Saturday, March 5, 2011

GQ Style Australia cover story on Alex O'Loughlin transcribed

Caution: article contains adult language.

GQ Style Australia
Autumn/Winter 2011

Talking Five-0
Words Brendan Shanahan
Photography Robbie Fimmano
Styling Wayne Gross

Who would have predicted a former plumber’s apprentice from Canberra with a CV consisting of flops, misfires and obscure cult hits would be handed the lead role in the biggest American TV show of 2011?  Alex O’Loughlin’s ship has finally come – packed to the gunwales with colourful villains, wisecracking cops and bikini-clad femme fatales.

Nearly halfway through my interview with actor Alex O’Loughlin, the conversation takes an unexpected turn. He’s been talking about being in his mid-30’s, heading towards that dreaded period in which you are forced to ask yourself – what is truly important to me?

When I share some of my own fears with O’Loughlin, he recommends that I read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. For a time he extols the virtues of the classic text before coming to a sudden halt. “Can I ask you a question?” he says, not leaving any time to answer.  “Am I going to sound like a cunt when this interview comes out?”

This frankly phrased query arrives seemingly from nowhere. It’s asked partly in jest – another of the actor’s self-deprecating asides that scatter our conversation – and partly in an attempt to deflate any accusations of pretentiousness. But there is a part of it that feels genuine, too.  It’s difficult to know exactly how to respond. I do my best to reassure him (“Not unless you are a cunt,” I reply, which gets a laugh) and the interview continues. Nevertheless, I am left with a sense that Alex O’Loughlin is a bit of a livewire.

At 34 years of age, O’Loughlin has long been touted as “Australia’s next big thing” in Hollywood. With his aquiline features and the kind of rugged off-screen persona that the Yanks seem to lap up in Aussie actors, it always seemed just a matter of time. Now, almost seven years since his debut in the Australian film Oyster Farmer, and after a series of frustrating misfires, he might just be about to fulfill the destiny many have predicted for him.

The vehicle for O’Loughlin’s entry to the A-list is his lead role in the big-budget remake of the classic TV series Hawaii Five-0. Only loosely based on the original (this version is spelled with a zero, as in Hawaii Five 2.0) the new show sees O’Loughlin play Steve McGarrett, a Navy SEAL looking to avenge the death of his father as head of a multicultural kill squad given carte blanche by the island state’s governor.

The show is pure old-fashioned, suspension-of-disbelief entertainment, of the sort in which gorgeous female detectives have fistfights in bikinis and downtown Honolulu sees more explosions than Baghdad. Since its US debut in September last year, Hawaii Five-0 has enjoyed solid ratings, a fact that must come as some relief to its creators. Retreading such iconic shows is a big risk: a number of spectacular flops have made networks and audiences wary. Surely O’Loughlin couldn’t help but feel the pressure, both artistically and commercially?

“It’s really important that if you’re an artist involved in recreating something as iconic as this, that you find some way to step away from that. First of all, there’s a lot of fans of the old show and a lot of critics who are looking to get their teeth into us. And then there’s also a lot of fans and friends of Jack Lord – who played the original Steve McGarrett – and I’m an Australian. So I can’t think about any of that. All I can think about is doing my work, being true and honest within the character and trying to deliver on time.”

For a number of years, O’Loughlin struggled to find his place in LA. Just as he’d put down some roots, he had to relocate. “When I first moved over here I was really, really nervous. It took me six years to settle into living in LA. I had my life together there, my niche and my friends. And I’m like, ‘Wow, I’m up and moving to the middle of the ocean, to a small island where I don’t know anyone.’ And it’s one of the greatest things that’s ever happened to me. This place is one of the greatest on the planet, the people here are amazing. I’ve already made so many incredible friends that I’ll have for the rest of my life. I can’t really see myself leaving, regardless of what happens to the show.”

O’Loughlin’s enthusiasm for his adopted home knows no bounds – the island’s natural beauty, surfing and, in particular, the community spirit of its people all elicit his praise. He paints an idyllic picture, but in such a small place can there be anywhere to hide for the man who is the new face of the 50th state?

“Most people on this island are watching the show. So everywhere I go, people know who I am. But the thing about it is that … it’s Hawaii. And Hawaiian people are rad. They’re a lot like Aussies, very grounded and laidback and really, really sweet. There’s a lot of ‘Aloha’ here, a lot of generosity of spirit. People aren’t trying to pick a piece of you away when they come up to get a photograph, they’re just really happy to see you. Sometimes I prefer to stay at the house, but for the most part, it’s part of the gig and it’s probably the best place on earth to get used to it.”

Such a major role in what will be hopefully a long-running TV series doesn’t merely mean having to deal with fame: on the horizon looms the spectre of typecasting. So is O’Loughlin prepared to have people screaming “Book ‘em, Danno” at him for the rest of his life?

"It’s one of the fears that goes through your mind as an actor when you sign such a lengthy contract. But you’ve just got to hang on to the George Clooneys of the world; you’ve got to hang on to the stories of people who have broken away from television.”

