If something explodes on-screen this year, chances are Jai Courtney will be nearby. With starring roles in action tentpoles like Insurgent and the newly rebooted Terminator franchise, the brawny 28-year-old Australian—who’s appeared alongside Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher and Bruce Willis in A Good Day to Die Hard—seems poised to become the go-to blockbuster bruiser of his generation. If only he didn’t have grander plans.
“I’ve done heavy action and that’s a lot of fun, but it’s something I’m hungry to get away from,” he says over breakfast at a quiet New York hotel. “I love doing action—obviously I just signed on to a big franchise—but it also means that for the next job, I don’t want to repeat history.”
Lucky for Courtney, redundancy doesn’t seem to be in the cards. Not only are his action heroes (or villains, as the case may be with his role in the Divergent sequel Insurgent) uniquely memorable characters that inhabit singular worlds, but he’s found an impressive place for himself in somewhat less pyrotechnic work as well— thanks in part to some very well-connected fans.
“I’ve been watching his work and thought he was really starting to understand the job,” says Russell Crowe, the Oscar-winning actor who cast Courtney in his directorial debut, The Water Diviner.
In the film, Courtney plays Cyril Hughes, a World War I–era Australian soldier searching in Turkey for his missing sons. It’s a role Crowe says required a certain understanding that Courtney—who also appeared in Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken—had in spades.
“His performance shows a deep connection to the character’s reality and the quiet leadership that the real Lt. Colonel Hughes possessed,” Crowe says. “It’s brilliant, understated, masculine, inherently Australian and deeply compassionate.”
For his part, Courtney says working for Crowe, who also appears on camera in the film, marked a career highlight. “Russell was really incredible,” he says. “I was in awe watching a man not only delivering his own performance, but getting up out of the mud, checking the shot and directing the other actors in the scene. There’s a lot going on there with that creative control. It feels like a natural evolution [for Crowe], but it’s ballsy stuff.”
Evolution is something Courtney himself has always been drawn to. Since his days in the grammar school drama club, an extracurricular he counterbalanced, naturally, with rugby, Courtney says his goal has always been to find a way to take what he’s good at and become even better.
“I think it’s important to remember that several years ago I would have given it all to be in the position I’m in now,” he says. “But I feel like I’m at the start, and there’s still that drive to keep going, to get better and grow as a performer.”
So if that means saving the world an extra few times in addition to taking on more nuanced work, Courtney’s just fine with it.
“I don’t have a clear sense of like ticking boxes as far as roles are concerned,” he explains. “I’ve been getting some incredible opportunities, and those are the things that dreams are made of.”