Looking at the clean-cut young man before me, it’s hard to believe he’s the same long-locked, scruffy, high school dropout of Puberty Blues fame.
I’m talking about Reef Ireland, the talented Melbournian who at age 18 exudes a care-free attitude and mature outlook on life that some of us only stumble upon in later years of our lives.
Earlier this year, I sat down with Reef to talk about life growing up as a Kiwi kid in suburban Melbourne, being inspired by Jim Carey, having a wig with its own entourage, and learning how to surf, and how he was handling life as a rising star.
Thara: So how exactly do you pronounce your name?
Reef: I pronounce it like Reef Island, like ‘I S’, I think heaps of people say IREland but I mean I’m pretty lazy, so I just say Island. My parents say it the same way.
Thara: So did they purposely name you Reef to match your last name?
Reef: A lot of people say that, cause you know it’s kinda a funny name. But no, I think at one stage I was going to be called Josh.
Thara: Oh no, but Josh is so boring! It’s such an awesome icebreaker to say ‘Hi, I’m Reef Island (Ireland)’
Reef: Yeah and then people are like ‘Whaaat? That’s the weirdest name”
Thara: So what made you want to pursue a career in acting? Did you just ‘fall into it’ or was it something you’ve always wanted to do from the beginning?
Reef: Mine’s a bit of both. I wanted to do it, it was the first thing I knew I wanted to do, and I sort of just stuck with it. I knew it was going to be a really long shot, I knew the statistics and all the rest as I got older. But no it’s something I’ve always wanted to do since I was a little kid, i remember watching Jim Carey, he was a little over the top – but I wanted to do what he was doing I wanted to be just like that. And then I started getting into the more serious side of it and all that. And then in year 8 my drama teacher’s friend was making a short film, and he said ‘Can you ask some of your students that are interested to come and audition and I’ll see if I got a role for them.’ I was more than keen, you know this could be my big shot, and it was – they cast me as the lead. I worked on that for a few weeks and then when that was released I got hold of the agency that I’m with now and that got the ball rolling. It was just one thing after the other after that.
Thara: What was the production called?
Reef: Grave Diggers
Thara: How’d you find that because that was your first time acting?
Reef: I seriously did not know what to expect. I hoped that it wouldn’t be too overly glamorous and that I wouldn’t fit in.
Thara: Did you enjoy it though?
Reef: I did, I did, I enjoyed it a lot. Because I was the main character, I was on every single day, every single scene.
Thara: How was that? Because you were in year 8, you were 13 or 14. That must have been full on?
Reef: Yeah yeah, I was 13, 14. I got two weeks of school to do it, and I thought that was pretty cool and yeah I just loved it and I knew that I wanted to keep at it.
Thara: What are your goals for the future? I mean you’re so young, I’m sure you have so many other things you want to achieve in your life?
Reef: I wish I did [laughs], I really don’t know, I’m sort of taking things as they come. I mean I know there are certain things I’d like to do as I go further down the line, obviously like start a family, and own my own house and all the rest. But I’m sort of just taking things as they come at the moment. I mean, I don’t know where I’ll end up…
Thara: That’s true, I guess along with being young you don’t really have a plan yet!
Reef: Yeah yeah, so I don’t know, I could end up in LA.
Thara: Yeah? A lot of Aussie actors are doing that now. Is that in the plan somewhere?
Reef: It’s in the plan. I mean I’m not super keen to go over, but yeah it’s in the plans to eventually go over there and really suss it out. But I’d first like to have a really strong resume, a really strong backing before I go over there, because I hear a lot of horror stories of people that do one thing and it’s like ‘wheee I’m going straight over to Hollywood’ and then they get totally knocked back and it’s hard to take. I have no immediate rush to jump over there at the moment.
Thara: Just taking it as it goes?
Reef: Yes, just taking it as it goes (laughs).
Thara: So, next question. You originally hail from Melbourne right?
Reef: No. I was born in New Zealand. Born and raised for the first 5 years of my life.
Thara: And that’s when you came over to Melbourne? Was there a particular reason?
Reef: My mum’s father was sick so that was one of the main reasons. Now looking at it I think it was a really good decision because financially over there it’s not the greatest and career wise the industry over there isn’t as strong as it is over here, especially in Melbourne – so yeah I think it was a good decision, sort of like a blessing in disguise.
