Brenton Thwaites: the serious pirate

The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is so enduring that Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley’s characters now have kids. But their on screen son says his real-life family members are his priority

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Johnny Depp famously claimed to have modelled the character of outrageous, swashbuckling antihero Captain Jack Sparrow on the mad, bad and dangerous to know rocker Keith Richards. In the 14 years since the Disney franchise launched with Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl in 2003 the Hollywood idol has gone some way to imitating that lifestyle with a host of personal and financial controversies and rumours of “train-wreck” on-set behaviour. In the 2007 and 2011 instalments Disney acknowledged the joke and assigned Richards to the role of Captain Jack’s father.

It’s the turn of Sir Paul McCartney to make a cameo appearance in the latest addition to the franchise – Salazar’s Revenge – but Disney seems aware that it can’t get by on casting ageing rock star spirits alone, especially if they’re to engage a new generation of Pirates fans.

Enter Kaya Scodelario and Brenton Thwaites. Readers might recognise 25-year-old Sussex-born Scodelario as Effy Stonem from late-noughties teen drama Skins, but Salazar’s Revenge is likely to be a first introduction to Thwaites, who despite a pretty convincing British accent is Australian born and began his career in Skins’ Oz equivalent, SLiDE.

“This movie’s a funny movie and sometimes I’m just not funny.”

Thwaites stars as Henry Turner – son of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann, played by Pirates veterans Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, who appear only briefly in the film that anchored in cinemas last week.

“I’ve seen it twice now and it’s one of my favourite films to watch,” Thwaites tells Big Issue North. “It’s so entertaining – although there are moments when you just want to walk up to the screen and slap yourself.”

Turner has to find the Trident of Poseidon in order to lift the curse of the Flying Dutchman, the ship his father is compelled to captain – keeping him away from his wife and son. He forges an uneasy alliance with astrologer Carina Smyth (Scodelario), Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and a down-on-his-luck Captain Jack – who’s being pursued by a crew of deadly ghost sailors headed by Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem).

“This movie’s a funny movie and sometimes I’m just not that funny. The character is all about saving Dad. There’s no real moments for Henry to have a bit of fun. It’s all about being the kind of bore in driving the story. I’m not really saying great things about my character. I just think Henry reminds us that the story is about finding the Trident of Poseidon.”

Maybe Henry will have “a little more fun” in the next film, he speculates, before remembering he’ll have to ask his lawyer how many he’s signed up to do.

Thwaites is at Disneyland, Paris – the birthplace of the franchise, inspired by the eponymous children’s ride – which he and other cast members have invaded for the European premiere of the film. “Everyone’s kids are on the park. I’m jealous. I didn’t bring mine – she’s a little bit young.”

The 27-year-old actor and his artist girlfriend Chloe Pacey welcomed baby girl Birdie just over a year ago. Thwaites plays guitar and has written a few songs he’d like to release “maybe in two or three years time” but he’s more focused on family life than a rock ‘n’ roll one.

The family spend their time between LA and Australia but have spent the last 18 months “on the road” while Thwaites worked on a string of films since he wrapped Pirates, filmed in his home state on the Gold Coast two years ago. As Birdie gets older he’d like to spend more time in Australia, although he doesn’t foresee the “normal” upbringing for her that he had with his family in Cairns.

“This is just my job – I’m an actor. Essentially it’s for my family.”

“She can’t get that, you know? I’ve worked with actors who have had kids and have brought up amazing, intelligent children so I know it’s possible and I also know that it’s sometimes not possible. I’ve worked with a lot of actors that have put their own interests first and I look at my parents, who gave up everything for me and my sister. My mum worked her arse off so we could have opportunities.

“This is just my job – I’m an actor. It just so happens that I get so much attention, and hopefully people love my movies and I’ll continue working, but essentially it’s for them. I want to try and keep that in mind.”
His upbringing in Queensland was sporty and also musical, playing the guitar and piano since he was 11. But although his sporting upbringing means he now “jumps towards” the physical side of acting, such as his fight scenes in Pirates, acting wasn’t in his sights.

“I came from a completely non-acting background. I had a really cool upbringing in the sense that I wasn’t surrounded by any of this as a young kid. I was inspired by it and it was my passion and I sought it as opposed to it always being in my childhood.”

After studying acting at Queensland University of Technology he landed a couple of TV parts. “I had a guest role playing this homosexual heroin addict who was a crazy character that falls in love with a soldier. It was a lot as my first role. It was like: ‘Bam! I dare you to do this.’”
He paid his acting dues, like so many, on a soap, relocating to Sydney for a three-month stint on Home and Away in 2011.

