An interview with Steve Irwin, the crocodile hunter of television fame, is proof that what you see on the small screen is no lie. Arriving with wife Terri for a Dallas interview at an outdoor hotel swimming pool, Irwin was dressed in the khaki shorts and shirt (“Australia Zoo” displayed prominently on the pocket) that have become his uniform, and his manner was every bit as effusive as it is on the tube. The couple was in town to promote their first feature film, “The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course,” which melds footage of the Irwins doing what they do in real life–protecting wildlife–with an adventure plot about American intelligence agents trying to retrieve a satellite beacon swallowed by a croc that they’ve been assigned to capture and transport to a safe haven. “That is the genius of [director] John Stainton,” Steve exclaimed. “He’s the man, the power behind the film and the documentaries….He married these two formats beautifully, and he protects us from the ‘Hollywood actor’ persona. We can’t take that on–we just have to be us.” In fact, the footage of the hunt in the movie was shot when the couple was on an actual expedition. “It was [John’s] job to actually choreograph the whole thing around an event that was going to take place anyway,” Steve said.
Irwin described his enthusiastic, direct-to-the-audience approach, used in the picture as well as the TV shows, as similar to the live presentations he makes to zoo visitors: “When I talk to the camera, I honestly feel that I’m talking to the kids, to you, to everyone. I want you here with me, I want you to share it with me.” In fact, it was during just such a zoo lecture that he first encountered Terri, an American who hails from Oregon. “I was doing a crocodile demonstration at Australia Zoo,” he recalled. “I’d been up in the bush catching crocodiles for a long, long time, and I came back to Australia Zoo and was doing one of my routine crocodile demos…and I looked into the crowd and I saw this drop-dead gorgeous girl and I thought, ‘You little beauty.’ I forgot where I was.” Terri, who was involved in wildlife work in the States, remembered the incident well, too: “I thought, ‘I’ve got to have a photo with you. You’re the coolest guy I ever met.’ We met, and I fell desperately in love with him–he seemed larger than life, and ended up being larger than life.” Steve agreed: “Bang, that was it…She’s quite a catch for an Aussie boy!”
Asked about his unusual technique with animals, which extends to catching poisonous snakes without the usual traps, simply by grabbing and in effect stroking them, Irwin revved up further. “I’ve got a gift,” he enthused. “I was born with a gift. [My father] had a way of dealing with venomous snakes that had never been seen before–he tailed them, whereas everybody else gets them with jiggers and steel.” It’s the same technique that Steve now uses. “If you want to treat an animal right, you put yourself in his position,” he explained. “That’s how I treat wildlife. I love people, I love snakes. In addition to just gently handling the snake, grabbing it, letting it flow through my fingers, I love ’em. I absolutely love snakes!” He added that he believed that was the reason they treated him well in return: “I genuinely love the snake, and I have never been bitten by a venomous snake.” Irwin was especially proud of a sequence in the picture in which he and Terri rescue a joey–an orphaned young kangaroo–while in the bush, a nod to his mother, who spent years saving endangered animals. “That orphan joey means so much to me,” Irwin said. “That was testimony to my mother. She is no longer with us, but our umbilical cord was never cut. I was born on her birthday. I loved my mum so much–we sat on the floor and cried over animals all the time. She was just the most beautiful, giving person on the face of the earth. Every day of the week animals are getting killed on the road….We are so proud of what my mum did for the world that we wanted to have [the scene] in there as a testimony to her work.”
Making the film consumed a great deal of energy and reduced their ability to make their popular documentaries, but both Steve and Terri feel it will have been worth it. “We had to take about a year of time to make the movie,” Steve said. “Mind you, we started filming it way back in the year 2000, September of 2000. I was a very successful documentary presenter, perhaps the most highly-paid documentary presenter in the world, which contributed lots of money–millions of dollars–to conservation, which is where we put every cent of ‘Crocodile Hunter’ money, every single penny; in fact, all our money goes into conservation. It cost us money to do the movie–it really did, because we were seen as first-time actors, although we didn’t act, so it was our first movie….It [paid] a very small amount of money in the big scheme of things. We couldn’t do documentaries, so financially we went backward in a big, hard, fast fashion.” But he quickly added: “This is not a negative function, because the positive is, I believe we’re gonna make a stack of dough out of the film–and, once again, every cent that is made in this movie, that Terri and I make in this movie, ’cause we’ll be testing MGM’s back-end deal, will be going straight back into conservation. Which is history in the making, and we’re very proud of that.”
Steve offered one example of how the profits they’ve earned have gone to aid in wildlife work: he was engaged by the Australian government to rescue two crocodiles in East Timor, and afterward, he pointed out, “we set up the East Timoran Crocodile Foundation,” as well as a clinic for women and orphans. And Terri noted a project they currently have underway to save orphan elephants in Sumatra. “We want to help the village people, help the farmers and save twenty elephants,” she explained. “The cost will be close to $10 million by the time we’re done with the enclosures, the transport, the work that’s going to go into it. So if the movie does really well, and we see lots and lots of money, then we can tangibly make a difference. Sumatran elephants are one of the last of their sub-species–there’s probably a thousand of them left. They’re dying as we’re speaking, and their forest is almost gone.”
So those who see “The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course” will not only be able to enjoy their TV favorites on the big screen, but help their conservation efforts as well. “Everyone that goes to the movie has a piece of the action,” Terri said. But it will be without the risk the couple themselves take in the bush. For most people, Steve pointed out, “wildlife should be seen at a distance and loved and viewed and admired.”