Hollywood lore has it that many high-profile actors turned down the role of Sam Wheat, the leading male role in what was to become the blockbuster movie Ghost. Harrison Ford, Kevin Costner, Alec Baldwin, Johnny Depp, Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis and Tom Hanks all balked at playing the banker boyfriend and murder victim who can't bring himself to stay on his side of the line separating the living from the dead.
The part eventually went to Patrick Swayze after the movie's screenwriter, Bruce Joel Rubin, saw the actor burst into tears during a TV interview that touched on the subject of his late father.
Rob Mills, who plays Sam in the stage musical adaptation of Ghost, had no qualms about taking the role. "When I first went in for the audition, the director gave me the breakdown of Sam's character," Mills recalls. "He said he's this successful guy who has always been quite lucky, things have always fallen his way. But then he said, 'I think he's also really made his own luck but for some reason he always feels like every time something good happens, he's going to lose it.'"
That was the penny-drop moment for Mills. "I really related to that," he says. "I remember thinking, that's me. I always feel like I'm waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and say, 'come on mate, your 15 minutes is up'. I have that fear that I will get found out, that I'm not that good."
That vulnerability is the key to the role, Mills believes. "I remember an acting coach saying to me, 'when you show your vulnerability, that's when you show your strength'. Swayze could do that. He got the role because other actors didn't want to be seen as vulnerable. They didn't want to show weakness. But that's one of Swayze's skills. It made him very charming, very easy to watch on screen. You can see why he got so many roles back in the day."
For Mills, a graduate of the first season of Australian Idol, the role of Sam is the most complex he has attempted yet. "Danny Zucko [in Grease the Musical] was a bit of a caricature, and so was Warner in Legally Blonde," Mills says. "This is more of an acting challenge. It's nice to be able to play someone who is going through the loss of a loved one while trying to unravel a thriller as well. There are only 12 minutes of this production when I'm off the stage. I have to constantly engage with the story. There is no downtime for messing about backstage."
Originally directed by Matthew Warchus (Matilda the Musical) in 2011, Ghost the Musical is one of the more successful screen-to-stage spin-offs with critics and audiences hailing the show for its innovative stage illusion effects.
"People are very curious to know how it all works," says Jemma Rix, who plays the story's bereft, pot-throwing heroine Molly Jensen (played by Demi Moore in the film). "Millsy and I got to see the show in Singapore before we started rehearsals last year and it was great to be blown away by the tricks. It really is a very magical show, it's pretty speccy. If you don't know how it's being done, it's amazing."
Ghost the Musical isn't all smoke and mirrors, however. The working relationship between Mills and Rix is flesh-and-blood real and it dates back to 2008, when Mills joined the cast of Wicked as the dashing Fiyero, opposite Rix's green-skinned Elpheba.
"The audience has to believe this couple is completely in love and so you need to be working with someone you are comfortable with," says Rix. "Millsy is really fun and one of the most generous people ever, super thoughtful. When you are playing a character who is going through so much every night, it's great to have someone like that around for balance."
The drama stakes are high but Ghost also gives its audience plenty of eye candy. Mills, who strips to the waist for some of the show's sexier scenes, confesses he's "dropped a dress size" in preparation for opening night.
"I started working out a few months ago," says Mills. "I've got muscles I never thought I'd ever have. A few abs down there I've never seen before. My vanity levels are on the rise," he laughs. "Though I did smash a bacon deluxe [burger] last night. Everything in moderation."
I remember an acting coach saying to me, 'when you show your vulnerability, that's when you show your strength'. Swayze could do that.Rob Mills, actor
Rix, meanwhile has been working on her clay-throwing for the story's iconic potter's wheel scene "I had to have a few lessons because it's an absolute skill," says Rix. "But I've got it down now. It's a very emotional scene."
Fans of the original film will be surprised, adds Rix. "The pottery scene is in a different place in the musical. It's not when you think it's going to happen, which is a good thing because you are then thinking about the story rather than the movie."
Ghost the Musical runs in the Regent Theatre, Melbourne, from February 5; in the Theatre Royal, Sydney, from March 18; and in the Crown, Perth, from May 21.
Can ghost be born again?
Ghost the Musical won't necessarily make you believe in the afterlife but there's a good chance it will cause you to disbelieve your own eyes. The show's stage effects have had audiences, critics and even stage magic professionals scratching their heads. How does Sam Wheat walk through that seemingly solid door?
The show's stage illusions are the brainchild of stage magic consultant and designer Paul Kieve, who worked on the Harry Potter films and Martin Scorcese's Hugo. He combines state-of-the-art technology (including 80 moving spotlights and 6.5 kilometres of fibre optic cables) with century-old techniques to detach spirits from dying bodies, create a ghost fight on a moving subway train, and allow Sam to cross the great divide between the worlds of the living and the dead.
"I love walking through the door!" says Mills. "I really love the reaction that it gets. And I love watching Dave Denis [the subway ghost] levitate and jump into a moving train. Every night you hear people in the audience shouting 'what the?'. How cool is it to be able to do that every night?"
There's a simpler kind of magic going on in one of Rix's favourite moments. "There is one moment in the show that always gets a big response. It's when Alex [Rathgeber, who plays the bad guy Carl] takes off his shirt off. Every night you hear this 'ooooh' sound from the audience."