WHEN THOM GREEN WAS A CHILD, he put on performances for his family. At six years old, they were spontaneous improvisations of Michael Jackson songs and the like; but as he got older, they were performed on request. At 12, his performance of Lou Bega’s then-ubiquitous ‘Mambo No. 5’ for a talent contest at a since-demolished amphitheatre in his hometown of Wollongong cemented his status as the family entertainer. For years to come, he says, he would be called upon by his parents at a family member’s birthday, “like c’mon Thom, do ‘Mambo No. 5!’”
Childhood performances, as enthusiastic as they may have been, don’t necessarily foretell a future in showbusiness – something to which those of us without a thespian bone in our body can attest. In the case of Thom Green, they did. But despite his obvious talent, a tension has always existed between the actor and his field. Twenty minutes into our conversation, Green makes a comment that might well summarise his entire life since that talent show. “I had sort of stepped back from it, and somehow it sort of just found its way back to me.”
To the uninitiated, Green’s most recent role in Australian writer-director Goran Stolevski’s film Of an Age, could be viewed as something of a breakout, when, in fact, it’s his second coming.
His first real breakout occurred 15 years ago, when he was cast in an internationally acclaimed short film, The Ground Beneath. Back then, he was warned of “peaks and valleys” to come in the acting profession. But when he’d find himself in a valley, something would inevitably draw him back in, sparking an existential push-and-pull that would shape his career.
GREEN IS ONE OF 10 CHILDREN. “My parents had eight on their own, then they started fostering and then they eventually got into adoption,” he explains. “Growing up, there was a lot of noise and … always activities.” As is often the case in families with more than one child, hobbies must be shared and so if Green’s older sister was a dancer, he would be as well. Initially, Green was hesitant, intimidated by “all the girls”. But when the judge at that fateful talent contest told his mum that the reason he didn’t place was because “he needs to learn how to move”, he began dancing in earnest.
“I started with jazz, contemporary,” he says. “I wanted to do modern, but I had to do ballet to do modern and I didn’t want to do ballet because that was a girls’ thing. I eventually did it and then I just fell in love with ballet,” he says. He loved the discipline and the rigour required and “it became, like, trying to improve, every single year getting better and better and [jumping] higher and [doing] more spins.”
His love for dance awakened an appetite for outdoing himself. Open auditions for a children’s casting agency offered his first foot in the door; he (and by extension, his parents) spent their weekends travelling from Wollongong to Hurstville in Sydney to compete against other child actors (or more aptly, their competitive parents) for roles in Pine O Cleen and Nescafé commercials. Green had an agent and his parents were supportive, but they were also practical. When they realised they could no longer justify the financial and psychological toll the process was taking on them, they began to hide the casting calls from him.
But when Green was 16, the acting world came calling with an offer his parents couldn’t hide: a co-starring role alongside iconic Australian actress Georgie Parker, in a film pilot called Emerald Falls. He got the part and Parker showed him the ropes on set, but despite its bankable leading lady the film wasn’t picked up.
It wasn’t until an open casting call for a short film titled The Ground Beneath came along, at high school of all places, that things began happening for Green. When he got the lead role, “that just changed everything”.
The Ground Beneath toured the world, winning awards locally and internationally. Green was nominated for the Best Young Actor Award at the AACTAs and AFI Awards in 2008; he signed with a new agent and “everything snowballed”. To the adolescent Green, acting had been a “cool” opportunity to see himself on screen; but now that he was watching The Ground Beneath, he realised the man he was watching wasn’t him at all. “I was watching [myself] on screen and I was like, I don’t even fucking recognise myself. And it was exhilarating,” he recalls. “I was hooked.”
So, at 17, he moved to Sydney, chasing the dream in a share house with three women in their twenties. Along came a role on Home and Away, quickly followed by Dance Academy, which offered Green an opportunity to revisit his love of dancing on-screen.
“[From] teens to 25, it just felt like it was nonstop,” he says. After a string of local jobs, he moved to Los Angeles at 20, where he was exposed to “the more cutthroat side of the business”. There were more roles, though now being a smaller fish in an even bigger pond, they were harder to land. A lead role in a TV miniseries inspired by the video game Halo had him thinking, “this is it, I’m gonna be working for the rest of my life,” he says. “And then the phone didn’t ring for two years.”
