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There is an assuredness in 24-year old actor Alex Dimitriades one rarely finds in actors of his age, says PAUL FISCHER; except when it comes to his mother seeing his latest film, Head On.

Alex Dimitriades first burst on the screen as the teenage romantic rebel in the film version of the hit play, The Heartbreak Kid, opposite Claudia Karvan as his teacher/lover. Now, it seems, young Dimitriades is older and wiser, and his latest film, Head On, is proof of his maturity and the risks he's prepared to take to further his art. But with its graphic sexuality and gay themes, it was also a film the actor was terrified of doing, and one, he says, that his mother has been barred from seeing.

"I don't take all that talk seriously,"

The actor had just left school when he landed the starring role in The Heartbreak Kid. Stardom was his for the taking, they said at the time. "They did, didn't they?" But it was fleeting, until Head On dazzled critics at this year's Cannes Film Festival. And the buzz is out - again. "I don't take all that talk seriously," the actor muses. "This is stage two of my career, so who knows?"

Being older and wiser, there must be lessons to learn from that first taste of adolescent stardom and adulation. "I think the biggest lesson I would have learnt, I suppose, is: Listen to the people you trust." Looking back, Dimitriades admits that he didn't react as well to that first burst of fame as he should have. "Initially I didn't, but then I sort of realised that I had to learn and grow, which I think is what I did; I just went with it." He further concedes that "it's taken a few years to handle it, and pretty much know, most of the time, how people are going to react, and all that kind of shit." Dimitriades has no regrets, however, about the suddenness of his early success. "In a way I think that was a good thing, because it immediately forces you to adapt. When something's a shock like that, you've really got to stop, take notice and almost audit."

"I could understand the whole social freedom"

In Head On, he plays troubled gay adolescent Ari, coping with his sexuality, Greek parents and the underbelly of Melbourne's drug culture. In raw, energetic and frank style, Head On explores a frenetic 24 hours in the life of this character. Apart from Ari's sexuality, Dimitriades admits there was a lot in Ari that the actor understood. "I could understand the whole social freedom and ability to be sidestepping those forces that won't thumb you down and label you. I could relate to all that not only as a person, but also as an artist. The fact that he remains in the shadows without being underlined in any particular way, he can maintain his freedom, because Ari can't be held down. That's very important to him, being stuck between those two worlds."

To play Ari with as much conviction as he does, Dimitriades had to dig deep within himself. It was a tough process. "It took a lot of talk and thoughts. Ana [Kokkinos, the director] and I got along very well, and we agreed on most things. As a result, we really got into the character and believed a lot of what he was thinking, what his ideals were; the fact that he wasn't just a sucker but at the same time, for being what he WAS, he was tortured. It's a hard battle, and we've sort of all been through that, as Greek Australians in this country." He points out that both the film and character "totally break away from the cliches of what a Greek Australian in this country should, might, or will BE."

"This was definitely a step away from convention."

It was clearly important for Dimitriades, who's played his share of Greek Australians, to do something that has never been attempted before, and in this, he believes, he succeeded. "This was definitely a step away from convention. After all, you've got a fucking gay character who refuses to also be associated with THOSE cliches. Therefore, you've got two levels there which we were working on, not to mention all those attitudes towards freedom which are, after all, politically and socially, quite rebellious." Indeed, at a time when the political fabric of Australia is changing with the rise of parties such as One Nation, Head On has some provocative comments to make on our cultural milieu. "He talks about this country and how everyone hates each other and stuff. You've got this political activist character in the film, who's forever talking about her political correctness, and he breaks her right down, by letting her know how cheap her talk is."

It's not only some of the cultural facets of society that are stripped away, but this is one of the few mainstream Australian films that frankly explores homosexuality with depth and honesty. In preparing for the gay facets of the piece, Dimitriades says he didn't do much research for the film itself, on the gay club scene. "I've already seen a lot of that underworld in my own life just through the party. There was a stage where if you wanted to explore and have a really wild night out, there were a certain number of parties which were really interesting, and you'd do some really, freaky shit. But these days, for me, the gay club scene has become rather boring. It used to be really interesting, and there was a stage where we saw all of that, and coming out the other end, which I was able to use for the film." Despite the film's graphic sex scenes, however, Dimitriades doesn't see this as a film about sexuality. "This character was never about sexuality, at all, though it was very difficult to come to terms with having to actually deal with performing those acts of sexuality. To me, though, it was more about the connection between people - there were those who'd understood and those that didn't. And that's who Ari related to."

"Why the fuck am I doing this?"

The actor concedes that shooting much of that material was problematic, and even admits that playing a gay character "wasn't as easy as it sounds." In fact, he adds, "at one point I'd even ask myself: Why the fuck am I doing this?" It happened the first time he had to kiss another guy. "I almost broke down; it was a real barrier to cross and I felt lonely and weak." So to cross that barrier, Dimitriades explains, he "had to throw everything away, just do it and think about the first time I read the book it was based on [Loaded], how strong it was and how I reacted to it." The scene in question is a major turning point for Ari, as he starts to make intense love to another man. "We were lucky that it was a female director doing it; if there'd been another boy there, I'd have gone mad." Yet, in preparing those sequences, Dimitriades says that it was also important for him and the scene "to be utterly convincing not just for the screen, but for everyone who was in this room filming this, being there at the time. If you could make THEM believe it, then there's not a problem."

It's a tough and brave film for the actor, but Dimitriades is not concerned as to how either the Greek or gay communities will react to the film." As far as the Greeks are concerned, there'll be your open-minded people who are going to be accepting, then there'll be your right-wingers who are going to scowl and the in-betweeners who will hopefully cross over. It's up to the young people to take it in, and I think on an intellectual level, the film will be appreciated by a good majority of audiences." As for the gay community, "I think they'll love it for its honesty. Whether or not they'll be accepting of a straight actor playing a gay character remains to be seen, but I won't be the first nor the last." At the same time, he is yet to show it to his family. "It's unlikely that I'll ever allow my mother to see it; I think she'd react pretty badly."

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The future prospects for Dimitriades are rosy. He continues to star in TV's Wildside till year's end, "then I've got to look at what's available. I mean, after Head On, what do I do for an encore?"

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