Be Here Now: The Andy Whitfield Story documents the quest that Spartacus star Andy Whitfield took after his cancer diagnosis, in the hopes that sharing that journey might help to inspire others. In the film from Lilibet Foster, Andy and his wife, Vashti, demonstrate how you can make the most of every day, through courage, humor and love.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Jai Courtney, who worked with Whitfield on the Starz series Spartacus, where the two became good friends, talked about what he learned about his friend by watching the finished film, what he hopes people draw from Andy’s story, trying to live in the moment in his own life, the experience of working with Whitfield on Spartacus, and why they were both each other’s heroes. He also talked about what he looks for in a project, what most surprised him about the experience of making Suicide Squad, and why director David Ayer is “psychotic.”
Collider: What was it like for you to watch this finished film? Did you find yourself learning things about your friend and what he went through that surprised you?
JAI COURTNEY: Yeah, I think that’s fair to say. I was close with Andy. We were really good mates and I was around through a lot of that period, but somewhat guiltily and also necessarily, there was an ability to escape that situation. I could be around and be supportive and help out, if that was good to do, but I also have my own life going on and you can’t commit all of your time, nor is it helpful to do so. So, watching the film, some of that struggle really hadn’t hit home for me until I watched it in documented form. Whilst I wasn’t absent of the gravity of the situation, it still was incredibly hard. When you have a sick friend, you might see them on a good day because that’s when they feel like seeing people, so you pop by and spend some time and hang out a bit. Even if you’re a close friend, some of the rawer moments I definitely wasn’t privy to, at the time. I was encouraged by his spirit and the generosity of his time and space that he showed by allowing the cameras to be there the whole time.
Going through something like this tends to be very personal and private, but Andy Whitfield chose to share this journey with the world. What do you hope people take away from this film?
COURTNEY: I don’t really know what I hope people take away. Everyone who sees this movie will draw something different from it, whether it’s something they connect to directly through their own experiences or something that they connect to on a human level. I think the message within it is the importance of taking life by the balls, and what can be gained by tackling things head-on and creating something incredible out of it. Things are either going to happen or they’re not. Life will take its course. You can be as in control of that as you possibly can, and you can also choose to operate to the best of your ability with what you’re dealing with. Too many people don’t. They’re too worried about the final objective. Really, it should be much more important to be present and deal with the here and now.
As far as being present and not fearing what you don’t know, is that something that typically comes pretty easy for you, or do you have to remind yourself to live in the moment and not think about the things that you don’t know are coming and can’t do anything about?
COURTNEY: I try to adopt that philosophy most of the time, and that was something that I learned from Andy’s family. Andy was the first friend that I had encountered, who really helped me to process circumstances from an intelligent perspective. It came at an age when I started to get clear about myself and who I was, and why I made certain decisions and the purpose behind them. That’s not to say that I had my shit together. I was 22 when we first met, but it was all taking shape, at that time. He was a real mentor, in that sense. It wasn’t about anything spiritual. It was just about getting real about your circumstances. It’s a tough thing to remember sometimes, but I always feel more grounded and more centered and more honest when I am adopting that philosophy and approaching situations that way.
You often hear that the mood and vibe of a set is dictated from the top down. How did Andy Whitfield help set the tone on Spartacus?
COURTNEY: Andy was a lovely, generous, funny, handsome, humble, committed actor. He didn’t come from a world where that was always what he wanted to do. He grew into that through exploring some insecurities within himself. Some modeling stuff came along, which opened up doors to this other industry. Acting was an evolution for him. It can be a really healthy thing when someone steps onto a set without any entitlement or expectations. He felt lucky to be there, and he was going to make the most of it. I think that attitude is infectious. It’s great when people adopt that and can be around that because it just spreads a wholesome message.
We only see a glimpse of you with Andy in the film. Because people tend to become friends because they’re either very similar and have a lot in common, or they like the fact that they’re different and can almost vicariously live through each other, which was your friendship with Andy?
