The first thing you notice about actor Ryan Kwanten is the quiet, pensive air that surrounds him, a stark contrast to Jason Stackhouse, the sexy-yet-stupid Southerner he plays on HBO’s True Blood. A native Australian, Kwanten laughs at the comparison, admitting that when it comes to personality, he’s more like his latest role, the title character of the independent romantic comedy/superhero film Griff the Invisible.
“I was, honestly, more of the sort of the Griff type,” Kwanten said with a smile when he sat down with Spinoff Online to discuss the film, which opens today in select U.S. theaters.
The premise of the film, from writer/director Leon Ford, is simple: Griff is about a young man who believes he’s a superhero. Shy and awkward, Griff is bullied at work and spends most of his time patrolling the streets, working on his invisibility suit, and shutting the rest of the world out. But when he meets the equally strange Melody, played by a quirky Maeve Dermody, Griff at last begins to open up.
An Australian production that’s already seen life at the Berlin and Toronto international film festivals, Griff nearly went on without Kwanten because of his work on True Blood.
“When I approached my agent back in Australia with putting myself on tape for it, they said they really don’t think I’m right for the role because, just like the American audience, all the producers and director had really seen was True Blood,” the actor revealed. “So I said, ‘You know what, if I can put myself on tape, can you get it to them?’”
They had no objections, so that’s what Kwanten did — over and over and over again. “I ended up putting myself on tape five times to really sort of convince them that I am that guy — I will beg, borrow, steal, kill do whatever I have to do to get on this film!” he said, adding with a laugh, “Fortunately I didn’t have to kill.”
Murder seems fairly excessive for a shot at a romantic comedy about a wannabe superhero but, as Kwanten told Spinoff, he felt strongly about the role, as he thought Griff was a story that “needed to be told.”
“I think I would have put myself on tape a hundred times, because I felt like it was one of those stories worth fighting for, and it really sort of stayed with me well beyond the last page,” Kwanten said.
One of those reasons it had such a big impact on the actor was that Kwanten believed the character’s brand of eccentricity appealed to the Griff in each of us.
“Everyone knows the feeling of being an outsider, or at the very least having the feeling of not fitting in,” he said. Pointing to the film’s strong fantasy theme, he continued, “I felt like we get told as adults to suppress our imagination, yet here was a guy who, which each growing year, chose to kind of amplify his imagination to the point where now he created this world that was very much a reality for him. For me, it was like, well, who is to say that his reality is any better or worse than how we choose to live?”
Blurring that line between reality and fiction is something both the script and Kwanten play with in Griff, and something that his character shares with his love interest Melody. Like Griff, Melody lives in a world of superpowers and super-science, believing if she concentrates hard enough she can walk through walls. Unlike Griff, however, she’s far more willing to go out on a limb and interact with others.
“[Griff] doesn’t reach out for her in the same way she does for him, because he created such a huge wall as a defense mechanism for anyone, so he thinks it’s impenetrable, that no one can get in,” Kwanten said. “[Melody] starts off by knocking on that wall, but eventually she has to break down the wall and say, ‘I’m here and I’m not going anywhere.’”
While there was some concern about the two eccentric characters being overly similar, Kwanten and his co-star worked hard to differentiate their individual ticks. Kwanten also said they made an active decision to ground their characters’ strangeness in personal choices rather than in mental problems.
“We never wanted to go into the world of mental disorder,” he said. “The characters did not have a mental disorder; it was just the way they chose to live.”
Of course, as the star of a movie about a man who believes he’s a superhero, Kwanten got to spend a lot of time under Griff’s black-and-yellow cowl. With his Batman-esque growl as he introduces himself to bystanders to his Clark Kent-inspired transformation from superhero to mild-mannered office worker, Kwanten said the role allowed him to combine the best comic book tropes to make a brand-new hero.
“It’s a great thing because it’s a superhero that no one has ever seen before, so it’s very much in [Griff’s] imagination. So it can be anything he could possibly want it to be, but it’s an amalgamation of a whole bunch of different superheroes, and a little bit of his own imagination in there too,” Kwanten said, adding, “So even in terms of coming up with the suit, of coming up with the voice, the walking, the talk, everything was sort of a real creative process, and it was really nice to discover things like that.”
Calling his character’s decision to dub his costumed identity “Griff the Invisible” a “great metaphor for the way he lives his life,” Kwanten proceeded to sum up Griff’s character and the superhero persona he embraces.
“[Griff’s] a loner in his own world, a dreamer — a guy that has built up this world around him to the point where he’s more comfortable in this world that he’s built than the world society’s built that he’s supposed to live in,” Kwanten said.
The actor also revealed that pain is a big reason he wanted to play Griff, and it’s how he picks many of his roles, including that of Jason on True Blood.
“I guess the defining factor in a lot of the choices of character that I make is do they have a tortured soul? That is the most appealing thing to me,” he said. “Even if they’re fighting that, even if they’re presenting this impenetrable void — like, no, I am who I seem — there’s got to be a history behind that, otherwise there’s no pain for me to be able to play. … And if there’s no pain then there’s no triumph.”
Whether the independent Australian film will be able to compete with America’s own superhero blockbuster franchises remains to be seen, but Kwanten was hopeful Griff will appeal to U.S. audiences on a different level.
“I guess we’ve become a little conditioned here to be entertained but not remember films. You’re entertained for that hour and a half, but by the time the credits role you’ve almost forgotten what you’ve seen,” Kwanten said, touching on his impression of American comic book movies. “My hope is that with Griff you’re entertained and you also think about it the next day and you go, ‘Oh, ok, now I understand that,’ or, ‘Maybe I could try that,’ or ‘Maybe it’s OK to do this!’ So I think it has the potential to sort of make people think — or dream!”
Overall, Kwanten thinks the real hook of Griff isn’t the sight of him running around in a black-and-yellow rubber suit but rather that the film deliberately blurs the line between reality and fiction, and that there are many interpretations of the main characters’ actions.
“That’s sort of the beauty of it,” he said. “Everyone is going to get something different out of it. People can leave thinking, ‘He really was a superhero the entire time and he’s going to go on to continue to be,’ and other people will think, ‘Oh, OK, it was just in his imagination.’ Hopefully, so long as it garners some kind of thought, I think we’ve done our job.”
Smiling, he pointed to Melody’s unceasing attempts to move through solid walls and Griff’s insistence that he’s helping the innocent as physical manifestations of the movie’s main theme — and the lesson he hoped audiences ultimately take away from the film. That theme?
“If you believe enough,” Kwanten said, “it’ll happen.”
Related: The CBR Review: Griff the Invisible