We planned to shoot it in one day, but it ended up taking two. Honestly, I took an hour after the first day on set crying in relief.
Rape, pedophilia and dismembered bodies rotting in barrels—Justin Kurzel’s The Snowtown Murders isn’t a film for the faint of heart. This disturbing, yet completely mesmerizing, Australian film is based on a true story. The real Snowtown murders involved the killings of 11 people in South Australia between August 1992 and May 1999. The film is told from the perspective of Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway), an unassuming 16-year-old who gets roped into a string of sadistic vigilantism. Jamie lives with his mother and two younger brothers in one of Adelaide’s violent suburbs. It’s here that Jamie falls under the spell of John Bunting (Daniel Henshall), his mother’s new boyfriend, who offers him the kind of fatherly companionship he craves. John teaches him how to ride a motorbike and handle a gun. In an early lesson, Jamie watches while John dismembers a kangaroo and hurls the remains onto a neighboring pedophile’s doorstep. It doesn’t take long before Jamie becomes an accomplice to a spree of torture and murder.
The Snowtown Murders opens in select theaters on March 2.
You’re getting a lot of attention right now, not just for your remarkable performance in The Snowtown Murders, but the fact that you have no prior acting experience.
I have no acting experience at all. I never thought that acting would be a career path for me. I was buying jelly beans one day after work and this lady came up to my brother and I, and said, “Would you two be interested in being in a film?” I said, “Why, sure!” When I went into audition, it was quite unconventional. They didn’t ask me to read lines or explained to me what was going on. They just wanted to see what I was like on camera. I think one of the great things was that people didn’t know what James Vlassakis looked like since there weren’t pictures released to the public. They didn’t have to match specific physical features that represented the real life person.
At what point did they tell you what this film was actually about? It’s quite disturbing… I wonder if any of it perturbed you.
I didn’t know straightaway, obviously. After three auditions or so, they filled me in on the heavier things. That’s when I was given a copy of the script to read for myself. I was thinking, “Wow. What am I getting myself into here?” But, at the same time, I realized that it was something strong and that made me want to be a part of it.
Did you know much about the Snowtown murders going in?
I was really young when it happened. I didn’t even know that it happened in my local suburb.
Have you had a chance to talk to people who are familiar with the Snowtown murders and have seen the movie?
Yeah. I’ve had people come up to me—they knew the real people that were involved—and they thought the movie really represented the relationships well. They told me that it’s very close to the actual situation and the people involved.
You go through so much physical and emotional trauma in embodying this character. Was it as challenging as it looks on-screen?
Dan [Henshall], Louise [Harris] and Anthony [Groves] were all there with me, so even when you get into that dark emotional place, you feel like you’re in a really comfortable environment. You’re more inclined to take chances on feelings and thoughts to help you get to—you might not enjoy it, obviously—where you can express those raw emotions. It’s like transferring your personal experiences into the character you’re playing, so it’s a huge challenge in that sense. For example, the scene where I’m murdering my brother took a long time. We planned to shoot it in one day, but it ended up taking two. Honestly, I took an hour after the first day on set crying in relief. I was in so much physical pain too, after spending a day murdering someone.
Can you isolate something from Justin’s directorial methods that was helpful to you as a first time actor?
You’re basically trying to act as naturally as possible. Justin would sometimes point out, “Look. Stop acting and just be yourself. Don’t act out the character.” He often called it “catching a butterfly.” [Laughs]
How big was the crew?
I think there were around 30 people on set at any one time. I didn’t know if that was big or small, but it seemed like a lot of people to me. I couldn’t believe that that many people were working every day on their little jobs on set. On the first day, I remember thinking, “All these people are here to get this shot?” It was mind-blowing.
How did that affect your performance, if at all? Being around so many people during the intensely emotional scenes?
For those intense scenes, you obviously wouldn’t have 30 people standing around watching. For example, for the bathtub scene, it was just the director, the cinematographer and the actors in there. It was kept to a small number so you don’t have to expose yourself to everyone while you’re attempting it. And… Well, that’s pretty much it. [Laughs]
I turned to the audience at one point during that protracted scene and everyone was squirming. It makes me wonder if there were ever instances during filming where you wanted to pull out.
There was one day near the start of the shoot—we didn’t shoot the harder scenes until the end of the film—where my character goes out into the backyard and basically loses it. I think after around three takes of that scene, I was having a lot of trouble and just wanted to call it a day. But Justin and Dan were there to support me and talk me through it, so I could get it done.
What did your parents think of all of this? It must have come as a surprise to say the least.
What did my parents think?
Yeah. Were they supportive or hesitant in any particular way?
I think my mum didn’t quite believe it. She thought it was a short film that wouldn’t amount to anything. I didn’t even tell my dad. [Laughs] I didn’t really make a big deal of it. I didn’t really want to talk it up too much, just in case it didn’t end up being anything.
This all happened so suddenly and unexpectedly for you. Do you want to pursue an acting career or was this a one-off life experience?
I have an Australian agent now. I’ve been auditioning for films here and there. I’m trying to save up money right now so I can move to Sydney and try to get near the acting hub. I would love to come to America.
Definitely! I would love to go over there. I would love to do some love stories where I just get to play a hunk and not be sad. [Laughs.] And it would be pretty exciting to do something like that just for the hell of it. I’m definitely looking forward to having that kind of career.
Did your perception on film change much with The Snowtown Murders?
I wasn’t really a movie buff beforehand. I went to the cinemas maybe once a month. Now, with the help of the nearby video shop, I’ve realized what good movies are and what not so good movies are. I’m a huge fan of Quentin Tarantino and Stanley Kubrick.
How would you describe your taste in movies?
I just like really good films. I like every Tarantino film and would love to audition for him. I’m not really a genre type of person, so I hope that I don’t ever get stereotyped.
Is there an actor out there whose career you admire in particular?
I would love to follow in the steps of someone like Johnny Depp or James Franco. I love James Franco’s work.