“I think it is a requirement. If you don’t do it then you can’t get your visa,” he laughs when discussing the show that also produced talent such as Chris Hemsworth and Heath Ledger and got them all access to Hollywood.

“I didn’t have the luxury of doing the three years like a lot of those guys but those three months gave me a lot of experience and a lot of press, which is great for my visa.

“I do think it’s a good breeding ground for actors, mainly because you get a lot of time in front of the camera. When you’re young you’re insecure, you’re scared, you’re intimidated, and the more time you can get in front of the camera doing anything – short films, auditions, whatever it is – the better. Home and Away offers a lot of work in a short amount of time.”

Hollywood was still a culture shock. “Getting a role in Australia is a little more laid back and a little more actor friendly in the sense that, in my experience, the casting directors down there provide an environment where you can try stuff. You can experiment more with your characters. In LA, in the first couple of years, it’s kind of like a sausage factory – you go in, you say your lines, you leave – there’s no sense of play.”

Following a couple of roles in small films to mixed reviews, it was back on home soil that Thwaites gained critical acclaim for his part in 2014 crime thriller Son of a Gun. He returned to LA to play the part of Prince Phillip in Disney’s Maleficent before being cast in Pirates of the Caribbean. He’s since landed lead roles in zombie comedy Office Uprising, Second World War flick Ghosts of War and Interview With God, in which Thwaites, who is not religious, stars alongside David Strathairn.

“I play an interviewer who speaks to a guy who claims to be God [Strathairn], so through a series of questions he’s trying to figure out if he’s just crazy or if he’s God. The things they talk about go from personal problems to the history of the world and humanity.

“It was an opportunity to talk about things that interest me. My character was suffering PTSD and had just returned from reporting on the war, so I was given a huge opportunity to create my own back story and to play darker colours than I had played. It was a chance for me to understand a little bit more about religion and spirituality and that side of humanity.”

As well as hinting at future instalments of Pirates of the Caribbean, Thwaites suggests he’ll be returning to Disney’s Maleficent – the Angelina Jolie film earmarked for a sequel – and has other ambitions too.

“I’d like to be able to play characters that will help people understand things like mental health and depression. Given the opportunity I would jump at playing a lost young man. A lot of my friends are going through this time where the world has changed and we’re all lost. Some of my friends have become soldiers and are fighting, some are in jail, some are plodding along doing jobs they don’t want to do but feel they have to.

“There are so many different things going on now for young men but I think the main thing is we’re a generation that didn’t really have access to good role models. I was lucky, personally, but given the right opportunity to play that and help people understand what’s going on at the moment – I’d love to do that.”

A pirate’s life

Disney paid the price for inspiring a generation of pirates last month when internet plunderers reportedly stole a copy of Salazar’s Revenge from a post-production company in LA and held it to ransom with a threat to release the film early.

Disney was said to have refused demands for a Bitcoin payoff and worked with the FBI to protect the $230m (£176m) budget film – the fifth in the $3.7bn (£2.8bn) global franchise – making the $80,000 (£61,000) demand a drop in the ocean.

It’s been six years since the last film, On Stranger Tides. Salazar’s Revenge, entitled Dead Men Tell No Tales until the final hour, was initially earmarked for a 2015 release but script problems meant it wasn’t greenlit until summer 2014. Filming began on 16 Feb 2015 on the east coast of Australia with a script by Jeff Nathanson.
Production designer Nigel Phelps built elaborate sets, including an entire Caribbean village, a god’s tomb at the bottom of the ocean floor and 13 ships up to 160ft long.

“You want to respect what’s gone on in the past films,” says Phelps. “But you want to freshen it up and try to bring images to the screen that haven’t been seen before.”

The film was directed by Norwegian duo Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg – known for Netflix series Marco Polo.

Rønning says: “The Pirates films remind me about the kind of movies that inspired me to become a filmmaker when I was a kid. Now that I have kids of my own, it’s great to make a movie that they can watch too.

“We knew that trying to do something original with the fifth instalment was going to be a challenge, but that was important to us. We very much looked back to the first movie when we went into this.”

Franchise producer Jerry Bruckheimer, known affectionately in Hollywood as Mr Blockbuster, says: “We could only have dreamed when we did the first film that we were creating something which would have taken us this far.

“All we’ve ever really wanted to do is to entertain them, bring them into a different world for a few hours, and little did we know that we would have brought them into that world for nearly 15 years… I guess it’s been a pirate’s life for all of us.”

Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge is in cinemas now

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