Exclusive: Richard Roxburgh on Sanctum

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Sitting down with Aussie actor Richard Roxburgh, it’s hard to spot even a trace of his character from Sanctum. Talkative, charismatic and constantly smiling, Roxburgh’s demeanor serves as stark contrast to his Frank McGuire, a deadly serious expert cave diver whose personality is every bit as cold and hard as the film’s cave environment.

Though the character is fiction, the job itself is based on the true to life experiences of writer and producer Andrew Wight who, himself, lived through an exploration disaster that, thankfully, didn’t turn as horrific as the events of the film. Also produced by James Cameron, Sanctum plays with 3D to create a tight, claustrophobic terror that Roxburgh’s graven portrayal accentuates.

Classically trained and known for effortlessly moving between the international stage and screen, Roxburgh laughs at the notion that (much to his chagrin) he’s still best known in America for his portrayal of the Duke in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!. Speaking exclusively with ComingSoon.net, Roxburgh discusses his role, the massive physical undertaking it represented and where he’d like to see his career headed in the future. However, it begins (like all great interviews do) with a discussion about duck-billed platypuses.

Richard Roxburgh: You say “No worries.” That’s very Australian.

ComingSoon.net: People have told me that. I’m not sure where I picked it up.
Roxburgh:
You’re hanging around too many Australians!

CS: I’ve actually never been, but always wanted to go. When I was kid, my favorite animal was the platypus and you can’t see them outside Australia.
Roxburgh:
They’re a beautiful animal. It’s a bizarre animal, though, to have as your favorite animal. When they first sent a platypus back to the museum of natural sciences in London, after they first came to Australia, the scientists there thought that it was a practical joke. They said, “Come on. Someone has just found a duck’s bill, another animal’s body and some webbed feet and put it all together.” So they assumed for years it was a practical joke. But it is a fine animal.

CS: You seen live ones?
Roxburgh:
Yeah. They’re really hard to see in the wild, but I do remember seeing them once when I was a boy down on the Murray River when I was growing up.

CS: Well, as much as I love platypuses, let’s talk about “Sanctum.” When did the whole project begin for you?
Roxburgh:
Look, it just came completely out of the blue. I got sent the script and was asked if I was interested. The director wanted to meet me and we went and met. It went from there. He was kind of at pains to alert me to physical difficulties that would go with doing it. Advice which I failed to heed. (laughs) But there’s no amount of warning that anyone could give you that could adequately prepare you for something like this.

CS: Your acting background begins on the stage. It’s hard to imagine anything more different than performing in 3D underwater.
Roxburgh:
I really like shift and movement in what I do. I really like new challenges. “Sanctum” was in the middle of six different jobs that I did without a break. I went straight from “Sanctum” into producing and co-creating and acting in a series that I wrote for ABC television. Then I’ve just finished a play for the Sydney Theater Company of Chekhov. I like shifting. I like movement.

CS: You have a tremendous number of projects both on the stage and on screen. Looking at you in this film, you really bulked up for the role. Does that physical change end up affecting other things you’re doing?
Roxburgh:
Well, in this instance, it only influenced things in a positive way. In the ABC series I was in pretty good shape and that really helped. Generally you have to maintain a degree of fitness. It’s very physically demanding in an odd way doing stage. I’ve found just playing Uncle Vanya exerted huge physical demands. You really have to strip down. You don’t expect it and it’s odd.

CS: One of the rules of diving in the movies seems to be that it’s not just an accident with your equipment that kills you, it’s panicking as a result. Just watching in the theater, there’s a tremendous sense of claustrophobia and I’m curious to know if there was that danger of panic striking on set.
Roxburgh:
Not as such. There was a constant battle that you went through with your own mind. Inside your own head, you were constantly at war with the kind of lurking darkness and fears. They were definitely at play. Towards the end of the shooting, particularly when we were doing the underwater night shooting, it was dark and you were underwater for great lengths of time. Everybody was at the end of their ropes. Everyone was completely shattered from having done so much of it for such a long time. Dragging yourself down to those depths to do that stuff, especially in the last week, was hellish.

CS: Did you personally get claustrophobic at all?
Roxburgh:
Look, I am to a degree. Not badly. But I have experienced it. I once got trapped in an elevator on the Isle of Man in a hotel. That was bad. I was by myself and I was only in the elevator for about 15 minutes, but they were 15 very hot and horrible minutes where I was pressing the bell and nobody was coming. I was thinking, “This is not good on a whole lot of levels.” So I really did experience it then. I guess just because knowing it was going to be the devil on your back on this job, I didn’t let myself. I didn’t allow it as my number one rule.

CS: Was there a process by which, if someone was having trouble, they could make a signal and get pulled out?
Roxburgh:
There was always a safety driver with you a few meters away. He’s theoretically tending to you and knowing where you are. Knowing the hurly-burly of filming and it being a nightshoot, communication is difficult. We couldn’t actually speak. We didn’t have audio communication with anybody. It was difficult to maintain some sense of that contact at times and, consequently, I ended up honestly largely feeling like I needed to sort it out for myself. A little battle I had to undertake with myself.

CS: You directed a film a few years ago, “Romulus, My Father” and I’m curious if you have any plans to return to work behind the camera.
Roxburgh:
Yeah, I’d love to do some more. It would probably be something very different to my first film. The experience of it was really tough, but I’d love to do it again. As I said, I like the change.

