Eeveryone, it seems, has an opinion about Julian Assange. While the producer of Channel Ten's feature-length biopic chooses her words carefully as she shows The Guide around one of the Underground locations in Melbourne that is doubling as hippie outpost Emerald circa 1979, the actor Anthony LaPaglia just can't help himself.
Immersed in a dog-eared paperback in his private trailer, LaPaglia is happy to share his views about the controversial WikiLeaks founder. He believes that far from being the traitor that many world leaders insist him to be, Assange is a beacon of light for exposing sensitive military secrets that the public has the right to know about.
The Adelaide-born actor, who has spent most of the past two decades working in the US, proffers his own list of traitors who deserve to be put on trial for war crimes. It's a list that includes senior figures of past and present US governments.
Rachel Griffiths and Alex Williams in Underground.
LaPaglia says he would love to meet and talk to Assange; so, too, albeit for entirely different reasons, does Detective Ken Roberts, LaPaglia's character in Underground: The Julian Assange Story. Roberts is a shaggy cop who's about to discover just how ill-equipped he is to tackle the new frontier of cyber-crime. The irony of playing Assange's would-be nemesis isn't lost on LaPaglia.
With a blockbuster movie years away - last year Steven Spielberg acquired the rights to WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy by Guardian journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding - Matchbox Pictures was interested in developing a quick-turnaround film about Assange.
To circumvent the thorny legal issues that surround Assange, who is currently holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, the producers decided to focus on a pivotal two-year span of his teenage years, a period defined by Assange's initiation into the clandestine world of computer hacking and momentous events in his personal life.
As documented in Suelette Dreyfus's 1997 book Underground: Tales of Hacking, Madness and Obsession on the Electronic Frontier, Assange, using the pseudonym Mendax, first came to the attention of authorities in the late 1980s when he and a posse of international hackers infiltrated what were supposed to be secure websites.
As the film tells it, their modus operandi was to look around but not steal anything. But having stumbled upon military intelligence that anticipated the civilian casualties of the first Gulf War, the experience galvanised the impressionable Assange into his next act.
Writ large in this small slice of Assange's life are the larger themes that dominate the current debates about him and WikiLeaks.
For LaPaglia, Underground is an opportunity for audiences to engage with a different perspective, one that challenges the one-sided profiles that have emerged since Assange went into hiding following the publication of classified Pentagon material and allegations of sex offences in Sweden, for which formal charges are yet to be made.
Playing Assange is newcomer Alex Williams, who landed the role after his first audition since graduating from the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts at the end of last year.
With his cleanly parted fair hair and soft voice, Williams bears an uncanny resemblance to Assange. In order to portray Assange, Williams wanted to understand as much as he could about his activities as a fledgling hacker.
Apart from that, however, he wanted to detach himself as much as possible from the contemporary figure. ''There's another 20 years of hacking and going around the world, dealing with journalists and governments,'' Williams says.
''He's much freer in this. I didn't want to play a 20-year-old or 40-year-old Julian Assange, I just wanted to play him as a teenager.''
Assange, he says, was ''an intense dude'' who saw the internet as a ''whole new frontier of exploration''. Despite the misconception of computer buffs as nerdy, friendless misfits, he and his fellow hackers were regarded as cool; the punks of their day.
Rachel Griffiths, who plays Assange's mother Christine, has little doubt of the defining role his mother played in nurturing Assange's rebelliousness and moral backbone. Assange's itinerant childhood was anything but conventional or cosseted, and Griffiths believes the young Assange was inspired by the activism of his mother, who was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War and the nuclear arms race. She, in turn, was impressed with his developing political conscience.
''There's a part of her that's the true believer, but the argument that [attending rallies] is not a powerful way to lobby must have crossed her mind,'' Griffiths says. ''I think she's in awe of the possibilities … of a world where you can tweet a revolution and it's becoming increasingly hard for people to hide what they are doing.''
Griffiths has a clear memory of what she thought the first time she heard of Julian Assange: ''That guy must have an interesting mother.
''I viewed him with this kind of psychological curiosity. What makes a man like that? I thought, that man doesn't have a father and must have an interesting mother because there is some intrinsic molecular revulsion of authority in that man. It's compulsive. It's in his DNA.''
Unsurprisingly, in light of the perpetuating headlines that the Assange matter generates, Underground has attracted considerable interest across the globe. Unusually for a telemovie that was made in only five weeks on the smell of an oily rag, it was invited to screen at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, where it was well received by critics.
For Ten, it promises to be a much-needed salve from the drubbing its latest batch of low-rent reality shows have received, while for viewers it's a challenge to the widespread perception of Assange as a cold, callous and possibly immoral whistleblower with a chequered past.
''What I like about doing this film,'' Williams says, ''is that most people won't see any of this portrayed in the news or by a journalist writing a story.''
Q&A with ... Rachel Griffiths
What did you make of Underground when you read the script?
It's really quite a critical study for me. Apart from the giant question which was there from the moment Julian stepped on to the world stage - which is, what makes a man like that? It's very clever. It's not trying to tell a big story. It's a fragment of a biography. It focuses on a critical point.
What did it tell you about how much activism has changed?
For me, sociologically and historically, what's interesting is the schism in time between an organic and analog activism, represented by Christine parading outside an embassy trying to draw attention to what she feels is a wrong, and reaching what Julian sees, in the movie, as a certain kind of futility, the energy of the baby-boomer optimism waning in its ageing years - the voices aren't as clear, the feelings between people to create protest aren't as strong. A point where he recognises a new activism of information in a digital age.
You have protested yourself, against gambling, in Melbourne in 1997.
I did an incredibly analog protest at Crown. It couldn't have been more analog. [That was] old-school protesting. It goes back to the mediaeval girl on a white horse, naked, protesting a tax. It's ancient and it's very female because it requires community. It uses voice and body and organisation. But in this moment, in Julian's mind's eye, the future that he can see is one where the power to protest lies in disseminating information and using it against those that want to keep it.
Do you think it works?
If we move forward to the Arab Spring, to how Twitter is being used in Iran, to non-traceable satellite phone technology being used so massacres in Syria can not be kept from either the West or their own people, it's been a more powerful tool. It's destroying secrecy. It's very masculine, it's digital, unemotional and it's the strength and weakness of Julian. I don't … believe all information should be in the public arena, but who decides? Do we let Dick Cheney decide? Who has that power?
In a change of pace, you're appearing on Channel Ten's I Will Survive this week.
I had been circumspect with the idea of replacing drama content with reality but I got really hooked on The Voice in America. They were trying to find genuinely talented people who hadn't had that lucky break. I Will Survive sounded like a great concept. To take people from different places in their careers, in a cul-de-sac for various reasons - some imposed, some just unlucky, some geographical - and give them an opportunity on a show which is more about mentoring and supporting than pulling people down and laughing at them.