Honorary Australian acting legend Roy Billing [he’s actually a New Zealander!] stars alongside Jack Thompson, Jacki Weaver, James Cromwell and Dennis Waterman in the new Aussie feel-good comedy-drama Never Too Late. Telling the story of four heroic Vietnam war veterans who famously broke out of their POW camp during the war, these grumpy older men are now residents of Hogan Hills, a retirement home for returned veterans [a pun on Hogan’s Heroes perhaps?] The four men devise a plan to break out of the retirement home in an attempt to fulfil their dreams. It’s the perfect feel-good story in our own time of lockdown. FilmInk caught up with Roy from his island home in New Zealand to talk about his latest role and the processes that he uses in his work to create such convincing characters.
It’s great to see fantastic roles for actors right through their careers with these great films that are coming out.
“I’ve been lucky. At the moment, I’ve been holed up in New Zealand all during the lockdowns and things. We’ve got a place on Waiheke Island and I’ve still got a place in Coogee in Sydney, but I’ve been spending most of my time here. But I’m waiting on Victoria to be free of COVID so we can shoot the next Jack Irish series. And I’ve got a feature and another series to do in New Zealand. So it’s still going on.”
Never Too Late was directed by Mark Lamprell; how did you come to work on the film?
“Well, I just got offered the role. Mark wanted me for it, and I got a direct offer, which was very nice. I read the script and saw whom the cast was, and it was a bit of a no brainer really.”
Do you still audition for roles?
“Not really, no. Most of my work, like all the stuff I’ve got coming up, it’s all direct offer. Sometimes, if it’s an American or overseas thing, I’ll audition, but not really. I say to people, ‘I’ve got a showreel and a body of work that you can have a look at that, and then make your own decision.’”
You play Shane Jacobson’s father in the film. You worked with Shane before on Charlie & Boots?
“Charlie & Boots, that’s right, and he’s in Jack Irish too, although our characters don’t cross. I see him on location when we’re shooting that.”
How about Jack Thompson, James Cromwell, Dennis Waterman and the wonderful Jacki Weaver. Have you worked with any of these actors before?
“I worked with Jack many, many years ago, before I moved to Australia. It was on a [New Zealand-shot] film called Bad Blood . I had a couple of scenes in that playing a dairy company inspector who was actually one of the few people in the town who was sympathetic to Jack’s character. But the scenes got cut. So I’ve worked with Jack, but I’ve never actually been on-screen with him until now.”
Mike Newell directed Bad Blood, correct?
“Yeah, that’s right. I remember at the time thinking that my scenes were not going to move the plot on; they were just like a little segue. We got on really well, and the director was impressed with the scenes. I also remember thinking at the time that if anything goes, these scenes will go. And they did!”
Mark Lamprell has commented that he shot Never Too Late quite quickly due to the professionalism of the cast. What was the feeling like on set?
“Well, we all got on very well. All those guys, I’m big fans of them all, especially Dennis. I was a big fan of Minder [British TV series starring Dennis Waterman 1979-1994]. So it was great to work with him and Jack, of course. And then James and Jacki are just great. Mark actually commented, I guess, because we’re all old pros, that we’d know our lines, we’d get on set, and he could shoot quite long scenes, and we wouldn’t fluff any lines. And he was actually saying, ‘Oh, I thought I was going to have to take a lot more time, but these guys just get on set and nail it.’ And then off-screen we’d be swapping stories, and we got on really well. It was an excellent team; we knew what we were doing and went for it.”
So how do you create your characters? Are you a Dustin Hoffman method type actor or more of a Lawrence Olivier ‘act, dear boy’ kind of dude?
“A combination of both. I’ll read a script and think, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s a bit like me.’ So, I use those parts of myself. In one of the New Zealand series that I’m doing, I’m playing a well-known politician who’s dead, so you have to read up about him and do all the research. But generally, I go over and over the script and work out what’s happening and what the relationship is with the characters. I don’t like to have anything in concrete before I turn up on set because it’s always great to talk to the director and see what they have in mind. Acting’s about reacting; you don’t know what the other actors are going to give you. So if you’ve got something set, you’re going to play it this way, and if the other actor comes back with something, it’s like, ‘Oh, I didn’t expect that.’ So I try and learn my lines and be well prepared and know the script to know everything, and then I leave a lot of it to see what actually happens with the chemistry on set. That’s what the camera’s capturing: what’s actually happening at the time.”
