Track Of My Tears
With the stirring drama, ‘The Cup’, actor Stephen Curry steps into the shoes of Australian jockey Damien Oliver to bring his extraordinary story to the big screen.
The story of Damien Oliver - a committed jockey who always put the race before riches and praise - is an extraordinary one. Australia's top jockey, he'd been picked by Irish racehorse trainer, Dermot Weld, to ride his horse, Media Puzzle, in The 2002 Melbourne Cup. The gelding was a long shot at best, and barely qualified for Australia's most high profile race.
The week before the race, Jason Oliver, Damien's older brother and fellow jockey, was fatally injured in a training accident while riding an unraced horse at Ascot Racecourse in Perth. Taken to Royal Perth Hospital, Jason never regained consciousness and died after being taken off life support. As close as brothers can be, Damien was completely and utterly shattered by Jason's death. In an act of extraordinary courage, Damien Oliver - after an agonising period of guilt, indecision and fear - made the decision to compete in The Melbourne Cup. When he won the race - with seemingly an entire nation cheering him on - the story quickly rumbled from tragedy to triumph.
For director Simon Wincer who was recruited to bring this extraordinary true story to the big screen, the first major call to make was obviously on who would play Damien Oliver. After considerable deliberation, the director made a decision that would ultimately fit The Cup with its richly beating heart. When Wincer saw young actor Stephen Curry in the acclaimed 2007 television film, The King - in which he brilliantly essayed beloved TV comic Graham Kennedy - the director felt that he might have his man.
For Melbourne boy Stephen Curry, The Cup offered up a whole herd of challenges. "I'd basically never been on a horse before," he laughs. "The only time that I'd ever been on a horse was in the TV series Snowy River: The McGregor Saga, which was back in 1994." With Curry's lack of horsemanship glaringly obvious, Wincer took it upon himself to whip the actor into shape. "I got up there and started riding on Simon's stock horses and a couple of Arabs, which are like your entry level kind of horse," Curry explains. "I started getting pretty good - well, according to Simon, I started getting pretty good - and I started getting pretty confident in my own ability. Then they chucked me on a thoroughbred, and my confidence in my ability evaporated quite smartly at that point. It's like the difference between driving a 180B [Datsun] and a Ferrari."
The horse riding, however, was just the obvious challenge for Curry on The Cup. A more daunting hurdle came with the fact that this was the actor's first major, singularly dramatic role, with no essential comic element. Famed for his role as Dale Kerrigan in the much loved comedy, The Castle, Curry has also been a featured player on TV sketch shows like Eric and The Mick Molloy Show, and has appeared in narrative comedy shows like Stupid Stupid Man and :30 Seconds. Likewise, his film work (Takeaway, Thunderstruck, The Nugget), has been of an equally comedic bent. The Cup saw the actor stretching...and stretching hard. "I do love playing drama," Curry says. "The King was great because there was heavy stuff, but there was mucking around as well. The mucking around days were the stuff that comes a bit more naturally, I guess, and it doesn't feel so much like work when you're having fun. But with The Cup, not only was there all the drama that I had to think about - and I hate thinking! - but there was also the horse riding training as well, so I was on my toes most of the time."
Curry also felt an obligation to do the right thing by Damien Oliver, who was involved with the production as a technical advisor, and encouraged the actor to spend as much time with him as he needed to. Curry tagged along at trials and race days, and observed the jockey in the depths of intense preparation, and also in his victories and defeats. For the actor, it was like quietly pulling back the curtains, and peering into an almost alien world. "It's quite phenomenal," Curry says. "These guys have got real guts about them. Their courage is something that I didn't have any grasp of before I saw what goes into it. They are just phenomenal athletes, and not many people could manage to do it."
Though he spent a lot of time with Damien Oliver, Curry wasn't interested in tapping his mannerisms, or using the jockey as some kind of template for his performance. "From the word go, both Simon and I agreed that it was not about mimicking him," the actor says. "In terms of the physicality, we basically pulled right away from that. We didn't want to make it about that, and I'm not a very good mimic anyway. It would probably end up looking like a comedy sketch, and there's the whole jockey voice thing too. When you're doing a ninety-minute tear jerker, it's a bit hard to bung on a jockey voice and have people buy it. We just knew that the story is the most important thing to get right, and that would get a bit muddled if we were trying to fool people into believing that I was Damien."
By all accounts, the courageous jockey is well and truly happy with the finished film. "The first time that I saw The Cup in its entirety was with Damien and his wife Trish," Curry recalls. "That was about as nerve wracking as anything that happened during the shoot, but they loved it. They were really moved by it. That's the only review that I need to worry about..."
The Cup is released on October 13.
This is an excerpt from a feature story which ran in our October issue. For more from Stephen Curry, as well as director Simon Wincer, pick up a copy of the mag now.