After a publicized series of profanity-laced tirades to police and his ex-girlfriend, Mel Gibson has spent the past decade receiving much public scorn and little high-profile film work. But according to Luke Bracey, the Australian actor co-starring with Andrew Garfield and Vince Vaughn in the Gibson-directed World War II epic “Hacksaw Bridge,” the new film is a redemptive career revival that shows it’s time for everyone to move on.
The 27-year-old Bracey, seen in last year’s remake of the adrenaline-fueled thriller “Point Break” playing the lead role originated by Keanu Reeves, recently visited the Twin Cities to promote the military drama, which opened Friday. It tells the true story of Desmond Doss, played by Garfield. During World War II, Doss joined the Army while following his strong pacifist religious beliefs, devoted to saving lives rather than taking them. He served in combat as an unarmed medic during the invasion of Okinawa, saving 75 wounded men and becoming the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor for bravery in battle.
Gibson’s film is a salute to a real hero at a time when spandex-clad daredevils are the most popular figures on-screen. It has won over critics and audiences since its debut at the Venice Film Festival, where Bracey watched it receive a 10-minute standing ovation. Working in a film of such scope, especially one directed by a filmmaker of Gibson’s caliber, was a fantasy come true, he said.
“When I read the script last year, I said, ‘I’ll play a tree in this!’ You can’t help being inspired by it,” he said. “And M.G., Mel, directing it. You dream of being in one of those movies in your life.”
Rugby and a soap opera
Bracey has been following that vision ever since “I saw ‘Gladiator’ on my 10th birthday and then that night ‘Braveheart’ was on the TV.” He never forgot that “amazing” double feature, although he didn’t foresee becoming a matinee idol himself.
“I enjoyed movies like everyone,” he said. “But I never expected to be an actor in my life, I never planned to.”
Born and raised in Sydney, he surfed and expected a future as a professional rugby player, with a possible sideline as a builder. Then in 2009, a school friend’s father invited him to audition for “Home and Away,” a long-running Australian daytime TV series. He “did the audition randomly” and landed the part.
Bracey still didn’t envision acting as a career, however. He felt that “anyone thinking they’re going to be doing this 10 years later has got some pretty big delusions of grandeur.” But rugby “wasn’t as intellectually stimulating as I’d like, and I knew there was more to life than playing a game.”
And now, almost 10 years later, he’s working with some of the most impressive talents in the business. Explaining that unexpected outcome, Bracey said, “I always quote that ‘Forrest Gump’ line. Life is like a box of chocolates!”
In “Hacksaw Ridge,” he plays Smitty, a tough Brooklyn recruit who is hostile to Doss’ nonviolence.
“It was interesting to me because it shows the strength of a man but also the fragility of them,” he said. The alpha male comes to understand Doss’ inner courage after they share time under fire in a foxhole, and ultimately treats him with newfound respect. “I keep running into him on the battlefield and I just can’t believe it’s really him. You realize that I have a bond of brotherhood there with someone who is more like me than I ever imagined.”
Genius and jokes
Throughout the shoot, Bracey said, Gibson was a creative force to be reckoned with.
“The thing with Mel is, he’s probably a legitimate genius. He’s so intelligent. He knows anything about everything. You go on set and he’s talking with the man who owns the land about the amount of the lead levels in the sand, and the next thing is something completely different. He’s just a very knowledgeable man.”
That was especially true when the cameras rolled and Bracey was “watching him make a movie in his head. You’ve got a plan, but then stuff happens when you film a scene, and he takes it and he stores it. Then you go to lunch and come back and the cameras have turned around, and he’s got that other bit playing in his head. He’s connecting to it.”
While Gibson didn’t lecture his cast about portraying his own religious convictions in the film, Bracey said it was obvious that the film was about the redemptive power of faith.
“Look at ‘The Passion of the Christ’ or ‘Apocalypto’ or ‘Braveheart’ — men sticking to convictions. Struggling through that in the face of everything else, that’s what strength is.” While Gibson didn’t highlight the film’s scenes resembling baptism and ascension in theological terms, “it wasn’t drawn in that way. It’s just that it’s all there.”
“He’s just a born storyteller in that way,” Bracey said.
Gibson helped guide him toward a poignant and reserved character, but he also was “very receptive” to actors creating material as they worked.
“When we were making that amazing scene in the foxhole, Mel said, ‘What are we going to shoot?’ Garfield and I said, ‘Well, we’ve been really serious. And the closest thing to crying is laughing. Maybe we’ll do that?’ ” Gibson filmed their improvisation, adding a human element that gave much needed balance to the film’s harrowing, combat-filled second hour.
“He’s very trusting in that way to his actors. He says, ‘I hired you because I hired you.’ ”
Perhaps the most memorable aspect of Gibson’s style is that “he likes to laugh and have fun,” Bracey said. “You can’t hire Vince Vaughn unless you want fun. In one scene he’s doing a wisecracking drill sergeant, going on because he wanted to have some fun. And we’re trying not to laugh.
“The person breaking up the most in those scenes was Mel, cracking up while he watched the monitors. Laughing more than anyone, because he was so enthusiastic, so keen and such a big fan of his job.”