COURTNEY: I think it was a bit of both. We had a lot of common ground in our interests and our creative endeavors. There was a lot of adoration from me to him. He was an older guy who was doing what I had hoped to be doing, in the years to come. He was realizing that dream for himself. Spartacus was one of my first gigs, certainly of that scale. It was also truly awesome to see someone who was not that dissimilar to me. He was 38 and it had just started to happen for him. I found that possibility really inspiring. That’s where the affection lay. We were each other’s heroes, in a strange way. I was a bit of a loose, young cat, tearing a hole in the shop like a bull without any direction or cause. He was this guy who really had his head screwed on and was creating amazing opportunities for himself by tackling his own demons and insecurities, and figuring out what that all meant and how he could reshape it into being the person he wanted to be. In the scheme of things, we weren’t friends for that long. It was a couple of years that we knew each other. That’s how fast things turned around. But we did have a bromance, in that sense.
At this point in your own acting career, is there something specific you look for in a project?
COURTNEY: For me, there’s no blanket thing. It grows and changes, as you do, and that’s what’s happening for me, at the moment. Every time I work, I learn something about myself and my abilities. That tends to open up more perspective on what the next move might be. I’ve been in a space for a couple of years that I feel blessed to be in. I have some freedom of opportunity, but also not all the opportunities in the world, which can make things harder. It’s not something that I think I have down pat. It’s just a case by case thing. When a project comes along, you assess the things about it that either interest you or don’t, but it can be any number of things. If you light up with it creatively, then it’s an experience you want to take on.
Common recently told me that Suicide Squad is unlike any other comic book movie out there, and that’s why he was attracted to it. What most surprised you about that shoot?
COURTNEY: What was most surprising was the comradery on set. It’s easy to imagine, on a film of that scale with a cast of that scale, you wouldn’t find the family that we did in each other. That was really awesome. You can’t predict those things. You can’t fashion it out of something else. Sometimes it works great, others not. It really was a familial experience for all of us, which was really cool, man.
What do you think audiences will love about the film?
COURTNEY: The boundaries we’re pushing within that genre. It’s so hard to talk about without saying anything, and as you know, I can’t say anything. I think people can see from the material that is out there that there is something new and exciting that they haven’t seen within this realm that Suicide Squad will offer. We’re all just pumped to share that with the world.
If you could use one word to describe director David Ayer, what would it be?
COURTNEY: Psychotic. He is the man. He’s one of the greats. I think he has an amazing future ahead of him, and I hope we get to work together again. I have nothing but admiration for him, and small amounts of fear. That about sums it up. He loves that attention to detail, and he’s not interested in comfort. Nothing is about making anything easy for anyone. And that’s not about making it hard, it’s just that when you’re off center, it creates a space for wonderful things to happen. That’s the world he likes to play in, and I think that’s very exciting.
We’ve heard the stories about Jared Leto being so method on the set. Do you like living in the character, in that way, or do you prefer to have light moments on set, especially when you’re doing heavier material?
COURTNEY: I think it’s a balance. With some characters, it feels right to live in it. I wouldn’t say that I take a method approach to anything, but it seeps into your skin a little. That can be fun, and it can be unhinging, but that’s a cool thing. It can be an exhausting way to get through your day. Sometimes, creatively, it can be much wiser to conserve that energy. I don’t think anyone’s acting ability is measured by how long or not they spend “in character.” You can have someone who’s just as incredible as the next guy, who’s sipping espresso between lines and cracking jokes that have nothing to do with the material in the film. It’s not for anyone to say what works for them. Whatever space you operate in comfortably is fine. Some people need the set to be really sacred and all about what it is you’re creating. On the film after that, it might be something totally different. After Suicide Squad, I went off and made a period film set against the backdrop of occupied Holland. It’s a different world, so you don’t want to see cell phones on set, in palms of hands when it’s 1940. I’m not sitting there pretending that I am a German soldier, but there are things that bring you in and out of that world that can be helpful or detrimental. It’s never the same, with any two roles or movies.
To find out where/when you can see Be Here Now, go to www.beherenowfilm.com.