By Charlotte Daraio

Michael Smiley has had quite the career: from being in the Edgar Wright sitcom, Spaced, to being considered by many as Ben Wheatley’s “muse”, he has performed in a range of film and television roles across multiple genres.

His most recent film, The Toll, centres on a toll booth operator, referred to only as Tollbooth, whose shady past catches up with him after he’s discovered by the gang he’s been hiding from for 29 years. However, Tollbooth – quite the cunning character himself – uses his position as the town’s (literal) middleman to try and dig himself out of his mess.

Tell me a bit about your character, Tollbooth?

“His backstory is [that] he’s been working in this tollbooth, which is on the quietest toll road in Wales – hardly anybody turns up. He’s been there around 20 to 30 years. He’s been hiding out, which we don’t yet know. We just think he’s sitting philosophically reading this book every day – but he’s on the run from a gang. Then, out of sheer coincidence, one of the gang members happens to drive past the tollbooth and discovers him.

“He’s pulling strings in the area [Pembrokeshire, Wales – “where English people go to die”]. He’s sort of an “underworld influencer”, for want of a better expression. He’s the “tall, dark stranger” in a Western.”

Why do you think it works so well as a Western, even though it is set in Wales?

“I think Wales is quite a frontier [place]. It’s quite wide and it’s quite beautiful. Also, it dances to its own drum: the Welsh are very different from the English and different from the Irish. Wales is a very out-there country in the sense that it’s quite wild in parts. They’ve got kind of a buccaneer or outlaw attitude towards life. The idea of using Wales [as a setting] for a film that’s a modern Western is quite exciting, really.”

Did you watch a lot of Westerns in preparation?

“No, I didn’t! I didn’t, really. I’m not really that sort of actor. It depends on the role, really. This role was more about a man whose journey was inwards – he’s in this cabin on his own and he’s reading. There’s sort of a self-imposed imprisonment from being in this job, in the work that he’s chosen, and the solitude of that. He’s more like a lighthouse keeper – one of those ancient, solitary men. It’s more of that sort of character – inwardly very philosophical life.”

How would you describe his ethics? Is he a good guy, bad guy?

“I think he dances to his own drum, really. If you measured his moral code against the rest of society, by his past actions, then he’s a bad guy. When he’s feeling threatened, he’s quite primal. As you see in the film, he’s quick to get rid of anybody who’s threatening him. He’s a quiet manipulator. So, by our standards, we would see him as really psychopathic or sociopathic, but at a really low level. Again, I always equate him to a lighthouse keeper. He’s got time to think. I think to survive, he’s bringing some sort of “business” back into it.”

Was filming challenging at points, or was it smooth sailing?

“No, it wasn’t [smooth sailing]. The reason: it was pissing down out of the heavens! Where we were filming, up at the hill, at the side of the cliff in cold weather, and the wind and rain were really whipping all day. It’s a real challenge to get work done. I think the miracle is that it doesn’t come across on screen – you don’t get to see how bad the weather was. It was terrible, and it was terrible all the time. Outside of that, it was great.”

What’s next on the agenda for you?

“I’ve written my own script, so just settling that and playing about with that at the moment. I’d love to get that made at some stage, but at the moment, I’m just editing it and trimming it and trying to get it into the shape that I want.”

What kind of script is it? Drama? Comedy?

“It’s both, really. It’s not a comedy, but it’s funny. It’s quite dramatic. At the same time, it’s heartwarming. It’s all of those.”

The Toll is released on July 29 at selected cinemas across Australia


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