Rugby great Ian Roberts takes first gay role in ’Saltwater’
In 1995, Australian rugby player Ian Roberts did something unheard of in professional sports: he came out, making him the first high-profile Australian sports professional to do so. Three years later, he made a career shift, putting rugby behind for acting and modeling.
His post-rugby career has found him in a number of films (the 2005 Australian drama "Little Fish," "Superman Returns") and television shows (The Australian version of "Dancing with the Stars," and the crime series "Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities"); but with his upcoming role in "Saltwater" he takes on his first leading role in a film playing a gay character. In the film, he co-stars with the writer and producer Ronnie Kerr ("Shut Up and Kiss Me," "Regarding Billy").
According to a press release from Ariztical Entertainment, "Saltwater" illustrates an ocean of emotions as its captivating characters deal with the suicide of a close friend, an ill-timed love as gay men, and realize that saltwater is everywhere; in tears, sweat and the sea. Filming took place at various locations in North Hollywood, Sherman Oaks and San Diego.
Joining Kerr and Roberts in the ensemble cast is singer-songwriter Justin Utley, Bruce L. Hart ("Homewrecker," "Coupled with Love"), Will Bethencourt ("BearCity," "BearCity 2"), Jonathan Camp, Russell Dennis Lewis, Brent Henry and John Stokkeland.
Unlike many of today’s youth-obsessed gay films, "Saltwater" presents a more accurate portrait of the gay community by showing the interaction between characters of varying ages and experiences; as well as how they are able to co-exist cohesively and not exclusive of each other. I had an opportunity to visit with Kerr and Roberts and dig a little deeper into the premise of the film, as well as their particular interests in "Saltwater."
BeBe: Ronnie, why don’t you tell me a little bit about the story behind "Saltwater"? I know you did write the screenplay and co-star in the film, but tell me what "Saltwater" is all about?
Ronnie Kerr: It’s about a group of friends, but it really follows Will (Ronnie Kerr), who leaves the military and decides not to re-enlist. He goes back home to stay with his friend Rich (Bruce Hart) while getting back on his feet. Rich is a classic matchmaker, always trying to set people up and get up in their business. He (Rich) sets Will up with a good friend of his named Josh, played by Ian (Roberts). You see there is chemistry between them -- they are into each other; but it is also a case where timing is just wrong, the boys just can’t seem to get it together. Then a terrible tragedy occurs which forces the boys to spend time together where they get to know each other a bit. So, it’s really like a romantic drama.
BeBe: Now, Ronnie this isn’t the first film that you have written?
Ronnie Kerr: It’s not. The last film I wrote that was released was "Shut Up and Kiss Me."
BeBe: And, you starred in that film as well?
Ronnie Kerr: I did, yeah.
Gay life after 30
BeBe: Which then leads me to the this question, because I have spoken to a lot of directors who primarily direct gay films and actors who primarily act in gay films; do you find that you need to write your own stories as a vehicle to act in, as a gay actor?
Ronnie Kerr: I think if you would have asked me that years ago, I would have said yes. But, now it’s more like I want to tell stories in the gay medium that show a different side of gay life. A lot of time when you see gay film, it is 20-something guys doing all the things we did when we were 20-something, but there is life after 30. I’d really like to show there is a life for you (30- and beyond- gays).
Some of the films that are out where guys are running around having sex and doing drugs may make some very interesting stories; I just think there are other stories to be told. So, that is the bigger reason for writing these pieces.
BeBe: I think that is interesting and great commentary because I know a lot of young gay individuals, particularly young ones who are finding it hard to come out, one of the things that they have mentioned to me is that they don’t see their future as a gay individual. So, it is interesting that you are writing stories that show there is life after 25 for a gay man. And as I understand with "Saltwater," you have a wide range of ages represented in the film showing the interrelationships between the group as a whole, 20-something, 30-something, and beyond.
Ronnie Kerr: Yeah, and I think that is really true to life because in the film there are young 20-something kids. There are couples and singles. It goes all the way up to couples into their 50s. You know how it is when you go to a bar or house party and your hangin’ out with your friends, you do have that cross-section of friendships in these age ranges.
And, it is very rare that we get to see that portrayed in film. Sometimes in film, whether straight or gay, we would like to believe that all people are one way, and it just is not the case (in real life). It’s nice to be able to bring that diversity into a project and share that.
BeBe: Now, Ian, after retiring from rugby (1998), you went directly into preparing for this craft by honing your skills in acting. Have you always wanted to be an actor? What was it that brought you to acting directly from your rugby career?
Ian Roberts: Well I’m gay, love. There’s always been drama in my life! (all laugh).
No, in school I was always a part of the theatrical group. It wasn’t always about sports with me. I’ve always had a love for theater. I was kind of fortunate in the fact after rugby, I was 34 and I just wanted to do what I wanted to do. I was on Australian TV, and picked up other things along the way. It’s all been fantastic.
