From director Henry-Alex Rubin, the action-drama Semper Fi, which means “always faithful,” follows Cal (Jai Courtney), a by-the-book police officer who’s also a Marine Corps reservist, along with his close-knit group of childhood friends – Jaeger (Finn Wittrock), Milk (Beau Knapp) and Snowball (Arturo Castro). When Cal’s reckless younger half-brother Oyster (Nat Wolff) gets in a bar fight that leads to an extreme prison sentence, loyalty leads Cal to risk and sacrifice everything for family.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, Aussie actor Jai Courtney talked about why he wanted to be a part of this project, how Semper Fi deals with some stuff that felt really close to him, the fun time they had shooting in New Orleans, what co-star Nat Wolff brought to their dynamic, and the most challenging day of the shoot. He also talked about shooting the Suicide Squad sequel, his reaction to reading the script, and what director James Gunn is bringing to the project.
Collider: In this film, you play a Marine Corps reservist who’s also a police officer, there’s the brother dynamic, there’s this group of friends at the center of everything, and you got to shoot in New Orleans. Did you know all of that, going into it? Was that what attracted you to this project?
JAI COURTNEY: Yeah, in a sense. It deals with some stuff that felt really close to me, in a way. My greatest friends in the world are guys that I’ve known for like 20 plus years, and getting to explore a relationship that resembled that was something that I found really interesting, just because of the struggles that it digs up between these guys and the loyalty that it forces them to examine between themselves. And with the other stuff, like wearing a couple of uniforms, is something that, in a way, I’m no stranger to, but this was a world that was unique, in the way it dealt with that, and I hadn’t been in that space before. I always look at these as interesting opportunities to portray real, hard-working Americans, and people that are a lot braver than I consider myself. So, there’s always a duty within that, to try to do something that’s really authentic and do a service to that. It’s always a challenge that I welcome, and it takes a lot of guidance, and it takes great scripts and great storytelling, and being able to trust in your director and the tone of the thing. I felt like the marriage with those elements was right, in this space, and to build a really interesting, action-driven plot twist into the mix was something that was exciting. It hinges on those relationships, though. That was really the key. If you don’t buy into that brotherhood, with the guys and not just between Nat’s character and myself, then you don’t really understand or buy into the lengths they’re willing to go to for each other. So, building that was key, and I knew if we got that right, then audiences would get on board with this story, and it’d be a lot of fun.
It also seems like, if you’re going to do material like this that has a certain level of intensity to it, shooting in a place like New Orleans is the perfect balance to that.
COURTNEY: Yeah, it was. We needed it. It was quite bizarre because it’s set in Upstate New York and in pre-production our location wasn’t decided up until quite late, to be honest, and that’s just because of the way things work with scouting and funding and being able to logistically bring the movie together. This wasn’t an easy one. It wasn’t one that was all set and just fell into place. It took a lot of hard work, and a lot of it really came down to the wire. But then, New Orleans was where it made the most sense, and I was excited. I’d done a couple of movies there before, and to go back is always a good time. It was a great backdrop for this group, and for what we needed to achieve because it’s just a big, hospitable town. You can have a lot of fun there and find a little bit of trouble, and all of that was necessary to build the relationship between us and that sense of camaraderie. I think it helped, for sure. I can’t imagine shooting it anywhere else.
Things definitely get really intense and heated between these brothers, on more than one occasion. What was it like to have Nat Wolff to play that with? How was the experience of having him, as a scene partner?
COURTNEY: I think Nat’s an incredibly talented actor. Even when I see the film now, and it’s been a couple of times, over the last year or so since it’s been done, that I’ve seen it, his work just blows my mind. I feel really lucky to have had him. I think he made me a better actor in the movie, and I’m proud of that work, as well. So, I feel indebted to him for that. I think he’s just got amazing instincts and he keeps it really, really real. He wants to be there, and he’s very present. He’s a very generous scene partner, and he sees the value in pulling the best out of one another, in order to create a great collective performance. He and I didn’t know each other prior. Before the movie started, we just hung out one afternoon in L.A., just to break the ice. We bonded over some shit that we both have in common and we have a few mutual friends, as well, so we broke things down pretty easy. He’s just a great guy, so all of that little legwork stuff wasn’t hard. As far as the practicalities of shooting, he was awesome and I thank him for that, for sure.
