When he was graduating from the WA Academy of Performing Arts last year, Alex Williams was told to prepare for the worst.
“You get told when you come out that you’ll spend a couple of years soul searching or doing the usual actor stereotypical thing. Which I totally expected to be doing,” he says.
“So I feel very lucky to come out and have a role pop up that resonated with me.”
The role is that of the young Julian Assange, in TEN’s anticipated telemovie Underground: The Julian Assange Story. Talk about being thrust into spotlight. Acting alongside Rachel Griffiths and Anthony LaPaglia, it was Williams’ very first audition since graduating.
“I got representation and this was the first thing they sent me to and I got lucky, so you don’t expect that,” he admits.
“It’s in the news a lot which is a good thing because more people will see it, hopefully.”
Based on Suelette Dreyfus’s 1997 book of same name, it follows a teenage Assange as he hacks into US military computer systems under the agenda of bringing truths to the public. Significantly, it portrays a mother and sons living a gypsy-like lifestyle on the run from a father embedded in a religious cult. The disconnections experienced by Assange are designed to help us understand his adult personality.
“It’s an ‘origin’ story. Most people know what he’s doing now but the general public, I don’t think, would know how he grew up or what he went through or the activities he got up to,” says Williams.
“So it gives you a very good insight into how he operates now and the stances he takes.
It’s interesting having followed it, because you only get the side that the news releases to you, which isn’t always the full story a lot of the time.”
Focussing on the young Assange also means writer-director Robert Connolly hasn’t had to await an outcome from Assange’s current problems of charges in Sweden and political asylum in an Ecuador embassy in London.
Prior to being cast in the role, Williams admits he was torn by Assange’s politics and methodology.
“Beforehand I was sitting on the fence a little bit. I agreed with what he was doing and had many debates with friends,” he says.
“But it was great to get this and look further into it. It absolutely consolidated what I believed and what’s right within his morality.”
Williams plays the role as hero, with a hint of romantic lead, but has had to draw his own conclusions largely based on footage of the adult Assange.
“I play around with the arrogance,” he says.
“We act differently when we’re in front of the camera. There’s an interview where he’s talking to camera but that’s probably not what he’s actually going to be like in real life.
“So I didn’t look too extensively at that.
“It’s now another 20 years and he’s in a different country so and going all over the world you pick up a lot. I’ve tried to strip it back, but he’s still got that intensity.”
Playing a biographic role while his subject is still very much alive weighs on his mind, especially knowing Assange will see the finished product.
“It’s very daunting that he’s going to see it. It’s great when you can have a little bit of artistic license with characters and actual people.
“It’s nerve-wracking, but we’re not vilifying him. We’re just sort of telling it how it was,” Williams explains.
“If he likes it, he likes it, but if not I’m sure he will let us know.”
Assange is understood to be aware of the telemovie but Williams hasn’t had any direct contact with him. I wonder, if given the chance, what he would like to ask him?
“I don’t have any direct contact with him at all. I don’t think I would use it even if I had it. Not until I finish. You have to take a step back. I don’t want to do what he wants or what he thinks he’s like. You have to trust your instincts and do what you know is right.
“I’d ask him about something that’s happened in his life. There’s a lot that’s hard to fill in. There are big gaps surrounding his relationships with certain people that are intriguing, which I’ve filled in for myself,” he replies.
“To get the confirmation or the truth would be great. But it’s not something you would ask. It’s personal.
Underground, which had the rare honour of playing at the Toronto International Film Festival will also screen later in the US, thanks to NBC Universal’s investment in Matchbox Pictures. Williams isn’t sure how much he might benefit from the exposure in the States, especially given WikiLeaks has been accused of stealing government property.
“Public opinion over there is very different to what it is in Australia and around the world. So we’ll see,” he says.
“I’m trying not to think about that and just take it scene by scene and day by day.
“I think we’ve got to see what the reception is like and how it pans out before we make a move. I’ll take it as it comes.”
Underground: The Julian Assange Story airs 8:30pm Sunday on TEN.