On Strike Back, Sullivan Stapleton has won us over by being a superlative action hero. His Damien Scott is as tough as they come, an unapologetic alpha male always armed with a sharp zinger and even sharper aim. It's been a pleasure to watch the Australian actor storm his way through terrorists for three seasons. But what makes Strike Back work, fundamentally, is that underneath the shootouts and the explosions, Stapleton and his TV partner Philip Winchester are legitimate actors. They're not just able bodies who can pull a trigger; they're two of the most underrated players in the game. If you want proof of that, look no further than Stapleton's performance in a 2010 film called Centre Place.
A great litmus test for acting ability is to check out an actor's range; can you still follow when you see them in something completely different than what you know them for? Centre Place is the exact opposite of Strike Back. In his last feature film role before joining the Cinemax series, Stapleton plays James Ballintyne, the one that sort of got away from Lizzie Baxter (an adorable Julia Markovski). She might have been cruel when she dumped him in high school; he might have been a jerk since then. It doesn't really matter. What's fascinating is watching Stapleton pull off a completely different character: endearing, confused, imperfect and without a gun in sight.
Centre Place isn't a rom-com; it's a self-discovery film that happens to have a romantic element to it. Lizzie has to figure herself out, and that has little to do with whether she ends up with James, although you can guess early on that she will. The movie is an uncomplicated exploration of that period between adulthood and middle age where we often find ourselves totally lost, or looking for something we don't have. The characters are all pretty straightforward, from Lizzie to her brother and confidant Cameron (Jay Bowen) and ex-boyfriend Simon (Patrick Constantinou). Rather than say "this is the answer to all of Lizzie's problems," the film tells us that there's no neat solution, and she (and we) are going to have to fumble a bit before we get it right. You'll remember this movie for what it made you think about yourself.
And you'll remember it for Sullivan Stapleton. It's no surprise that he's been cast as the tough guy in Strike Back, or in 300: Rise of an Empire, or in Gangster Squad; when you're 6'1" and built as he is, that's what gets thrown your way. And he's damn good at it. (Take, for example, Nine Network's The Underbelly Files: Infiltration, where he gives a really gripping performance not normally seen in cop movies.) But Stapleton is as strong talent-wise as he is physically capable. Watch him play the beats where James has no idea what he did or what he's supposed to do; you can see the vulnerability in his eyes and hear it in his voice. Give it ten minutes, and there's another scene where he's effortlessly charming. He wins the audience over as much as James wins Lizzie over. The picture isn't centered (no pun intended) on him, but thanks to Stapleton's scene-stealing performance, it becomes his movie, too.
On paper, you wouldn't think that the guy who so brilliantly busts heads on Strike Back would ever be cast as a romantic lead, let alone play it well. And that's exactly why you need to see Centre Place. Acting is about taking on many different roles, and this film stands as evidence that Sullivan Stapleton is a heck of an actor. He's far more than just one character, even if it's one of our favorite characters, and he deserves far more credit for that than he's ever gotten yet.