What was the most fun day on set, on this shoot, and what was the most challenging day on set?
COURTNEY: Oh, man, it’s tough to say because we made this movie 18 months ago. As far as the best and worst days go, those things escape me so quickly, after a film happens. You’re so present, at the time. In a weird way, as actors, we black out dialogue a lot. It comes in, you remember it, you’re there with it, and then you let it fly away. I don’t know, I just look at it all as one big good time that we had. Honestly, there weren’t a lot of days on this movie that were tough, in the sense of the experience of making it, because we were having so much fun. I do recall, at the very end, we were shooting the Iraq deployment sequence, and we literally ran out of hours because the sun was coming up. It was the end of the movie. We were done, it was our last night, and we had worked an incredibly long day. It was one of those crazy things. We just had to shoot as much as we could, and then, sooner or later, it was like school ending for the year. The bell was gonna ring and that was going to be it ,and whatever we got was gonna be what we got. So, I remember this amazing frantic energy on those last two nights, while we were shooting that sequence and had to scramble between stuff. There were some pieces in that, that took awhile to set up and get right. I just remember the chaos, and then literally falling asleep at the wheel, driving home. Arturo [Castro] had to kick me out of the driver’s seat and put me to bed in the passenger seat, or I would’ve taken the car off the road because I was so exhausted from making it through that day. But, they’re all fond memories. I owe it to these guys, so much. We all dug in for each other, and everyone worked extremely hard. We were led by amazing director in [Henry-Alex Rubin] and Rudy Reyes, who really guided the Marine feeling and energy that we had to maintain and share, keeping it authentic, in that sense. So, yeah, I’m definitely grateful for the whole experience.
The Suicide Squad sequel has started filming, but have you started filming on it yet?
COURTNEY: I have started filming on it.
What was your reaction to reading the script, for the first time?
COURTNEY: Well, I was really excited. I was pumped to be coming back, and to finally be able to portray this character again, and to be with this great group of people. It had been a couple of years between drinks. There was a period there where we didn’t really know if it was gonna happen or not. I had such strong hopes that it would because we had so much fun making it, the first time around, but these decisions are made by people a lot more powerful than me. But I feel like they pulled it together. They got a great script out of James [Gunn], and the decision to work with him was a great one. So, I was stoked. I’m stoked to be here. It’s great to be with some familiar faces, some old friends, and a whole bunch of new people, too. It’s a fantastic group, and the script’s really exciting, so I have no doubt we’ll deliver something that people are gonna love.
How does James Gunn’s take on the material compare to the previous movie? In what ways would you say it’s tonally different?
COURTNEY: Oh, I don’t know. It’s hard to comment on, so explicitly. I think the tone of Suicide Squad had its own flavor, so it’s not like we’re in a completely different land, altogether. I don’t know. It’s a tricky one to answer. Maybe it’s a little lighter than the other stuff, but saying that is not really a fair assessment. It’s incredibly funny, but it’s still very violent and action-packed. I don’t think it adheres to anything specifically that we didn’t try to uncover a little, in the first movie. They’re just different filmmakers and have different filmmaking styles and different senses of humor, so that will organically find itself onto the page and onto the screen, as well.
Does the film pick up directly after the last one, or will we get a sense that some time has passed?
COURTNEY: You’re just gonna have to wait and see. You’re getting too many details out of me. I’m going to walk myself into trouble here, in a minute. You’re just gonna have to just check it out. I’m that guy that’ll keep talking and talking and talking, and then I’ll have blown the fucking end of the movie.
Semper Fi is in theaters, on-demand and digital now.