Well, of course there’s Nicole Kidman. But these days the second-hottest Aussie export is the stubby, battle-scarred animal wrangler Steve Irwin. Shrugging off reptile bites and venom spitting on the Animal Planet TV series ”The Crocodile Hunter,” he won himself a cameo in ”Doctor Dolittle 2,” a ”Saturday Night Live” parody, and his very own talking doll, This summer, he’s aiming to conquer the big screen with ”The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course” (opens July 12). EW.com talked to Irwin, 40, about his real-life injuries while filming the movie — and why he lets his 4-year-old play with gators.
How difficult was it to turn a documentary TV show into a conventional feature film?
It was the easiest transition in the world. It’s like a videogame; you go from one level to the next. In 2000 we filmed all of the croc stuff on our own, because there’s no way we could have filmed it with MGM. With a movie, we couldn’t get insurance for Terri [Irwin’s wife] and me, and we couldn’t use stunt doubles, because we wanted to do it all in real time, nothing fake. After we filmed all of that, then we went to MGM in 2001 and started adding the movie component.
So you shot the crocodile footage without having any idea what the rest of the movie might be about?
Yeah, there’s no script. The movie section of it I had nothing to do with, and we actually weren’t allowed to see the film until the premiere. They wanted to keep myself and Terri and Sui [the Irwins’ dog] and the crocs completely natural, just real life.
Surely you had to do some acting, didn’t you?
Nah, I’m not acting. It’s what we call ad lib. Acting is all about choreography, knowing where you’re going, and your lines, and I had none of that. The director said ”Take me from here to there,” so I just said what I was doing as I did it. But there were a few scenes there that drove me crazy. When there were no crocs or snakes involved, they’d make me do a scene up to 10 times, and I could never work out what the heck that was about. They’d claim the light was good, the light was bad, the audio was good, the audio was bad. There was always some excuse why they didn’t have it right.
Were you injured shooting this film?
There was a fair amount of blood, which we had to cut as much as possible so kids could see the movie as well as adults. I got hit across the head by a crocodile I captured under the water. Then my knees and shins got all chopped up jumping on a 12-foot croc. Plus, on my way to filming one day I had to rescue this kangaroo on the side of the road. When I went to it, it kicked me and split my lip in half. I’d like to think it was tens of thousands of dollars that went down the tubes because we had to wait 10 days for my lip to heal before we could start shooting again. But I think it was a whole stack more money than that, what with the unions and all.
Even the creepiest snapping crocs don’t seem to scare you. Have you ever really been frightened?
Oh yeah, many times. In the movie there’s a scene where this croc is trying to kill me and Terri, and I was very scared for Terri and Sui. And one croc named Graham dragged my best mate, Wes, by the leg and tried to kill him. I was the only other person around — and I was six feet away from him — so I had to jump on the croc and get Wes out of Graham’s mouth. That scared the living daylights out of me. I thought my best mate was going to die right in front of my eyes. I seem to have a lot less trouble looking after me than I do looking after everyone else.