“It’s my first time in Morocco and the people are incredibly warm, incredibly generous of spirit,” he says.
What’s it like to be here with a strong Australian contingent?
It’s great but you’ve got to get away from them every now and then. It’s intense. But it’s great because I know a lot of them and have done for decades. So, it’s nice to catch up and it’s nice to spend time with a few filmmakers I haven’t met before but have been engaged watching their work for decades.
Bruce Beresford for example. I met Gillian Armstrong a couple of years ago when she came to a screening of my film. She’s just fantastic. I’ve known Jack Thompson for a long time and although I’ve seen all of Rolf de Heer’s films, I hadn’t ever met him and he’s a sweetheart. I’d seen Rachel Perkins’ films and I’d never met her. I did this last year at the Kolkata International Film Festival for a spotlight on Australian cinema and it was a smaller delegation and we were there for five days. It was very valuable as a filmmaker to be able to talk to your peers who have come up in the same goldfish bowl, just to share stories and discuss ideas and anxieties.
You’re a huge international icon because of The Mentalist. Do you still feel totally Australian after living in Los Angeles for so long?
I haven’t lived in LA for five years and I of course made Breath in Australia. I was talking to a Moroccan filmmaker Maryam Touzani last night (Touzani’s directorial debut, Adam, is Morocco’s Oscar submission in the foreign film category) and it’s really interesting talking with her about her career and how it is making a film in Morocco. I was talking to her about her transition from her first to her second film and she said something that really resonated – that once you get a bit of distance from your first film you start to realise what it is about, the timing. It made me look at my life and what made me want to do it.
I’d lived in Los Angeles for 20 years so when I read that book (Tim Winton’s Breath) it threw me straight back into how potent my relationship was with the Australian coastline. People had asked me for years what I missed most about Australia and I had nothing other than the environment where I grew up, the smells and the sounds. If you’ve seen Breath, we roam around the coast and we run free in it and it’s a big character in the film. In my life, nature was a big character, even if I wasn’t aware of it at the time. It taught me lessons, it gave me thrills and spills and it nurtured me. It always held me close; it was always there.
How do you feel now that nature is in danger?
The way that in Australia we repay it is with a sense of inaction. It’s heartbreaking. There are a lot of obstacles. I’m not about to stand on a soapbox and bang on about it. The last thing people need, particularly in Australia, is a celebrity beating their righteous drum. But for me, as a person, it was a big part of my life and while I was away, I would have dreams of running around with my friends as a kid like the character in my film. So, it’s a little frustrating in Australia where the notion of climate change has been extremely politicised, and the idea of activism has been co-opted by politics in a negative way. Also, in Australia climate change is a debate when it’s not a political issue. It’s not a debate, it’s really just a concern and a nurturing concern of our home, not just our home but the home of humanity. The effects of climate change are going to be far worse than ruining the beauty of nature. With the bushfires, Sydney is not directly affected, but the air quality is at a point where people who are vulnerable to respiratory issues are at risk.
Do you have any ideas for directing your second movie?
It’s not that easy. Breath came along at a time where I was yearning to be back in Australia and through a set of circumstances, I was going to produce the film and act in it, and I ended up directing it too. It was great, it was something that came up. It hit me over the back of the head. I didn’t go looking for it.
Did you enjoy the experience?
I loved it. It was immensely enjoyable. I have other stories in me, but it’s really about which one at which time comes to the fore. The process of developing a project can be like a marathon. You need patience and endurance. You can be in the process of developing three of four different things and think one is moving forward, then another one overtakes it. The world changes and sometimes it doesn’t have any impact any more.
So, does the project have to be about a current issue?
Not necessarily a current issue, it’s just that the spotlight changes. I am always interested in universal themes, but also the idea of doing something where even if it’s entertainment, it has something else. If you look at someone like Mike Nicholls, he made entertainment films but there was always a reflection of the times and social issues. He’s not Ken Loach, but if you look at The Graduate or Carnal Knowledge, there are aspects that he was able to pull out.
On The Mentalist you were a heartthrob.
Was, yep. I’m ok with past tense on that one! (chuckles)
Why didn’t you want to stay in the US and build on that?
Because I don’t think there’s a soulful pot of gold at the end of that rainbow. You still live with yourself and you grow as a person. Your ambition and your goals shift and change. If you stay too rigid in what they are and you don’t shift with them, then you can’t believe that other things are possible. I want to be happy. I think cinema is powerful. I think entertainment can be powerful and I want to grow as an artist. I could have gone and done another version of The Mentalist, absolutely, but I didn’t want to repeat the beat. Musicians put out an album and they always want to do something different with the next album. Some people don’t; they want to do the same thing again and again and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not motivated by others’ expectations of me. I’m more motivated by my own expectations of me. I’m 50 years old. I don’t need to be a greyhound running around chasing something. I’ve had a taste of it, it’s ok, but it’s not the be all and end all. Success doesn’t always make you happy or make you understand yourself any better.
The point I was trying to make with Mike Nicholls is not that I’m eschewing Hollywood. I’m just talking about what my intentions are moving forward in my life. I’m not rushing thinking, “Oh shit, I’m going to lose all my fame.” It’s not who I am. I think you can do that in Hollywood.
Can you tell us more about your new Australian film, High Ground?
It was a phenomenal experience. Part of the thing that guides me now in my career, because it’s so hard for a film to turn out well, is to find projects where I feel emotionally compelled to tell that story and where I think the experience of making it would be wonderful.
It’s set in Arnhem Land in Kakadu and it’s right near the end of the frontier wars, which went on until the 1930s. It spans a period of time. When soldiers came back from the First World War, obviously a lot of the Australian soldiers were suffering from PTSD, but no one knew that actually existed in those days. So, they would station those former soldiers up in the Northern Territory and in South Australia, in remote areas as police officers. They touched on that in Sweet Country. High Ground is a movie that doesn’t deal with but talks about the idea of some of the atrocities that were committed against the indigenous population during the frontier wars. We often see indigenous Australians portrayed as victims in films and they are victims in this film as well, but little do we know how organised they were as a resistance and we don’t see the resistance as much in cinema and this film really does shine a light on that. When we were shooting the film, it was very empowering for all the local indigenous people who were involved, and they were supportive of the film. We shot it in these locations that are heritage-listed sites and we had to have permission from the Elders. We were sung into places and sung out of places. Culturally it was a very potent and a powerful experience to be a part of.
And Jack Thompson?
Beautiful Jack was there the whole time.
He has a strong relationship with the indigenous community.
Yes, It was very, very special and an experience that changed me.
In what way?
It opened me up.
What are you doing next as an actor?
I’ve got a couple of things that I’m going to do, but I’m not going to talk about them.
Do you want to work outside of Australia?
Yes absolutely. I’m interested in experiences that are going to… I want to get blown open.