From Rockhampton to the SWAT team …
Aussie actor / director Alex Russell is living the dream, and explains how SWAT uses weapons on set.
When he was growing up in Rockhampton, Alex Russell’s happy place was in the school musical and community theatre.
Now he is living the dream, acting and directing on US drama S.W.A.T., whilst pursuing his own film projects and winning industry nominations. Does it get any better?
Russell, who stars as tactical officer Jim Street, graduated from NIDA before moving to LA in 2011. Hie credits a sci-fi film with Michael B. Jordan as opening many doors.
“I wouldn’t have SWAT if not for Chronicle.”
“Chronicle was huge for me. It’s afforded me so many job opportunities. That came out in 2012 and helped me get bigger studio movies, indie projects, Australian movies. I wouldn’t have SWAT if not for Chronicle. They really liked that movie and I think that really helped me get that job,” he tells TV Tonight.
In Season One Jim Street joined the SWAT team, headed by ‘Hondo’ (Shemar Moore), as a cocky transfer but over the 4 subsequent seasons he has cooled his temperament.
“Coming in as the loose cannon, he got kicked off the SWAT team down in Long Beach, and got transferred. But he doesn’t fit in, doesn’t pay attention to orders if they don’t suit him,” he recalls.
“It’s all about him learning how to become part of a team, lose the ego, trust others. Through the rest of the show, he grows a bit, becomes more of a three dimensional, vulnerable, empathetic human being.
“He’s a good friend, and a great teammate. There’s definitely been a big journey for him.”
Season 5 picks up from a “life-changing” S4 finale for the SWAT team.
“There is a questioning of ‘what’s going to happen to the team? Will they continue to operate or are they going to get pulled apart?’ As a result Street and Chris (Lina Esco), who have had to put a relationship on hold so many times, suddenly see a glimpse of hope that they could be together.
“There is unbelievable action in it”
“The first episode is awesome. It’s set and shot in Mexico and there is unbelievable action in it.”
Action is part of SWAT‘s DNA, yet in the current climate of gun safety following an incident on Alec Baldwin’s film Rust, Russell remains confident of current protocols.
“I can’t speak to the situation that’s just happened. I wasn’t there. But I can say that I don’t think there is an inherent need for change in the protocol, as it is laid out currently, if it is properly abided by,” he suggests.
“As soon as you get too ‘rushy’ around safety, it’s a bad thing.
“A production is kind of left to its own devices. The producers are there, the first A.D., the safety officers. But you don’t have an outside force that isn’t part of production, that’s completely unbiased, that doesn’t have a vested interest in the outcome of the show to check it out.
“It’s not like a health inspector that will go around to different restaurants.”
Russell has plenty of experience with armoury on set but says there are rarely times when real weapons are required.
“The gun safety on our show aways feels very safe”
“The gun safety on our show aways feels very safe. There is a very specific process to it. If you want to have a nozzle flash, an in-camera effect that shows a shell flying out the side, the person reacting to the sound, you’ll use a real weapon. It’s a real gun, but it has a blank… what we call a quarter-load,” he explains.
“All that does is creates a muzzle flash at the end of the weapon. There’s nothing in place of a bullet. If there is, then that’s because a mistake has been made, like the the terrible Brandon Lee incident.
“If you have a camera up close, the camera operators are given protective gear, big shields in front of them and all this sort of stuff.
“If you’re happy to put the muzzle flash in post-production, then you have something we call an ‘airsoft.’ It’s a prop. It looks like a gun, but it’s not capable of firing.”
“An ‘airsoft’ is a prop, filled with gas for recoiling but is incapable of firing.
“It doesn’t make a loud noise, it doesn’t give you a muzzle flash and it doesn’t eject a shell,” Russell continues.
“Having that noise, even if it’s just an armourer firing quarter-loads in the air, gives you something to react to.”
“Some people are saying we should just have that. But the other day we had quarter loads fired as we were trying to get to cover in a scene, doing our tactical SWAT thing. Having that noise, even if it’s just an armourer firing quarter loads in the air, gives you something to react to.”
It’s a matter he is comprehensively across given he has recently directed his first episode of SWAT. S5 E8 “Safe House” screened as the mid-Fall finale with Russell crediting showrunner Shawn Ryan for fostering the idea.
“He was awesome, he created a pathway and talked about actor / director stories that were good and the pitfalls to watch out for. I started shadowing directors and eventually they trusted me to direct second unit. I just kind of built my way up through the show until they gave me an episode!”
Directing has been part of his career since 2012, first with short films and more recently he co-produced and starred in the indie feature film Under My Skin, which was recently nominated for an AACTA Award.
“It’s a love story for our time. My character falls in love with Denny (Liv Hewson), who’s an unconventional artist and my character’s a straight-laced lawyer. On paper, they’re not much of a match, but there’s just a spark and they fall madly in love. Then Denny begins to question their gender. When that comes to my character, Ryan, they stay together. It’s about what happens in their relationship, through that process,” he says.
“It is inspired by true events and asks, what if you have a straight white, cis male working his way up the ranks in a macho law firm, exposed to this whole other concept?”
Meanwhile Russell continues on SWAT and no plans to part company anytime soon.
“In the words of Patrick St. Esprit who plays Commander Hicks, ‘I’ll ride that wave to the beach!’ It’s been the most incredible opportunity.”
SWAT returns 9pm Sunday on FOX One.
Under My Skin is now screening on Stan