After four-and-a-half years in LA, running out of money and hope, Green moved back home with his parents in Wollongong and applied for the dole. He says he’s processed that “confronting” period of his life in therapy, but there’s still a tinge of pain in his voice when he discusses it.
“I don’t tell this story ever as a pity thing. I think I learned a lot. Maybe [I] had a bit too much pride. Maybe [my] ego was a little too inflated. Because I remember coming back and just resisting Australia and being like, I don’t want to be here and just feeling stuck. And I was stuck in the mud for about three years.”
SPEAKING OVER VIDEO CALL, it’s hard to detect even remnants of that ego Green admits to. It’s the day after our photoshoot with the actor and he’s still hyped on the whole experience. Playing a stylish jetsetter with a wardrobe full of head-to-toe Gucci was a role Green never imagined himself landing; the brand’s spirit of travel and discovery, which takes centre stage inside its first permanent boutique dedicated to its ever-expanding world of travel, the recently opened ‘Gucci Valigeria’ in Paris, was a point of reference for the performer and us, his proverbial crew. “I like clothes but I was nervous. It was kind of like first day on set vibes.”
Pruning back the ego that had been growing since his youth, at 27, Green got a retail job at a local Bonds store. He had changed, though – he didn’t watch films anymore and certainly not in the devoted way he did as an 18-year-old, when he would religiously patronise the local Dendy’s cheap Tuesday nights. He would book the occasional ad, because “sure, I’m broke and this is gonna pay 15 grand”, and most importantly, he had friends who supported him and loved him for him. They “weren’t in the business” and “didn’t give a fuck about anything I was doing” – in a healthy way, of course.
But “the business” came calling again, as it inevitably seems to do for Green. It was his former Dance Academy co-star, Dena Kaplan, who convinced him to meet and then sign with her agents. Eight months later, in 2020, he was cast in the Stan original series Eden. And it was Scott Ryan, the writer and star of Mr Inbetween, who wrote him into the third season of his acclaimed black comedy after two other roles Green had auditioned for weren’t quite the right fit.
“[Eden] was my first job in five years,” says the actor. “I got to sort of restart. I got to go on set and there’s parts where I was feeling like I was this sort of doe-eyed person who was still green and there were other parts that were just like riding a bike. I had sort of stepped back from it and somehow it just found its way back to me.”
As fate would have it, this process repeated itself again last year, when Green was cast in Of an Age. When he read the script and viewed writer-director Goran Stolevski’s other work, it felt like everything he loved to watch – like Drake Doremus’s almost-completely-improvised Like Crazy, Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy and Ben Mendelsohn in David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom.
Stolevski loved Green’s self-tape, met with him and the pair bonded over the films they shared a love for, as well as others they vehemently disagreed on. Stolevski was determined to find a place for him in the film, eventually settling on Adam, one half of the leading duo who embark on a whirlwind romance in 1999, drawn together by a mutual feeling of displacement in their small town.
In addition to being “the best experience [Green has] probably ever had on set”, he shares that his charming, tender performance in the film has “opened up a couple of doors”. And while it’s as though the magnetic connection between him and performing is charging back up again, threatening to lure him back into the limelight, Green tells me he is determined to be more cautious this time. He’s settled in Melbourne with “a nice, calm lifestyle”. “I walk to work, I come home, I might watch a film, I’ll go to bed, I’ll go to the gym. The people I do hang out with, they just have so much substance and they’re easy-going”.
We’ve spent our entire conversation reliving the past and all its glorious peaks and humbling valleys. Given that rollicking journey, Green is hesitant to offer any specific dreams for the future. He admits he’d love to work on more projects like Of an Age, or try something completely different. “I just want to do – I want to try everything,” he finally concedes, and it’s as though I can see that 12-year-old Green – determined to jump higher, spin further – creeping back in.
Grooming: Ashleigh Carpenter @ Hart & Co.
Shot on location at W Melbourne.
This story originally appeared in issue 01 of Esquire Australia, on sale now.