In a city dedicated to male beauty, former rugby star– turned–actor Ian Roberts still manages, at 41, to turn heads as he stands barefoot on the sidewalk outside his West Hollywood digs, waiting to greet me. Dressed in loose jeans and T-shirt, he cuts an imposing figure, his body still that of a pro rugby player—hard and built for speed, power, and collision.
Inside his sparsely furnished apartment decorated with photographs of his boyfriend, Daniel, who lives in Sydney, he offers me a Gatorade. It’s literally all he has in the fridge after being away in New Zealand shooting Kiss Me Deadly: A Jacob Keane Assignment, a thriller for Here TV starring Robert Gant and Shannen Doherty. Roberts plays Frederick, "an intense thug," according to the film’s director, Ron Oliver.
"Roles for someone of my size are rather limited," Roberts says, referring to his 6-foot-5 frame. "I’ve always been ‘the thug,’ " he says in regard to a career that has included Australian TV and roles in Superman Returns (as Riley, one of Lex Luthor’s henchmen) and Little Fish, alongside Cate Blanchett. "I don’t mind doing that sort of role either, as long as I work."
Oliver suggests that Roberts may be underestimating his talent: "Basically, we cast Ian as a heavy, figuring that his rugby fame and sheer physical size would be enough for the role. It was a pleasant surprise to discover that he had created a full living, breathing human being out of what was essentially an underwritten, clichéd ‘bad guy’ part. He’s an extremely thoughtful actor, very engaged in his work." Oliver liked Roberts’s performance so much, he spiked a fairly gruesome death scene to keep Frederick alive for a possible sequel.
"People refer to me as ‘the gay rugby player,’ " Roberts says of the way casting directors at home in Australia have perceived him since he came out officially in 1995, becoming the only major international male athlete in team sports to come out while still playing at the elite level. "But that’s one of the things I have no control over. I’ve been lucky to have worked professionally off and on—mostly on—since I graduated from NIDA [Sydney’s National Institute of Dramatic Art] in 2004."
Still, he admits to the insecurities plaguing any out actor: "I’m never sure if I didn’t get the job because I’m the gay rugby player or because I wasn’t good at the audition. I wish I didn’t think that way, but I do."