CS: Does 3D intrigue you at all as a filmmaker?
Roxburgh:
Not particularly, unless it’s kind of serving the purpose of the piece. What I’m finding really interesting at the moment is this discussion from Baz Luhrmann about shooting “[The Great] Gatsby” in 3D because, having worked with Baz and knowing him as I do, I think he will use it in an intriguing and really effective new way. I can sort of sense what his intention would be with it, which is to transport an audience, as it were, into the middle of a play. So it’s like you’re walking on stage with these characters and feeling the feeling of what’s transpiring. That’s really interesting. Because if you can get into the middle of drama that way, that’s a really interesting eventuality for 3D. Frankly, I really admire the filmmakers on “Sanctum,” because they’ve used it in a really intelligent and restrained way. It’s not a sort of tacky device to make things leap at you or fall on you or whatever. It’s actually a vehicle to transport you into the environment more strongly and more effectively.

CS: I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to see it, but Werner Herzog just directed a documentary that takes place in a cave in 3D and there’s a very strong sense in both that film and in “Sanctum” of 3D being used to accentuate the natural sort of shape of the environment.
Roxburgh:
I’ve heard about it, but I haven’t seen it. Really, there are moments in “Sanctum” that are absolutely awe-inspiring and the 3D is a great contributing factor to that. It’s important that people are invited, in a way, to see what the majesty of these places is like so that you can understand, in turn, what would drive people to go down and to be there.

CS: Has there been any talk about working with Baz again?
Roxburgh
Look, I’ve had discussions with Baz. I would love to work with him again. Baz is great because he’s loyal and he loves working with people and coming back to work again with people. I’d love the opportunity to work with him again. I regard him as a friend and I think he has a really brilliant and rare and unique take on the world that sometimes is going to flounder and sometimes is going to inspire and unseat and cause people’s hats to fly off.

CS: I don’t know if it’s true in Australia, but in America you’re probably best known for your part in “Moulin Rouge!”…
Roxburgh:
Yeah. It’s so weird.

CS: Is there a significant difference you can see in your career before and after playing the Duke?
Roxburgh:
I’ve always looked at my relationship with Americans as an odd one in a way because of that. I suppose in Australia, I’m known for entirely different work. It’s a weird thing that in the states it’s mostly the Duke from “Moulin Rouge!”.

CS: It’s a great performance.
Roxburgh:
(Laugh, embarrassed) Yeah. It makes my career very interesting here in that I’m always viewed through the prism of the Duke. It’s a weird one.

CS: What’s a dream project for you on-screen?
Roxburgh:
On-screen I don’t know. Roles are just kind of there or they’re not or they’re interesting or they’re not. I feel like I haven’t even begun to explore film properly. I’ve done so much stuff in theater and so much television stuff in Australia. I’ve had really terrific opportunities to push myself in that. I suppose, in a sense in film, I feel like I’m – well, not a novice, but it’s still new terrain for me.

CS: What about on the stage since you make the distinction?
Roxburgh:
Oh, look, there’s always things that you have that you know you would love to do. There are roles I would dearly love to do, but the opportunities are difficult. For instance, I’d love to play Iago, but that’s kind of a difficult play to undertake in way, “Othello” is. I would be really keen on Richard III. But nowadays so much of it is down to who the director is. It’s all about the director, really. The Chekhov I just finished in Oz was an amazing experience. It was an amazing cast. It was Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving and John Bell. An amazing cast of people and brilliant Hungarian director called Tamas Ascher who brought that thing to life in a way that was completely unexpected. I never thought I would be playing Uncle Vanya in quite that way. For me, it’s not so much about the situation as about the character and the rest of the ensemble. But Cate and I are sort of talking about what other things we want to do in the future.

CS: Any specific dream directors, then?
Roxburgh:
Oh, there are innumerable dream theater directors. My wife is Italian and I speak Italian. I’d love to work in Italy more. I’d love to direct in Italy. I suppose acting for me in Italy would be okay. They could always cast me as (laughs) I don’t know, the Nazi. My natural casting there would probably be as the Nazi or something. I would seriously, though, like to work in Italy if only to spend more time there. But there are so many directors. So many fantastic directors in America and the rest of the world in both theater and film. So many I admire deeply that I’d love the opportunity to work with.

CS: What is coming up for you next?
Roxburgh:
I need to have a break. It was a really mad period of time that “Sanctum” was in the middle of and it has only just finished in the last two weeks. I’m gonna need a bit more time to debrief. My head is still spinning from the madness that it was. I did a project playing the former “wild” Prime Minister of Australia called Bob Hawke. That was playing a man from sort of a wild, drunken brawling trade union member in the ’70s through to the time that he was Prime Minister of Australia in the ’90s and became a sort of elder statesman. So that was a lot of speech learning. There was a lot of emotional turmoil in his life. There was obviously a lot of physical mechanics of playing the older, 62-year-old man. So I went straight from that into another thing which was about global warming that we shot in New Zealand. I broke my rib on the first day and then went straight on to “Sanctum” and the rest of it. I need to have a break. I feel like I’m crawling backwards across the finishing line a little bit.

CS: One of the big things in a number of your roles is taking on a new accent and now you mention wanting to act in Italian. Is it a relief at all to play a role like in “Sanctum” and get to be Australian?
Roxburgh:
Yeah, it is good. And this is the thing that’s kind of odd to me about the “Moulin Rouge!” thing in the states – It’s good to do something that’s kind of closer to me. Though, having said that, Frank McGuire is just the polar opposite of who I am as a person. In fact, the closest I’ve gotten to my own person in terms of character is the series I produced for ABC and acted in just before we did Uncle Vanya. I felt like I could just roll out of bed in my underpants and there I was. That was great, playing a sort of dissolute defense advocate–a lawyer–whose life is in total shambles. It’s very funny and it’s quite dark and that was relief, doing something so close to home.

Sanctum hits theaters in 3D and IMAX 3D this Friday.