Rhys Wakefield has come a long way from Summer Bay. He joined the cast of Home & Away at 16 as Lucas, the youngest member of the Holden clan, before a turn as an overwhelmed teen in Elissa Down's The Black Balloon. Now 31, Wakefield is all grown up and revelling in bad-boy turns.
In 2013 he terrorised audiences as the Polite Leader in Hollywood horror-thriller The Purge, and now in 10-part retro-themed crime drama Reprisal, he's Matty, a sleek-haired knife-for-hire, pledging allegiance to a murderous gang.
“The Polite Leader was a really special role for me, because it proved I could play someone that wasn’t the boy next door,” the former Sydneysider tells SBS Guide over the phone from his LA home (before the spectre of COVID-19 throws California into lockdown). “He’s definitely not Home & Away.”
Matty lurks in murkier waters. An unpredictable force with a slick dress, he hangs around a ’60s-style neon-lit roadhouse, harbouring drug-dealing go-go girls and crime lords with their goons, with his fellow “shit-kickers” dubbed the “Three River Phoenixes”, played by Mena Massoud (Aladdin) and David Dastmalchian (MacGyver). The 10-part series from the executive producer of The Handmaid’s Tale borrows that series’ operatic qualities deployed with Sons of Anarchy’s pulpier tone, and the unpredictable flashes of violence shared by both.
Wakefield dug the complexity beneath Matty’s preening. “I love how he postures. He really has this bravado about him that’s kind of like Han Solo, in a way, where he’s overcompensating for the lack of power he has in his life. There are two competing people inside him: one that is so desperate for power and status, and then this other individual that’s really just a boy having a tantrum because he has none of those things.”
Reprisal focuses on a vengeance quest by Katherine (Abigail Spencer) – aka Doris – who was left for dead by her crime boss brother. Years later, she begins hunting him down via an alter ego, and the ever-narrowing focus of her pursuit drags Matty into the fray.
Both Spencer and Wakefield appeared in Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective anthology series, albeit one season apart; Spencer joined Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams and Vince Vaughn in season two, and Wakefield teamed with Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali and Blade star Stephen Dorff, in the third.
“We thought that was pretty cool,” Wakefield says of their not-quite-reunion. “[Soencer's] such a great actor. I mean, she’s so impressive in this role in particular, and it was a pleasure to actually work together.”
Though it takes a while for their paths to converge in Reprisal, allegiances shift surprisingly and no life is sacred. It’s also deliberately discombobulating. While the fashions and cars suggest a ’60s setting, characters carry flip phones, and there’s a strange orange glow in the sky, hinting at something even more unusual at play.
“It’s kind of this rockabilly Game of Thrones, but its own beast,” he suggests. “I like that it exists in that morally questionable zone in the same way that a Tarantino or Coen Brothers film might. You know, those sort of awkward, violent moments occur throughout, and that tone is really exciting to me.”
Wakefield joins a long line of Australian stars like Margot Robbie, Chris Hemsworth and Naomi Watts who have leveraged a start in the local teen soaps into pure Hollywood gold. As he sees it, that has a lot to do with the workhorse skills they instil.
“The schedule is so much less demanding here than a five-nights-a-week soap like Home & Away or Neighbours,” he reveals. “That’s the gift. You get up your 10,000 hours in a way that allows you to be less precious because you’re forced to be more prepared. If you screw up a tape, you really have to recalibrate fast, because you’re trained to not really have enough time to have more than two takes.”
Wakefield shares with me his admiration for his Reprisal co-star Massoud's public statements about ongoing representation problems in the Hollywood casting system, having struggled to book auditions after anchoring Disney’s blockbuster live-action Aladdin. “One hundred per cent, what should be represented on screen should be the reality that you know. What we experience in our day-to-day lives, which is people of all colour, gender or sexual orientation.”
Wakefield is endeavouring to exert more control through driving his own projects: Last year saw him write, direct and star in darkly comic metatextual movie Berserk, about a young out-of-work actor writing a zombie movie, who is implicated in an accidental death. While critics weren’t overly kind, he took it on the chin and insists it was an invaluable training ground.
“You know, I would rather have created something that is able to be talked about than have not created anything at all,” he says. “I have no hostility towards bad reviews, because I just think, well, those individuals are paid to write an opinion, so it has to fall in a binary good or bad, and I wanted to create a movie that exists somewhere in between. Somewhere strange, because those are the movies I’ve always been drawn to.”
It’s opened new doors, with Wakefield currently working on an eight-part science fiction podcast penned with Berserk co-writer and producer William Day Frank. “The directing experience on Berserk was so enjoyable and it’s definitely a path I want to continue on as my acting career moves forward. I mean, I can’t believe the movie got a theatrical release in America. That’s beyond any dream I ever had.”
Reprisal premieres with a double episode on SBS on Wednesday 22 April at 8:30pm. Episodes will also be at SBS On Demand same day as broadcast.
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