In his latest film Acute Misfortune, Daniel Henshall plays controversial Australian artist Adam Cullen. Best known for winning the Archibald Prize in 2000, Cullen is one of Australia’s most collectable contemporary artists. His works combine depraved, crude and humorous visuals with a crippling sensitivity to society.
Acute Misfortune is the debut feature from writer/director Thomas M. Wright (you can read our interview with him here). The film was co-written with Erik Jensen, the founder and editor-in-chief of The Saturday Paper, and adapted from Jensen’s award-winning biography Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen. The film centres around the volatile relationship between Adam Cullen and his 19-year-old biographer, Jensen (played by Toby Wallace). The story spans the four-year period that led to Cullen’s death, at the age of 46.
The film was developed over four years, with a lengthy and exhaustive research period – which Henshall was part of. “Tom [Wright] contacted me very early on and gave me the book. He told me that if I found the book interesting, we could talk about working together in some capacity. Not necessarily as an actor and a director, but maybe as part of the process and the development of the script. I didn’t have anything to do with the writing of the film, but over a two-year period, I was supplied with different drafts and gave Tom and Erik my two cents on narrative, character development, that sort of thing.”
The opportunity to become this involved so early in the project is rare for an actor, and Henshall relished the chance to be so hands-on. “It was a unique opportunity. It gave me the chance to really develop an understanding of Adam Cullen and to figure out where he was coming from in the film.”
As an actor, Henshall is drawn to roles that look at the complexities of masculinity. “I’m really drawn to isolated characters that present outwardly in one way, but then have these vulnerabilities underneath that they don’t express. I’m interested in how destructive that can be. Not just for them, but for the people around them. That really fascinates me, and I’ve been lucky enough to be able to embody that a few times and investigate it with my characters. Male identity, inner turmoil, trauma, what’s going on beneath – that’s the kind of stuff that really excites me.”
To gain as much insight about Cullen as possible, Henshall spent time with various people from the artist’s life. “We talked to Adam’s studio assistant [Henry Beckett, who plays an art dealer in the film], his contemporaries, his ex-partners, critics, family members, and even his emergency nurses. This gave us a really intimate insight into who Adam was like in his final years. And into what it might have been like to be this person, or to be in his presence.
“I thoroughly enjoyed talking to people who knew Adam,” he continues. “His father, in particular, was incredibly open and gave us insight into Adam’s childhood, where Adam came from, the home he lived in, the relationship he had with his mother. We also got a great deal of information from Jason Martin, Adam’s art dealer and childhood friend. He shared so much with me and explained why Adam’s art was so important at the time – what made him so brilliant.”
The filmmakers were also granted access to Cullen’s possessions. “We had access to Adam’s actual paintings,” Henshall remarks, “as well as his paints, brushes, journals and some of his clothing. I got to use them in the film.”
With this incredible support came an immense pressure to portray Cullen as accurately and sensitively as possible. “There’s a major responsibility that comes with playing a real person,” Henshall muses, “because you want to do it with honesty and humanity. I absolutely did not take the responsibility lightly. It’s a healthy pressure though, because it keeps you honest.”
One of this country’s most exciting actors, Henshall, who is still best-known for his debut feature film role as John Bunting in Snowtown, isn’t one to turn down a challenge. “This role was pretty hard for me. I really felt like Adam was larger than myself. He has a great gift of taking in information, consuming it, regurgitating it and making it his own. In the film, he speaks at length about ideologies, theories, ideas and concepts that I found quite difficult to wrap my head around. I generally don’t like to talk much in my roles [laughs], so that was pretty scary for me.”
The role was also challenging physically. “I put on about 15 to 18 kilos and then lost about 20 to 25 kilos during the process. I’ve done it a few times. I’m getting older though, so I was more concerned about my health this time.
“To put on weight, I ate a lot of healthy fats, carbohydrates and vegetable protein. It was pretty extreme, I was eating consistently every day for six weeks, which was pretty exhausting. And then, for the rest of the film, I was on a juice diet for about 8 weeks.”
Although Henshall is a “loose vegetarian” and not a vegan, he was attracted to the health benefits and the results of the vegan approach.” I wanted to give back to my body instead of abusing it, because it is quite abusive to try to put that kind of weight on in a short period of time, and then lose it.”
Henshall also loved working with first-time film director Thomas M. Wright, a fellow committed actor who has appeared in everything from TV series such as Top of the Lake and The Bridge to films like Sweet Country. “I love Tommy, and this film wouldn’t have been made without his ambition and his relentless pursuit to create.
“Tom works from quite an intellectual place, whereas I navigate more with my emotions,” Henshall comments about their different approaches. “I try to stay out of my head as much as possible, because I’m up there a lot anyway. The relationship was challenging, at times, in the beginning, because we had different practices. We were able to find a happy ground really quickly though. And I think our different approaches were actually great for the film. Working with Tom was a real lesson for me. He’s an incredible force”.
Despite the drastic physical and mental challenges of the role, Henshall didn’t let the character take over his life. “I can switch off pretty quickly,” he remarks. “When I’m working, I try to stay as connected as possible to my family and friends, and to the people I’m working with. I also try to remain really aware that I’m playing the character for a short period of time. There’s this happy grief that comes when you hang up your hat at the end of the shoot. As an actor, I think it’s wise to not indulge too much in your roles. When you do, it’s easy to lose sight of yourself.”
Acute Misfortune is playing in select cinemas now.
You can also catch Daniel Henshall in Skin, which will premiere at the Sydney Film Festival.