O’Loughlin riffs for a bit about the nature of contemporary television – pointing out that many top actors now prefer the medium to films – before one of his trademark changes of course. “I dunno, man. It’s all about perspective: I’ve got a great job, I get very well looked after, I’m living the dream at the moment and hopefully it’s not going to be a negative thing. My perspective won’t allow me to see it as a negative thing. And hopefully I’ve got the chops once this finishes to do something that’s good enough to make people see me in a different light again.”

Hawaii Five-0 has been a long-awaited blessing for O’Loughlin, who has struggled with tough breaks since he arrived in Hollywood more than six years ago. He landed his first major TV role in the US in 2007 playing Detective Kevin Hiatt in The Shield, a gritty police drama. After leaving that show, he joined US network CBS and was given his own star vehicle in Moonlight, a campy supernatural drama in which he played a lovelorn vampire-turned-detective (sample dialogue: “All I know is that ever since I met you I’ve stopped using the word ‘never.’”). Although it attracted a cult following – mostly among vampire enthusiasts who O’Loughlin says still send him “weird requests every day” – reviews were scathing, and when the writer’s strike hit Hollywood the show quickly joined the ranks of the walking dead.

Still under contract to CBS, O’Loughlin’s next vehicle was playing a surgeon in the organ transplant drama Three Rivers. Despite decent reviews, it suffered scheduling and casting problems and flatlined before its initial season was finished. In the meantime, in his first foray as a leading man, he made The Back-up Plan for the fledgling CBS movie division. A rom-com starring J Lo, it was ridiculed by critics and flopped at the box office after being released in 2010.

It was a string of disasters that might have killed another actor’s career. Fortunately, the powers-that-be at CBS seemed to agree with O’Loughlin’s assessment that his failures weren’t “because I was that shit.” When Hawaii Five-0 came up they offered him the lead role without even asking him to audition.

Although he says he was impressed by the strength of the pilot script, O’Loughlin’s decision to do the show was not immediate. Failure had made him cautious. “I literally didn’t’ know what to do. So I asked everybody in my life what they thought. I asked my friends, my family, ‘Do I do this? What do I do if this show isn’t a hit?’ And everyone was like, “Mate, you’re being a fucking idiot. Do this show. Do you have any idea how many actors wish they were in your position?’ I trusted the people around me and did it. And I’m really, really glad I did.”

O’Loughlin seems genuinely excited by his new role – he talks constantly of the quality of the writing and his pleasure in creating a character such as McGarrett. He says he’s glad that success came relatively late in life. Being knocked down gave him, he says, a sense of perspective and an eye-opening lesson in how the entertainment industry operates. “I think I got a really clear idea of the nature of this business. A really clear idea of the fact that it doesn’t mean anything: it doesn’t matter how good you are, it doesn’t even matter if you’re not good. You are far less important than you think you are. You are just a cog in a collaborative machine that is Hollywood.”

With stardom comes scrutiny. If there’s one aspect of fame that O’Loughlin seems uncomfortable with – indeed, in the past he has said the word “terrified” – it is his loss of anonymity. Does he see the contradiction, then, in choosing a career that leads him towards a life of curtailed privacy?

“I think it’s ignorant if you’re going to pursue a career in acting to allow yourself to get any sort of celebrity status and then be angry about it. I completely accept the loss of anonymity as part of success in this career I’ve chosen. But it doesn’t change the fact that I can get agoraphobic in crowds and that I spin out sometimes when I get too much attention, or that I get anxious, or that I’m sensitive. It’s just …” He trails off, sighing loudly, “I don’t know what to tell you, man. That’s just who I am and that’s just what I live with. But I’m not going to tell you that I love celebrity. Every red carpet I have to do makes me want to puke. It freaks me out so much. Paparazzi freak me out. I love my job but I still think I’ll never be comfortable with some of the things that come along with it. But that’s OK. And if it gets too much, I’ll stop.”

O’Loughlin’s public image – the motorcycle-riding, whip-cracking, fire-fighting former drain unblocker – is tempered by hints of a certain fragility. In past interviews he has spoken of dark times during the early days in LA – sleeping on a friend’s floor and feeling like it was all a waste of time. When I ask if he has ever had a problem with depression he laughs uproariously, finding the suggestion ridiculous.

“I think I’m quite sensitive. Maybe it’s what allows me to be an actor. I’m pretty resilient but then it gets to a point where, once I feel defeated, it’s like I hang my head, it weighs a ton. It’s really difficult to raise it back up again and kick on. And there was a moment there – and I’m sure every artist goes through this – where I was like, ‘You’re a fucking loser. You’re not even very good at what you do. You’re a fool as well for chasing a dream that has no substance.’ It was more an existential crisis than a specific clinical condition.”

He may not suffer depression, but O’Loughlin has struggled with other issues. As an adult he was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). But when I ask how these have affected his life, he grows angry. Once again I am forced to reassure him, but he eventually answers the question with candour.

