Before we meet, several people warn me that Alex Dimitriades might be a bit 'difficult'. After 25 years in the tabloids he's notoriously guarded about his personal life, so I'm ready for anything. But when he arrives for lunch at the so-hip-it-hurts Sydney cafe The Grounds of the City, there's no trace of attitude.
"I try and keep a low profile as much as possible these days," he says, climbing into a booth with a black baseball cap balanced high on his head, his white T-shirt ridged with laundry folds. "I'm not rocking up to too many events ... I have become more and more private," he affects an old-timey voice, "in me old age."
Many of us have watched Dimitriades grow from baby-faced lothario into leading man. Kriv Stenders, who directed him in his Logie-winning performance in The Principal, says he is 'blown away' by the actor's work ethic. "That was a very challenging role, Alex was virtually in every scene and it was just effortless," Stenders recalls. "He doesn't have any airs or graces about him … He's paid his dues and is up there as one of the greats."
The pair teamed up again for a remake of the cult classic Wake In Fright, which airs as a two-part miniseries on Network Ten later this year. "Alex deliberately didn't want to watch the original film, which I think is great," says Stenders. "Obviously he's been acting since he was a teenager, but he's at the perfect age right now that he can [perform] very honestly and authentically and realistically."
Dimitriades seems more like a 20-something lad than a 43-year-old man as he taps restlessly at his iPhone 5. "Stop it!" he yells into the screen when it starts to rattle. He doesn't like email. Never listens to his voicemail. He has Instagram but keeps his account hidden. "I just don't like people I don't know commenting on all my s--t, it makes me feel awkward," he says. "If I don't know that person … it's just like 'Who the f--k are you? Shut your mouth!'" He laughs, a high-pitched, infectious giggle. "Just sit down, you don't know me. Just, shhh!"
I'm not happy every single damn day, but I'd like to be.
We order: New Zealand pinot noir and burrata and lobster slathered in butter. He complains about the size of the crustacean. Sings a few bars of an unknown song. Steals a fry from my plate. Giggles again. I wonder if he's bored. "No, that's not what I think. It's like saying something just to f--k with someone. People don't know when I'm joking, so it's quite bizarre."
An acting career was almost accidental. After an open casting call in Sydney's south-west, Dimitriades was cast in The Heartbreak Kid, the raunchy story of Claudia Karvan falling for her much younger student. Karvan was only a few months older than him, despite the on-screen age gap. "I was chatting to her about this at the Logies this year when we presented an award together for the hundredth time – they love putting us together and it's the only time I ever see her – but I forget how young she was as well."
The hit film was quickly spun off into an afternoon television series, Heartbreak High. "It's weird because the film was really successful and launched me personally, but I seem to get more feedback on the series … it shaped so many teenagers' lives, and they can really relate to it. If you had an inkling of 'interesting' about you then [the show] was your thing. People feel quite fortunate to have had that in their lives at that age, which is nice to hear. Especially because at the time, it was all so overwhelming, I wasn't really trying to hear that. I was like, 'yeah whatever'. When you're that young and have that much attention on you, you don't know how to deal with it."
Dimitriades had a rush of screen success, appearing in Blue Murder and Wildside before landing his most memorable role, as 19-year-old Ari in the explosive coming-of-age film Head On. He sizzles in the adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas novel Loaded, brimming with angst about growing up Greek and gay in inner-Melbourne. The actor admits he doesn't think the film gets the recognition it deserves. "In 25 years as a professional in the industry, certain films really make a difference and for me in my career I know which ones they are. And Head On is definitely up there in terms of like … people use words like 'life changing' and that kind of calibre."
Andrea Demetriades, who starred alongside the actor in the ABC's recent success Seven Types of Ambiguity, says Ari is a landmark character for Australian film. "It was an extraordinary performance," she says. "So moving and complex and truthful. What every actor aspires to, he achieved."
(And yes, people always ask if they're related, despite the different spelling – most awkwardly by a crew member immediately after they had filmed a sex scene.)
After Head On came several stints in Los Angeles, but Dimitriades found more success at home than abroad, with roles in series such as Young Lions, Underbelly and Love My Way proving more memorable than turns in Hollywood flicks Ghost Ship or Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo. Then came what Dimitriades has described as his 'dark days'. He split from his long-term partner, shoe designer Terry Biviano, and his mother Betty passed away in 2009.
"There was a bit of a train wreck that kind of followed that," he says. "It's only in the last year that I've come into myself and started thinking about actually really caring about myself. Having concern for the future and how I want to see myself. The things that keep me sane. Sydney is an OK city to do that in. I could never live in New York or something like that ... I'm pretty low key. I'm not happy every single damn day, but I'd like to be."
After his role as Harry in another Tsiolkas adaptation, 2011's The Slap, things have been on the up for Dimitriades. He says he now wants to make films rather than just act in them: write, produce, direct. "That's kind of the next step, I suppose, to create, to be responsible for inception and fruition from the ground up."
What kind of projects does he want to make?
"Babies, maybe," he shoots back provocatively, then cackles again. Dimitriades is currently single. "I don't know which one's going to come first. They're both the same thing in a way, really."
He focuses on his lobster, picking it up and sucking at the shell. "Projects never leave you either. I was cast for an American film [Epiphany, which he's currently shooting in Florida] off the back of Head On, and next year that will be 20 years ago. They never leave you, so you better be f--kin' proud of what you do. That's kind of how I try and run things. Stand by your choices in life as much as you do professionally and vice versa. It's tricky."
All his friends have had children, he says. "And [I've got] my silly old rock and roll lifestyle. I'm not complaining. When you say 'rock and roll', there's the rock and then there's the roll. That means the up and the down."
He decides to have a coffee – the first one he's had in months, he says. "I only drink coffee when I'm on set, in the makeup chair, so I may be a bit f--king crazy after this, but I'm curious."
He orders a short macchiato, and peers at it critically. "I don't drink much [alcohol] these days. I've slowed down, intentionally," he says. "I was sick so much last year, and I was just like: f--k this shit. I gotta change. Why is this happening? There was always something wrong, always something wrong. I was like: F--k. This. Shit. Flu, tonsillitis, chest ... I just cut back caning myself, and started getting a bit more oxygen in the veins and relying less on adrenaline. There's a certain aspect that I do kind of miss, which is that kooky edge that running on adrenaline gives you, but that's cool. I make up for it with other parts."
His healthier lifestyle now sees Dimitriades diving in and out of the surf near his home in Vaucluse, or cooking elaborate Mediterranean meals and playing vinyl records for his mates. "I am really appreciative of my downtime. Because there's plenty of it, and it keeps me sane. Just to feel free."
After lunch, Dimitriades poses for photos with the waitress, chats to the fanboy barista, leaves a cash tip on the table then zips up his black bomber jacket and strides outside. I watch him vanish into the crowd of shoppers, a bounce in his step, full of raw energy .
Later, I ask Kriv Stenders who the 'real Alex' is. "He lives life to the full," Stenders says. "Even though he's really passionate about what he does, and he's a great actor, ultimately he doesn't take it too seriously. And that's also his strength. At a moment's notice he could probably walk away from it all. Put it this way: He's a very wise man."
Wake In Fright screens on Network Ten later in 2017. Alex appears on the cover of 51698009 Magazine's spring issue.