Australian actor Brenton Thwaites came to America for the indie sci-fi thriller "The Signal." Credit: Getty Images
Who: Brenton Thwaites, young Australian actor Where you've seen him: He played Prince Phillip in "Maleficent" and Tim in "Oculus." Back home he was a fixture on the TV shows "SLiDE" and "Home and Away." Where he is now: Headlining the low-budget sci-fi thriller "The Signal." Where he will be: Opposite Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep in "The Giver," out in August; in "Son of a Gun," with Ewan McGregor; in Helen Hunt's "Ride"; and the star of the $150 million "Gods of Egypt," with Gerard Butler and Geoffrey Rush.
“The Signal” is really two films: a sci-fi thriller and a study of youth and heartbreak. In it, a recently dumped MIT freshman (Thwaites) takes a detour during a road trip and winds up waking up in a strange underground contamination center. There he struggles to find out what’s happening and perhaps escape.
For Thwaites it felt like two separate movies. “We shot [the contamination center sections] first,” the young Australian actor recalls. “Towards the end of shooting, it was a relaxed road trip vibe. There was no huge crew. It was such a different world from shooting in these long hallways and very brightly lit rooms.”
Other parts of the film were shot in the New Mexico desert. Shooting in suffocating heat might have enraged most actors, but Thwaites, oddly, was used to it. After shooting in America, he did a film in the desert in Australia, then one in Africa.
Besides, the desert can have its perks. “It actually makes it easier, because you don’t have to create [character emotions] so much,” he says. He says the film he’s shooting presently in Australia involves digital. “There’s nothing here. There’s no environment. It’s all blue screen and pretending to look at things. In the desert, you really feel oppressed. You feel heavy. You feel tired. When you’re tired, certain emotions are more available.”
Brenton Thwaites (left, with Beau Knapp on the right) plays an MIT student in over his head in "The Signal." Credit: Focus Features
Thwaites had other physical traits to work through. His character has a muscular disease that has crippled his legs, necessitating the actor use crutches. “There was one night I went out in my crutches, to try and get a feel for how the character would move. Later on I went to the gym to run. And people would be like, ‘Come on, this guy’s a phony.”
But though he only used crutches for part of the film, it still affected his performance and him. “The feeling of not being able to do anything slowly depresses you,” he says. That was right for his character, who is trying to reignite his relationship with his ex, who’s on the road with him. “He feels that he’s letting her down by not being able to physically be there for her.”
“The Signal” was shot on a low budget — only $4 million for a film that soon involves some major special effects. One of those includes — and this is a major spoiler, so skip to the end if you’d like — his character getting mechanical legs. “I really thought they were going to cut off my legs,” he jokes. How he acted with them while shooting was more practical. “They gave me the shape of the legs manufactured onto a pair of pants every day. That really helped me. Once I put on the tights, they were so uncomfortable that they made me walk in a weird way.”
The low budget didn’t throw Thwaites off, as he has been recently dividing his time between small films and bigger ones. “There’s something to be said for low budget films,” Thwaites explains. “You really start to think of the little things: what’s the easiest way to get the shot, how you can do this with no money. [This production] was great at doing that.”