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Out of his comfort zone
Out of his comfort zone

Judging by the roles he has played in his professional life Ewen Leslie is clearly a man who is up for a challenge.

Whether it's on the stage as Hamlet or Richard III, a role which won him the Helpmann Award for best male actor in 2010, or on the small screen as he was last weekend in the ABC's hard-hitting drama Devil's Dust, the Fremantle- born actor seems most comfortable out of his comfort zone.

In his latest film Dead Europe, director Tony Krawitz' adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas' novel, 32-year-old Leslie ventures further into thorny territory as a gay Australian/Greek photographer who travels to his father's homeland to scatter his ashes, only to unearth a dark family secret.

It's an unflinching film - a ghost story of sorts - that sees Leslie's Isaac unravel before our eyes as he goes through geographical and psychological changes - just the kind of intense performance we've come to expect from a man regarded as one of the finest actors of his generation.

"When I was offered the role I remember being quite terrified," says the well-mannered Leslie over the phone from his home in Sydney. "I thought it was such a huge call and it's going to require me to be as brave as possible and put myself on the line."

Leslie, of course, has been making brave decisions all his life.

As the youngest person to graduate from the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts - he was just 20 - he ventured to Sydney wide-eyed and optimistic of finding work straight away.

It took him four years and several part-time jobs before he landed his first acting gig in the TV series Ship to Shore.

"It sucks at the time because you think you're ready but in retrospect I like how things happened," he says. "When opportunities started coming my way I was hungry for them."

It was Krawitz who gave Leslie his first big break, casting him in his 2004 film Jewboy, a role which saw him land an AFI nomination.

As the pair team up again for Dead Europe I wonder are we seeing the start of a Russell Crowe/ Ridley Scott partnership? The actor laughs.

"I like Tony because not only is he a lovely guy to hang out with but he's not afraid to take risks with his work and make bold decisions," says Leslie, who also worked with scriptwriter Louise Fox on the 2010 play The Trial. One of those risks was bringing Tsiolkas' notoriously tense, moody mystery set on the turbulent streets of contemporary Europe to the big screen.

Dead Europe sees Isaac being invited to Greece to exhibit his photos. Ignoring warnings from his family in Australia, he decides to take his father's ashes to scatter them in his ancestral homeland.

However, when Isaac arrives in Greece he learns his father was cursed because of something that happened with a Jewish boy during World War II. Keen to know the truth, he travels further into the underbelly of contemporary Europe but his world starts to unravel as he finds himself unable to shake the ghosts of the past.

"It's such a tricky novel to turn into a film," says Leslie, who read the book after the script.

"What I really like about the film is that though there are some changes - things have been taken out and moved around - it's bold but still very much in the spirit of the book."

The shoot for Dead Europe took its cast, which also includes Marton Csokas and Kodi Smit-McPhee, to parts of the continent they never knew existed, including a Roma camp on the outskirts of Paris.

Certainly for Leslie his trip to Europe was an altogether less romantic experience than two years previously when he proposed to his girlfriend, film producer Nicole O'Donohue.

"There were so many moments where I thought 'What am I doing here'," says Leslie, who jokes Krawitz labelled the shoot the "anti-Contiki tour". Indeed, Krawitz' brief of capturing a sense of reality meant the cast and crew often found themselves in precarious situations, including filming a real-life riot.

"One of the first things Tony said to me was 'We are going to throw you in at the deep end as much as humanly possible'," Leslie says. "He came through with that tenfold. There was rarely a day when I wasn't completely out of my comfort zone.

"We were having lunch one day in Athens and we see footage on the TV of a riot. I could see Tony talking to the cinematographer and I just thought 'Oh no, here we go'."

And so the crew ventured into the thick of the riot, filming as they went.

Dead Europe is a confronting film - perhaps a little too much so for conservative types - but it's further proof of Leslie's standing as a powerhouse performer.

Similarly, his role as journalist Matt Peacock in Devil's Dust, the story of the James Hardie asbestos scandal and Bernie Banton's fight for victim compensation, was just as hard-hitting.

However, after tackling such serious material, it begs the question, when are we going to see the lighter side of Leslie?

"I think the closest I have ever got to doing a comedy in the last five years is Richard III," Leslie says..

"That's probably a problem if the psychopathic killer is the guy with the best gags.

"I would love to do some comedy. I think especially what happens in theatre is you do something and someone feels that you did it well and they kind of go 'You'd be good at that'."

Testament to just how much the acting fraternity has embraced our boy from Freo.