BeBe: Now, Ian, it has been 17 or so years since your public coming out (the first professional rugby player to do so), and you have done other acting roles both on Australian television and U.S. films ("Cedar Boys," "Superman Returns," and "Little Fish"), as you say, but with "Saltwater" you play your first gay character. So, why so long before playing a gay character, and why this film?
Ian Roberts:Why so, long? I ask the same question (laughter follows).
Well, physically I am a big person, and roles for larger people in film are limited regardless. Australia has a very small film industry, so, I don’t mind being typecast, but available roles are very few. As a character actor, I wasn’t getting a lot of ongoing work. I mean, I don’t ever expect to be cast as Romeo. This film has been just a nice chance to... I mean for 15 years I’ve been playing the same character regardless of what role it is, one with a bad attitude or serial killer... This was just a nice opportunity to show my range.
BeBe: Well, I can see at 6’5" and a large physique why you have been typecast basically as the tough such as in "Superman Returns," but this role in "Saltwater" really puts you in a softer place. Now that shooting the film has been completed, how do you like playing a more empathetic character?
Ian Roberts:Well, I accepted the role because I like the story and what it was about. And, I really, really had passion about the content of the story. And then when I met Charlie (Vaughn), the director, it was just the right thing to do. He explained the role wonderfully during our first meeting, and again, it was just a perfect chance to show my range.
BeBe: Now, Ronnie, I am familiar with Charlie Vaughn ("Vampire Boys") and his work, and have met him and spoken to him on several occasions. So tell me how you and Charlie became involved in this project together?
Ronnie Kerr: As you know Charlie did "Vampire Boys," and I just did "Vampire Boys II," which Charlie opted out of. So, I basically knew him through a circle of work acquaintances. I had sent the script out to three or four directors, Charlie being one of them, and I needed someone who understood the particular tragedy that happens in the film. If you ever meet Charlie, and I know you have, he is just a really sweet guy, and compassionate, and gentle, and there is no power ego with him. I wanted somebody who could really bring all of that to this project. I knew after my first meeting with Charlie he was the one I wanted to go with.
BeBe: Before going into feature films, Charlie has a strong background in directing documentaries that have dealt with sensitive issues, including aging as it pertains to the gay community. So, I can see how that could bring something to his directing of this particular film with its portrayal of gay characters of different generations and that interrelationship between those age groups.
Ronnie Kerr: I agree! I love Charlie.
BeBe: Now with the cast being so diverse, how difficult was it to cast this film for you?
Ronnie Kerr: You know, I gotta tell you, out of any film I have worked on in the past decade, casting was really easy. It was really weird because when we cast, there were people who submitted that have never submitted anything to me before, no matter what the project. From them, I put together really a talented group of people. It’s shocking - they’re so good-looking and talented. So it was easy. The first piece of the puzzle was to find who was going to play Josh (Ian) and sort of build the cast around it. Yeah, casting was easy. I wish I had a real dramatic story, but I don’t.
BeBe: No hunting through the crowds bar after bar, theater after theater searching for that particular actor, huh? You didn’t have any of that?
Ronnie Kerr: No (underlying laugh). Except for one person, everyone who was our first choice accepted the role.
BeBe: In this film, you two play a romantic couple, or two people searching for romance?
Ian Roberts: Well we aren’t searching for romance, it is because of the tragedy that happens in the film that we sort of bond because we have to deal with each other on much more of a personal level than just being social acquaintances. It’s the tragedy that brings it all together.
BeBe: Now, Ronnie you earlier spoke about pulling from personal experience when it comes to the gay community and the relationships between the diverse ages, what about the tragedy in the film? Is that pulled from something personal?
Ronnie Kerr: It is. The tragedy is taken from something in my personal life. A lot of the film is pulled from pieces in my life.
Ian Roberts: The tragedy is just a really bad hair day. (All roar with laughter)
BeBe: And what is in the title of the movie? Why "Saltwater?" What does the title represent?
Ronnie Kerr: There is one character in the film who reiterates to his friend ’the cure for anything is saltwater, which is (found in) tears, sweat or the sea.’ And, you do find these different characters in the film dealing with those three elements in order to sort of quench the pain that they are going through.
For more on "Saltwater" go to www.Ariztical.com.
As an actress, BeBe was introduced to film with a lead role in the independent film "Under One Sun" with her character dealing with religious, racial and gender issues. Additionally, she appeared in the campy musical "Devious, Inc" (Australian Film Festival, San Francisco Short Film Fest) also adding additional vocals to the musical soundtrack. Both of these performances led to her selection for a lead role in Aisha Media’s next short film series, "Con-tin.u.um" to be released in 2012.