Playing one of the world's most famous people is no mean feat, particularly in your first role out of university. But, as Mitchell Oakley Smith discovers, Alex Williams is no ordinary young actor.
Photography Kylie Coutts | Styling Jolyon Mason | Grooming & Hair Jenny Kim
The face of Julian Assange, editor-in-chief and founder of Wikileaks, has been, for the better part of the past year, plastered across newspapers, televisions and websites, his name discussed in parliament and over dinner. He is, perhaps, one of the most famous people of our generation How, then, does someone portray him for the screen, particularly when there’s no benchmark set and he is, in fact, still very present in society? For Alex Williams, the 21-year old, Perth-born actor cast as Mr Assange in the Network Ten television movie Underground: The Julian Assange Story, the unofficial biopic on Mr Assange’s teenage years, the experience was bittersweet.
“I think you’ve got to approach it like any other character and do your research,” explained Mr Williams earlier this week, days from the movie, which recently screened at Toronto Film Festival to positive reviews, airs in Australia. “On the one hand it’s great because there’s a lot of material on Assange, but then again a lot of people know what he’s like, his idiosyncrasies, so you don’t have the artistic license to take him anywhere.”
From the outset, the intentions of the film, commissioned by Network Ten but produced by Matchbox Pictures, have been hard to read. But as director Robert Connolly says: “My ambition for Underground was to make a story that captured a point in history where a young generation was motivated to be activists.” Of course, a television station is keen to attract ratings, and the imperatives that close the trailer (“Criminal? Crusader? Anarchist? Patriot? Make up your own mind”), which has gained much airplay in recent weeks, certainly seems to suggest that conversational controversy is the aim, at least by the marketing department.
The currency of Mr Assange’s story – and the controversy he has courted – proved challenging for Mr Williams, particularly in his first publicly visible film role. “It’s a debate that needs to be had and a topic people need to think about,” he says, “but the hard thing for me is that people want my opinion on it, and it’s hard for me to come out of university and be expressing my thoughts on freedom of speech on such a level. When people don’t agree with Assange they get into me.”
Does Mr Williams endorse Mr Assange’s project? “I personally agree with what he does and don’t mind that people will think of my performance as an endorsement, so to speak.” Connolly aimed for the film to take no set side, simply tell the facts. “I was directed [by Connolly] to neither paint him as a hero or a villain, but to react to what happens to him as a 17-year old.
As for the casting, Connolly, who worked with his wife, casting director Jane Norris, says it was a no-brainer. “She rang me after she had seen all the new graduates at WAAPA [West Australian Academy of Performing Arts] and said ‘I have seen this kid and he is incredible. I have found Julian Assange for you.’ It was that incredible combination of that instinctive acting skill that you just can’t teach people and the intelligence in [his] eyes. I need an actor who you could believe had a supreme kind of intellect, where you could believe that they are sharp enough, smart enough, that one day they could form Wikileaks and become one of the most significant figures of the 21st century.”
For Mr Williams, any other film will have to be very, very good to live up to this experience, particularly working with acting luminaries such as Rachel Griffiths and Anthony LaPaglia. “I couldn’t have asked for a better bunch of people to work with. It’s what you want in a role but never expect it to come so quickly [after school]. What makes it even cooler is that [Mr Assange] is so influential to people of my generation.”
Mr Williams wears American Apparel t-shirt.
Top: Levis jacket.
Stylist's own suit.
Crane Brothers shirt & waistcoat.
Underground: The Julian Assange Story airs on Channel 10 at 8.30pm on Sunday 7 October.
Shot at The Rat's Nest Studio, East Sydney | Photographic Assistance Mitch Fong