network show as his bread and butter has afforded Russell the security to take swings on more daring film projects in the off-season.
“I definitely have an awareness on trying to diversify my portfolio,” he says. “One of the things that I’m grateful to Under My Skin for is it’s a very, very good companion to S.W.A.T. It couldn’t be more different. If someone knows you as the guy who can be Jim Street or can be Ryan from Under my Skin, it just opens people’s minds.”
The other factor that drives Russell’s choices is story, so much so that he says he’d rather take a small part in something with a great script, over a leading role in a shinier project with narrative potholes. Not that he doesn’t have dream roles, he explains, citing Russell Crowe’s Cinderella Man.
“First of all, I want to play a boxer. Second of all, I want to play period. There are certain things that I’d love to have a crack at, but I think you can get caught in the trap of falling in love with a character and justifying to yourself any shortcomings in a story.” Sometimes clear eyes beat full hearts, particularly in Hollywood.
The other thing you need if you’re going to thrive in a profession as anxiety-inducing as acting is to get out of your head, Russell says. “It [acting] can cripple you with insecurity and self-consciousness but also, if you’re trying so hard to be great, then there’s no room for failure,” he says. “There’s no room for experimentation, there’s no room for curiosity, for exploration and that’s what acting is. You’ve got to focus on living in the moment and exploring and experiencing and seeing what happens. That’s where the exciting stuff is.”
Early in his career, Russell says, he couldn’t get to that place. There was too much riding on the outcome, too much to lose, too far to fall. He was, in effect, constantly looking down from the highwire. “I was too obsessive and I was too much of a control freak,” he says. What changed? Runs on the board breeds the confidence to take more risks. And sometimes perspective and the ability to take your work a little less seriously come from elsewhere. For Russell, it was meeting his partner, Diana, also an actor. “I’m especially thankful to her. She really was revolutionary in my artistic life. I’m a much happier person now and that always reflects in your work.”
Image: Leslie Alejandro.
BECOMING A WEAPON
A 12-14 hour day on set on S.W.A.T. (Special Weapons And Tactics) is not like a day on most other shows. Filming close-combat action scenes and epic car chases while weighed down in tactical gear mean the actors are basically in a perpetual bootcamp. Russell joined the show, now in its fifth season, when he was 29. He’s now 34 and where once he could get through the grind of back-to back days of production unscathed, these days he needs to prepare his body for the rigours of shooting.
“We all feel it. The physical side of what we do is super taxing,” he says. “When I started this show I could get away with not stretching and I could just run and then at a certain point I was like, ‘Oh, ow. I can’t do that’. And then I’m like, ‘Oh, this is why [co-stars] Shemar and Jay are always stretching for 10 minutes before we go and do this stuff. And it’s not just what we physically have to do. It’s
all the gear that we’re wearing.” This includes a drop holster with a side arm, an attack vest, a HK shotgun and a helmet. “You’ll never see a set with so many massages going on as we’re all just trying to keep everything loose. That coupled with a lack of sleep is the real killer. It’s brutal.”
While Russell had got in shape for roles before, it went up a level when he joined S.W.A.T. and then up another level again in 2018, when he met Italian trainer Paulo Mascitti, who boasts a roster of celebrity clients including rugby player Thom Evans, Nicole Scherzinger and Hilary Duff. “Even though I’d gotten lean before I didn’t have the size or musculature certain leading men I’d seen had,” he says. “And I was like, I’ve never really gone to that place.” After one session with Mascitti, the trainer was confident
he could help get Russell the body he wanted. “He was like, ‘I think we can get you to that level’.”
Image: Leslie Alejandro.
For this particular shoot, Russell took a deliberate, methodical approach. Starting in September, for the first month he trained hard and ate clean but still allowed himself to indulge on weekends. After that he ramped up the intensity but allowed himself the occasional blowout, like after he directed his own episode of S.W.A.T. “When my directing episode was done, I was always like, ‘I’m going to have a weekend after that, I’m going to enjoy it’, and so I did. It kind of sets you back, obviously. So, I’ll do it in increments, giving myself little rewards along the way.”
The results are certainly impressive. But it’s that careful, calculated and, yes, balanced approach, that’s perhaps the most instructive thing about it. Russell didn’t burn himself out. He knows it’s unrealistic to stay in this ascetic, single-digit body-fat zone for long.
And he’s fine with that.
Something else he’s fine with? The day S.W.A.T., his main meal-ticket, wraps up. “If the show were to get picked up for another season, I’d be thrilled, and if it wasn’t, I’d just be excited for whatever’s next,” he says. “I’m at a point where for me, I’m stoked either way. I’m not trying to control-freak the situation. It’s such a blessing to have even come this far.”
The sweet spot. If you work hard enough and you’re lucky enough to get there, you owe it to yourself to enjoy it. Because it can’t last. At some point you’ll likely fall and that’s okay, too. As Russell says, that’s the exciting part.