AS Zac Garred drove over Stockton Bridge on Australia Day from Williamtown's Newcastle Airport he instantly relaxed.
It was the Los Angeles-based actor's first trip to his hometown in more than 12 months. Since that last visit Garred has seen the US' billon-dollar film and TV industry almost grind to a halt, the COVID-19 pandemic kill 438,000 Americans and infect 26 million and the escalation of political tensions over the Black Lives Matter movement and Donald Trump's illegitimate claims that his election loss was rigged.
Garred's beaming smile as he sits at Westfield Kotara's The Rooftop, a mere hour after flying in from Byron Bay, is revealing.
"Given the situation we've gone through in the last 12 months, I've felt further away from Australia and Newcastle than ever before," Garred says.
"Between COVID, the George Floyd protests, which I was at, bushfires in California, earthquakes and the election, it felt like we've been living a Showtime mini-series.
"You look at Newcastle and it's sort of an oasis of calm and community and almost idealism. When I drove in I instantly relaxed. It's like pulling on a Jets jersey, it feels snug and fits well."
The 34-year-old, who is best known for his work in US soap General Hospital and NCIS: Los Angeles, is politically engaged. He even served at a Californian polling booth during the US presidential election in November where he was shocked to encounter a 94-year-old African-American woman who proudly voted for Trump.
"He had no contrition, he has no care for democracy itself," he says of Trump. "He's a despicable human and it's an absolute relief to see him go out."
Garred returned to Australia in early January and served two weeks in hotel quarantine at the Sofitel in Sydney. He describes it as "chalk and cheese", the difference between Australia's and the US' approach to the pandemic.
The genuinely bubbly Garred becomes melancholy as he describes his personal experience of coronavirus. A dozen of his friends, aged in their 20s to mid-30s, have contracted the virus and a 32-year-old sorority sister of his partner died.
"You've got people who are dismissive and cavalier about it and I get fairly angry about it because it's the simplest thing in the world to care and to want to do something decent," he says.
"Some people still think of the self over the community, and when it comes to something like this I would have thought the sense of humanity and humility would have been present more.
"It was there and America did come together in an insurmountable situation, exacerbated by an reprehensible government, but there were still individuals there that don't care and that is so maddening."
The purpose of Garred's brief return home is to promote Australian-American sci-fi action film Occupation: Rainfall. The film is the sequel to Occupation, which failed to ignite at the box office when released in 2018, but has since gained a cult following in the US after it was added to Netflix.
The Luke Sparke written-directed film told the story of a Tomorrow When The War Began-type of invasion of Australia, but with aliens. A group of rural folk band together to form a resistance movement against the extraterrestrial invaders.
While Occupation had a modest $6 million budget, Occupation: Rainfall was made for $25 million in the Gold Coast hinterland, to ensure more grandiose explosions and action sequences.
"This thing is colossal and it's colossal in every sense," Garred says. "Literally and as a pun because every dollar is on the screen.
"25 million bickies is not small change for any production, especially these days where profit margins are so tight. It's a really audacious sort of film, but that's how Luke is. He's go big or go home.
"It's a really exciting and exhilarating experience to be part of something like this."
Garred was also an associate producer on the film and reprises his role of Dennis, a homeless artist who helps teach the resistance fighters to live off the land. Occupation: Rainfall also stars Temuera Morrison (Aquaman), Ken Jeong (The Hangover), Jet Tranter (Thor: Ragnark) and Daniel Gillies (Vampire Diaries).
The pandemic means the majority of the US film studios have ceased production or held up the release of major films. This has provided Australian films with greater cinema space.
The likes of The Dry, starring Eric Bana, and Penguin Bloom, featuring Naomi Watts, are dominating the domestic box office this week and Occupation: Rainfall joined them on Thursday.
"This country makes good films and we're in the position to go out and see movies," Garred says. "We have the talent to do it, we always have, the issue has been the space to show that.
"I don't necessarily see it as a stop gap. I see it as us taking our place rightfully on cinema screens."
Occupation: Rainfallis now showing in cinemas.
A special red carpet screening of the film will be held at 7pm on Friday at Event Cinemas Kotara. Garred will be joined by co-actors Dan Ewing and Kat Risteska and writer-director Luke Sparke for a Q&A session following the film.