Thara: So, what was it like growing up once you came over here?
Reef: I grew up in a little place called Hampton Park. That was where I spent my primary school days. The main thing I remember was I had quite a thick New Zealand accent, so all the kids were always asking me to say ‘six’ and ‘fish and chips’ and all that. So I quickly lost the accent as fast as I could – after six months I was as Australian as everyone else.
Thara: Were your parents wondering what happened?
Reef: Well they knew that it was going to happen eventually. I think my brother and sister kept their accent because it was sort of ‘cool’ at their age.
Thara: Do they still have it?
Reef: A little bit. More than I do. I guess with me you wouldn’t be able to tell. They definitely kept theirs, I don’t think they were ashamed of it. Not that I was ashamed, but people were definitely picking up on it. So i just lost it, I didn’t want to stick out for that reason.
Thara: I guess that sort of prepared you for a career in acting as well, learning how to adapt ?
Reef: Yeah, yeah absolutely. And now when I have an audition with a New Zealand accent I can just pluck it out. But, I don’t think I’ve ever had to do one yet.
Thara: Any accents you have done?
Reef: The two big ones are American and British.
Thara: Really? And how’d you go with that? Did you have to get trained?
Reef: I go see a dialect coach every once in awhile just to make sure I keep it up to scratch. Usually when I have an audition coming up I’ll only watch movies with that accent. I have a really bad tendency for watching a film – like say a London film – and then I’ll put on a London accent for a day. Just because.
Thara: Do you want to try say something in an accent? American maybe?
Reef: Oh no no, I’d be too embarrassed [laughs]
Thara: So in Puberty Blues, you play Bruce Board. When I first watched the series I just found him horrible. I could not stand him – he just seemed so cold and insensitive. Obviously you don’t seem like him at all, and it’s good that you’re not, but what was it like channeling him when you were acting? How did you make it seem so natural?
Reef: I think that was thing – he’s not the brightest character. I sort of just let go, just let my mind be free and not think of anything. Which is hard because you set up all these boundaries – a lot of it was to do with sexism, like ‘women can’t do this and women can’t do that’ and so I think that the main thing was to let it be okay that I could say those things. I made myself believe that that was the way it had to be. There’s no two ways about it, that was the way of life back then. But it was definitely fun. I mean he had some quirky funny scenes. I remember when he had to meet Debbie’s parents on the show, and that was so much fun just being totally just dazed out.
Thara: How did your friends and family react when they saw you as Bruce on screen?
Reef: I got two main reactions from it. Firstly, it was the hair.
Thara: Oh, was it real? Did you have to grow it?
Reef: No no, that’s the thing – people were saying “Woahhh how’d you grow your hair so fast?” but yeah, it’s a wig.
Thara: What was the second big reaction?
Reef: The sex scenes.
Thara: Have you done any scenes like that before?
Reef: I have – I did a short film called the Wildling, which had a lot of strong, heavy themes. It’s a gay and lesbian film, so yeah that was a lot of strong material especially scenes where I was with another male cast member. I’m not gay but that pushed the envelope a bit further for me, and helped me develop as an actor. Which helped a lot cause when I did Puberty Blues the sex scenes were nothing for me, comparatively. So yeah, I have done that stuff before. But another thing that people brought up was that in one of the sex scenes there’s a big shot of us pretty much ‘doing it’ and then people kept telling me “Hey I saw your arse on TV!” because quite literally, it was right there. I remember my uncle telling me that he had guests over and he said “Oh that’s my nephew on TV, it’s my nephew” and everyone ran over and it was literally just my arse on the screen. Just making the family proud you know.
Thara: So when you found out you were Bruce Board did you go out and watch the movie or read the book?
Reef: I had watched the movie prior to the audition. Then when I heard that it was more like the book, I read most of it. I found it to be very much similar to the script, rather than the movie was. So I sort of got the gist that they were more following along the book, as well as the director and the producer telling me the same. I also scrubbed up on my surfing.
Thara: Oh that’s right, it’s another big element of the whole series isn’t it?
