Army veterans forge ‘life-changing’ new careers as movie extras
A group of Australian army veterans are forging new careers in the film and television industry as extras.
Shaun Barry’s company Extra Specialists helps find veterans work on the screen, often playing the kind of roles they had in real life.
A former soldier himself, Mr Barry now has more than 650 people on the books including former police, firefighters and paramedics.
It is a remarkable turnaround for Mr Barry, who just a few years ago found it too painful to even look at his army uniform.
In 2011 he was medically discharged with post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression.
“When I first got out of the army it was really, really hard to watch any army movies,” Mr Barry said.
“I literally got to the point where I’d become physically sick because I’d get that anxious about the army uniform. I hated it.”
Mr Barry was deployed to East Timor, and to Banda Aceh, Indonesia, following the Boxing Day tsunami.
When he was ruled too sick to serve in Afghanistan, he became consumed by guilt, thinking he had let his mates down.
To his surprise, he found recovery began when he did a stunt training course and began getting work as an extra.
“When I finally started doing stunts, little did I know I started doing my own rehab and my own exposure therapy,” he said.
“All of a sudden I’ve got all my gear back on and making movies.”
‘We need people to look good with weapons’
Mr Barry’s credits include the Hollywood blockbuster Thor: Ragnorok and kids’ movie Dora the Explorer.
“Extra Specialists was an idea that I had when I was auditioning for Aquaman,” Mr Barry said.
“They were saying, ‘We need people to look good with weapons, do you know anyone?’
“I said, ‘Why don’t you use army guys?’ They just said, ‘Look, we don’t have that contact’, and I said, ‘I do’.”
The company’s greatest success to date is having more than 50 veterans employed on the upcoming Australian film Danger Close, which is about the infamous Battle of Long Tan during the Vietnam War.
The movie stars Travis Fimmel and Richard Roxburgh and will be released this year.
Tim Weir, an Afghanistan veteran, landed a speaking role in the film.
“I was an extra, then I ended up getting cast as a bloke called Laurie Drinkwater,” Mr Weir said.
“I was there more just focusing on magazine changes, giving some order to the guns, fire positions, fire control orders, just mainly trying to make the movie look a little more realistic.”
John Schwarz, a producer from Danger Close, said it was a risk taking on the veterans because of their limited experience, but their toughness was an asset on set.
“It was amazing. These guys were incredible,” Mr Schwarz said.
“We would have to wet them down because a lot of the battle was fought in monsoonal rain, so these guys have to stand under a big fire hose and we’d drench them all down.
“The actors themselves would be finding it pretty hard, but these guys, they took it on the chin. No one wanted to complain in front of these dudes.”
His concerns that simulating war could trigger PTSD symptoms for some veterans proved unfounded.
“You’re exploding things around them, people are getting shot, blood is coming out of people’s necks and people are dying and crying. We were worried that it might trigger something but it didn’t seem to be the case at all,” he said.
Another veteran having success is Peter O’Hanlon.
He landed a speaking role in the upcoming science-fiction movie Occupation Rainfall, and specialises in tough-guy roles.
“It’s life-changing. I can’t emphasise enough how much it has helped me,” he said.
“[I do] mostly military, police, bodyguard, mercenary, those types of roles, which I’m happy to do because I’m comfortable in those roles.
“I just go into that military mode and it seems to come across the camera really well.
“I did play a gay mercenary which was probably my most difficult role. It was a Chinese film, so we’ll see how it goes over there.”
Mr O’Hanlon joined the army when he was 19 and did multiple deployments as a section commander in East Timor.
Once he became a civilian he struggled to find meaningful work and looked for ways to go back to war.
“I had a lot of anxiety and depression, and I was going through a marriage break-up as well,” he said.
“I did some courses looking to go overseas as a mercenary, through a private security company. I was looking at going over to Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa.”
He said the entertainment industry is now where he sees his future.
“I’m just giving it the best crack I can,” he said.
“I still have the anxiety, but it’s not as prevalent, it’s not the main focus of my life anymore. It gives me a break from that, you don’t feel that darkness, you can breathe again.
“That I think is the greatest thing.”