What advice would you offer young actors coming up in the industry?
“It doesn’t matter how small the role, turn up on set, on time, know your lines, be nice to everybody, and get to know the crew and everybody really well because you never know who you’re going to be working with on your next job. Treat everybody with the respect that you expect and it’ll pay off. It’s a small industry, and you eventually get to work with everybody. The bigger impression that you make on people, the more likely you are to get work.”
You’ve done a lot of ongoing television roles, from Rake to All Saints…do you have a different process working on TV compared to feature films?
“It depends on the script. I don’t really differentiate between features or television. Obviously, you’ve got more time to build a character and work through on a television series because it’s longer. With feature films, there’s less time to establish a character, but most of my work happens to have been television. That’s happening with a lot of actors now. There are so many different platforms for television series now, and all sorts of actors who you wouldn’t think would do television are now jumping into it.”
You’ve done a lot of comedy. Could you tell us a little bit about playing comedy as opposed to playing a more serious role?
“The thing about comedy is that most of the time people are laughing at somebody else’s discomfort from the basic slipping on the banana peel to somebody making an idiot of themselves and laughing at other people. So when you’re playing comedy, the worst trap to fall into is to think that you’re funny. You should be deadly serious in your character because you probably don’t think your character is funny. Because people laugh at people. And those people who are being laughed at don’t think that they’re funny or that they’ve done anything wrong or stupid. There’s an old saying: ‘comedy is a serious business.’ So if you’re playing comedy roles, you’ve got to play them absolutely straight. And the timing is vital too, especially on the stage with controlling laughs and things. But on film and television, it’s a matter of just being absolutely sincere with the character, and the humour is all in the script and the circumstances that the character gets into. You’re not playing a comedy role to be funny; you’re playing it because that’s your character, who happens to be funny to other people.”
You once said that you became an overnight sensation in your early sixties. Could you elaborate on that?
“I started working professionally when I was thirty. I was regularly working, and then suddenly, all these things like The Dish and Underbelly came along, and I started getting a lot of recognition. And so it’s suddenly, ‘Oh, an overnight success!’ I’d always been successful in terms of working as an actor. The recognition thing came a bit later in life, which, considering that I’m a character actor, is understandable.”
You just did a film with Marcus Graham called Myall Creek, Day Of Justice. Do you know when that might be coming out?
“The last time I heard, they were still trying to get some finance to finish it off. That’s a great but very dark story.”
What else is coming up?
“I’m still waiting to work on Jack Irish. The last series has been postponed twice now. It’s like a lot of productions; COVID-19 is affecting everything. I’ve got a little cameo role in a New Zealand film called Nude Tuesdays with Jackie van Beek, a very popular comedian here, and Jermaine Clements, who is one of the Flight Of The Conchords people. And then there’s another show coming up called Panthers. It’s based around a Polynesian protest group during the Muldoon years when the Springboks were touring. The New Zealand Prime Minister Robert ‘Piggy’ Muldoon, who some said preceded Trump as a dreadful right-wing ruler here, was conducting dawn raids on Polynesian households and midnight raids to try and get people who were overstaying their visas and sending them back. So at the moment, I’m scheduled to play him; he’s one of New Zealand’s villains. I’ve got another thing coming out called The End with Frances O’Connor and Dave Harriet Walter; it’s a powerful but amusing series which deals with a person’s right to die. That’s coming out on Foxtel next year.”
You’ve had a busy career. What are some of the highlights?
“I was in the second production of Cloudstreet. A six-hour epic of Tim Winton’s play that we did in Sydney, Brisbane and then went to The Royal National in London and The Brooklyn Academy Of Music in New York. We were actually the first act into New York after the September 11 attacks. So that was a pretty amazing show to be involved in. Film-wise, The Dish is one of my favourite movies. I really enjoyed doing that. And just recently, I’ve really loved doing Never Too Late, working with all those people, it was such a buzz. It’s also such a feel-good film, and that’s what we all need right now.”
Never Too Late is in cinemas nationally from October 22, with sneak previews from October 16. And in Victoria as soon as screens open!