Standing on the side of a Special Forces helicopter, Firass Dirani looks down into a large gulf of water.
The view from up high is mesmerising, tantalising even – until he's ordered to jump.
This was his introduction into SAS Australia, a new reality series that puts famous figures to the test in one of the most brutal courses ever seen.
Run by an elite team of ex-Special Ops soldiers, the "sobering" experience, as the actor describes it, isn't for the faint-hearted.
Even among the bravest of competitors, some instantly regretted signing onto the show. But the Underbelly star wasn't lured by the exposure of a primetime show; he was ready to tackle the biggest personal challenge he's ever set himself.
"It was a gruelling experience; people lost their minds in the cold. But I'm at an age in my life where I want to test my resilience and heart," Firass, 36, tells TV WEEK.
"In a year when the world has faced so much, I wanted this challenge."
Alongside world-class athletes such as swimmers James Magnussen and Shayna Jack, surf ironwoman Candice Warner and cricket star Mitchell Johnson – as well as reality stars and public figures – the TV WEEK Logie Award-winning actor was out to prove himself an equal contender.
"I wasn't there to comply; I wanted to get punished!" Firass says. "If I couldn't handle it, I knew I'd break and hand in my number, so I wanted to test myself and see how much I could take.
"I had a ball, but it was brutal to watch. Some people lasted only a few days – Shannan [Ponton] got hyperthermia and lost his memory for 45 minutes, and Erin [McNaught] couldn't see properly after a bad accident caused her face to swell up."
However, like much of 2020, the global pandemic almost derailed the entire show. In March, the cast and crew made their way to Queenstown, New Zealand, just before Government-mandated curfews were set in place around the globe.
Firass explains that he thought they had managed it – but COVID-19 was a force bigger than they anticipated.
"We needed to get to New Zealand before midnight because the curfews were kicking in the next day – and we did. Everyone was thrilled and ready to shoot. But suddenly, COVID-19 reined everything in and we were forced to fly back to Australia the next day," he recalls.
"It was a huge disappointment. We had gone through months of training; we felt fit and confident – then it all came crashing down.
"Months later, we relocated to Jindabyne [in NSW], but it meant going through the training program again. It was mentally draining."
But with a brief pause, he grins and says, "I'd absolutely do it again. It was a great experience."
Meanwhile, the entertainment industry faces immense uncertainty. Firass was scheduled to film a project in Russia, now cancelled, and some future productions have been postponed indefinitely.
The star has turned to alternate methods of filming to continue his work – even in hotel quarantine.
"While I was in isolation, I did a collaboration project and used hotel cushions to create a sound studio for voiceover work. It was so weird!"
"It's just different, and not what we're used to, but everyone has learnt to adapt. I wrote a short film and I've been reading a lot too, so you get to flex different muscles."
While he waits to see what the future holds, Firass is using the time to connect with his family. As an uncle to four growing boys, it's never been a more important time to be present.
"My nephews are very young, and these are influential years right now," he says. "I don't want to be the guy who comes in and out occasionally. I want them to recognise me as their uncle. It's a blessing and a gift."
As for his own future, Firass is asking the same questions we all are. He's looking not just at what's happening around the world, but within himself and who he wants to be.
"Our life and culture has changed forever – including our perceptions. We now ask, 'How am I changing myself or the world? Is what I'm doing worthy?' They're universal questions," he says.
"We're all going through struggles, and I've used this latest experience as a foundation for my real life. I just want to find experience and knowledge; I want to leave a legacy of work, of course. But I want to be moved."
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