Can you talk about what made you become an actor?
“Before training as an actor, I was a surveyor. I graduated from the University Of NSW at the end of 1982, and went straight up to Darwin. I did a lot of bush projects up there. I’d be camping out on swags for a few weeks, and then I’d work around Darwin until the next job came up. I remember lying on my swag in Kakadu National Park and listening to Alan Bond on our little radio as he won The America’s Cup. We’d been there for weeks marking out the new boundary as they extended the park. A relationship in Darwin ended in 1984, and I just had to get out. I took a job surveying in the ACT. I’ve always loved films, so I enrolled in a part time acting course, hoping to meet some women. We’d never studied or performed any plays at Blacktown High when I was there, so I didn’t know much.”
Who or what inspires you performance-wise?
“Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody’s music inspires me, and Frank Gallagher, who was the best theatre actor that I’d ever seen. Other inspirations are Bryan Brown in Stir, Breaker Morant and Two Hands…great performances. And Rolf De Heer; he’s so brave in the projects that he takes on. Also Russell Crowe in The Insider. I got locked up with Russell the night before we started shooting Romper Stomper. We were innocent, but I might have been a bit cheeky. I wasn’t allowed to go out with the boys after that. That’s another story…”
Aaaah, can you tell us more about that night?
“The producer had drinks with the crew on the Friday before we were to start shooting. Us actors went along and had a beer to meet the team. We’d all been rehearsing and hanging out for the last two weeks of pre-production. Anyway, we had a beer, met the people, and then walked towards The Maori Chief in South Melbourne, to get drunk. The Jacks drove past and saw a gang of skinheads. They pulled up across the road and ordered us to, ‘Get over here.’ I yelled back, ‘No, you come over here.’ So they did. They started hassling [actors] Leigh Russell and Daniel Pollock, who I knew was carrying drugs. I told them to fuck off in an effort to pull the Jacks away from Daniel. It worked, and they then turned on me. Leigh, [actor] Dan Wyllie and me were finally thrown into the back of their wagon and taken to South Melbourne Police Station. Russell [Crowe] stayed at the drinks and was going to meet us at the pub. I remember looking through the grill on the back door of the Jacks’ wagon as Russell arrived. They left me until last. Dan and Leigh were already locked up. Russell demanded that we be released. The Jacks told him to piss off or they’ll lock him up too! He just stood there and said, ‘I’m not moving till you let them out.’ I watched as they quickly jumped him, got him into a headlock, and dragged him into the station. We were all locked up and charged for being drunk in a public place. Luckily, there’s no criminal record. The producer bailed us out after four hours of living in separate cells and reading the graffiti on the walls.”
Have you ever taken on a role that you wouldn’t have done if you didn’t have to earn a crust?
“I’ve gone for a lot of jobs where the script was average, but I thought that I could help if I’m on the team. I’ve made a few suggestions and then never gotten the job. Those jobs have always turned out bad…bad critically and no box office. If they were threatened by me or couldn’t see what I would bring to the project, then I was lucky not to have gotten the job.”
The Australian film industry is the subject of endless debate. From the perspective of someone who’s been acting for twenty years, do you think that things are better or worse now for Australian cinema?
“What’s interesting is that we make pretty much the same amount of films as we did twenty years ago. But each year, for twenty years, we’ve turned out hundreds of keen young kids from all the acting schools around the country. But the industry hasn’t grown. If you ran a business that didn’t grow and keep above inflation, then you’d throw it in.”
What do you see as the main problem, and what’s the solution?
“It’s a complex problem. If it was easy, we’d all be doing it now. Too many Australian audiences have been turned off by watching crap movies with some has-been Yank in them. I mostly knock around with people outside the industry. A while ago, one of my best friends was telling me about a bad American movie that he’d seen. I said, ‘Why don’t you go and watch Samson And Delilah?’ He said, ‘I don’t like Aussie movies. They don’t interest me.’ I was stunned at his prejudice. Later, I nagged him to go and watch Animal Kingdom, and then the next week got him to come to The Loved Ones with me. He was blown away by both films, and he gives them a bit of respect now. I guess it’s about getting the good ones in front of the audience. Australians want to watch Australian stories. That I know.”
