“I’m always attracted to the underdog, or the person who’s got the rough deal,” says the engagingly candid and slyly funny Damian Hill on the line from Melbourne. With this credo in mind, it’s bang-on perfect that the debut feature film from the actor turned writer/producer is the low budget drama, Pawno, an interconnected ensemble piece set in the rough-and-ready Melbourne suburb of Footscray, and populated with a host of hustling, occasionally desperate characters. Surrounded by a strong cast including Malcolm Kennard (Catching Milat), John Orcsik (Cop Shop), Maeve Dermody (Griff The Invisible), Daniel Frederiksen (Ten Empty, Bastard Boys), and Mark Coles Smith (Last Cab To Darwin), Hill plays Danny Williams, the quiet but compelling shop assistant to Les (John Brumpton), who runs his local pawnbroker’s with a curious mixture of sympathy and verbal brutality.
Smart, funny, warm, and authentic, Pawno is a striking work from Damian Hill, who has been acting for over ten years, with his biggest credit to date being a recurring role on TV’s Neighbours. “It’s the first thing that I’ve written,” Hill says plainly. “But I’ve read a lot…I’ve read a lot of things,” he giggles. “I’ve thought about different bits and pieces, but I’ve never really written anything.” Studying acting at The Victorian College Of The Arts while a young parent (“My daughter turns 22 today, and I’m 43,” Hill volunteers), the burgeoning performer found it difficult to reconcile both parts of his life and, after muddling through the course for a few years, opted to drop out. “So I became a bricklayer,” Hill says, “…a really, really bad bricklayer! Then I went overseas, and read a few books, before finally getting back into acting about six years ago. I did a few bits on TV, and then I started to get disillusioned again.”
Hill rediscovered the spark, however, during a stage run of Ray Mooney’s poetically gruelling prison-set play, Everynight…Everynight, where he met fellow actor and eventual Pawno director, Paul Ireland, and Pawno star, John Brumpton. Becoming good friends quickly, Hill and Ireland worked together on Hill’s early draft of Pawno, and then set about producing the film together under their Toothless Pictures moniker. “Paul responded to it early on,” Hill offers. “We’d sit there in his lounge room, and just bounce off each other. Some people might think that there’s not much going on in terms of a three act structure, but that’s okay…Paul really liked it, and he said that it reminded him of a lot of British films.”
With his still-waters-run-deep demeanour and casual charisma, Hill is one of the film’s many highlights as Danny, a character with a subtly suggested history of pain and damage. “Nobody mentions Danny…it’s always Carlo and Pauly,” laughs Hill of the two scene stealing louts in the film played by Malcolm Kennard and Mark Coles Smith. “It should all be about Danny…I’m joking! Everything that I’ve done – because I am covered in tattoos – has either been a jewel thief or a paedophile’s victim or a drug addict, so this wasn’t that difficult. Someone that knew me said, ‘Oh, you’re just playing yourself.’ But I’m nowhere near as passive as Danny, and I’m much better looking,” Hill laughs. “When I was working with Paul, we found the humour in Danny, particularly toward the end. I looked at the script and thought, ‘Shit, I’ve written myself a pretty big part here!’ Paul said that I had to play it a little closer to myself, so we found a little more humour in him. Hopefully people like him, in the sense that they want him to get the girl.”
Would Hill like to be the guy who gets the girl more often? Would he like to be “just an actor” instead of writing and producing his own material, like he did on Pawno? “Ideally, it would be lovely if someone just offered me an acting job,” Hill replies. “I just did a role in [the Tim Ferguson-co-directed comedy] Spin Out, which was fun. I wore a dress and just pretended to be really drunk. They were great people, and it was a lot of fun. But Paul Ireland and I only became producers by default. There are obviously people who are much better at it, but there was nobody as passionate about the film as us. We got knocked back by a lot of people. I don’t know if I’d want to produce again…if I did, I’d get someone who was better at certain things, like bookkeeping and emailing. But I love working with Paul; he’s amazing. It’s been years doing this film. I’ve got four kids – two of my own and two step-kids – and this kind of thing puts a lot of pressure on relationships. You take whatever acting jobs you can get, but that means doing a lot of difficult jobs in between. It’s been hard.”
That pressure, however, looks likely to continue, with Hill currently working on another project with Paul Ireland called Allergy (“It’s about a couple that are allergic to each other”), and also on his own adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure. “It’s set in the commission flats, and it’s full of amphetamines and Adidas tracksuits,” he snickers. “It’ll be cool, I think…I don’t know if it’ll ever be made though.” Fingers crossed. Either way, we are happy to hear that the fire still burns for this engaging underdog. “I love writing,” Damian Hill says quietly. “And I’d love to keep writing.”
Pawno is released in cinemas on April 21.