Melbourne actor Ben Esler: From The Pacific to AMC’s Hell On Wheels
Note to overseas Irish pub bartenders: you may have been fooled by Australian actor Ben Esler.
“We would go to the Irish pub and try it out and either it worked or they were very polite – nobody said anything,” Esler says of his Irish impression.
That thick Irish impression has been one of his keys to success in Tinseltown, utilising it on new AMC production, Hell On Wheels.
Other actors on the series including Phil Burke, Colm Meaney and Dominique McElligott helped the 29-year-old Melbourne actor get the accent down for his character, Sean McGinnes – who’s “a little budding Al Capone”.
“Sean is a guy who’s come from poverty and he’s desperate to make it in America but he’s a little bit ruthless and he can be a bit scary and dangerous sometimes,” Esler says of the young Irishman looking to make his fortune in the west.
Set in 1865, the western/period drama, developed by Endemol USA and produced by Entertainment One (eOne) and Nomadic Pictures, tells the epic story of the construction of America's Transcontinental Railroad in the aftermath of the Civil War.
Esler, who now lives in Los Angeles, auditioned for the series in mid-2010 and was one of the last actors cast, along with Burke and Eddie Spears.
“The script came through to my email and it said ‘Hell On Wheels’ so I assumed it was about a biker gang or something and then I read it and loved it. It was kind of the rare instance of doing an audition and feeling like it immediately clicked.”
Series one, consisting of 10 episodes, was shot in Calgary, Alberta, Canada between May and September last year (the pilot was shot between August and September, 2010).
The humble actor says he soon clicked with the cast. “Nobody knew anyone ‘cause we’re all living in this new city; I think everyone bonded very quickly – the way you would on a school camp or something like that, so by the end of the first week we’re all best friends.”
The premiere went on to net an audience of 4.4 million, which was AMC’s second highest debut in history (following The Walking Dead). The series, which averaged three million viewers per episode, has received generally favourable reviews.
Following the reception, a second series was greenlit late last year. Esler, who had flown home to Melbourne for Christmas, heard the good news on Christmas Eve. “It was either going to be a very anxious Christmas or a happy Christmas ‘cause I had been waiting for a little while,” he says.
Esler returns to the US next week and will audition for other productions before going back to Canada for 4-5 months to shoot the second season in late-April. It remains unclear how many episodes will be in series two but Esler believes it will be between 10 and 13.
Australian audiences would be most familiar with Esler on 10-part miniseries The Pacific, which essentially took the actor to Hollywood. He played Charles “Chuck” Tatum – a World War II veteran whose one of five books was used as source material for the miniseries.
“I’ve spent a lot of time with him in California because thankfully he’s still with us. I went over there and met him and met his family…it was huge to get to meet someone who you’re actually playing, and we're good friends now,” Esler says.
When he heard The Pacific – which won eight Emmy Awards – was going to film in Australia, he knew he needed to be part of it. “It was tough – (there were) a lot of roles for young actors but a lot of young actors were auditioning so I campaigned for it,” he indicates.
“I shot a tape ‘cause I couldn’t even get in the door. I shot a tape and really went all out and had period props and costumes and stuff from a World War II collection a friend had and I then sent them the DVD and basically called them incessantly and fortunately they were really nice about it and eventually were able to watch the tape and I went in there and got a gig.
“So that was a huge opportunity – it definitely changed my career in a big way.”
Esler had previously been seen in Logie Award-winning telemovie Curtin (he played the son of William McInnes and Noni Hazelhurst) and appeared in two episodes of popular cop series Blue Heelers. Before then he had developed his skills in a number of theatre productions including the Melbourne University Law Revue. He also co-wrote and directed short film Gravediggers and growing up was inspired from such films as Back To The Future, Indiana Jones and Ghostbusters.
Any advice for young Australian actors?
“Make your own opportunities – I think a lot of it ultimately comes down to luck but if you can work really hard on having relationships and being in the right place at the right time, then you will find that luck comes your way a lot more often than it otherwise would,” Esler says.
“And just go for it really. If you’re a young kid and you’re an actor for example and you want to be an actor, you just need to know and believe that there is no reason why it couldn’t be you working.
"Every actor who works has started off from a position of not having a gig and really, really wanting one so just if you persevere and work hard and do all the things that you have to like meeting agents and taking care of the housekeeping then it might work out.
“Acting – whether you’re doing it in a coffee shop or you’re doing it in a movie – it’s just a really rewarding thing to do and don’t lose sight of that and remember why you started doing it in the first place.”
Hell On Wheels premieres on the newly-launched FX Channel this Sunday night at 10pm AEDT. New episodes will then screen every Monday at 9.30pm from February 27.