Reef: Yeah well I’m not a big, big surfer – being from Melbourne there’s not many places where you could go and surf. Whereas over there [Sydney] lots of the cast member lived pretty close to beaches. I remember when I first went there, someone said “Oh man the surf isn’t that good today” and I was thinking, ‘In Melbourne this would be unbelievable! How can you call this bad?’ [laughs]
Thara: So what happened? Did the cast members teach you? Or did you get a trainer?
Reef: They had a trainer for all of us. He sort of gave us tips here and there, but yeah the rest of the cast members were a lot better at surfing than me.
Thara: How’d you find it the first time?
Reef: Daunting! I was thinking, ‘Why am I doing this?” [laughs]
Thara: But you eventually got better?
Reef: Well the way I looked at it was, ‘You know what? I’m seen more in the back of the panel van than I am out in the surf so…who cares?’ [laughs]
Thara: How do you get along with the rest of the cast? Do you hang out outside the set?
Reef: Yeah we all got along pretty well. When we were shooting we were hanging out quite a lot, going out together and I’m sure there was a few nights we spent in each other’s places just hanging out and stuff like that. They were really lovely. I mean I was from Melbourne and had never been to Sydney properly before and they were all very willing to go out of their way and show me some places to go. I know it sounds stupid because we’re only like 6 hours away from each other, but it kinda felt weird for me so they were really helpful and made me feel at home.
Thara: So you didn’t go with any friends or family?
Reef: No, no. It was quite quick from the time I found out I got the part to the time I went to Sydney, and I was the only cast member from Melbourne, so everyone else was ‘at home’. I came back a few times, but most of the time I was just on my own…doing nothing. That sounds so lonely and sad. [laughs]
Thara: Are you looking forward to Season 2? And do you think Bruce will change his ways? Do you actually know what will happen?
Reef: No, not really. I mean I got a rough outline when someone told me. And even then when I was asking someone else what they had heard it was again different. So I thought, you know what I’ll wait til I get the script. As for Bruce changing his ways – I don’t think I can see him being a child of God anytime soon. [laughs]
Thara: Do you think he’ll get a girlfriend?
Reef: Uhhh no…. I dunno. [laughs]
Thara: A haircut?
Reef: I hope! I hope he does.
Thara: Aw you didn’t like the long hair?
Reef: Well you know, it took awhile to put on and then I had to be really cautious about it and not get sand in it, which is hard when you’re spending all this time at the beach. I couldn’t jump in the water with it – so there were two separate wigs, one was for water and one wasn’t.
Thara: What advice do you have for other young actors who want to break into the industry?
Reef: Do lots of student films, films that people need actors even if they’re not paying. Be willing to go out your way, look at it more as an unpaid apprenticeship. Because these are people that will eventually become the directors that you will be working with professionally. So yeah, build up your contacts, build up your experience – you have nothing to lose from doing student films, especially if they’re good – there’s a lot that I’ve seen that are doing film festivals with big names. Also, it saves them from casting their friends cause that’s always what happens and then it never turns out the way they want it to. So that would be the main thing. That and I guess you’ve also got your training and all that sort of stuff. As for agents, I honestly don’t know how to get [one]. I was pretty young and it just sort of happened. I know that if you sort of stand out, especially if you’ve done student films you can put that on a show reel and send that through to them to show them what you’re made out of you.
Thara: What about you? Do you reckon you’d ever make a film?
Reef: I would definitely love to make a film. Don’t know if it would happen. Maybe down the track. But I would love to get behind the camera and do all that sort of stuff.
Thara: So have you ever done that sort of stuff before? Some behind-the-scenes production?
Reef: Well sort of. I just finished another production with my drama teacher (the one who got me my first gig ever) and that’s called “The Life and Times of Driver Number 12″ which is roughly based on his time as a pizza delivery boy, with a twist. It was the first film he’d ever properly made, so there was a lot of times he’d be leaning over me and asking “what would happen in this situation on set?” because you know it was only 6 of us I think, including the actors. Lighting guy, sound guy, couple of friends and a student. So yeah, there’d be a lot of times where he’d be setting up and he’d be like “Is this how it normally is? Does it normally take this long? Should we be moving faster?” I was like “you’re doing it all right”. It felt like every other film set I’d been on just smaller, and really tight knit.
Filming for the second series of Puberty Blues commenced in May this year – keep your eyes peeled when it hits the screens on Channel 10!