Can you talk a bit about the TV crime series, Killing Time, with David Wenham and Colin Friels?
“Killing Time was a great job. It’s got a fantastic cast, and top directors. It’s an Underbelly type story, but it’s real. The character that I played – [serial killer] Peter Dupas – took them to court. He’s a vexatious litigant. A sickening, evil man. I put on ten kilos for that role. I was so fat that I couldn’t touch my toes. I saw a photo of myself at The Sydney Film Festival taken during filming. I couldn’t stop looking and laughing at my gut and chubby little face.”
Killing Time relates in part to the Walsh Street murders, on which Animal Kingdom also drew inspiration. Do you think that these true crime stories offer a rich source of material?
“The series is based on Andrew Fraser’s books – he was the lawyer who got those accused of the Walsh Street murders off. Hence the police hated him. They got him for cocaine later and he went to prison. In prison, he joins Dupas’ crew. We’ve always done crime dramas. Homicide, Division 4, Matlock…today, we’re telling stories about heavier people and heavier crimes. The way that we tell them has become much more sophisticated. It was interesting when we made the  film, Redball. It’s about police corruption, and the media called it a ‘pack of lies.’ Later that year, the NSW Police Royal Commission proved that anything was possible. We all know that power can corrupt.”
Which films or TV shows do you regard as touchstones or turning points in your career?
“I adapted my play, Containment, into the film, Life, with [Eternity writer/director] Lawrence Johnston. That was my first lead role. I got two AFI nominations that year, and I reckon that I would have won, but Shine came out. Shine’s a great film, and Geoffrey Rush went on to win the Academy Award. Life won the International Critics Prize at Toronto in 1996. After Life, Rolf De Heer offered me a lead role in Dance Me To My Song. There I met the beautiful writer/actor, Heather Rose. Heather passed away in 2004 and I miss her. No matter where I was, we’d always talk on the phone, and especially every 13th of May…that was the day when we screened in competition at Cannes. I had a great time doing Gettin’ Square. I reckon I’m pretty funny in that film, but I’ve never had any more comedy roles. I had a few good jokes in The Loved Ones…”
Tell me about Pawno. You obviously have lived quite a while in Melbourne. Did it come out of a community of actors?
“Damian Hill started it; he wrote it and plays the lead. I did this Ray Mooney play called Everynight, Everynight, which they made the film of. They asked me to be in the film, but I didn’t want to because I’d just done the play; and I was about to shoot Life, and I didn’t want to do prisoner to prisoner. So I pulled out of that, which is good because Dave Field came in, and he brought Paul Kelly music to it and Bill Hunter, and the film turned out better in the long run. But the play was packed out. Wesley College down there in Melbourne asked me if I would go to the school during the day and give a lecture to their drama students. They give you a hundred bucks or something. And Damian was in the class, but I don’t remember him, and he never said anything. But that was his first exposure to me. Anyway, twenty or thirty years later, Ray Mooney says that he’s just given the rights to the play to this Damian Hill, and he’s going to ask me to be in it. So I played Dave Field’s role, Chris Flannery, in the first play, but now I’m too old, so I said I’ll be in it if you’ll let me do Bill Hunter’s role. Anyway, so during the play, I suggested that we cast Paul Ireland as one of the other prison guards. I had met Paul about a year before, but hadn’t worked with him. We had the best time doing this play; it was packed out all the time, and we got great reviews. It was wonderful. And then Dame started writing, and he said that he’s got a role for me. I was always going to do it, and I helped him develop it because I had a little more writing experience than him, so I helped him a little bit. And then Paul came on board. We wanted him to play a transvestite, and Paul said, ‘Nah, I’ll direct it.’ He was ready to direct, and move his career forward.”
Pawno is released on April 21.