“I still have ADD. It’s something I’ve learned to live with. It affects people in different ways. It affected my learning when I was younger and I was never medicated for it. It was something that did make me feel like I was different and apart from everyone, made me feel isolated. Every girlfriend I’ve ever had has had a moment when they’ve gone crazy at me because they’ll say something and, literally, two or three minutes later I’ll respond.  People think I’m rude or ignoring them but I’m not at all. I retain everything. It’s just the way my brain chemistry works. I’m actually a really loving, attentive person.”

The OCD, says O’Loughlin, is now mostly a thing of the past. In the calming atmosphere of Hawaii, his childhood days of taking hours to tie his shoes just right are a fading memory. However, he does admit to having occasional obsessive urges. “If I get OCD about something, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I have to do it.’” He pauses, laughs and adds, “So you’ve just ascertained that I should be imprisoned and medicated.”

The divorce of O’Loughlin’s parents at a young age undoubtedly contributed to his difficult childhood. Born in Canberra, O’Loughlin spent his younger years shuttling between his mother’s home in the capital and his father’s in Sydney. During high school he admits he was a tearaway. I ask whether his undiagnosed ADD may have contributed to him playing truant, getting expelled and dropping out in his mid-teens.

“I dunno, probably. I suppose everything contributes to everything, doesn’t it? I was like, ‘I don’t like it here because I’m not really learning very much because you don’t know how to teach me. So fuck off.’ That was my anxious condition speaking back then, and it just didn’t make sense for me to stay there.”

O’Loughlin’s current family arrangements are off-limits. At age 20 he fathered a son, Saxon, who lives in Sydney with his mother. When asked whether being based in Hawaii means he misses him, he refuses to answer, saying he wants to keep him out of the press. It’s a stance much to his credit in an age where stars are only too happy to parade their mini-mes in magazine spreads but then complain when their families are photographed in less stage-managed circumstances.

On occasion, O’Loughlin’s sensitivity seems to manifest itself in defensiveness, a gruff wariness that could be the natural desire of an actor to protect himself from the intrusions of the media, or might be evidence of a thin skin. When I ask him whether he ever feels pressure to live up to the Hollywood image of the macho, untameable Aussie, (O’Loughlin was quoted on a previous occasion saying he is ‘a wild card – always have been, always will be’) he becomes exasperated.

“This is a really funny conversation. This is sort of like someone saying to you (O’Loughlin adopts a pompous faux-interviewer voice), ‘You hang in intellectual circles. Do you feel like the whole novelist-writer-journalist thing is really essential for you to get a place in that social structure where people respect you?’ Know what I mean? It’s the weirdest question.”

Fearing I’ve been misunderstood, I rush to clarify. Hollywood creates pigeonholes for actors. Perhaps people might see his off-screen persona as merely part of a Hollywood image, for better or worse. “Yeah, I mean, that’s just fucking stupid. People can think what they want. I don’t give a shit. The people that know me and have known me my whole life know I’ve always been like that. The things that I like are the things that I like and I like them for whatever reasons I like them.”

Just as I’m starting to fear I’ve irredeemably pissed off O’Loughlin, he suddenly changes tack. “The thing you’re saying is actually really important. For young actors going to Hollywood, one of the first things you need to do is realize where they’re going to pigeonhole you – how they’re going to market you. Because if you don’t know how you’re marketable, it doesn’t matter how persistent, driven or talented you are. You’ve got to know where you fit so you can kick off from there, then you can shine in whatever direction you want. But that’s where it starts.”

Chatty and hyperactive, O’Loughlin can be an engaging and charming conversationalist. But what is most impressive about him is his tenacity. It’s a quality as fundamental to being a successful actor as understanding character motivation or having a good agent.

“You can either lie there, admit defeat and wallow in it or you can get up and shake the sand out of your chaps and have another shot,” says O’Loughlin when asked if he ever considered calling time on his dream in the lean years. “And what else are you going to do? I’m not qualified to do anything else. I’ve invested the 15 years of my life into this.” He pauses. “I’m just going to hang on.”

**Thanks to Officer 808 from Hawaii Five-0 Undercover blog and Facebook for sharing this link with Alex fans.**


  1. I'm glad you ladies brought out the magnifying glass!

  2. jlopie(Lynnette)Sunday, March 06, 2011

    O'laughing Press ladies, thank you so much for taking the time and effort to transcribe this whole article, which is really quite long! I tried increasing the zoom on my computer to 400, but it was just too fuzzy for my bad eyes, so I had given up! Glad you didn't! It's an amazing article - gives us AOL fans a totally new perspective on our favorite actor!

  3. Thank you so much for presenting this interview. It is nice to see Mr. O'Loughlin be himself in an interview instead of the usual censored interviews that we see on tv or in North American magazines. It is nice to get to know the person behind the characters, even if it is a slight view into his world.

  4. Puts a new perspective on our guy doesn't it? Thanks for the transcription.

  5. Thanks so very much for sharing this! I've been wanting to read it.
    Excellent interview!!

  6. Fantastic interview! And thank you to Mr. O'Loughlin for keeping it real - which is a rarity these days.

  7. For a guy that says he likes his privacy, he is actually prepared to share/reveal a lot of personal stuff. Maybe by doing so he can guard the real intimate things better, because people might think that they already know a lot....